Thursday 19 December 2013

A letter from Sochi

 I’m writing this from the Black Sea resort of Sochi, which is the warmest city in Russia and will also be the venue for the Winter Olympics next February.
Crazy, huh? Why choose a place that even in December boasts bright sunshine and temperatures well above zero? Well, if you turn your back on the Black Sea, you’ll find yourself gazing up at the jagged, snow-covered peaks of the Caucasus mountains – and that’s where the skiers and jumpers will be heading in just seven weeks’ time.

So not so crazy, after all. Except for the price tag: something around $50 billion, which will make the Sochi Games the most expensive Olympics ever held. By comparison, the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing – and the summer Games are always much bigger than the Winter ones -- cost a mere $43 billion, the 2012 London games came in at a paltry $14 billion, and the 2010 winter Games in Vancouver cost a bargain basement $9 billion.
In other words, like for like, Sochi 2014 will be more than five times as expensive as Vancouver 2010. According to the Russian government, it’s because the money has been used for massive investment in new infrastructure projects. According to critics, it’s because more than half of the eye-watering total cost has gone in bribes and kick-backs.
Sochi has been a popular Russian summer holiday resort ever since Stalin built vast State-owned sanitoriums for Soviet workers here back in the 1930s. Now, President Putin wants to turn it into a winter resort as well – and what Mr Putin wants, Mr Putin tends to get.
Make no mistake: the Sochi Games are Project Putin. The president is a keen skier and he has long been a fan of the Sochi slopes. He has invested a huge amount of personal prestige in these Games, which is why everyone expects that they’ll be a huge success. If they fail, Mr Putin fails. And the Russian president doesn’t do failure.
A couple of days ago, I was taken on a tour of some of the Olympic venues. They are truly impressive, not least the vast new winter sports centre at Krasnaya Polyana, where giant hotels and apartment complexes have sprung up almost overnight to host the Olympic visitors.
But who will use them once the Games are over? It’s the legacy question again, as it is after every Olympic event – and the Russians insist that Sochi is about to become a major international winter sports resort, competing with Switzerland, France and Italy for high-spending guests.
We shall see. Meanwhile, down on the Black Sea shoreline, 76-year-old Alla Nikolaichik says the Olympics have ruined her life. The modest, Soviet-era home she’s lived in for the past 50 years was ear-marked for demolition to make way for an Olympic-related housing complex – and although the plans have since been abandoned, she says the continuing uncertainty has made her life a misery. When I asked her to describe her feelings about the Games, she exploded in anger.
Maria Reniova of the National Geographic Society is angry too. She says the Olympic planners have ignored the concerns of environmentalists, and destroyed valuable habitats for rare species of birds and plants. The organisers, on the other hand, insist that they have gone out of their way to safeguard the environment. Andrei Markov of the Sochi 2014 organising committee, who runs the biathlon centre up in the mountains, told me that for every tree they cut down, they planted another one.
Nothing in Russia is uncontroversial. Can Russia afford the $50 billion price tag? Are the Sochi Games the most extreme example to date of Presidential vanity? Or are they an ambitious attempt to create a genuine new winter sports attraction, which long after the 2014 Games have faded away will act as a magnet for both domestic and international investment?
My report from Sochi is due to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at the end of January. I hope you'll tune in.

Friday 13 December 2013

An execution in Pyongyang

Perhaps Shakespeare isn't the most obvious place to look when trying to make sense of the latest dramatic events in North Korea, but when I heard last night of the execution of Jang Song-thaek, the powerful uncle of the country's leader, Kim Jong-un, my thoughts immediately turned to Hamlet.

Shakespeare's play ends with Hamlet murdering his uncle the king, a man he calls "incestuous, murderous, and damned." Last night, the North Korean news agency called Jang Song-thaek "despicable human scum … worse than a dog, [who] perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery." In its way, it was almost Shakespearean in its fury.

Jang was considered the power behind the throne in Pyongyang (he was married to the sister of Kim's father), and his power stretched back to long before the young and untested Kim Jong-un came to power two years ago. He was regarded as one of the most powerful men in the country since the time of Kim's grandfather Kim Il-sung -- and when the grandson inherited the crown from his father, it was thought that Jang would probably be the man really in charge.

Now, he's dead, for reasons that we can only guess at. North Korea remains the most secretive place on the planet, and even in countries like South Korea and Japan, which have good reason to want to know exactly what's going on in Pyongyang, analysts usually have very little hard information on which to base their assessments. 

So for now, we have just the overblown reporting of the State news agency to go on: "The accused Jang brought together undesirable forces and formed a faction as the boss of a modern day factional group for a long time and thus committed such hideous crime as attempting to overthrow the state by all sorts of intrigues and despicable methods with a wild ambition to grab the supreme power of our party and state.

"The accused is a traitor to the nation for all ages who perpetrated anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts in a bid to overthrow the leadership of our party and state and the socialist system … Jang committed such an unpardonable thrice-cursed treason as overtly and covertly standing in the way of settling the issue of succession to the leadership …

"In a bid to rally a group of reactionaries to be used by him for toppling the leadership of the party and state, he let the undesirable and alien elements including those who had been dismissed and relieved of their posts after being severely punished for disobeying the instructions of Kim Jong-il."

Which I take to mean that he and the younger Kim fell out. The question is: over what? Most likely, according to the first analysts' assessments, is that the issue that led to Jang's death was relations with China. And that is sending the alarm bells ringing across the region.

North Korea needs China in order to survive. It needs China for fuel, for food, and for military and diplomatic cover. But over the last few years, there have been growing signs of impatience in Beijing with the often wayward behaviour of its desperately impoverished and unpredictable neighbour.

Earlier this year, the North Koreans ratcheted up tensions in the region with first an underground nuclear test and then a series of blood-curdling threats to unleash nuclear weapons against the United States. At the time, the threats were seen as a way for Kim Jong-un to bolster his position with the country's military leaders, to reassure them that he was made of the same stern stuff as his father and grandfather. China did not approve.

So was the execution of his uncle a similar attempt to burnish his "I'm-as-tough-as-they-were" credentials? Some analysts suggest that Jang might have become too vocal an advocate of China-style economic reforms. Perhaps Kim simply needed to show, in the most brutal way imaginable, who was boss.

So North Korea now enters a new, dangerous phase of its history. Will the anti-Jang purge stop with him, or will there be more casualties as Kim moves against others thought to have been close to him? How much support is there for Jang among the senior leadership? How secure is Kim's own position?

