Wednesday 12 August 2020

Some thoughts on who we are

First, some facts.


There is no such thing as an illegal asylum-seeker. Under the terms of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, anyone is entitled to seek asylum if ‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of [their] nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail [themselves] of the protection of that country.’


There is no law that says they have to apply for asylum in the first country they escape to. The vast majority do, however, which is why there are nearly 3.7 million refugees in Turkey (from Syria), 1.4 million in Pakistan (from Afghanistan) and 1.2 million in Uganda (mostly from South Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo).


The much-cited EU Dublin Regulation – which will anyway cease to apply in the UK at the end of this year – applies only to which country should deal with an application for asylum, not where that application should be made.


There is no law that says asylum-seekers have to enter a country legally. For obvious reasons, if you pause to consider why they are seeking asylum in the first place.


The UK is not suffering a refugee crisis. Last year, there were 35,566 applications for asylum – in 2002, the number was 84,000. Far fewer, incidentally, than in either Germany (161,900) or France (114,500).


The UK is not being invaded. The total number of refugees and asylum-seekers (2018) living in the UK is around 170,000, approximately one quarter of one per cent of the total UK population. And if the government can happily offer residence rights to up to three million people from Hong Kong who have British National Overseas status, it is hard to see why the four thousand desperate people who have crossed the Channel so far this year represent a ‘national crisis’.


It is important to be clear about this: crossing the Channel in a rubber dinghy is exceedingly dangerous. The fact that people are prepared to pay thousands of dollars to ruthless smugglers for the opportunity to drown at sea tells you all you need to know about the desperate straits in which they find themselves.


As it happens, I have seen migration smugglers in action. Not in northern France, but in Mexico, where I observed desperate young men from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador risk their lives by leaping on board a moving freight train – they called it La Bestia  (The Beast) – which they hoped would help them cross the border into the US.


I noticed, however, that a couple of them didn’t even try to board the train as it lumbered by. Why not? Because they were in the pay of the smugglers, who employed them to extort payment from their fellow-migrants before they were ‘allowed’ to take up position by the side of the tracks. Venality is not the sole preserve of heartless governments, and we should never under-estimate the potential for cruelty of our fellow-humans.


To me, this all feels very personal. In 1939, my maternal grandmother, a Jew living in Nazi Germany, applied for refugee status in both the US and the UK. Neither application was successful, and in 1941, she was murdered by a Nazi death squad. (The full story is here.) If she had had the chance to clamber onto a rubber dinghy to find her way to safety, I very much hope she would have taken it.

We are not who we think we are. We are a mixed up jumble of peoples, ethnicities, cultures and memories. When we use the word ‘we’, we think we know who we mean. People like me. People who look like me, and think like me. People who ‘belong’ here.

It is a dangerous delusion. What we share is a common humanity, not the same skin colour or religious identity. Look at the top four names on the official list of UK government ministers: Boris Johnson, whose paternal grandfather was born Osmal Kemal and who is descended on his mother’s side from Munich-born Hubert Freiherr von Pfeffel and Hélène Arnous-Rivière; Rishi Sunak, son of Kenyan-born Yashvir and Tanzanian-born Usha; Dominic Raab, whose Jewish father fled to the UK from Czechoslovakia in 1938; and Priti Patel, whose parents, of Gujarati origin, came to Britain from Uganda.

Which brings me to Kamala Harris (it’s KAM-ala, by the way, as in PAM-ela) who has been chosen by the US Democratic Party’s presidential candidate Joe Biden to be his running-mate in November’s election. She’s the daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, and if the Biden-Harris tickets wins, she’ll then be in pole position to become the first woman to win the White House in 2024.

Barack Obama’s father, of course, was Kenyan. Winston Churchill’s mother was American. EasyJet was founded by Stelios Haji-Ioannou, and Tesco by Jack Cohen, whose father was a Jewish immigrant from Poland.

