Sunday 28 June 2015

"Thank you, Mr President"

A former BBC colleague, Mike Cooper-DiFrancia, a Brit who now lives in the US, has written a powerful commentary about last week's two historic judgements by the US Supreme Court.

With his permission, I reproduce it here:

It's been a giddy old week here, with two major decisions made by the Supreme Court which directly affect the viability of my new life in America. It's a life I love, so I wanted to share my thoughts for those interested enough to read them.

In a 6-3 decision on Thursday, the Supreme Court saved the controversial health care law that will define President Barack Obama's administration for generations to come. Whatever your thoughts about the way it's been implemented, the difficult birth is now over and Obamacare is here to stay.

Sure, we can spend the years ahead finessing things, but the fact is that millions of people who previously could not afford to insure themselves now don't risk having a basic right in a civilised country taken away from them. There's no longer a reason for people to die because they can't afford the drugs they need for things like cancer or HIV, and the threat of that is no longer on the table.

By way of an anecdote, a few months ago I went to pick up my own prescription at our local CVS. "You do have insurance?" asked the wide-eyed woman behind the pharmacy counter. "Yes, thankfully," I replied. "How much would it be without?" I asked. "$2,588" she told me. That was for 28 tablets.

"Wow. Is that the most expensive prescription you've seen?" I asked. "No, we had one the other day for $38,000," she said. That turned out to be another HIV prescription, also for 28 days' supply. In short, without the Affordable Care Act, I wouldn't and couldn't afford to be here.

Countries like the UK and its neighbours in Europe look at America with incredulity because - however it's done - a civilised, First World society finds a way to look after its people and ensure they have access to the necessities of medication and healthcare. That's not socialism or communism: it's social responsibility, and those shouldn't be dirty words, whatever colour you choose to paint your politics.

In other news, yesterday's much tighter 5-4 decision by the Court to uphold marriage equality replaces the patchwork of states in favour and against with a blanket guarantee that - wherever you live and whomever you love - you can join your partner of choice in a legal union that no local or state government can take away.

Again, without the repeal of the crucial section of the Defense of Marriage Act that happened two years ago, I simply couldn't be here. That reform finally opened the gateway to immigration for thousands of gay and lesbian couples like us around the world, who were effectively exiled from the US by a law which prevented US citizens from sponsoring their foreign partners for the Green Cards they needed in order to be legally resident here. It was a momentous decision that changed our lives for the better, giving legally married couples like Marc and I the freedom to choose which country we wanted to live in.

But with much of America still deciding at state level not to recognise those unions, it left a lot of grey areas and uncertainty, including the idea that a married couple could file federal taxes jointly, but would have to continue to file state taxes separately. That included us in North Carolina.

There's been much said in the last 24 hours about how this ruling guarantees equality. Make no mistake: it absolutely does not. Many states (including ours) still have no equality legislation extending to LGBT people. You could marry today, post your pictures online tomorrow, and then be fired on Monday for being gay or lesbian, and this ruling does nothing to change that.

But what it does is move the country forwards and set the bar closer to where it should be in terms of acceptable behaviour towards all citizens. We'll be jumping through legal hoops for some time to come, but the Supreme Court of the United States has spoken, and the biggest "test" of whether gay couples are as legally viable as straight couples is - at last - behind us.

We live in interesting times. I, for one, am absolutely thrilled to be here and see my new country taking brave, tentative steps towards where my country of origin already stands. Civil rights for everyone are back on the table, and this time they're not going away. Black Lives Matter; Gay Lives Matter; ALL lives matter.

2016 may, or may not, finally see a woman in the White House. (Perhaps a female president is still a bridge too far?) Perhaps a third Democrat term is beyond the party's reach, given the way dissent is fomented in this country by big business, the church and the gun lobby (to name but three). The figures would certainly seem to suggest that America is in better shape than it was at the end of 2008, but we all know that history has an odd way of looking at events, and sadly Barack Obama's two terms are more likely to be remembered by many for the things he got wrong.

Personally, I think strong leadership and - where necessary - a heavy-handed approach to social reform are sometimes exactly what's needed to get things done, especially when a country - a Super Power no less, to which the rest of the world looks for cues - refuses to move with the times.

Before 2010, an HIV travel ban (an 11th-hour concession made by the Clinton administration at the height of the AIDS crisis, and one that even George W. Bush conceded was unfair in the new century) remained on the books. I, and thousands like me, were forced to lie on our Landing Cards every time we visited the US, sending a very clear message about how the country saw us, and telling us in no uncertain terms that we weren't welcome here.