One way for him to show that he is firmly in charge is to engineer another regional crisis. Three and a half years ago, a South Korean warship sank with the loss of 46 lives -- the North Koreans were accused of firing a torpedo against it, a charge it has always denied. Eight months later, it launched an artillery attack on a South Korean military base, killing two civilians and two marines.

And just 10 days ago, before the arrest and execution of Jang Song-thaek, a report from Seoul suggested "It may only be a matter of time before North Korea launches a sudden, deadly attack on the South."

In Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing, governments will be watching carefully for the latest move from Pyongyang. Further afield, in Washington and other NATO capitals, policy-makers will also be waiting nervously to see what happens next. The US has a major strategic interest in the region, to say nothing of its defence agreements with some of the countries now feeling most threatened.

It may all sound like a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing -- but as Neville Chamberlain found out to his cost, after broadcasting those words in 1938, such quarrels can sometimes explode into global cataclysms. Let's hope history isn't about to repeat itself.

Monday 9 December 2013

My dream: our own Mandela to fight poverty

It's absurd, I know, but wouldn't it be nice to think that one day another Mandela figure will emerge, someone with the same burning sense of justice, unquenchable courage and personal integrity? Absurd, yes, but we can dream, can't we?

After all, is it inevitable that today's politicians will always cut such miserable, unimpressive figures? Where are the latter-day Churchills, Abraham Lincolns, Nelson Mandelas?

Ah, the sages will say, but now there are no great causes. No slavery to be ended, no Fascism to be vanquished, no apartheid to be dismantled. Great leaders, they will say, are forged in mighty battles against injustice -- and where today are the great causes likely to produce a new Mandela or a new Churchill?

Well, I have an answer to that, and it lies in Mandela's own words, in that famous proclamation from the dock when he was facing the hangman's noose at the Rivonia trial in 1964. He ended his three-hour speech by defining the ideal for which he was preared to die: "a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities."

With equal opportunities. Three words that are so often forgotten, or ignored, or wilfully misunderstood. (Boris Johnson, are you listening?) What cause could be greater, what injustice more worth confronting, than the obscenity that condemns millions of children to a life that denies them what Nelson Mandela was prepared to die for?

Equal opportunities. Not equality of wealth, or intelligence, or happiness or health. Even Cuba and the Israeli kibbutz movement have given up on the idea that everyone should earn the same.  Simply the promise of a society in which the playing field is level (all right, I'm a realist: I'll settle for a playing field that is more level than it is now) -- in which to be born poor does not mean being born with little or no chance of fulfilling whatever promise your genes and your talents may have endowed you with.

Where is the British Mandela prepared to fight -- really fight -- for equal opportunities?  To rail against the same injustices that galvanised Mandela: poverty and lack of human dignity? To argue that there is something intrinsically evil about a society in which (again, the words come from his Rivonia speech) some "enjoy what may well be the highest standard of living in the world, whilst [others] live in poverty and misery."

No, I'm not saying that Britain in 2013 is the same as South Africa was in 1964. I'm not that daft. But the alleviation of poverty is a cause every bit as worth fighting for as apartheid was 50 years ago -- and if a new Mandela is looking for a battle worth waging, it's right there, in the nation's maternity wards, where you could go from new-born babe to new-born babe and, simply by asking about their family circumstances, mark on their brow in indelible ink: this one will do well, this one will not.

According to one recent study, one quarter of all children in the UK live in poverty – that's more than in many other European countries including Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Slovenia, Cyprus, Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic. And only half those children reach what is defined as "a good level of development" by the age of five.

Too often, to be born into poverty means to be denied even the most basic chance to lead a fulfilled life. Too often, it means to live in sub-standard housing, to be educated in a sub-standard school, to suffer from sub-standard health, and to be at greater risk of being a victim of violent crime. Not because of a lack of intelligence, or laziness, or wickedness. Simply because of poverty.

There are some exceptions, of course, those fortunate few who do break free from this relentless cycle of deprivation, just as Nelson Mandela was an exception as a black South African living in an apartheid state. So it is from among those who live in poverty that perhaps we should hope one day to see emerge an effective, passionate, determined fighter, someone who will speak not for the "squeezed middle" -- every politician seems only too keen to speak for them -- but for the "crushed bottom", the people who had the least to start with but then had the most taken away as post-crash austerity mania swept the land.

It will be someone who, like Mandela, will first confront the evil and then engage with it, who will attack those who insist on retaining their unfair privileges, and then sit down with them and talk to them, to persuade them by sheer force of argument that to live in a more just society benefits all equally, those who have the most as much as those who have nothing.

A disproportionate number of the UK's have nots are women, and a disproportionate number don't have white skins. Perhaps that gives us a clue where to look as we wait for the emergence of an anti-poverty Mandela.

It's no more absurd, surely, than imagining that apartheid South Africa would one day be replaced by a multi-racial democracy without the country first having been plunged into a bloodbath.  That, too, was a dream once …

Friday 6 December 2013

He changed the course of history

A man died yesterday. He was 95 years old and had been seriously ill for several months. Not an unusual occurrence, yet his death is reported this morning on the front pages of just about every newspaper on earth.

That man was Nelson Mandela, one of the few men of whom it can truthfully be said that he personally changed the course of history.

In a piece I wrote last June, when it became clear that his life was drawing to a close, I recalled the febrile days leading up to the crucial South African elections in 1994, when Mandela was elected as the country's first black president in its first genuinely free and multi-racial elections.

I remarked that it had become easy to forget, after nearly 20 years, how deep were the fears as voters prepared to go to the polls. In the run-up to the election, weapons were reported stolen from an air force base; 21 prisoners were killed in a jail riot; 30 people were killed during violent protests by Zulus in Johannesburg; a state of emergency was declared in Kwa-Zulu Natal; and nine people were killed and more than 90 injured when a car bomb exploded in central Johannesburg.

Wherever you went, I recalled -- and I was in South Africa at the time -- there were predictions of a bloodbath to come. The white minority would launch a coup; the armed forces would mutiny; tribal tensions would explode into an orgy of violence and killing.

None of it happened. Was it all because of one man: Nelson Mandela?

One of the most commonly asked questions by historians is this: How much difference can one leader make? Mahatma Gandhi? Abraham Lincoln? Winston Churchill?

The right man, at the right time, in the right circumstances. When Mandela emerged from jail in 1990 and revealed himself to be almost super-naturally free of anger or bitterness, he set an example that enough of his fellow South Africans were prepared to follow. Few could match his apparent serenity and deep belief in reconciliation -- but by the power of his rhetoric and his example, yes, he did make a real difference.

