Friday 27 March 2015

Not a good day at the office for Cameron

I suspect Thursday wasn't the best day of David Cameron's political life: first the Supreme Court ruled against him on his attempt to block publication of Prince Charles's private letters to government ministers (three cheers for the Supreme Court); then MPs voted against his attempt to change the rules to make it easier to get rid of the Speaker of the House of Commons (three cheers for independent-minded MPs).

And then, after supper, Jeremy Paxman gave him a thorough, and distinctly uncomfortable, going over in the TV-debate-that-wasn't (three cheers for Jeremy Paxman). If Samantha was still up when he finally got home, she probably asked him if he's sure he wants the job for another five years.

I'm going to assume that you had better things to do than watch the TV-debate-that-wasn't-a-TV-debate. That's why I watched it for you -- no, I'll be honest, I would have watched it anyway. I'm an addict.

So perhaps you want to know who I thought did best. I'll tell you. No ifs, no buts. It was Jeremy Paxman. By a million miles. Which unfortunately tells you precisely nothing about the likely outcome of the election. But that doesn't mean it was a waste of time. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Let me explain. (Explanation: Ed Miliband used the expression repeatedly during his encounter with J Paxman. It did get a bit tiresome after a while.) In case you were in any doubt, you're more likely to see what a politician is made of when s/he is up against a skilled interviewer than in any other format. True, they didn't tell you anything you didn't already know about their policies, but there's more to politics than policies.

In a TV studio, you see how they handle pressure. You see how good they are at marshalling facts and arguments. And you see how quick they are on their feet, spotting an opening, trotting out their rehearsed zingers. Does it help you decide how to cast your vote? Only, probably, if you're still genuinely undecided, and all the signs are that over the past several months, there's been precious little change in overall voting intentions.

(With one exception: in Scotland, there's been a substantial swing from Labour to the SNP since the independence referendum last September. It makes an overall Labour majority in the House of Commons far less likely, even if Mr Miliband did call Paxman "presumptious" for assuming that he may well have to start haggling with Alex Salmond after 7 May if he emerges with more seats than the Tories.)  

It has always been acknowledged that TV debates tend to work to the advantage of challengers rather than incumbents. Attacking is always easier than defending -- and even such an accomplished wordsmith as Barack Obama was seriously whacked by an otherwise unimpressive Mitt Romney in the first of their debates in 2012. It should be no surprise, then, that Mr Cameron did everything he could to ensure that he wouldn't be going head-to-head with Mr Miliband.

I'm on record as being something of a Milibandista. I wrote last November that I thought he could be a pretty good prime minister -- and on the basis of what I saw during the debate-that-wasn't, I have no reason to change my opinion. He has passion, he has intellect, and he has a clear sense of what he wants for the country's future. I also liked the way he handled both Jeremy Paxman and the studio audience: self-deprecating and human with the audience, but quick with the counter-punches when Paxman started pummelling. ("You're important, Jeremy, but not that important.")

The Miliband strategy is to try to enable as many voters as possible to get a clear look at him between now and election day, to see him for themselves and not just through the jaundiced eyes of the far-from-neutral national media.

The Cameron strategy, on the other hand, is to frame the electoral choice as simply between competence and chaos. The Conservative message is that Labour brought you economic collapse and chaos (the banks had nothing to do with it, of course), leaving the oh-so-competent Tories to pick up the pieces and painfully rebuild the foundations for a more prosperous future.

According to a Guardian-ICM poll published immediately the non-debate ended, Ed Miliband was seen by respondents as having done better than David Cameron on four counts: governing in the interests of the many not the few; having the courage to say what’s right rather than what’s popular; understanding “people like me”; and on the balance between spin and substance.

But Cameron also won on four counts: being respected around the world: being decisive; being good in a crisis; and being backed by his party. He also won overall, by the relatively slim margin of 54 to 46 per cent.