Who knows what future entrepreneurs, national leaders, millionaires, are on those rubber dinghies, bobbing so dangerously across the Channel? Who knows what their children and grandchildren might achieve if given the chance?

So let’s hear it for the immigrants. And the refugees. And the asylum-seekers. And if you want to do more to help fight their corner, or simply learn more about them, let me recommend two charities: Refugees at Home, and Refugee Action.



Wednesday 10 June 2020

Some thoughts on statues and legacies

Statues are symbols, and what they symbolise is respect. If we put up a statue to someone, it means we respect them, either for their character or for their achievements.


Sometimes, admittedly, it just means they did a job with an impressive title. King, Queen, General, Prime Minister. Or that someone, at a particular moment in history, wanted to demonstrate their admiration for, or loyalty to, whoever was to be commemorated in perpetuity.


Statues are interesting for what they tell us about the values thought to be important at different times.  They are rarely great works of art, so if they are worth preserving, it is usually for their historical significance rather than for their artistic worth.


Why are there so few statues in our towns and cities of women? Or of people of colour? Because in the days when paying for statues to be erected in public places was the done thing, women and people of colour were not recognised as worthy of respect.


By removing statues of slave traders or brutal colonialists, we are not removing history. We are re-assessing legacy, which is very different. It is a sad reflection of how deficient is the teaching of British history in our schools that more children will have learnt of Britain’s role in the slave trade in the days since the long overdue toppling of Edward Colston in Bristol than in any number of history lessons at school.


(Incidentally, the inscription on the base of the Colston statue said it was ‘a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of the city’. It is worth pondering those words, written nearly 175 years after his death. Virtuous? Wise?)


We need to acknowledge our past. The International Slavery Museum in Liverpool is one example of how we can do it. Perhaps the Colston statue should have been found a place there. At the very least, we should ensure that every surviving statue of someone with a gruesome record is accompanied by an information board spelling out the truth of their record.


And perhaps a new statue should be erected to take the place of Edward Colston in Bristol. Someone like Olaudah Equiano (above), the former slave who became a leading anti-slavery campaigner in the late 18th century. Or Mary Prince, another former slave and pro-abolition campaigner, who in 1831 became the first black woman to publish an autobiography in England.


People who are genuinely worthy of respect and admiration.

Monday 11 May 2020

Covid-19: the Reagan-Thatcher legacy

I was born three years after the end of the Second World War. From that day to this, with the brief but bloody exception of the wars in the Balkans in the early 1990s, Europe has been at peace. Seventy-five years: a record in the continent’s turbulent history.

So for my generation, and for those who came after us, the coronavirus crisis is the first major national upheaval in our lifetimes. There has been no shortage of crises – the Suez crisis of 1956; the Cuban missile crisis of 1962; the oil crisis of 1973-4 and the government-mandated three-day week; the widespread public sector strikes during the winter of discontent in 1978-9; and more recently, the global financial melt-down of 2007-8.

But nothing to compare with what we are facing now. No wonder so many of us are finding it difficult to cope. And no wonder our political leaders are at a total loss – this is way beyond anything they ever imagined they might have to deal with. As far as I know, a PPE degree from Oxford (remember the days when PPE stood for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, not Personal Protective Equipment?) has no modules devoted to global public health emergencies.

Inevitably, Matt Hancock, the UK’s hapless health secretary, did PPE. So did the chancellor, Rishi Sunak. Boris Johnson, famously, did Classics. Dominic Raab studied Law; Michael Gove did English.

Oh for a doctor or two, like Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, or Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission. There are, in fact, eight Tory MPs who are qualified doctors (including Liam Fox), but not one of them is in government. As far as I can see, Rosena Allin-Khan is the only doctor on the Labour benches; Keir Starmer has sensibly appointed her to his shadow health team. (Her boss, though, is Jonathan Ashworth, who, inevitably, studied politics and philosophy.)

All of which is to say that Ministers are way out of their depth. And it is painfully, excruciatingly, obvious. The prime minister’s TV statement on Sunday night, and his statement in the House of Commons this afternoon, did nothing other than to confuse an already confused population by demonstrating his notorious inability to focus on detail.

