Thursday 28 March 2013

Syria: no end in sight

If you think Syria is a ghastly mess now, just wait till the rebels finally topple Bashar al-Assad. If I wanted to be vulgar (hell, why not?), I'd say: "You ain't seen nothing yet."

It's a mistake to assume that the experience of one country will be exactly replicated in another. But it is equally a mistake to ignore what we can see in front of our eyes.

In Iraq, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein (a bloody and brutal tyrant if ever there was one) led to years of vicious sectarian blood-letting. In Libya, the defeat of Muammar Gaddafi (who was every bit as bloody and brutal) has ushered in a chronically unstable form of militia-led anarchy in which no authority really holds sway.

To point this out is not to say that Saddam and Gaddafi should have been allowed to rule for ever. Still less do I believe that Assad is anything other than a worthy equal in the bloody and brutal stakes. It is simply to remind you -- again -- that the defeat of dictators does not often herald the immediate dawning of a bright and peaceful new day.

I visited Iraq under Saddam, and Libya under Gaddafi, and Syria under Assad, and I hated them all. Much more important, so did most of the people who lived there.

It's no longer as fashionable as it once was to quote the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung if you prefer), but he surely got it right when he wrote that "a revolution is not a tea party." Back in December 2011, I quoted Professor Stephen Walt, of Harvard university: “If the history of revolutions tells us anything, it is that rebuilding new political orders is a protracted, difficult, and unpredictable process.”

So why should the Syrian revolution be any different from the French, Russian, or Iranian revolutions? All took many years before anything resembling stability was restored, and not before many thousands of people had lost their lives.

That's why Western and Arab governments are so deeply worried about the appallingly fractious state of the Syrian anti-Assad opposition. If the different factions can't work together now, there's next to no chance that they'll be able to once they get their hands on the levers of power.

In Iraq, the Sunni minority, who had ruled and prospered under Saddam, suddenly found themselves stripped of power and guns as soon as he was gone. In Syria, however, where the Alawite minority have prospered under Assad, it may well be very different -- because even after he's defeated, his army is likely to be in a far better state than Saddam's was, after the US disbanded it.

In Iraq, Sunni jihadis turned to terrorism. To this day, car bombs and suicide bombers are still killing hundreds of people in an attempt to ensure that Shia hegemony under prime minister Nouri al-Maliki does not have things all its own way. (At least 240 people have been killed this month alone.) 

And in Libya, dozens of militia groups have carved out their little bits of territory (sometimes not so little, in fact) where they and their guns rule, and where the notional government based in Tripoli has little influence.

Perhaps Syria won't turn out to be like either Iraq or Libya. Perhaps -- and this is the really frightening prospect -- it'll turn out to be like Somalia, where the toppling of the dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991 heralded more than 20 years of total anarchy. In Syria's neighbours, Israel, Jordan and, especially, Lebanon, it's the stuff of nightmares.

Which is why there is still such deep reluctance in London, Paris and Washington, at least in public, to go all out and back the Syrian rebels with arms and ammunition. (They're already getting quite a bit of help, of course, much of it, it seems, from Croatia, but at the behest of -- and almost certainly paid for by -- governments in Doha and Riyadh, and, who knows, beneath the radar, from some Western governments as well.) 

Let me be clear: the continuing conflict in Syria has brought immense suffering to millions of its people. It is absolutely right that foreign governments should try to do whatever they can to bring that suffering to an end.

But the tragedy, of which they are only too painfully aware, is that, even when Assad has gone, the suffering is unlikely to end.

