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Friday, 31 August 2007

31 August 2007

Sometimes, you lot really do surprise me. To be honest, I did not expect many of you to be tuned in last Monday … it was a Bank Holiday, the sun had been shining in much of the country, and I thought you’d all be out sipping refreshing what-nots with friends and family. But no, came the witching hour and you were glued to your radios. Your loyalty does you immense credit.

How do I know you were listening? Well, no sooner had we started our discussion about the housing crisis – where should we build all those new homes that the government says we so desperately need? – and your emails started flooding in. It is clearly an issue about which many of you feel very strongly indeed.

Dr S in Coventry, for example: “Unrestricted development is madness. Water shortages, more pollution from cars and electricity, more traffic on the roads, more flooding. Where will it end?”

Or, at the other extreme, Owen in London: “It is nice to hear someone like Austin Williams [one of our panellists] advocating unrestricted development without fear of consequences. All this environmental nonsense is just political correctness gone mad.”

And there were plenty more. Some of you blamed immigration for the housing crisis; others thought we should be building on at least some of the Green Belt, to relieve the pressure on towns and cities.

I know, of course, that most of you didn’t send an email. I don’t for a single moment think that those of you who did write in are necessarily representative of all our listeners. But I do find it interesting to get some idea of what you feel strongly about – and last Monday, I learned that many of you feel strongly about housing.

Briefly, a mention of two long-running international stories. First, you may remember, if you’ve been paying attention, that three months ago I warned you to keep an eye on Pakistan. If you heard my interview with the former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto on Wednesday night, you’ll realise why.

There are big things afoot in Pakistan: and it’s just possible that after eight years in power, the military ruler General Pervez Musharraf may be about to accept demands that he put in place a process of transition back to democratic rule. (Ms Bhutto’s arch-rival, Nawaz Sharif, says he’ll be returning from exile within the next couple of weeks. Expect sparks to fly …) The next few months will be crucial -- and don’t forget, Pakistan is a nuclear power which neighbours Afghanistan and where many Taliban and pro-Taliban fighters are based.

Second, Iran. There are whispers in Washington that the Bush administration may be planning a propaganda offensive within the next few weeks to prepare US voters for the possibility of military action against Iran’s nuclear research facilities. Some anti-Bush bloggers think the strategy will be the same as it was before the invasion of Iraq. Barnett Rubin of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, for example, cites President Bush’s remarks in a speech last Tuesday: “Iran's actions threaten the security of nations everywhere. And that is why the United States is rallying friends and allies around the world to isolate the regime, to impose economic sanctions. We will confront this danger before it is too late.” And that, says Rubin, is remarkably similar to the language that was being used five years ago about Saddam Hussein and Iraq.

By the way, we’ll be reporting from Iran in tonight’s (Friday’s) programme to see what effect President Bush’s “axis of evil” speech nearly five years ago had on the country itself. Do tune in if you can …

Friday, 24 August 2007

24 August 2007

August is always a strange month for news: lots of politicians are on holiday, so there’s less of the usual sort of news about. But there’s one story we can always rely on – the publication of the GCSE and A level exam results. (If you’re reading this in Scotland or overseas, you are now excused, although some of the issues I want to raise are, I think, universal.)

Isn’t it terrible the way everyone seems to pass these days? Sorry, let me rephrase that: isn’t it wonderful the way the results get better every year? So which is it? Should we be celebrating the fact that each year, more and more candidates pass their exams? Or should we be mourning the “lowering of standards”?

For as long as I can remember, we have been asking these questions every August. And I think the fact that we still don’t seem to be able to agree on answers reflects our continuing confusion about what exams are actually designed to do.

My teacher friends tell me that exams should test what pupils have learned and understood and their ability to think for themselves. But universities and employers want exams to tell them who are the best and the brightest. If everyone gets an A at A level, teachers are delighted, but how do we know who’s best?

Except, of course, everyone doesn’t get an A at A level (it was 25 per cent this year, one per cent more than last year). Nor does everyone get a decent grade in their GCSEs. The results published yesterday show that just under two-thirds of GCSE candidates got a C grade or better – which means that more than one in three didn’t. Is that good news or bad?