I can now go to a local park as often as I like. But I can’t meet up with my two adult children or my two baby grandchildren, even if we stay two metres apart. I am allowed, however, to meet up with one of them at a time. Don’t anyone dare try to tell me that this nonsense comes from ‘following the science.’

According to the World Health Organisation, ‘coronavirus droplets are relatively heavy, do not travel far and quickly sink to the ground.’ That’s why we’re told to stay two metres away from people who aren’t members of our household. But if we’re relatively safe two metres away from one person, we must be equally safe two metres away from two people. Or four, or six, or ten.

We baby-boomers used to be called the luckiest generation in history: no wars to be killed in, the NHS, free education up to and including university, jobs galore, and a steadily rising housing market. Now we’re called ‘vulnerable’ and told we’re not allowed to see our grandchildren. Not so lucky any more.

And if you’re wondering why the US and UK, two of the richest countries in the world, have ended up with two of the worst anti-Covid records, I would suggest you look back at the political and economic philosophies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Small government, low taxes, squeezed public services, and private enterprise left to pick up the pieces. The tens of thousands of Covid-19 deaths are, in no small part, their legacy.

Both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson were culpably, unforgivably slow to acknowledge that urgent government action was required to confront the coronavirus pandemic. Their instinct was to sit back and let the virus do what viruses do: kill people and burn themselves out. The results are there for us all to see: in our hospitals, care homes, mortuaries and graveyards. History will damn them for both their indolence and their incompetence.

Wednesday 15 April 2020

How free speech saves lives

Little did I think, when I started work on my series of radio documentaries about the future of free speech, that I would end up with the starkest of conclusions: that restrictions on free speech can cause tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.

As I said in the last programme of the series, broadcast today on the BBC World Service and available online here, the coronavirus pandemic is proof what can happen when free speech is denied us. The reasoning is inescapable: if doctors in the Chinese city of Wuhan (population: 11 million) who first identified the new virus had been free to speak out, we would not now be where we are.

(If you missed the earlier episodes in the series, they are all available here.)

Perhaps you still remember the case of Dr Li Wenliang, who on 30 December last year sent a message to his medical school alumni group on the WeChat social media site warning them that seven patients at his hospital in Wuhan had been placed in isolation after being diagnosed with a SARS-like virus. He was detained for ‘spreading rumours’ and forced to sign a statement promising to stop his ‘illegal behaviour’.

Li died on 7 February, having contracted the virus himself. He was 33 years old.

Why am I so sure that if the authorities had not tried to gag him and his colleagues, thousands of lives would have been saved? Because a detailed study published by Southampton University lays it out with crystal clarity: if China had taken immediate action as soon as the Wuhan doctors raised the alarm, the number of cases would have been reduced by 95 per cent.

95 per cent.

Instead, they waited until 23 January before they put Wuhan into lockdown. It was, of course, far too late – more than 500 infections had already been reported, including in the US, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand and South Korea. Most worrying for those of us living in the UK, between the date of Dr Li’s warning and the Wuhan lockdown, 17 flights had arrived in the UK direct from Wuhan, and 600 more from elsewhere in China.

Freedom of speech has long been regarded as a basic human right. If you heard the first programme in my series, you will have heard me standing awe-struck in front of the original copy of the First Amendment to the US constitution, in the US National Archive in Washington DC. It’s the one that every journalist has engraved on their heart: ‘Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech or of the press ...’

I started the series worried that free speech was coming under increasing pressure from a variety of sources: authoritarian governments in Russia, China, Turkey, India, Brazil, Hungary and many other places; identitarian lobby groups seeking to close down debate on issues that risked offending or upsetting some people’s sense of identity; and the social media titans whose all-seeing algorithms increasingly dictate the parameters of what we are shown online.