I apologise for repeating myself, but in my piece last June I wrote: "I'm not a great fan of 'What if …?' questions -- but I've always been intrigued by the relationship between the individual and the sweep of history. We all have our faults, even the greatest of leaders -- perhaps especially the greatest of leaders -- and when the time comes to draw up the balance sheet, it is right that there should always be two columns, one for the pluses, and another for the minuses."

Nelson Mandela was no saint. He wasn't the best of fathers, nor was he the best of husbands. As president, he had a blind spot for far too long about HIV and AIDS, and he probably should have done much more to ensure that there were enough skilled  leaders to take over from him after he left office.

Yet the balance sheet remains overwhelmingly a positive one. When I had the privilege of meeting him in 2001, I was struck -- as was everyone who met him -- by his inner calmness, his humility and charm, and by the most extraordinary twinkle in his eyes when something amused him.

I remember his reaction when he was asked where he bought his famous multi-coloured shirts. His eyes lit up and he laughed: "Buy them? I don't buy them. I can't remember when I last bought a shirt. People send them to me, and I'm very grateful."

The death of a 95-year-old man is not a tragedy, it's simply the way of things. South Africa entered a post-Mandela reality many years ago, as the former President became ever more frail and ever less visible to the people of South Africa and the world.

For many months now we have known that he was dying, and we have known that we would be saddened when the moment came. We were ready.

As for the verdict of history, there will be many and various in the years and decades ahead. For now, as I said six months ago, my own verdict is just this: Yes, of course, South Africa could, and should, be so much better than it is. But it also could have been so much worse. And for that, we do have one man to thank.

Friday 29 November 2013

Boris Johnson: still a nasty piece of work?

The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is not -- despite his carefully cultivated Bumble the Clown image -- a stupid man. So we must assume that he knew exactly what he was doing when he delivered his typically rumbustious "greed is good" speech in memory of Margaret Thatcher a couple of nights ago.

And what he was doing was giving the Conservative party -- the party of which he is a leading member and was once an MP -- a great big almighty shove towards electoral defeat in two years' time.

"Vote Conservative, the party of the greedy Gordon Gekkos." The Labour party posters write themselves, don't they? I hope Ed Miliband has written him a thank you note.

But why, pray, would Boris Johnson, the man who so desperately, so painfully, wants to be the next Conservative party leader, try to ensure that his fellow Tories are voted out of office in 2015?

The answer, dear friends, is in the question. The only hope -- I repeat, the only hope -- that Mr Johnson has of taking over from David Cameron is if the Tories lose next time round. Because if they win, Mr Cameron goes on and on, and his faithful lieutenant George Osborne is in pole position to inherit the crown when the time comes.

Cynical, moi? Guilty as charged. Ambition makes monsters of men, and Boris has ambition by the bucketload. For him to win the prize he covets, Cameron must lose. That's how politics works.

The word that springs to mind -- and not only because this week marked the start of the Jewish Hannukah festival -- is chutzpah. It means cheek, audacity, sheer bloody effrontery. Mr Johnson has it in spades.

Not just because he happily stabs the prime minister in the front, but because he somehow thinks it's all right to heap praise on the hedge fund managers and other City types who live their lives motivated by greed -- without once, not once, not even in a throwaway line, mentioning the responsibility they bear for the melt-down of 2008-9 and the misery they inflicted, and are still inflicting, on millions of their fellow citizens.

I read about Boris Johnson's speech in yesterday morning's newspapers. I also read this, in The Guardian: "Local council funding for 'quality of life' services such as leisure centres, libraries and playgrounds will largely disappear in the next three years as authorities focus their depleted resources on crisis interventions for the poorest people, a study says …

"Only a rump of services used predominantly by the poorest and most vulnerable residents, such as child protection and elderly care, will remain, warns the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) report … Children's centres, youth services, arts and culture activities, neighbourhood wardens and street cleaning are already being cut back, while social care services for elderly people are being restricted to those with the most critical needs, it says."

What's the connection? Well, as you may remember, when the banks went belly-up, due in large part to an excess of Johnson-approved greed, the government bailed them out. It cost, to coin a phrase, loadsamoney. Public spending was slashed, and that included what the Treasury hands over to local authorities. We were all in this together. Remember?

So, not to put too fine a point on it, good old Johnsonian greed in the City is magically transmogrified into shut down leisure centres, libraries and drop-in centres.

The Boris vision is that what local councils can no longer afford, mega-rich business tycoons will pick up the tab for, in a spirit of what he calls "prodigious philanthropy". To quote the man himself: "I hope that … the Gordon Gekkos of London are conspicuous not just for their greed – valid motivator though greed may be for economic progress – as for what they give and do for the rest of the population, many of whom have experienced real falls in their incomes over the last five years."

So it's not that he doesn't realise that the "rest of the population" have taken a hit; it's simply that he thinks we're not greedy enough. Or, given that he also thinks that inequality is a fact of life, predicated at least in part on the widely discredited notion of IQ, just not bright enough.

I'm reminded of my former colleague Eddie Mair's challenge to him on TV a few months back: "You're a nasty piece of work, aren't you?"

Sunday 24 November 2013

Iran deal - Syria sacrificed?

In the "Like it" column, you can put the governments of Iran, the US, Russia and Europe.

In the "Don't Like it" column, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the anti-Assad opposition in Syria.

If the Iran nuclear deal, finalised in Geneva in the small hours of this morning, sticks, the tectonic plates in the Middle East will have shifted. And whether you welcome that or fear it depends entirely on where you're sitting.

Let's take the "like it" column first. The Geneva negotiators believe they have found a way to reduce tensions over the Iranian nuclear programme in such a way as to enable both sides to claim victory. There is now, they say, much less of a chance that Iran could develop a nuclear bomb, something that Tehran insists it never intended to do anyway.

The Iranians get an immediate partial unfreezing of some of its sanctions-hit assets -- a key element in President Rouhani's election platform -- and the prospect of further unfreezing in the months to come if further talks bear fruit.

Win-win. Everybody happy. Except, of course, the anti-Obama camp in Washington and the anti-Rouhani camp in Tehran.

And all those listed in the "don't like it" column. Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Nethanyahu, doesn't trust the Iranians (never has, never will) to keep their word. He's convinced that whatever it may say in Geneva, Iran still intends to develop the bomb, and to threaten Israel's decades-long pre-eminence as the Middle East's only nuclear-capable state.