But you know, and I know, that there are plenty of school-leavers who get very good A level results yet aren’t exactly champions at grammar or spelling, or indeed at basic maths. (Oh, all right, there are plenty of university graduates, too. Yes, and journalists …) Some university tutors and employers find that deeply depressing. Others are more relaxed.

Me? I’m rotten at illustrated calligraphy on vellum. And I wouldn’t know one end of a long-bow from the other. There was a time when I was rather good at changing typewriter ribbons – but I’m not sure I worry too much that my son doesn’t have a clue. Maybe our skills needs do change over time – and maybe in a computer age of Spellcheck and SMS text messaging, spelling doesn’t matter as much as it used to. Then again, maybe it does …

I think I’m allowed by the BBC’s rules on impartiality to say that, personally, I hate it when people can’t spell. And I’ve joined a group on Facebook called the Good Grammar Cult, which tells you where I stand on grammar. (Thanks, by the way, to everyone who’s joined me on Facebook … it’s fun, isn’t it?) But the exam debate is a complicated one – which is probably a good thing, because it gives us lots to talk about every August. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Now, let’s see what the weather is like over the weekend, because I bet my old newspaper colleagues are already brushing off their other favourite August headline: “It’s a Bank Holiday Washout!”

Friday, 17 August 2007

17 August 2007

Yes, I’m back from my break, and yes, thanks, I had a lovely time. I managed to keep in touch with events, of course, with the help of my trusty laptop and wonderful BBC News online – but thank goodness nothing much ever happens in August.

I gather there was just a bit of flooding (was it 20 million people affected across south Asia?), a spot of foot-and-mouth; a touch of turbulence on the world stock markets; several more British casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan – oh yes, and something about a great white shark that wasn’t photographed off the coast of Cornwall.

And guess what: Iran is back in the news. Two developments you may have missed during all the storm dramas (both financial and meteorological) of the past few days -- although you won't have missed them if you've been listening to the programme this week: the US is said to be about to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a “foreign terrorist organisation”, and Washington has just signed a new military assistance deal with Israel that’s worth some $30 billion over the next 10 years.

That’s an increase of about 25 per cent over current levels – and the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, says it will help to preserve his country's military advantage over other countries in the Middle East, ie Iran. (Incidentally, Washington is also providing generous military assistance to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Gulf states. What do they all have in common? They all have reason to fear Iran.)

I remember when the Cold War ended in 1989, analysts started asking who would turn out to be the new enemy of the West. (I’m no psychologist, but there seems to be a primitive human need to define ourselves at least in part by who our enemies are.) At first, Islam seemed to be the most likely choice. But now, our governments’ fears appear to be more focused: they don’t so much fear an entire religion, rather they fear the aggressive political manifestation of one branch of that religion, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Washington claims to have irrefutable evidence that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are deeply involved in the surreptitious acquisition of nuclear technology, and are financing, equipping and training Hizbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and a variety of militia groups in Iraq. They also, of course, were responsible for the capture of the 15 British marines and naval personnel in the Gulf last March.

But what good will calling them terrorists do? Well, it would enable the US to seize any of their assets that happen to be within US jurisdiction, and it would enable Washington to take action against any US company that does business with the Guards or their commercial front organisations. And, of course, it would be a way to ratchet up the pressure on the UN Security Council to agree to tougher sanctions against Tehran.

There have been signs for many months now in Tehran of strains within the government between those who favour opening up to the West and trying to defuse some of the current tensions, and those close to the mercurial president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who prefer a more confrontational approach. There is a parallel debate in Western capitals between those who say the time for sweet-talking is over (the European Union tried “constructive dialogue” for years, but seems now pretty much to have given up), and those who insist that it is still more sensible to engage with the so-called “moderate” elements in Tehran. I wonder which approach you would favour?

By the way, on the subject of stock market turmoil, have you noticed that even after all the recent talk of crises and collapses, the current level of the FTSE-100 index (at time of writing, mid-morning on Friday) is just about exactly where it was a year ago? I sometimes wonder if we get a bit over-excited about these things.