But by the time we had finished making all five programmes in the series – luckily, our overseas reporting trips just beat the coronavirus clamp-down – I was even more worried. I discovered that my anxiety is widely shared, but that there is still no real agreement on how best to protect our right to free speech.

As I said at the end of the last programme: ‘Of one thing I am more convinced than ever. Free speech is a precious human right – but we do need to handle it responsibly to ensure that it is never taken away from us. The coronavirus pandemic is proof of what can happen when it is denied us.’

Sunday 29 March 2020

My viral thoughts

Speaking during a news conference on 12 August, 1986, the US president Ronald Reagan famously said: ‘The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help.’ (Source:

Not any more, they’re not. Delete and replace: ‘I’m from the Government, and there’s no help available.’ O tempora, o mores. Small government good, big government bad? Heavens above, where on earth did that idea come from? Hey, we’re all Big Spenders now.

And quite right, too.

Oh, and while we’re demolishing hoary old nostrums, remember Theresa May telling an underpaid nurse ‘There’s no magic money tree’? Well, yes, there is, actually, and there always was. It’s just that until the coronavirus appeared, governments preferred to use it to bail out the banks and pay for nonsenses such as the woefully-misnamed independent nuclear deterrent. (Four nuclear-armed submarines, each capable of carrying 40 nuclear warheads. Cost: £5 billion per year.)

As Matthew Parris correctly asked in The Times: ‘Doesn’t the apparent discovery of a magic money tree kick the props from beneath the most potent and persuasive of all Conservative beliefs: that there is no magic money tree? … The Tories had better brace themselves for serious questions about how we can [find the cash] for a virus but not to save a shipyard, or the planet from climate change. Or double the future capacity of our hospitals, or prison modernisation plans, or legal aid limits, or nurses’ and carers’ wages.’

Precisely so. Parris, with whom I rarely disagree, is a life-long Conservative from the humane, thinking wing of his party, but for him, watching Rishi Sunak turn on the Treasury taps at full throttle is akin to a devoted Catholic watching in horror as the Pope announces he intends to get married.

Government spending is about political choices, not magic money trees. Ministers spend tax-payers’ money on what they think is important, and what they think is important depends on their political philosophy. By their spending choices shall ye know them.

Exhibit A, courtesy of Harry Davies in The Guardian: ‘Documents show that officials working under former health secretary Jeremy Hunt told medical advisers three years ago to “reconsider” a formal recommendation that eye protection should be provided to all healthcare professionals who have close contact with pandemic influenza patients.

‘The expert advice was watered down after an “economic assessment” found a medical recommendation about providing visors or safety glasses to all hospital, ambulance and social care staff who have close contact with pandemic influenza patients would “substantially increase” the costs of stockpiling.’

Exhibit B, courtesy of David Aaronovitch in The Times: ‘Four years ago, the independent Commission on a Global Health Risk Framework for the Future issued a report on how something like a flu epidemic could kill millions, cost trillions and derail the global economy. It recommended an annual expenditure in the US of $4.5 billion on prevention, detection and preparedness for such an event.

‘Last September the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board published an expert report warning that “the threat of a pandemic spreading around the globe is a real one – a quick-moving pathogen has the potential to kill tens of millions of people, disrupt economies, and destabilise national security.” Its chairwoman Gro Harlem Brundtland characterised world leaders’ approach as being a “cycle of panic and neglect.”

Ministers chose to ignore the warnings. Just as local councillors chose to ignore the warnings about dangerous materials being used in cladding for tower blocks. And the warnings about flood risks unless money was spent on flood protection. And the warnings about climate change. I could go on.

Who woulda thunk it? Experts know their stuff. When they publish carefully-researched reports warning of trouble ahead, they deserve to be taken seriously. ‘Project Fear’ isn’t always politically-motivated. Sometimes it’s people who know what they are talking about trying to make cloth-eared politicians understand the foolishness of their ways.