Going on past experience, I'd expect Netanyahu to take some kind of unilateral military action (probably against Iranian-backed elements in Gaza, Lebanon or Syria) to demonstrate that Israel is still determined to protect what it regards as its essential security interests. From Tel Aviv, anything that could be seen as good for Iran must be bad for Israel.

The view from Riyadh is oddly similar. The Saudi royals hate the idea of Washington finding a new interlocutor in the region -- and they especially hate the idea that it should be the Shia clerics in Tehran with whom the Americans can now do business.

For decades, the Saudis (together with the Egyptians) have been Washington's go-to people in the Middle East -- and strengthening Iran's position on the world stage is absolutely the last thing they wanted. One of the biggest fears over the Iran nuclear programme has long been that if Tehran really did develop a nuclear weapon, the Saudis would feel compelled to do the same.

Which brings us to poor Syria. Iran has been by far Bashar al-Assad's most important ally since the start of the uprising against him. If Iran is stronger today than it was yesterday, so is Assad. If Washington and Tehran can do business on the nuclear issue, so, perhaps, they can on Syria. And if they do, you can be sure of one thing: Assad will stay in power, at least in the short term.

So as temperatures continue to drop in the Syrian winter, and as tens of thousands more terrified refugees seek shelter and sanctuary wherever they can find it, the fighting will continue. An emboldened Iran may well step up its weapons supplies to Damascus, just as the Saudis and Qataris will be tempted to do the same for their favoured rebel groups.

Russia? I imagine Vladimir Putin is a very happy bunny this weekend. His seizing of the initiative over Syria's chemical weapons arsenal paid handsome dividends and successfully diverted the world's attention away from the Syrian bloodbath. His allies in Damascus and Tehran look more secure; the political dividend for Barack Obama is relatively slight.

Bottom line: if the deal sticks, something huge has changed in the Middle East. The balance of power has shifted. Whether you welcome that, or fear it, will depend on what you think of President Rouhani and how much of a moderate he really is.

It reminds me of the hopes -- and fears -- when Mikhail Gorbachov came to power in Moscow in 1985. That, unexpectedly, led to the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet empire. Once again, we live in interesting times.

Friday 22 November 2013

Why all the fuss about Dr Who?

Is there anyone else out there? Or am I the only living being in the entire galaxy who’s been left totally unmoved by the current outbreak of Dr Who-steria?
It’s a good thing I never became a judge.
Counsel for the defence: “Your honour, my client has a cast-iron alibi – he can prove he was at home watching Dr Who at the precise time that the offence was committed.”
Judge Lustig: “Dr Who?”
Counsel: “That’s right, m’Lud.”
Judge Lustig: “Mr Carruthers, I asked you a question. Kindly answer it – Dr Who?”
Counsel: “Indeed, m’Lud.”
Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against the good Time Lord (or is it Time Lords? I’ve never been able to work out if he's the only one left, or whether there's still a whole sub-species of time-travelling, age-defying humanoids, endlessly renewing themselves at the whim of drama commissioners and actors’ agents).
It’s just that I don’t get it (him). Or science fiction in general, come to that. I can admire the special effects – even though I’m probably the only person on earth who enjoys the wit of the scripts more than the whizz-bangs. But how can anyone enjoy all that sci-fi hokum more than, say, Borgen?
(Yes, Borgen is in Danish. Yet I swear I understand more of it than I do of the time-bending, sense-denying gobbledegook of Dr Who. Perhaps sub-titles would help?)
My misfortune, not the doctor’s, I readily admit. He’s well able to continue his chaotic journey through the time-space continuum without me. Unto infinity – and beyond. Which would, of course, be a scientific impossibility for anyone other than a Time Lord. Maybe it’s a boy thing: do any women become adoring fans (apart from those who develop an unhealthy crush on Matt Smith, David Tennant or whoever)?
So I’m puzzled. What exactly is the attraction? Perhaps my lack of understanding is because as a child, I was brought up in a TV-less home – my parents believed that children should read books instead of staring at cathode ray television screens – so I never learnt the joy of hiding behind the sofa, scared out of my wits.
And my own children grew up in that sad, grey era known as the 1990s, during which the Doctor was absent from TV, so I even missed him second time round. Our home, you could say, has always been a Dr Who-less zone.
Mind you, growing up as a TV-deprived child did teach me a lesson that has served me exceptionally well in my adult life. Playground conversations at school invariably revolved around whatever had been on television the previous evening, so I had to develop a talent for talking knowledgably about things I had no knowledge of. You cannot imagine how useful that was when I became a radio news presenter.
But back to Dr Who. I delight in his success and popularity, which generates huge bundles of cash for the BBC, which it can then use to make programmes that otherwise it couldn’t afford. The same is true of Top Gear, which raises the intriguing question of how much more cash could be generated if Jeremy Clarkson were to be cast as the next incarnation of the Doctor. Not such a bad idea, in fact …
I’ve come to the conclusion that television is a habit best acquired at a tender age – a bit like brushing your teeth or changing your socks. Unlike most people, if I find myself at a loose end of an evening (not a frequent occurrence, alas), I rarely switch on the telebox. With so many newspapers and magazines unread, why would I?
Yes, of course, I do watch sometimes. And now that, for the first time in decades, I am sometimes at home in the evenings, I have come to enjoy such delights as (whisper) Great British Bake-Off and University Challenge. (And if my family tell you that I love Strictly Come Dancing, you mustn’t believe them. Really, you mustn’t. Even though it’s true.)
But I’ve never watched X Factor. Or I’m A Celebrity. Or any of the other programmes that exist only to humiliate people or make fools of them.
David Attenborough, yes, of course. And anything written by Armando Iannucci. Or starring Judi Dench. Downton Abbey? Well, maybe occasionally. And Homeland, and just about anything in Danish or Swedish on BBC4. And yes, I will probably watch the special Dr Who 50th anniversary show – just to see what all the fuss is about, you understand.
By the way, the first of my reports from Peru and Mexico are due to be broadcast next Wednesday and Thursday on The World Tonight on BBC Radio 4.

Friday 15 November 2013

A Mexican moment?

When I was last in Mexico four years ago, it was a country on the brink of collapse. The US economic crisis had thrown thousands of Mexican migrant labourers out of work; a flu epidemic had dried up the flow of tourists to its magnificent beach resorts; and the government’s war against powerful drugs gangs was making some parts of the country among the most violent anywhere in the world.