Friday 22 March 2013

In praise of a free press

Do you regard it as acceptable for a newspaper to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds for stolen information relating to the financial affairs of people in the public eye?
How about publishing information obtained from police officers who are not officially entitled to make it available and which is vehemently denied by the parties directly involved?
If you answered No to the first question, that would mean we'd never have learned about MPs' fraudulent expenses claims. (The Daily Telegraph paid a reported £300,000 for a CD containing the MPs' expenses information, which had been either stolen or improperly copied.)
If you answered No to the second question, it would mean we'd never have learned about industrial-scale phone-hacking at the News of the World and elsewhere. (The Guardian got its information from police, lawyers and others, speaking anonymously and unattributably.)
Were we entitled to know about expenses-fiddling MPs and phone-hacking journalists? Of course we were. Is that what we expect from a free press? Of course it is.
It looks this weekend as if the bizarre late-night press regulation deal stitched up by a handful of politicians and a bunch of Hacked Off campaigners in the small hours of last Monday morning has been virtually strangled at birth. For which, I suggest, we should all be truly thankful.
It was the wrong answer to the wrong question. I agree with Simon Jenkins, who wrote in The Guardian on Wednesday: "A few innocent victims of press unfairness may gain redress. But the cheering across town this week is from the rich, the celebrated and the powerful, with parliamentarians in the van."
Of course, I feel for the McCanns, Christopher Jefferies, Charlotte Church, and many, many others who have been shamefully and disgracefully treated by newspapers. (For some reason, I'm afraid I have close to zero sympathy with Hugh Grant.)
But it is never a good idea to allow victims to determine retribution. That's why court-rooms replaced lynch mobs. And frankly, we should be very worried indeed when we see politicians and celebrities united in media-hate and thirsting for legislative revenge.
There is, in fact, a very easy way to ensure that journalists don't break the law: get the police to do the job they're paid to do, rather than taking back-handers, sometimes several thousands of pounds, from reporters looking for a good story. It really is as simple as that.
I have always believed that one of the principal functions of a free press is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. That is not easily done if the comfortable are in charge of deciding what can and cannot be printed.
Journalists can be compared to undertakers or sewer-cleaners: it may not be pleasant to watch them at work, but the work that they do is essential for the survival of a healthy society.
Ask yourself this question: who will reveal corruption, incompetence, criminality and injustice, if the press is no longer free to operate without fear? And yes, I know, that for every justified media campaign I can point to, you can point to others that clearly cross the line of acceptability.
But can you have one without the other? Can you somehow have a regulated press, free to expose wrong-doing when it needs to be exposed, but prevented from doing harm to innocent citizens who find themselves trapped in the glare of publicity through no fault of their own? If you can, I have yet to see a way of achieving it.
Many years ago, I met a woman whose son had been labelled in a mass-market tabloid headline as "The worst brat in Britain". He was a child with severe learning and behavioural difficulties, for whom being pilloried on the breakfast tables of millions was a torment he certainly didn't need.
I have also met some of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, who would probably still be languishing in prison, having been wrongly convicted of a series of IRA pub bombings in 1974, had it not been for the work of journalists determined to prove that the police and the courts had fingered the wrong men.
Yes, of course you can file this under 'S', for special pleading. Journalists will always argue for a free press because -- of course -- it's in our interests to do so. But it is also in yours.
A New York Times editorial put it well yesterday: "The kind of press regulations proposed by British politicians would do more harm than good because an unfettered press is essential to democracy. It is worth keeping in mind that journalists at newspapers like The Guardian and The [New York] Times, not the police, first brought to light the scope and extent of hacking by British tabloids. It would be perverse if regulations enacted in response to this scandal ended up stifling the kind of hard-hitting investigative journalism that brought it to light in the first place."
In Tom Stoppard's play Night and Day, a character says: "I'm with you on the free press. It's the newspapers I can't stand." Perhaps you feel the same way. Trouble is, it's a package deal.

Friday 15 March 2013

How much influence, really, does the Pope have?

Last Tuesday, I received an email from a friend in the US: "Why are the BBC spending so much time on the new Pope business?"

Well, the very next day, the new Pope had a name, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, to be known henceforth (in English at least) as Pope Francis.

And since his new job involves leading the largest Christian community in the world, and offering guidance on issues such as same sex marriage, abortion, contraception and priestly celibacy, you could argue that the Pope, whoever he is, is one of the most influential leaders on earth.

But here comes the but. How many of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics actually follow their church's teaching on matters such as contraception and abortion? How many actually believe its teaching on transubstantiation, that during Holy Communion the bread and wine offered to the congregation are miraculously changed into the body and blood of Christ?

I can't help wondering if the Pope is, in fact, rather less influential in terms of people's everyday behaviour than is often assumed. On the other hand, if he were to pop up on Sunday morning and say he's changed his mind about same sex marriage (he is vehemently opposed, you won't be surprised to learn) -- and that as a result, the teaching of the Catholic church will also change -- well, that would make a real difference to many people's lives.

Ditto if he were to change the Catholic church's teaching on abortion, or priestly celibacy. In fact, though, there seems to be little to no chance of any of that happening.

So yet another conservative Cardinal with traditional views has been elected Pope? Maybe -- but after all, what kind of institution would deliberately elect a leader who was pledged to tear up the rule book? So I don't find any of this surprising.

