Friday 18 July 2014

In the footsteps of our families

I'm about to embark on a project that I hope might be of as much interest to you as it will be to me.

It's called In the Footsteps of our Families. Together with my good friend, the American journalist Stu Seidel, a former senior editor at the US public radio network NPR (that's us in the picture), I'm going to be exploring the experience of migration through the stories of our own families.

Stu's grandparents and great grandparents were immigrants to the US from Belarus, Lithuania and Poland. My parents came to the UK as refugees from Nazi Germany. So we're going to retrace their footsteps, from the centuries-old Belarussian town of Pastavy, 100 miles north of Minsk, then west through Lithuania and Poland, and into Germany.

We'll end the European leg of our journey in Hamburg, once known as the Gateway to the World, from which five million emigrants embarked on their way to new lives between 1850 and 1939. Later in the year, we'll pick up in the US and see where Stu's family settled, first in New Jersey and then in Baltimore.

Where possible, we'll visit the streets where our forebears grew up. In Lithuania, we'll visit the site where my maternal grandmother was shot by the Nazis, in one of the first mass executions of deported German Jews, in 1941. We'll also stop in the Polish city of Wrocław, which is where my mother grew up. Except when she lived there, it was called Breslau, not Wrocław, and it was in Germany, not Poland.

Why are we doing it? Because, like an ever-increasing number of people, we have a growing interest in our families' origins. But also because, as journalists, we can't help but be aware that migration is one of the biggest challenges facing the world we live in. So it's only natural that as the son and grandson of immigrants, we're irresistibly tempted to use our own families' pasts as a way of examining the present and the future.

And that's why -- I hope -- you might find our journey interesting as well. Most families have a migration story or two in their past; in most cases, it's almost impossible to reconstruct the individual stories from the flimsy evidence that remains. Hence the popularity of the TV show "Who do you think you are?" which enables us to enjoy vicariously the search for answers from the past.

I'm luckier than many, because both my parents wrote memoirs, as did one of my grandfathers. On one side of the family, I can trace my antecedents back 10 generations, to my great x 8 grandfather, who was born in 1578 in Vilnius, which is one of the destinations on our forthcoming journey.

As we make our way across Europe over the next two weeks, we'll meet up with local historians and experts and talk to them about the migration experience. We'll talk about the twin threats of war and poverty, the universal drivers of migration, both in the past and still today.

Today, we're launching our new website at where we'll be posting regular updates as we cross Europe. The idea is that we'll produce words, pictures, and audio to form a real-time record of our journey. I'll also alert you via Twitter and Facebook every time we publish a new piece.

Think of it as part genealogy, part travel-writing, part The Hairy Bikers meets The Trip with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon -- plus a dollop of old-fashioned journalism for added value.

We've already posted a couple of introductory pieces and some archive photos of our respective families on the website, so click here for what I hope will be the first of many visits.

Friday 11 July 2014

Scrap the BBC licence fee: pay more, get less

 As a sales pitch, perhaps it leaves something to be desired. "Pay more, get less." Who could resist?

Yet for reasons that I have never understood, that's exactly what's on offer from those people who argue that it's time to scrap the BBC licence fee and switch to some form of subscription-based financing.

They're such easy slogans, aren't they? Scrap the BBC tax. Get rid of the bloated bureaucracy. Make the newsroom's lefties/Tories (delete according to taste) live in the real world.

Easy, but dangerous. And wrong. It's time to start fighting for the BBC -- and for the licence fee, set at a realistic level to enable the BBC to do what the vast majority of people want it to do: make good programmes, aimed at a wide cross-section of British society, as efficiently and creatively as is humanly possible.

(Declaration of interest: for more than 20 years I earned my living as a BBC broadcaster. If you feel that my experience disqualifies me from commenting on the corporation's future, you may stop reading now.)

The current licence fee costs £145.50 a year. That's 40p a day. I'll say it again: 40p a day. It's less than half what you pay for The Times at a station bookstall; a quarter what you pay for The Guardian, it's even less than you'd pay for The Sun. It's the equivalent of about one-fifth of one cup of coffee at any major coffee shop.

And for your 40p licence fee, you get, picking just a few programmes at random: The Archers, David Attenborough, Strictly Come Dancing, Test Match Special, all those wonderful Nordic noir dramas on BBC4, the Proms, the Olympics, Wimbledon, Doctor Who, Frozen Planet, The Thick Of It, Mrs Brown's Boys, Miranda, Radio 3, The World Tonight, and Great British Bake-Off.

All that, and don't forget everything the BBC produces online, the World Service (on radio, TV and online, in English and 27 other languages), the iPlayer, the Asian Network, 6 Music, 5Live, and the News Channel. How anyone can argue that it's not astoundingly good value simply beggars belief.

So why am I writing about this now? Because the BBC, not for the first time, is under attack. Not from the people who pay for it -- they, by an overwhelming majority, like it, use it, and wish it to survive -- but by vested interests who see it as a threat. Politicians, who resent the fact that although they control the bulk of its income, they can't control its output, and commercial rivals who see it as unfair, publicly-funded competition in a highly competitive global entertainment market.

It's not always been easy to defend the BBC after the crises of the past couple of years. It is as good at damaging itself as it is at making world-class programmes. It is a cumbersome beast, often resembling a giant ocean-going liner in its inability to change direction or react to a crisis. But it is one of the institutions that foreigners most admire about Britain, and that Britons most value. It is a public good, just like the NHS and a free press.