I’ve just been back, and on the surface at least, much has changed. The economy is booming, thanks to a steady flow of major foreign investors opening up new plants, and a growing middle class with money to spend. And the government of President Enrique Pena Neto says it has drastically reduced the level of drugs-related murders.

So the question being asked is: Is this the Mexican moment? Is the country about to emerge as a strong, stable economic power, ideally placed just to the south of the US to feed the demands of the biggest market in the world?

At a huge new industrial park in the centre of the country, with more than 75 factories employing 12,000 people, they are confident that the answer is Yes. More than half of the companies that have opened up are Japanese, most of them making components for the major Japanese car manufacturers – Nissan, Toyota, Honda – that are expanding their Mexican operations to take advantage of the country’s low labour costs.

Within the next year or so, it’s estimated that rising wage levels in China will make average wages in Mexico even more attractive to foreign investors. Add low wage costs to geographic proximity to the US and a government that says it welcomes foreign investment, and you get a mix of ingredients that could propel Mexico into a bright economic future.

But it’s not a certainty. For one thing, some of the promises that the government made when it was elected nearly a year ago -- to introduce a wide range of reforms and to change the constitution to allow foreign investors to move into the country’s energy market – are running into trouble. There have been massive protests against some of its proposals, and some analysts say the government’s reform programme may already be running out of steam.

For another thing, parts of the country still suffer from grotesquely high levels of violence because of the powerful drugs gangs, or cartels, that control the distribution of cocaine and other drugs through Mexico into the US. The new government has promised a new approach to dealing with the cartels, but most Mexicans I spoke to said they hadn’t noticed much difference.

A businessman from the state of Michoacan told me he has to pay monthly extortion payments to the gangs to be able to stay in business. He no longer dares to spend more than a few days a month in his home state for fear of being kidnapped. A friend’s son was abducted, and when his father could raise only half the ransom demanded, the kidnappers dumped half his son’s body outside his front door. The note read: “You paid half what we asked for, so here’s half your son.”

For decades, millions of Mexicans crossed the border into the US, some legally, but most of them illegally, looking for work. Now with the US economy sluggish and the Mexican economy booming, the traffic has reversed direction. More migrants are heading south into Mexico than north into the US.

And with Europe also in the doldrums, young entrepreneurs from countries like France and Spain are also moving to Mexico. One of them, Guillaume Pace from France, told me how he decided to open an advertising agency in Mexico City because there are so many more opportunities than back home. As soon as he meets the residency requirements, he intends to apply for Mexican citizenship.

So it’s a mixed picture. The economy has been doing well, but there are questions over the future of the government’s economic liberalisation programme. The murder rate is down, but the number of kidnappings has rocketed. The middle class is growing, but in rural areas, people say they have seen none of the benefits of recent economic growth.

A Mexican moment? Perhaps. In the words of one analyst I spoke to: “Next year could either be the moment when Mexico really takes off – or it could be when everything comes unstuck.”

We hope to broadcast our reports from Mexico and Peru later this month, on both The World Tonight and the BBC World Service. I’ll also try to post some of the wonderful pictures taken by my friend and colleague, the multi-talented producer-photographer Beth McLeod.

Friday 8 November 2013

A letter from Peru

-->I've been in Peru for the past few days gathering material for a series of reports that we hope will be ready for broadcast on The World Tonight and on BBC World Service later this month.
Why Peru? Two main reasons: first, because it has recently re-emerged as the world’s number one producer of cocaine, a title it lost 20 years ago to neighbouring Colombia. And second, because it also happens to boast one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America, thanks in large part to its reserves of gold and copper, much in demand by China, soon to be the world’s biggest economy.
Yesterday, I found myself trekking through thick jungle to reach a well-hidden, illegal plantation of coca leaves. In theory, the farmer’s coca crop had been destroyed as part of the government’s eradication campaign – in fact, deep in the jungle, far from prying eyes, the coca is still there, providing what farmers say is an essential income to enable them to feed their families.
Peru has reduced the amount of land being used to grow the coca plants from which cocaine is made. But it hasn’t reduced it by as much, or as fast, as Colombia has. That’s why it’s now back at the top of the coca league table.
I did meet some farmers who have successfully switched from coca production to other crops such as coffee, cocoa beans and bananas. But it takes time for the new plants to become established and productive, and even when they’re mature, the profits are smaller – and the effort much larger – than if the farmer had simply carried on with the coca, which just happens to be a remarkably easy crop to grow and harvest.
In the central Peruvian town of Tingo Maria, I was able to buy a small bag of coca leaves perfectly openly from a woman sitting on a street corner with a huge sack of leaves in front of her. The leaves have been grown here for generations, used as a stimulant and as a medicine. It is no easy task for the government to end a traditional way of life that brings substantial profit for minimal effort.
As for the economy, its impressive growth is not related to the coca trade but rather to China’s apparently insatiable appetite for the mineral wealth that lies beneath Peru’s soil. As China’s economic growth has slowed, however, so has Peru’s, and now the government says it is determined to encourage domestic demand and the industrialisation of the national economy to enable it to become less dependant on the vagaries of global commodity prices and China’s continued growth.
In the Gamarra district of the Peruvian capital, Lima, which is the centre of the country’s garment industry, I met Justina Janto Lopez, who runs a thriving business making 100-dollar evening dresses for customers in the emerging middle class. She started from nothing, now has 30 employees and six shops, and exports her clothes throughout the region. She’s exactly the kind of wealth-creator the government wants to encourage.
The bustling streets of Gamarra are one sign of a booming economy. Another is the growth in sales of beer, as Peruvians move away from the lethally dangerous home-brewed spirits that they used to drink and are now switching to beer.
It’s not difficult to find the illegal stuff – I simply walked into a shop in the dusty working-class suburb of Huaycan and asked for it – but shopkeepers insist that they much prefer to sell beer. Quite apart from anything else, it means fewer fights among drunk customers.
Conclusions? Peru is doing what it can to deal with its cocaine issue, but it knows it has to do more. And it’s confident that its economy is on the right path for sustainable growth, whatever happens to the price of gold and copper. Millions of Peruvians who have started to enjoy the life style that goes with a growing economy hope the government is right.

Thursday 31 October 2013

A better way to revolution

I suggested a few days ago that urging people not to vote might not be the most effective way to bring about fundamental political change.

You may remember that I took issue with what a certain celebrated actor and comedian had to say on the subject. I have no desire to cross swords with him again, for the simple reason that he has far too many admirers, and many of them have already been in touch to let me know what they think of my temerity in daring to contradict him.