What is interesting, I think, are the indications of a more modest Papacy than we're used to, in the hands of a man who has little taste for the trappings of religious leadership and who prefers to stay close to the people he believes he has been elected to serve. Modesty and compassion don't necessarily mean he's a liberal, of course -- look at Mother Teresa of Calcutta, not short of compassion, certainly, but no one would ever have called her a liberal.

And as for all the hullabaloo about the new pontiff being the first non-European pope since the year dot, well, sorry, but that doesn't impress me at all. For one thing, his parents were both Italian immigrants, which makes him non-European only in the sense that he wasn't born and brought up in Europe. (I've always thought of Argentina anyway as a country largely inhabited by Italians who think they are Spanish.)

And for another thing, if you go back a mere 1,200 years, you come across Popes like Sisinnius, Constantine and Gregory III, all of whom hailed from what is now Syria, and were, therefore, far less European than their successor Pope Francis. Where he comes from, on the other hand, is the continent where more Catholics live than anywhere else, so he does have some claim to represent a break with the church's Euro-centric past. 

But what are we to make of suggestions that the new Pope has a murky past when it comes to his record during the grim days of Argentina's military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983? He was leader of the country's Jesuits at the time, and some critics claim he did nothing to halt the brutal treatment of the junta's opponents, including Catholic priests.

He denies it, and the facts seem less than clear. What is clear is that he was not among the loudest voices condemning the dictatorship, even if last year, under his leadership,
Argentina’s bishops did issue a collective apology for the church’s failure to protect its followers.

So: a conservative with simple tastes who cares about the poor. And a man with a nice dry sense of humour who owes little to the Vatican barons who have run the place so disastrously for so many years.

My guess? He'll do away with some of the pomp (not all of it, though, he's still the Pope, after all), but he won't budge on doctrine. The big question is how much notice people will take of what he says.

Friday 8 March 2013

Kenya: a test for African democracy

When I lived for a time in east Africa, two names dominated the politics of Kenya: Jomo Kenyatta, the country's first post-independence president, and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who was vice-president and then leader of the opposition.

That was nearly 50 years ago, but if those names seem familiar to you, it's because their sons, Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, still dominate the Kenyan political scene, and were the leading candidates in this week's hotly-contested presidential election.

(Mind you, there's nothing particularly African about dynastic politics -- look, for example, at the Adams, Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Bush families in the US, or the Astor, Benn, Churchill, Foot, and Hogg families in the UK.)

Democracy is a tricky business at the best of times, and for the people of Kenya, this weekend is likely to be particularly tense. British readers may remember the strange sense of dislocation we felt after the inconclusive election results in 2010; US readers will recall the ghastly Florida hanging chads fiasco of the 2000 election.

For Kenyans, as they wait for the results of the elections to be announced, it's much, much worse. The last time they went to the polls to choose a president, more than 1,000 people died and 600,000 had to flee from their homes in an explosion of post-election violence. No wonder people are nervous amid reports of major problems with the electronic vote-counting systems and claims of result rigging from the camp of Raila Odinga.

It is in the nature of elections that they divide people. They force us to make choices, and in fragile societies with divided communities, those divisions can be dangerous, which is why so often elections can lead to violence.

Whether it's Kenya, Egypt, Afghanistan or Iraq, we know only too well what the cost of elections can be in lives lost. Yet you have only to look at the endless lines of voters outside polling stations to see why they matter. An election says to each voter: You have a voice, and you can make your voice heard. Whether it's a cross or an inky finger print on a ballot paper, or a tick on a computer screen, your opinion will count.

I have lost count of how many polling stations I have stood outside, in many different countries, talking to voters as they cast their ballots. Nearly all of them say the same thing: we vote in a spirit of hope -- hope for a better future, hope for a better country.

Yes, of course, they are realists. They know that an election is not a magic wand. As a Ugandan MP once told me: "An election doesn't guarantee a functioning democracy, any more than a wedding guarantees a functioning marriage."

The picture is unusually complex in Kenya, where both Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto are facing charges at the International Criminal Court related to allegations that they were partly responsible for organising the violence after the 2007 elections. Mr Odinga claimed he was robbed of victory then, but he did eventually agree to serve as prime minister in a power-sharing deal brokered by the former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan.