To his credit, Bush began the process to remove that ban, but Obama finished the job. His administration then went on to push for my Massachusetts marriage to mean something at federal level, and the door to a new life was opened to me. He guaranteed that I - and millions like me - would be able to get health insurance and medication. And now he's effectively told the 13 remaining states still clinging to the notion that "It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" to stop discriminating against a love that finally can dare to speak its name.

I think that's a pretty good legacy. Thank you, Mister President.

Friday 26 June 2015

Cameron in Europe: not a good place to be

As that wily old fox Harold Macmillan once said, the most difficult thing about being prime minister is: "Events, dear boy, events."

Which is why, at last night's EU summit dinner in Brussels, David Cameron's long-awaited presentation on the UK's renegotiation demands was reduced to the status of a TV bulletin's "… and finally" item.

Yesterday morning, hours before the summit actually took place, The Times reported the laconic text of the draft conclusions: "The UK prime minister set out his plans for an (in/out) referendum in the UK. The European Council agreed to revert to the matter in December."  Enuff said.

Events, indeed. Timing matters in politics, as does luck -- and Mr Cameron is already in trouble on both fronts. A Wall Street Journal correspondent summed it up with admirable brevity: the three items on the summit agenda were (i) the people who want to get in (migrants); (ii) the people who want to stay in (the Greeks); and (iii) the people who might want to get out (the Brits).

This is, to say the least, somewhat unfortunate. A lot of what Mr Cameron is trying to do is regarded sympathetically, even enthusiastically, in some other EU capitals. If the waters were calmer, and if the eurozone picture were clearer, many of his fellow leaders would be more than happy to hear what he has to say and discuss his ideas seriously.

But with tens of thousands of migrants desperate to flee from war, oppression and poverty, and with Greece threatening to crash out of the eurozone with who-knows-what consequences, well, sorry, but it's events, dear boy, events.

Let's be honest: the EU is not good in a crisis. Hardly surprising, with 28 governments of vastly different political complexions, all trying to reconcile domestic constraints with their EU responsibilities. Not good in one crisis, much worse in two, absurdly inadequate when facing three.

(Did I hear someone mention Ukraine? No, I thought not. Three crises are more than enough.)

Like any large institution, the EU is a lumbering beast that reacts slowly to external events. And when I say slowly, I mean V-E-R-Y slowly. The migration crisis has been building ever since the overthrow of Libya's President Gaddafi in 2011. The Greek debt crisis didn't exactly explode the day before yesterday out of a clear blue sky. And as for Mr Cameron's referendum, that's been on the agenda for well over two years.

Bureaucrats (yes, and politicians) are rather too fond of dealing with crises by seeking refuge in euphemisms. They do a lot of metaphorical kicking -- of cans down the road, and of balls into the long grass. They hope -- to pluck another tired old cliché out of the ether -- that by the time the chickens come home to roost, they'll be long gone.

But here's the thing: the chickens have come home. Mr Cameron has that referendum pledge hanging round his neck; President Hollande of France has an election looming in 2017, as does Chancellor Merkel of Germany. Each of them knows that their political fate depends in large part on what they do about those wretched chickens, including, most urgently, the IMF's insistence that Greece must pay up the next debt repayment that's due next week .

Unlike his colleagues in Paris and Berlin, Mr Cameron is unambiguously the author of his own misfortune. Promising an in-out referendum was a way of keeping the Tory EU-phobes quiet and, he hoped, blunting the UKIP surge. He didn't have to make the promise, but he chose to.

The likelihood is -- all other things being equal (but see "events, dear boy" above) -- that British voters will decide to say Yes to continued EU membership. But that is not the answer that UKIP and others who have made such a fetish of a referendum are hoping for -- and it will leave them a great deal less than gruntled.

I am one of those people who think that the EU is a good thing, and that Britain's place is in it. I also think, and have always thought, that the single currency is a bad thing. But we are where we are -- and eurozone leaders have displayed a steely determination to make sure it survives, no matter what the cost to the people of Greece, Spain and Portugal.

For a journalist, covering the EU has always been one of the toughest gigs around. Brussels? Oh. So. Boring. But not any more. The coming months will see the EU front and centre of the political debate not just in the UK but in many other member states as well.

And the stakes are high. In the words of Philip Stephens of the Financial Times: "If Britain leaves Europe, Scotland will leave Britain. The union of the United Kingdom would not long survive Brexit." That's quite a price to pay for what may well end up as a failed attempt to stop the Tory party falling apart.