Yesterday, at a conference at City University, London, the BBC's director general, Tony Hall, unveiled a new strategy that would enable non-BBC producers to pitch more ideas to the BBC, and BBC producers to pitch ideas to non-BBC outlets. "Competition is good for the BBC and I want more of it," he said.

"I want our commissioners to be able to choose from the best ideas … This is about us having the next Sherlock (produced by an independent company), the next Strictly (produced in-house), the next Springwatch (in-house) and the next Shetland (in-house)– a fantastic mix from independent and BBC producers."

It's a shrewd move, enabling the BBC to argue that it's offering more airtime to more independent producers, and offering its own producers more opportunities to take their ideas outside the BBC.  More competition, goes the argument, encourages more creativity and better value.

But it doesn't mean that the pressure on the licence fee will go away. Another idea floated at yesterday's conference came from the chairman of Channel 4, the former top Treasury official Lord Burns. Why not at least force people who use BBC iPlayer to prove that they have a TV licence? Encrypt the signal online so that access is restricted to those who can provide either a password or a licence number -- it's not an additional cost, but it is a way of ensuring that those people who should pay, do pay.

And how about collecting the licence fee as part of the council tax? They're both household taxes after all, and combining the collection of them both could well save money.

Here's the nub of the issue: if you decided to scrap the licence fee tomorrow, it would take anything up to 15 years to replace the estimated 20 million Freeview boxes which at present can't be encrypted to block free access to BBC programmes. It would also cost anything up to £500 million to make the switch.

Add in the cost of administering a subscription service, factor in the inevitable loss of the least popular services such as Radio 3 and children's programming, set a price structure that would enable the BBC to compete with its commercial rivals -- all that, to scrap a "tax" of 40p a day?

"Pay more, get less." In which parallel universe is that a sensible proposition?  

Friday 4 July 2014

Voices of hate

Ever since the discovery on Monday of the bodies of the murdered Israeli teenagers, Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach, and ever since the discovery on Wednesday of the body of the Palestinian teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdair, murdered apparently in revenge, I have been hearing voices in my head.

"You don't understand. These people aren't like us. They kill our children and expect us to do nothing.

"You say we must share our land with them. How can we share with people like this? How can we trust them? All they know is the language of violence, of blood.

"You don't understand. You don't live here. You don't know what it's like. Every day, we fear for our children. Do you have any idea how many of our children they have killed?

"Compromise? How can we compromise with people like this? After everything we have suffered? You expect us just to forget what they have done to us?

"This land is all we have. If we lose it, we lose everything. How can we give it up? Why should we give it up? It is ours.

"You don't understand. They won't be happy until we are all dead. They're not interested in sharing. They want it all. They are completely unreasonable."

A deafening cacophony of voices. But the noise is so loud that I can't make out whether they are Israeli voices, or Palestinian voices. What did you think, as you read the words?

Perhaps they are both, saying such similar things that it becomes impossible to tell them apart. Each side demonising the other with those sterile, dehumanising words: They are not like us.

Yes, it is true, the families of the murdered teenagers have appealed for calm. But their words are as gossamer on the wind, ignored in the hurricane of hatred.

The Israelis and the Palestinians are not two perfectly matched opponents, slugging it out in a boxing ring. The Israelis are immeasurably the more powerful in terms of military hardware, largely thanks to the continuing generosity of US taxpayers. But in terms of suffering? How do you measure the anguish of one bereaved parent against that of another?

You can't, and you shouldn't. But you can measure numbers: in the ugly arithmetic of casualties caused by conflict, the number of grieving Palestinian parents grossly exceeds the number of their equally grief-stricken Israeli counterparts. According to the most recent tally, since the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in September 2000, 1,523 Palestinian children have been killed by Israeli forces, while over the same period, 129 Israeli children have also been killed.

The actor and writer Peter Ustinov once wrote: "Terrorism is the war of the poor, and war is the terrorism of the rich." The Palestinians are poor, so they are called terrorists. The Israelis are rich, so they wage war. The words are different, the grieving is the same.

Well, not quite the same. Tens of thousands of Israelis, led by their prime minister, won't be at the funeral of Mohammed Abu Khdair, even though as citizens of east Jerusalem, he and his family would have been just as entitled to Israeli citizenship as Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach. Whatever the law may say, there is a huge gulf separating Israel's Jewish citizens from its non-Jews: why else would it be so vital to the Israelis that the Palestinians recognise Israel, in terms, as a "Jewish state"?

There can be never be any excuses for the cold-blooded murder of teenagers, whether they are Israelis hitching a ride home, or Palestinians kidnapped on the streets of east Jerusalem.  But if you want an inkling of what it feels like to be a young Palestinian, I suggest you try to watch the Oscar-nominated Palestinian film "Omar", which graphically depicts the daily reality of anger, frustration, love and betrayal.

Every time an opinion pollster asks Israelis or Palestinians about the future, the majority on both sides say they favour a two-state solution with the two peoples living side by side. And each time they vote in an election, they elect politicians who are more hard-line than the ones who went before.

From Gaza, the rockets have again been fired into Israel, largely ineffectual, except to reinforce Israeli paranoia. On the Israeli side of the border, the army has again been gathering, ready for who-knows-what? As I write, there's talk of a ceasefire, but tensions remain high. No one doubts that in the coming days and weeks (months? years?), more people will die, more people will grieve, more people will hate.

I hear more words in my head: this time from the song "Where have all the flowers gone?", one of the most powerful anti-war protest anthems of my youth.

"When will they ever learn?"