But let's be honest here: underlying many of the problems in Kenya, as in several other African countries, is the continued influence of traditional tribal loyalties. True, over the past 20-30 years, democracy has marched impressively across the African continent, and most of the most notorious and brutal dictators -- like Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Idi Amin of Uganda, and Jean B├ędel Bokassa of Central African Republic --  have now gone.

But tribalism hasn't gone. As the respected Kenyan academic Professor Calestous Juma of Harvard university wrote late last year: "The concern is no longer the stranglehold of autocrats, but the hijacking of the democratic process by tribal politics ...

"Much attention over the last two decades has been devoted to removing autocrats and promoting multi-party politics. But in the absence of efforts to build genuine political parties that compete on the basis of ideas, many African countries have reverted to tribal identities as foundations for political competition."

And that's why I think what's happening in Kenya this weekend is so important. Kenyatta and Odinga still owe much of their support to tribal loyalties, even though the electoral rules aim to ensure that no candidate can win office only with the support of their own tribal group. (Any winning candidate must get more than 50 per cent of total votes cast and at least 25 per cent of votes in half of the country's 47 counties.)

The news from much of Africa over the past decade has been more positive than ever before. Economies are growing, wealth is being created, schools have been built and health care vastly improved.

Kenya should be -- and could be -- in the vanguard of African nations charting a path towards a more stable future. Its many friends, both in Africa and beyond, will be hoping that it can get through this fraught post-election period without any more bloodshed.

Tuesday 5 March 2013

Welcome to the world of Click Here politics

I somehow doubt that Beppe Grillo would naturally see himself as a political soul-mate of Barack Obama's. But they do have at least one thing in common: they know what can be achieved by harnessing the power of social media data-crunching.

It's already been widely reported that Grillo's barn-storming success in the Italian elections last week was in large part due to the way he managed to form a potent political movement out of the inchoate noise of the internet. He has more than 1.2 million fans on Facebook and more than a million followers on Twitter. (The UK Labour party has 140,000 fans on Facebook and just 76,000 followers on Twitter.)

Barack Obama, who couldn't be more different from Grillo in personality -- cool, analytical and super-controlled, compared to the Italian comedian who is fiery, emotional and unpredictable -- shares with him, however, an understanding of how social media are revolutionising the art of political campaigning.

In an article last month, Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, suggested that in his State of the Union address last month, President Obama "combined the two most powerful tactics of modern politics – big speeches and big data – to spur political action."

He quoted the American journalist Sasha Issenberg, who in his recently-published book The Victory Lab, wrote that "Obama’s team knows not only where its supporters live, shop and worship but even on which bus routes they travel, which video games their kids play and which TV personalities they respect."

Welcome to the world of Click Here politics. It's a world in which to win, you need first to gather your supporters online, then analyse who they are and what makes them tick, and -- most crucially -- tailor a message that fits their profile.

British politics is still in the dark ages. We are asked to admire the Liberal Democrats' organisational skills in Eastleigh because they were able to maximise their postal vote ahead of polling day. Postal vote? So 20th century.

As for the Conservatives, one of their campaign workers, writing on The Spectator's website, reported: "One of the practical reasons the Conservatives lost was a lack of data: banks of volunteers young and old spent hours on the phone and walking the streets pestering postal voters who’d already sent off their votes and we’d failed to record this fact. We called quite a few dead people."

Compare that with an account in the Washington Post last November, which revealed that the Obama campaign team targetted its TV ads not by which programme they interrupted, but by channel and time of day, based on detailed information obtained from both canvassers and cable TV set-top boxes, which analyse in minute detail who's watching what, when they're watching and where they live.

According to the Washington Post: "The [Obama] team bought detailed data on TV viewing by millions of cable subscribers, showing which channels they were watching, sometimes on a second-by-second basis … [the team's] calculations showed that it would get the most bang for its buck in some strange places: the Family Channel, the Food Network and the Hallmark Channel, among others."

Perhaps it's not surprising that in Europe, new, non-parliamentary political movements are embracing the world of Click Here politics with far more alacrity than the traditional political parties. According to a recent report from the think-tank Demos: "New social movements are emerging using social media, and challenging existing parties in a way unthinkable a decade ago. The English Defence League in the UK, the Pirate Party in Germany, and the Occupy movement are all examples of movements that have employed social media to grow rapidly and create a significant political and social impact – all in the last three years."

Note those examples carefully: what they share -- with each other and with Beppe Grillo -- is a message of exclusion, that they and their ideas are locked out of conventional political discourse, that they have no place, and no chance of winning a place, if they play the game the old-fashioned way.