Exactly three years ago, I quoted the constitutional historian Vernon Bogdanor: "No one can predict what convulsions the eurozone crisis will cause. But its political ramifications are likely to prove both massive and fundamental."

Don't say you weren't warned.

Friday 5 June 2015

In praise of journalists

I don't often get the chance to say this, so I'll seize the opportunity when it presents itself: I am proud to call myself a journalist.

Why this week of all weeks? Because if it hadn't been for journalists -- and one journalist in particular, of whom more later -- the vast, stinking edifice that is FIFA would still be intact, sitting undisturbed atop foundations built of bribes and kick-backs. And Sepp Blatter would still be its absolute ruler.

Perhaps you don't care about FIFA. Perhaps you've never watched a football match. But if you're a taxpayer in any of the countries that have ever bid to host the World Cup, then some of your hard-earned cash has ended up in the pockets of deeply corrupt officials. Allegedly.

If it hadn't been for journalists -- and one journalist in particular -- reporters on certain mass market newspapers would still be illegally accessing other people's voicemail messages.

Global corporations would still be happily paying negligible amounts of tax into the UK exchequer, and HSBC would still be merrily helping its richest clients to hide their cash from the taxman. The US intelligence services would still be gaily hoovering up phone calls, text messages and emails with little or no legal authority, and MPs would still be fiddling their expenses.

And -- here's the point -- if it hadn't been for dogged, skilled and above all brave journalists, we'd have known nothing about any of it.

Given that journalism so often gets a bad press (how does that work, I wonder?), we need occasionally to say what needs saying: Without journalists, the world would be in even worse shape than it is.

The stench of corruption has surrounded FIFA for decades. Many reporters over the years have tried to expose the truth, but one in particular has been reponsible for shining a spotlight into its darkest corners. His name is Andrew Jennings, described in the Washington Post this week as a "71-year-old curmudgeonly investigative reporter".

According to the Post, the FBI first approached Jennings six years ago to ask for his assistence with their inquiries -- and he handed over the pile of documents he'd acquired to help them on their way. He is not a man to mince words about the men he's had in his sights for so long: “I know that they are criminal scum, and I’ve known it for years … These scum have stolen the people’s sport. They’ve stolen it, the cynical thieving bastards. So, yes, it’s nice to see the fear on their faces.”

I knew Jennings slightly in the 1980s, when he was reporting from Thailand on murky goings-on close to the border with Burma. I was news editor at The Observer at the time, and I quickly developed a deep admiration for his doggedness and courage.

It is easy to under-estimate the importance of courage when it comes to revealing the truth about people who don't want the truth to be revealed. Brave reporters need brave editors to back them up; and brave editors need brave proprietors to withstand pressure from advertisers and shareholders.

Consider this passage from Hack Attack, the book by Nick Davies of The Guardian in which he describes his years-long investigation into phone-hacking. After his first revelations saw the light of day, both News International and Scotland Yard issued categorical denials.

"Like a malignant cell, a horrible thought silently formed itself -- I had screwed up. I'd got the story wrong -- a big story, that had gone round the world, that had had politicians and public figures standing up on their back legs shouting for action. And it was wrong, or maybe it was wrong, or I couldn't be sure, but if it was wrong -- on that kind of scale -- [Guardian editor Alan] Rusbridger and I really were in a deep pit of foul-smelling trouble."

(As we now know, of course, the story wasn't wrong. The News of the World was shut down, and several of its journalists were convicted and jailed. Several thousand people are now believed to have had their phone messages illegally hacked into.)

Last night, I was at an event at which the annual Charles Wheeler award for an outstanding contribution to broadcast journalism, sponsored by the British Journalism Review and the University of Westminster, was presented to Alex Crawford of Sky News. (Previous recipients include Jeremy Bowen, Lindsey Hilsum, Allan Little, Jon Snow and, ahem, me.)

Alex has courage by the bucket-load, having reported from places like Libya, Liberia, Tunisia and Mali in the most dangerous of circumstances. If it weren't for her work, and the work of many other fearless journalists, on air, in print and online, we would know far less about the world we live in.

We need people like Alex Crawford, Nick Davies and Andrew Jennings. We need to celebrate their work and recognise the contribution they make. Especially in the same week that a former editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson, who spent seven months in jail for his role in the phone hacking scandal, was found not guilty of perjury in a Scottish court because, as the judge so neatly put it: "Not every lie amounts to perjury."