As I fear the US is about to discover. The world’s most powerful economy, the engine room of technological innovation, the home of cutting-edge medical research, is about to be laid low by a virus that it has had months to prepare for. No one will ever again be able to argue that it doesn’t matter who sits in the Oval Office.

Here’s what his coronavirus task force coordinator said on the Christian Broadcasting Network about the current occupant:  ‘He’s been so attentive to the scientific literature, the details and the data – and his ability to analyse and integrate data that comes out of his long line of history in business has been a real benefit in these discussions about medical issues.’

You want evidence of that? Verbatim quote from the man himself: ‘You can call it a germ, you can call it flu, you can call it a virus, you know you can call it many different names. I’m not sure anybody even knows what it is.’

Or how about this photo, showing how well the President understands the scientific data?

And this attack ad makes the point even more effectively.

I’m usually reluctant to draw conclusions about crises until well after they are over. This one, no doubt, will be the subject of countless inquiries in the years to come. But here are two lessons we can learn right now: planning for worst-case scenarios is never a waste of money; and experts are always worth taking seriously.

Meanwhile, if you need a break from all this stuff, do yourself a favour and de-stress by listening to me read some of my favourite classic children’s stories on my new podcast series Robin Lustig reading stories. You can find them at all the usual podcast places or by clicking here, or here to see me on YouTube.

And when you’re in the mood for some more of my journalism, my five-part documentary series The Future of Free Speech is now being broadcast on the BBC World Service. The first two episodes are available here, and the remaining three will become available every Wednesday until mid-April. As you will discover in the final episode, the free speech debate is directly relevant to the current pandemic.

Monday 16 March 2020

The Future of Free Speech

Since the beginning of the year, I have been hard at work on a series of five documentaries for the BBC World Service. They are called The Compass: The Future of Free Speech, and the first in the series will be broadcast on Wednesday. The programmes will all be available online – click here for the link – and on BBC Sounds.

Each of the programmes focuses on what we are calling different free speech gatekeepers, the people who draw the line between what we are, and are not, allowed to say. The first programme looks at the courts, and then we move on to universities, religions, journalists, and social media platforms.

It’s a fascinating, complex – and highly topical – issue, so I do hope you’ll get a chance to listen.

Meanwhile, here’s an article I have written to introduce the series, and which appears in the current edition of Radio Times:

I have no doubt that the world would be a much more pleasant place if we tried not to be offensive. Twitter and Facebook would certainly be much more pleasant places. But I am also in no doubt that we must defend our right to be offensive – and it is that right which now seems to me to be increasingly at risk.

Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having. So why, after nearly 50 years as a journalist and broadcaster, am I increasingly worried that speaking inoffensively may soon be all that we are allowed to do?

While researching my new series, The Compass: The Future of Free Speech, I met Gerard Biard, editor-in-chief of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which was attacked in 2015 by two jihadi gunmen who shot dead 12 people, including several of its best known cartoonists. He now has a round-the-clock bodyguard and operates from an office at an undisclosed address.

Biard says that since the explosion of social media sites, many have come to regard their own feelings as more important than the law. Narcissism rules. Instead of free expression, they demand censorship. Instead of testing ideas, they post selfies. The courts can insist until they are blue in the face that the law upholds the right to offend, but many people, including those jihadis, insist instead on their right not to be offended. (Charlie Hebdo had published cartoons mocking the Muslim prophet Mohammed.)

If you spend as much time on Facebook or Twitter as I do, it is easy to conclude that free speech is a mixed blessing. No wonder, you might think, that the government now proposes to put media regulator Ofcom in charge of making sure that social media sites do more to protect their users from ‘harmful’ content.

Yes, there is plenty of foul stuff online. Yes, it can do real harm. So can the nutty conspiracy theories that swill about in the deeper recesses of the internet. Even so, I think there is real cause for concern if a State regulator is to be given the power to decree what is ‘harmful’ and what is not.