So here are my thoughts on some other ways of acting politically without necessarily having to faff about putting a mark on a ballot paper next to the name of someone for whom you may have nothing but contempt. My slogan for today (yes, I know it's not original) is: Think Big, Act Small.  

For example:

1. If fat-cat, bonus-grabbing bankers make your blood boil, move your account to a building society or credit union. It's not difficult, and think what a difference it would make if millions did the same.

2. If you see red every time you hear of a multi-national corporation sliding out of paying UK taxes by all manner of clever-accountant-jiggery-pokery, buy your coffee, or do your online shopping or searches, using someone else's product. It's not difficult, and think what a difference, etc.

3. If you lie awake at night worrying about the way we're destroying the planet, do more walking, or cycling, or buy a low-emission car. It's not difficult, etc.

4. If you hate the way agri-business has poisoned the countryside with pesticides and nearly killed off all the bees, plant some flowers. If you don't have a garden, get a window box. It's not, etc.

5. If you loathe homogenised, plastic-packed, tasteless supermarket food, flown in from the other side of the world, shop at a farmer's market or local grocery store instead.

I could go on. The point is simply this: if you don't think voting in elections makes any difference (I disagree, but let's not reopen that argument), do something else. And when you've done it, encourage others to do the same -- and then get them to encourage others as well. Successful revolutions are born from a combination of anger, passion, and courage, plus two more essential ingredients: a lot of organisation and hard work.

What struck me most about the huge, and unprecedented, response to what I wrote last week was how many people feel totally powerless in a world where power seems to belong only to a very rich elite who have a stranglehold on the world in which we live.

Nothing will change, I was told again and again and again, until everything changes, until the entire political system is brought crashing to its knees and replaced with something -- anything -- that offers more hope and more power to more people.

I think that is a profoundly mistaken view. To take just one example: campaigners in Lewisham, in south London, mounted a hugely successful action to prevent cut-backs in services at their local hospital. This week, they won a major victory in the court of appeal: they made a difference, they forced a rethink, they demonstrated that a local community, acting together, can have real power.

Now multiply one local hospital campaign by one coffee retailer boycott by one switch-your-bank-account movement and -- see what's happening? Lots of little changes begin to look like a much bigger change. You could even call it a revolution, people taking back the power that is rightfully theirs.

Perhaps collecting signatures and organising online petitions isn't as exciting as rioting in the streets, smashing shop windows, or lobbing half bricks at police officers. But nor do people get killed, or livelihoods destroyed, or homes burnt to the ground. To glorify, as he-who-shall-not-be-named did last week, "the London rioters [and] the certainty and willingness to die of religious fundamentalists" -- even "the twinkling mischief of the trickster" -- sorry, that's not being brave, or funny, it's plain wicked.

I have never believed that voting on its own is enough to bring about significant political change. But that's not a reason for not voting -- it's a reason for going to the ballot box as part of a much broader political engagement. This debate, in its way, is part of that engagement.

One final thought for you: I came in for a lot of stick last week as a representative of the mainstream media, which are apparently responsible for wholescale lying, covering-up and generally toadying to the powers-that-be.

All I ask is that you consider who, for example, disclosed the scandal of MPs' expenses fiddles (Daily Telegraph); who uncovered the appalling scale of media phone-hacking (The Guardian); and who campaigned relentlessly to get to the bottom of what happened at Hillsborough (Daily Mirror). In fact, I suspect that most of the things that make you most angry about the world we live in are things you learnt about from the mainstream media.

So in the week that saw the adoption of a controversial Royal Charter to oversee the way the press are regulated, it's worth remembering why a free press has been regarded for so long as an essential ingredient in a free society.

In the words of the American founding father Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the US declaration of independence: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

Thursday 24 October 2013

Russell Brand: not only daft but dangerous

I think perhaps the best way to describe the actor, comedian and writer Russell Brand is as "a Halloween-haired, Sachsgate-enacting, estuary-whining, glitter-lacquered, priapic berk … a tree-hugging, Hindu-tattooed, veggie meditator."

It's the best way, because it happens to be his own description of himself -- in a 4,750-word revolutionary rant in this week's issue of the New Statesman, guest-edited by, you guessed, Russell Brand.

The Brand manifesto has caused quite a stir in some circles, not just because of his celebrity and skill in making waves, but because of a probably well-founded suspicion that his anger and contempt directed at the entire political class is widely shared among young people who care about the country they live in but see no way to do anything about it.

I imagine there are a lot of people who can identify with the Brand view of politics: "Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites."

So I propose to take what he says seriously -- which may be a mistake, but what the hell. A lot of it will be curiously familiar to anyone who remembers, as I do, the hippies of the 1960s: "Make love, not war … down with the man … Power to the people."  Beguiling, attractive slogans, with their wonderful certainty that there are simple answers to complex questions.

What Brand says is not only daft but dangerous. It's dangerous because he is a clever man with influence, and when he says: "Apathy is a rational reaction to a system that no longer represents, hears or addresses the vast majority of people", there is a real risk that some people -- especially young people -- will take him seriously.

The core of his message is: "I will never vote and I don’t think you should, either." He presents it as a message of hope, when in fact it is precisely the opposite. It is a message of despair.

Voting doesn't change anything? Tell that to the millions of Americans with no health insurance who, once the Obama administration have sorted out their IT problems, will, for the first time, have access to decent health care. They wouldn't have it if no one had bothered to vote.

Tell all those tens of thousands of British workers on the minimum wage (yes, I know, it's disgracefully inadequate, but it's still better than no minimum wage at all), introduced in the face of fierce opposition by a Labour government after the Blair victory of 1997. And it wouldn't have happened if no one had bothered to vote.

Tell the millions of black South Africans who voted for the ANC in 1994 and elected Nelson Mandela as their president. It wouldn't have happened if they hadn't bothered to vote.

Apathy is cowardice. It's a way of saying "I take no responsibility for what happens in my country." I can understand people being reluctant to vote because they feel a sense of disgust, but the rational reaction to that is not apathy, but to find candidates -- or become a candidate -- in whom one is more prepared to have faith.

Brand brands himself a revolutionary. "Revolt in whatever way we want, with the spontaneity of the London rioters, with the certainty and willingness to die of religious fundamentalists or with the twinkling mischief of the trickster ...  Take to the streets, together, with the understanding that the feeling that you aren’t being heard or seen or represented isn’t psychosis; it’s government policy."