It's both a challenge to traditional politics, and a danger. The lesson? Don't mock Grillo, learn from him.

Friday 1 March 2013

A message from the voters of Italeigh

Anger? Fury? Disgust? Apathy? Which word would you choose to describe what the voters in Italeigh have displayed this week?

(Note to readers on the Planet Zog: Italy is a country in southern Europe; Eastleigh is a constituency in southern England. They've both just held elections.)

The wonderful thing about elections is how powerless they make politicians feel. Suddenly, their fate is in the hands of people they have no control over -- some of them are stupid, malevolent, ignorant or plain cussed. It doesn't matter, because they all have a vote, and, if the election is fairly conducted, every vote counts.

The man with the biggest smile on his face in Italy this week has been Beppe Grillo, a comedian who heads an anarchic movement of political novices whose most memorable campaign slogan translates, very approximately, as: "Kindly depart and have sexual relations with yourself." 

His English counterpart (yes, I know it's a bit of a stretch) is Nigel Farage of UKIP, not a comedian in the conventional sense, perhaps, but certainly a man who taps into the same vein of voter anger that signor Grillo has so successfully identified.

What significant numbers of voters in Italeigh have in common is a profound sense that conventional politicians have let them down. They lie, they cheat, they make promises that they have no intention of keeping -- and, most seriously, they preside over a collapse in living standards that throws thousands of people out of work and creates real, palpable misery.

I suggested last September, after elections in France, Greece and the Netherlands, that European voters had cast their ballots in a spirit of either anger or fear. In those three countries in 2012, it seemed as if the fear had overcome the anger -- fear of the unknown, and therefore fear of voting for parties (the Front National in France, Syriza in Greece) that might well take them out of the euro and perhaps even out of the EU.

In Italeigh, on the other hand, for significant numbers of voters (25 per cent voted for Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement in Italy, nearly 28 per cent voted for UKIP in Eastleigh, the highest parliamentary share in their history), the anger has triumphed. The message to the major, traditional parties can be simply summarised: "Get lost." Or in the far more colourful Italian version: "Vaffanculo."

The last time something similar happened in Italy, in 1994, after the meltdown of the sclerotic and deeply corrupt traditional ruling parties, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, the new man on the scene was the country's richest and most colourful business tycoon, a certain Silvio Berlusconi. His campaign slogan, indeed the name of the party he created, was "Forza Italia", the Italian football fans' equivalent of "Eng-er-land", which at least had the merit of being markedly more upbeat than "Go f*** yourself."

As for UKIP, they can now claim (though they won't, of course) to be the new Lib Dems, the home for the "dustbin votes", the pox-on-both-your-houses votes, now that the Lib Dems are joined at the hip to the Tories. Remember those "stunning Lib Dem by-election upsets" of the past? Stand by for equally stunning UKIP upsets in the months to come.
I don't understand why anyone is surprised by what's happened in Italeigh. What does surprise me is how many voters still support the traditional parties, given the utter balls-up they've made of dealing with the crisis of the past five years. 

And herein lies the danger: if that stubborn loyalty crumbles, if more voters turn to the populist fringes, we need only look to Greece to see what ugly political forces start crawling out of the woodwork when voters lose faith in conventional politics. Gangs of thugs roaming the streets, hunting for ethnic minorities to beat up; mysterious attacks on political targets -- Europe knows only too well where that can lead.

So the lesson for Europe's current leaders is this: start being more honest about the choices you're making. Tell us we're in a hole and you're doing your best to dig us out of it -- but admit that you can't be sure it'll work, and you can't be sure how long it'll take.

Admit there are alternatives: austerity is a policy option, not an immutable law of physics. As the columnist Simon Jenkins put it, in a phrase I would dearly love to have come up with myself: "These [EU] finance ministers are like Aztec priests at an altar. If the blood sacrifice fails to deliver rain, there must be more blood."

And one final lesson from Italeigh -- voters don't seem to care a hoot about politicians' sexual proclivities. Whether it's Silvio Berlusconi's bunga bunga parties (and remember, he's still facing criminal charges over allegations that he paid for sex with an underage prostitute), or allegations of milord Rennard's "inappropriate behaviour", the reaction from voters seems to be much along the lines of what I was told when I asked African-American women at a Washington soup kitchen in 1998 what they thought of President Clinton's behaviour towards the White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

"He's a man, ain't he?"