As for Paxman, on his first post-BBC outing, he is still at the top of his game. What a shame he wasn't given longer with each of the party leaders.

Friday 20 March 2015

Israel: the Millwall of the Middle East

Imagine it's election day, and the prime minister posts a video message on his Facebook page. "The government is in danger," he says. "The blacks are voting in droves."

I imagine you'd be shocked. I know I would be. Yet that, with just one word changed, is what the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday. (He said "Arabs" rather than "blacks".)

About 20 per cent of Israeli citizens are Arab, and, in theory, they have exactly the same democratic rights as Jewish Israelis. In practice, it's rather different -- no Arab political party has ever, in all of Israel's nearly 67 years of existence, been included in any of its countless, kaleidoscopic coalition governments.

It's something worth remembering the next time you hear an Israeli spokesman boasting that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. The sad fact is that sometimes Israel looks about as democratic as the southern states of the US did in the days before Selma and the civil rights protests.

True, it's still more democratic than most of its neighbours. Even so, the desperate measures that Mr Netanyahu went to to achieve his election victory this week were a shock even to jaded old Middle East observers like me.

By re-electing him as prime minister at the head of a right-wing coalition, Israeli voters look more than ever as if they have chosen to model themselves on the English football club Millwall, whose supporters' best known chant at matches is "No one likes us, we don't care."

It is not difficult to understand why Israelis seem so unconcerned at their reputation among non-Israelis. Those from a European background remember the 19th century pogroms and the Nazi holocaust. Those whose families came from Arab countries remember the anti-Semitism and expulsions following the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948.

Zionism is based largely on the belief that Jews can be truly safe only in a state of their own, reliant on themselves. A strong Israel in a dangerous region is central to Israelis' self-image. And if that means losing friends, so be it.

But it raises an important question. Can a state be truly safe if it has no friends or allies on whom it can rely in times of danger? If Mr Netanyahu really has burned his bridges with Washington (and there are already signs that he's hoping to repair some of the pre-election damage), then is there anyone left to whom Israel can turn?

The veteran Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin wrote in the Jerusalem Post: "Israel is now firmly on the road to almost total international isolation. Israel is now going to find itself in deep conflict with 21 percent of its citizens – the Palestinian Arab minority who … will face the most racist, anti-Arab government Israel has ever had."

Even two years ago, when Israel's diplomatic relations were still in better shape than they are today, the only major government that voted with the US and Israel to oppose the recognition of Palestine as a non-member observer state at the United Nations was Canada. (The others were the Czech Republic, Panama, Palau, Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Nauru.)  

And last year, in the BBC's annual country ratings poll, in which more than 24,000 people in 24 countries were asked to rate countries according to how favourably they view them, Israel came fourth from bottom, ranking just above Pakistan, North Korea and Iran.

Many Israelis see their growing isolation as a result of growing anti-Semitism. They blame Arab and Muslim immigrants in Europe for a visceral hatred of Jews. Why is it, they wonder, that when anti-Israel protests are held in European capitals, so many of the protesters are Arab?

But you can turn that question on its head. After all, why did Mr Netanyahu feel that he needed to warn his supporters that Israel's Arab citizens were voting in droves last Tuesday? And why, after every attack by a Palestinian extremist, do Jewish Israelis take to the streets and chant "Death to the Arabs"? Visceral hatred is a two-way street.

Some Palestinian commentators have welcomed the Netanyahu victory on the grounds that it's now easier for them to argue that Israel is being seen in its true colours. On the eve of the election, Mr Netanyahu ruled out the idea of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict -- and even if he started to row back as soon as victory was in the bag, few will doubt where his heart really lies.

A substantial number of Israelis are convinced that they can survive perfectly well even if the rest of the world shuns them. They have a nuclear weapons capability, the strongest military in the region and some of the most sophisticated military hardware anywhere on earth. Who needs friends when you're that strong?

And in any case, they will tell you, no one has ever liked the Jews. "Better they don't like us when we're strong than when we're weak. We know only too well where being weak leads."