I wonder if he's noticed what's happening in Egypt, or Tunisia, or Libya, where hundreds of thousands of excited revolutionaries took to the streets to topple hated dictatorships. They achieved their goal -- and then what? So far, it's not easy to argue that what has followed is any better than what went before. I would have thought that the lure of the barricades might have taken a bit of a knock -- but perhaps careful consideration of other peoples' experiences is not Brand's style.

In a hilarious, but also deeply depressing, interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight on Wednesday night, he demonstrated his utter inability to offer any concrete example of what he believes we should do instead of vote. He wants fundamental change but has no idea how to achieve it.

The closest he comes in his New Statesman manifesto is: "To genuinely make a difference, we must become different; make the tiny, longitudinal shift. Meditate, direct our love indiscriminately and our condemnation exclusively at those with power." At which point, I can merely offer another quote from the same piece: "First and foremost I want to have a f***ing laugh."

Indeed. And here's what worries me most. If Russell Brand was content to be a highly successful comedian, a jester with a pig's bladder and bells on his multi-coloured hat, I'd leave him alone with his mashed up mind and pantechnicon of platitudes. (Oh yes, I too can write as if I've swallowed a Thesaurus -- it's neither as difficult, nor as impressive, as Brand seems to think.)

But by writing thousands of words of political junk in a respected weekly magazine, he sets himself up as someone with something to contribute to an important debate. The truth is that he has nothing to contribute, other than the self-satisfied smirk of a man who knows he'll never go hungry or be without a home.

If he really wanted to encourage the development of a genuinely revolutionary movement, he would start organising one. He would knuckle down to do really, really boring things, like handing out leaflets on street corners, lanching petitions, holding meetings, just like the early trades unionists and labour activists he professes to admire so much.

But of course that's not what he's about. "First and foremost I want to have a f***ing laugh." Which is fine, as long as no one is tempted, even for a moment, to take him seriously.

Friday 18 October 2013

Selling out to China

For sale: a medium size European nation with highly attractive investment opportunities. Would particularly suit China. All inquiries to G Osborne, 11 Downing Street, London.

It would have saved a fortune, wouldn't it, if the Treasury had simply paid for a small ad in the People's Daily and left it at that?  Because, once you strip away the diplo-babble flim-flam, that's pretty much the message the Chancellor has been hawking around China this week as he sipped his endless cups of tea and smiled awkwardly for the cameras.

We've got used to the fact that our car industry is no longer British-owned; that much of our electricity, gas and water is provided by non-UK companies, and that Heathrow airport is owned by a consortium made up of Spanish railways, a Quebec pension fund, and a Singaporean sovereign wealth fund.

But how do you feel about Britain's nuclear power stations being owned by China? Does it make sense to entrust the bulk of the nation's future energy supplies -- gas, electricity, and nuclear -- to overseas interests?

For now, it may be only a minority holding that China buys in UK nuclear power projects, but as the Treasury itself admits: "While any initial Chinese stake in a nuclear-power project is likely to be a minority stake, over time stakes in subsequent new power stations could be majority stakes."

Many countries ring-fence certain industries to make them off-limits to foreign investors, the thinking being that if an enterprise is of sufficient strategic importance to a nation's well-being (energy, public transport, defence), then it's simply too risky to entrust it to shareholders who may have different priorities. (According to the book Britain for Sale, by Alex Brummer, about half of the companies providing essential services in the UK, including four of the six main energy companies, are foreign-owned.)

The British approach seems to be not just to flog off the family silver, to use Harold Macmillan's famous phrase in 1985, but to put up on eBay every single thing we might possibly be able to get a price for, up to and including the tiles on the roof.

I have nothing in principle against foreign companies operating in the UK -- on the contrary, from Aldi to IKEA to Sony and Toyota, they provide jobs, goods and services which make Britain a far better place than it might otherwise be.

But I do have serious migivings when it comes to essential public services like energy and public transport. Current corporate theory suggests that companies have responsibilities not only to their shareholders and to their customers, but also to their employees and, in this context most importantly, to the community in which they operate.

Is it reasonable to expect corporate decision-makers to be as sensitive to community needs thousands of miles from where they live, to feel the same sense of involvement with a society half way round the world, as they do to the society in which they live?

Ah, you may say, but the fact is that we simply don't have the cash to invest in the hugely costly infrastructure projects that might help us build a more prosperous future. (Look, after all, at the row over the HS2 high-speed rail project.) If we can't persuade the Chinese to build our nuclear power stations for us, who else is going to stump up the cash?

Well, how about UK tax-payers? Why does no one any longer argue that if the UK needs essential infrastructure investment, then it's the job of the government to raise the funds necessary to pay for it through personal and corporate taxation? I wonder what answer you'd get if you asked British voters: "Who would you prefer to build Britain's future power stations: the government, using money raised through taxes, or China?"

Even The Times, not usually an enthusiast for State-owned businesses, suggests in a highly critical editorial (£) today: "Perhaps this country’s taxpayers would be better off in the long-run if the British state built the next generation of power plants?"

Day after day, we're told that lower taxes equal greater prosperity. I'd find the argument just a bit more convincing if the money that no longer flows into the Treasury as a result of tax cuts was instead being used to finance future infrastructure investment, rather than to line CEOs' pockets to enable them to buy ever bigger houses and inflate an already insane London property price bubble.

I don't want you to take this as an anti-China rant, although I do think there are serious issues to be considered if China is to become a major investor in UK public infrastructure provision. How certain are we that China will be a stable, prosperous economy in 20, 50 or 100 years time? How big a risk is there that its own-brand combination of political authoritarianism and economic pluralism will come under intolerable strain within the next decade or so? Who will pick up the pieces if Chinese investment largesse suddenly vanishes?

And do we feel entirely comfortable with the prospect of becoming increasingly reliant for our own future prosperity on a country whose record on workers' pay and conditions, environmental degradation and basic human rights still leaves so much to be desired?

My former colleague, the respected China analyst Isabel Hilton, writes in The Guardian today that we should be asking even more questions: "Will British consumers end up paying high energy prices to guarantee a Chinese investor a good return? What future leverage will Chinese investment in British infrastructure give to an emerging power that frequently says it does not accept established global rules? What degree of transparency and accountability can we, as supplicants, enforce on our new partner? What guarantee have we that in depending on Chinese finance, we haven't surrendered more than we bargained for?"

She concludes: "Perhaps it is not too late to ask." I hope she's right.