Back in 1968, an anti-Vietnam war protester walked into the Los Angeles county courthouse wearing a jacket emblazoned with the slogan ‘F*ck the Draft.’ He was arrested, but the case ended up in the US Supreme Court, which ruled that his arrest had contravened his First Amendment right to free speech. In the words of Justice John Marshall Harlan II, if the arrest were deemed to be lawful, ‘government might soon seize upon the censorship of particular words as a convenient guise for banning the expression of unpopular views.’ So three cheers for the US Supreme Court.

I accept the need for laws that ban the incitement of hatred or violence. But I am pleased that just last month, Harry Miller won his case against Humberside Police, who had warned him against posting allegedly transphobic comments on Twitter that, although they broke no law, the police chose to classify as ‘hate incidents.’

We need to recognise that one of the prices of living in a democracy is that sometimes we’ll be shocked. We also need to encourage Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and others to grow up and take responsibility for the monsters they have created.
In Washington, the law professor Stephen Wermiel told me that the previously accepted bargain – you put up with stuff that you don’t like in order to uphold free speech – is a bargain that more and more people are now not prepared to accept. I think that is a very dangerous development. And so would George Orwell, whose warning is inscribed on the wall of the BBC’s London HQ: ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’

Friday 31 January 2020

Here are the links to my podcasts and YouTube channel

Here are the podcasts (scroll down if you can't see them all)

And here's the YouTube channel:

If you want to make sure you don't miss any new stories, the best thing to do is subscribe. Go to the three little orange buttons below the rather fetching photo of me, and click on the one on the right. If you want to share the podcasts with friends -- which of course you do -- click on the middle orange button. And to download a podcast to your phone or tablet, click on the orange button on the left.

Tuesday 28 January 2020

My new venture

When I used to present The World Tonight on Radio 4, people often told me that they liked to fall asleep listening to me. I chose, perhaps naïvely, to take it as a compliment – apparently I have a very soothing voice.

Then, just a few weeks ago, I was stopped in the park near where I live. ‘Are you Robin Lustig?’ the man asked. ‘I want you to know that ever since you left the BBC, I’ve had great difficulty getting to sleep.’

So I have started a new venture – and I very much hope you’ll give it a try.

Given the state of the world – and this definitely seems the appropriate time, especially if like me you’re deeply depressed that the UK will have finally left the EU by the end of the week – I have decided to try to offer you something that just might make you feel a little bit better.

It’s a new series of podcasts (and a YouTube channel) of me reading children’s stories. As simple as that. I’m starting with the Just So Stories, by Rudyard Kipling, because I always loved them as a child, and also because I think they’re a perfect way to switch off from the world as it is, and, just for a few minutes, immerse ourselves in a world as we would like it to be.

You can find the podcasts by simply going to wherever you usually go to find your podcasts and search for ‘Robin Lustig reading stories.’ They are already available on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Acast, Pocket Casts and Breaker, and they should be on Apple Podcasts and others within the next few days.

(You can also find them on YouTube if you’d like to watch my lips move as I read.)

Or you could just listen here:

As you can see, I’ve already uploaded the first two stories, and there will be more in the coming weeks. If you think you might enjoy them – and if you think your friends and family might enjoy them as well – please click on the Subscribe and Share buttons, and do leave a comment. I’ll need you to help me get them out into the big wide world, so I’d really appreciate your help.

Perhaps you’re wondering why the letters ASMR appear in the name of both the podcasts and the YouTube channel. The letters stand for ‘autonomous sensory meridian response’ – it’s a phenomenon that some people describe as a feeling of euphoric tingling and relaxation that can result from watching certain videos or hearing certain sounds, including, in some cases, a particular human voice. It’s become quite the thing, apparently, so why not give it a go?

I have no idea if there’s anything in it, but if the stories help you feel better, or help you get to sleep – or if you just enjoy listening to them – I’ll be delighted.

Many years ago, a newspaper columnist wrote that the way I said ‘Good night’ at the end of The World Tonight sent her off to bed with a song in her heart. Perhaps I can now do the same for you. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to hear me as you have never heard me before.