It's a short-sighted view, and it's dangerous. But it's not incomprehensible. The challenge for the rest of the world, and in particular for the Palestinians, is to find a way to allay the fears and encourage more Israelis to put their faith once again in dialogue. It won't be easy -- but a lot depends on it. It's not as if the Middle East wasn't dangerous enough already.

Friday 13 March 2015

Those TV debates: who, whom?

Michael Grade ought to know a thing or two about broadcasting -- after all, he has been chairman of both the BBC and ITV in his time, as well as chief executive of Channel 4.

So when he asked the other day: "Who do the broadcasters think they are?", he himself was forced to admit that he really should know the answer. It seems, however, that when it comes to the unedifying ding-dong over whether or not the prime minister will condescend to participate in one or more TV pre-election debates, m'Lord Grade has definitively signed up for the Cameroons. 

He should have done exactly the opposite. But I guess if you accept the party whip in the House of Lords, you have to -- occasionally -- sing for your supper. Even so, it's always sad when a life-long media professional crosses over to the dark side.

Lenin got it right when he suggested that in any discussion relating to political power, there's only one essential question that needs to be asked. "Who, whom?" Or, as Stalin reformulated it: "Will we knock the capitalists flat, or will they knock us flat?"

So who decides what we shall watch on our television screens, and how one of the most important election campaigns of recent times is to be reported? Do we live in a country where the government decrees what shall be shown, and by whom, or do we retain the right to insist that public service broadcasters offer, er, a public service?

How can they possibly be accused, in the words of Lord Grade, of "grossly inflated and misguided ideas of their own importance" if they dare to suggest that the PM does not actually have a veto over how they go about their business?

Indeed, I could turn the question on its head. When a public service broadcaster (in this case, the BBC) suspends a high-profile star (in this case, Jeremy Clarkson) after what is politely termed a "fracas" with a colleague, who does the PM think he is by sticking his oar into the internal disciplinary process by publicly expressing the hope that Clarkson's show will soon be back on air because otherwise his children will be heartbroken.

Where will this end? With a Downing Street campaign to bring back Bruce Forsyth because Mrs Cameron misses his execrable jokes?  I readily accept that the prime minister has many onerous responsibilities, but deciding who appears on the tellybox for the amusement of his family is not among them.

It is, of course, entirely up to him whether he wishes to take part in any televised election debates, and if he does, he's fully entitled to express a view as to what format he would prefer. Equally, it is entirely a matter for the boadcasters if they decide to say: "Er, no thanks, we'll go ahead without you."

Yes, they have a duty to be impartial. But any competent debate chairperson (no, I'm not volunteering) is perfectly able to put across a missing viewpoint if that's what is required. Not for nothing are some of the words most often spoken by broadcast interviewers: "But your critics would argue …"

Does it matter? I think it does, for all sorts of reasons. First, according to a ComRes poll for ITV News, nearly three-quarters of the electorate want the debates to go ahead, even if the prime minister refuses to take part. More than 60 per cent say that if he doesn't turn up, there should be an empty chair to symbolise his no-show. And second, I would have thought that in any self-respecting modern democracy, political leaders would regard it as an essential duty to engage in public debate and enable voters to assess for themselves the relative merits of the candidates on offer.

Mr Cameron says he's happy for there to be a television debate, so long as it's on his terms. He is, I fear, to use the technical term, lying.  You know, I know, and every dog in the street knows, that he thinks a debate, or debates, will do him no good at all. It's what all prime ministers have always thought -- all of them, that is, except Gordon Brown, who was advised five years ago that he might as well say Yes to the debates because they were unlikely to make things worse for him than they already were.

And while we're on the subject of lies, let's lay one common error to rest. Politicians and officials who tell untruths are no new invention, nor is journalistic scepticism about their devotion to the unvarnished truth a uniquely modern phenomenon. Almost as useful as Lenin's question "who, whom?" is the much-quoted, but erroneously attributed, "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?"