Saturday 12 October 2013

Paul Dacre and the BBC - some facts

Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, has replied to the paper's critics over its labelling of Ed Miliband's father as "the man who hated Britain." And he's complained about the "full-scale war" that he says has been waged by the BBC and the left against the Mail.

He described the Mail as a paper that "constantly dares to stand up to the liberal-left consensus that dominates so many areas of British life and instead represents the views of the ordinary people who are our readers and who don't have a voice in today's political landscape and are too often ignored by today's ruling elite."

So here are some facts, taken from a report published by the media regulator Ofcom last month, which might help provide some context.

On a chart calculated by asking people which news sources they use and how frequently they use them, TV came top with 47 per cent of references, followed by the internet (21 per cent), radio (18 per cent) and newspapers (13 per cent).

The BBC accounted for 56 per cent of the TV references, 64 per cent of the radio references, and 27 per cent of internet references.

Across all media platforms, the BBC came top with 44 per cent, followed by ITV, commercial radio, Sky, social media -- and the Mail with 4 per cent.

All of which casts a somewhat different light on who really "represents the views of the ordinary people".

Friday 11 October 2013

When secrets mustn't be kept secret

It's not often that top spooks emerge from the shadows, and on those rare occasions

when they do, they tend to choose their words very, very carefully. That's why we need to be just as careful when we examine what they say.

This week's speech by the director-general of MI5, Andrew Parker, was a text-book example, in which he described as "utter nonsense" the suggestion that security services "monitor everyone and all their communications”. It was, you may think, a clear swipe at the US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden and The Guardian, which has been publishing his disclosures over the past several weeks, and which yesterday was described by the Daily Mail as "The paper that helps Britain's enemies."

But hang on a minute. At the centre of the mass of material that has emerged is not the allegation that the security people are monitoring everyone -- which would be patently absurd -- but that they have the capability to monitor anyone. It's not the same thing at all, as Mr Parker knows full well. He is, as you would expect, a master of the "non-denial denial", in other words, he is categorically denying something that hasn't been alleged.

Let's pretend this discussion was taking place in a pre-internet world. Out of the woodwork comes a security service insider who tells us that MI5 have entered into a secret agreement with all the country's major key manufacturers that enables them to open the front door of any house in the land, to enter any home, and to rifle through any filing cabinet and desk drawer. No search warrant required, no oversight in place.

Fine, you may say, be my guest. If they want to rummage through my underwear drawer, go ahead. I have nothing to hide, and nothing to fear. That's pretty much what many people have said on learning that US and UK security agencies have exactly that kind of access to our online world.

But now suppose you start a campaign to stop someone developing a fracking plant at the end of your garden, or a wind turbine farm on a nearby hill. You send out a few emails to your neighbours, discuss protest demonstrations, perhaps someone even suggests some direct action: sitting in the road in front of the mining company's diggers, maybe, or cutting through a security fence to plaster posters all over the site of the proposed development.

One morning, at 6am, there's a knock at your door. The police are there, armed with a huge fat file containing every single email you've sent over the past six months, all the emails you've received, all the books you've bought online and every Google search you've made.  Come with us and answer a few questions, they say, or we may have to tell your partner about this online dating site you've registered with, looking for … well, you can fill in the details.

Fanciful? Not at all. Ask the environmental campaigners who were spied on for several years by undercover police officers (some of whom even fathered children with the women they were spying on), or the supporters of the family of Stephen Laurence who found they too were being spied on. Nasty things tend to happen in the dark, when no one is looking -- and that's why it's so crucial that we have some honesty about what exactly the security agencies are able to do and under what kind of authority they operate.

I don't expect them to tell us every time they tap into the email account of a suspected jihadi bomber. I really don't need to know which websites they're monitoring, or which Google search terms set alarm bells ringing at GCHQ. What I do need to know is that someone, somewhere, outside the security bubble, does know, and has authorised the surveillance. In theory, that's what is meant to happen now. In practice, well, let's say there's room for doubt …

We also need to know that the spooks aren't lying to us. There is, unfortunately, good reason to suppose that the NSA in Washington has not been entirely honest, even with members of Congress, when discussing what sort of surveillance capacity it has built up. We know from experience, alas, that if spies are allowed to operate without effective supervision, they do have a habit of going quite a lot further than might be considered appropriate in a society that professes to value freedom of expression and the right to privacy. 

So here are a couple of suggestions for MI5's Mr Parker. First stop playing games with your non-denial denials. There's a serious debate to be had, and you need to be part of it.

Second, in the face of calls for greater oversight of what you and your colleagues at GCHQ are up to, tell us what kind of supervision you'd regard as acceptable. If the police need to apply to a magistrate for a search warrant before they start rummaging through my files, what would you regard as an appropriate equivalent safeguard?

It is mildly encouraging -- let's not get too excited -- that both David Cameron and Nick Clegg acknowledged yesterday that there may be a case for re-examining the safeguards that are in place at present. The prime minister said: "If people want to suggest improvements about how [the security agencies] are governed and looked after, I am happy to listen to those."

The concerns that have been expressed since Edward Snowden started shovelling out his secrets don't come just from pesky journalists poking their noses into matters best left to the security services. (And it's not just pesky journalists from The Guardian, either, as evidenced by the impressive number of statements published today from editors around the world who are backing its reporting of the Snowden material.)

In addition, such luminaries as Tom King, the former Conservative chairman of the parliamentary intelligence and security committee, the former director of GCHQ, Sir David Omand, and a former director general of MI5, Dame Stella Rimington, have all added their voices to those questioning whether it's time to tighten up the controls and allow a little more daylight into the world of the spooks.

On the other hand, today's Times (£) quotes Sir David Omand as saying that the Snowden disclosures are "the most catastrophic loss to British intelligence ever, much worse than Burgess and MacLean in the 1950s." (I suspect, though, that The Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, may have had a point when he suggested a couple of days ago: "You would have to be a terrorist who didn’t know how to tie his shoelaces not to believe that people were watching things on the internet and scooping up telephone calls.")

Andrew Parker said in his speech on Tuesday that the ability of GCHQ to intercept the voice and internet traffic of terrorists is “vital to the safety of the country and its citizens”. He's absolutely right, and it is in the nature of his business that we will never know -- we can never know -- how many attacks such surveillance may have prevented.

What we need to know, and what we have every right to know, is that MI5 and their chums are being properly watched and supervised. Oh yes, and that they don't lie to their political masters -- or to us -- about what they're up to.