It was not, contrary to popular belief, first expressed by Jeremy Paxman, but many decades earlier, in the 1940s, when the then industrial correspondent of the Communist party newspaper the Daily Worker gave some advice to a young reporter on The Times. The reporter, Louis Heren, who rose to become the paper's deputy editor, related in his memoir "Growing Up on The Times": "One day, when I asked him for some advice before interviewing the permanent secretary [at the Ministry of Labour], he said: 'Always ask yourself why these lying bastards are lying to you.'"

Heren added, and this was in a book published in 1978: "I still ask myself that question today." So do I.

Friday 6 March 2015

India's daughter, India's shame

The gang rape and murder of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh in Delhi in December 2012 caused massive national and international outrage. How sad, therefore, that the Indian government has decided to ban the showing of an extraordinary television documentary about the case that was shown on BBC4 on Wednesday night.

Here was an opportunity for the government to urge the people of India to examine the ugly underbelly of their rapidly-changing country. Instead, ministers have decided to attack the BBC and have suggested that they might take legal action against it.  

One minister said the film was part of a "conspiracy to defame India." (The programme, made by British film-maker Leslee Udwin, is available to viewers in the UK on the BBC iPlayer until next Wednesday and on YouTube to viewers elsewhere.)

What a tragedy. The documentary is a sensitively-made and moving examination of an atrocious crime. (Warning: it contains some sequences that you may well find distressing.) It features a chilling interview with one of the men convicted of raping and murdering Jyoti, and also hears from some of the rapists' defence lawyers, and both of her parents.

The interviews demonstrate that the perpetrators and their lawyers hold views about the role of women in society that have no place anywhere, let alone in one of the world's most vibrant democracies.

One lawyer says: "In our culture, there is no place for a woman." Another says that if his own daughter or sister were to engage in "pre-marital activities", he would "put petrol on her and set her alight.”

But it also features interviews with women like Sheila Dixit, former Delhi chief minister, and Leila Seth, former chief justice, who speak passionately about the desperate need to educate more of India's people about the right of all women to equal opportunities. It shows the huge protest demonstrations, led by women, that followed Jyoti's murder. This is a film that shows the best, as well as the worst, of India.

India is not the only country in the world where ghastly crimes are committed against girls and women, and it is right that those of us who live in the "developed" world should acknowledge that. I probably don't need to remind you of the case of Elizabeth Fritzl, who emerged in 2008 after having been held captive by her father in an Austrian basement for 24 years, during which time he raped her repeatedly and she gave birth to seven of his children.

Or Fred and Rose West, the couple in Gloucester who raped, tortured and murdered at least 11 girls and women between 1967 and 1987. Or more recently, the appalling child abuse scandals in Rotherham, Oxford and elsewhere.

India is a country with a fabulously rich history and a cultural heritage that has given the world some of the most wonderful art, poetry and music. It has transformed itself at breathtaking speed into a thriving, globalised economy, in which millions of people can now lead lives their parents never even dreamt of.

But it is still, inevitably, a deeply divided society, and there are still many millions of Indians who have seen few benefits from the economic revolution and who resent the cultural changes that have come with it.

Jyoti Singh came from a modest background -- her father worked as a labourer at the airport -- but she had completed her medical studies and was on course to fulfil her ambition to become a doctor. She had been out with a male friend to see a movie when she was attacked, raped and killed on their way home.

"A decent girl wouldn't be roaming around at 9 o'clock at night," says one of the men convicted of her attack. "A girl is far more responsible for a rape than a boy. You can't clap with one hand. It takes two hands to clap."

"You are talking of a man and a woman as friends," says one of the defence lawyers. "Sorry, that doesn't have any place in our society. We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman."

This is an India that won't disappear without a struggle, and it's a struggle that more and more of India's women are determined to wage. How sad that the country's political leaders seem unwilling to join them.

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