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Friday, 28 September 2007

28 September 2007

Bournemouth first, then Burma … it’s been a week of Bs. (Yes, there’s one more next week as well: Blackpool beckons.)

I’ve been trying to work out why Gordon Brown’s speech to the Labour party conference was so flat. I’ve heard a dozen of these set-piece orations from Mr Brown, and most of them have had at least a bit of old-time religion, a bit of Labour passion to get the delegates’ blood running.

Not this time, though, and I think there may be a simple explanation. It wasn’t Brown we were listening to, it was anti-Blair. Blair was flash; Brown isn’t. Blair was an orator; Brown isn’t (not any more, at any rate). And the political calculation is obvious: if David Cameron wants to be the “heir to Blair”, just when voters seem to have had enough of Blairism, well, what better person to turn to than anti-Blair (and, of course, by implication, anti-Cameron)?

And I’m indebted to Daniel Finkelstein of The Times for pointing out why parts of the Brown speech may have sounded vaguely familiar to any Americans who happened to be listening. “Sometimes people say I am too serious,” said the Prime Minister. “I know that sometimes people say I'm too serious,” said US presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000.

“This is my pledge to the British people: I will not let you down,” said Mr Brown in Bournemouth. “I pledge to you tonight … I will never let you down," said Mr Gore in 2000. Could it be, as Finkelstein suggests, that veteran US consultant and speech-writer Bob Shrum had a hand in it?

My last reflection from Bournemouth relates to something I remarked upon when Tony Blair announced he was standing down in May. He spoke then of Britain (“open-minded about race and sexuality, averse to prejudice and yet deeply and rightly conservative with a small 'c' when it comes to good manners, respect for others, treating people courteously”) in terms which sounded exactly as if he was talking about himself.

Mr Brown did the same this week: looking back on the summer’s various crises – attempted suicide bombings in London and Glasgow; floods; foot and mouth disease – “Our response was calm and measured. We simply got on with the job. Britain has been tested and not found wanting.” Just like you-know-who.

And so to Burma. Tens of thousands of protesters out on the streets; and a sclerotic military regime responding the only way it knows how. I’ve been trying to imagine how it looks to Burma’s two giant neighbours: India on one side, China on the other.

Both have major economic and strategic interests in Burma. Each is anxious to prevent the other gaining too much influence. Beijing wants to ensure that nothing gets in the way of a successful Olympic Games next year (although I hear whispers that preparations are not going well on that front). Delhi wants to ensure that in the race to become Asia’s undisputed economic super-power, China doesn’t gain too much of an advantage by tying up valuable energy deals with the Burmese generals.

So who can pull the levers to influence the generals’ response to the most serious challenge they’ve faced for nearly 20 years? And if the answer is India and China, then who can pull the levers to influence their response to the Burmese crisis? China has already shown in both North Korea and Sudan that it knows how to use its diplomatic muscle when it chooses to do so; perhaps the current crisis will provide another opportunity. As for India, which wants desperately to join China as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, perhaps it’ll conclude that a bit of skilful diplomacy in Burma is just what’s needed to burnish its credentials. I wonder …

Friday, 21 September 2007

21 September 2007

I may as well start with an admission: whenever I talk to an economist, or a banker, or a financial analyst, I’m left wondering if I really understand anything that they’ve told me.

So I’ve spent the past couple of weeks trying really hard to concentrate on the intricacies of banking liquidity, cash cushions and regulatory oversight (No, sorry, I’m not sure what any of that means either.)

I have two guiding principles which have helped me through this whole Northern Rock farrago. One, courtesy of the late great economist J.K. Galbraith. I have his words taped to the window beside my desk in The World Tonight production office: “The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.”

Two, courtesy of the former governor of the Bank of England, Eddie George: “There are three types of economist – those who can count, and those who can’t.”

All right, I exaggerate. But only slightly. The more I talk to people who ought to know about all this stuff, the less convinced I am. There are, after all, some very clever, very rich people working in the City of London, so how come they got themselves into such a mess?

Maybe Polonius in Hamlet was just a naïve simpleton who had no idea how a global economy functions. But I still reckon “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” has a lot to be said for it. As does “Don’t buy a pig in a poke”, defined as making a risky purchase without inspecting an item beforehand (thank you, Wikipedia).

Isn’t that exactly what all those clever investment banker chaps did when they snapped up a few million pounds of neatly packaged dodgy debts without looking to see what was inside the packaging? I mean, how clever do you need to be to work out that you could be heading for trouble?

A couple of serious points, though: perhaps the past two weeks have been a salutary lesson – perhaps we have learned to pay more attention to where we put our money and what our bank of choice is doing with it. Although I confess that I have no idea how we’re meant to come to a rational judgment when (in my case, at least) we don’t even understand the language the bankers speak.

And perhaps the regulators have learned that they need to keep an even beadier eye on what’s going on. A full-blown run on a bank is not meant to happen in a well-ordered capitalist society, because the whole structure is built on the notion that we have confidence in the currency and the banking system. Once that confidence goes, we stop trusting the banks, we stop lending them our cash, and the whole machine comes grinding to a halt.

I will continue to try hard to make sense of it all, both for your sake and for mine. But as I renew the cold compress around my head, I am also packing my toothbrush for my annual autumn jaunts to the seaside. Next week I’ll be in Bournemouth with Labour; the week after it’s Blackpool with the Conservatives. I’ll be in touch …

Friday, 14 September 2007

14 September 2007

In my perfect world, children wouldn’t disappear mysteriously and journalists would report only what they know to be true. We live, alas, in a world that is far from perfect.

Why can’t we admit that there are some questions to which we don’t yet know the answers? Why can’t we let the police (yes, even the Portuguese police) get on with the job? By all means, let’s scrutinise them, and report what they say and do … but do we have to do so much guessing?

If a criminal inquiry is under way, do we really expect the police and prosecutors to give us hourly updates? Are the demands of rolling news channels and the constantly updated news websites now so overwhelmingly important that a refusal to satisfy their endless need for fresh material is tantamount to evidence of incompetence or worse?

Of course, we want to know what happened to a missing child. Mystery and crime have sold newspapers since the year dot. I’m not naïve. And I know that police make mistakes. I know there are miscarriages of justice. (Guildford Four, anyone? Birmingham Six?) I know that media hysteria can sometimes play a significant part in judicial cock-ups. And I also know that the media can often play a valuable role in righting wrongs.

But that’s not what’s happening now. No one has even been charged, let alone brought to trial. We have no idea what evidence the police have collected, and we won’t know unless and until it is presented in court. Then, and only then, will we begin to be able to make up our own minds.

I’ve been in this business long enough to know something about competitive pressures. I know and understand why TV news channels and newspaper websites want to be first with the latest twist in a long-running story. But this has plumbed new depths of absurdity. We might just as well read detective stories as some of what’s been written over the past few days.

The former editor of the Daily Telegraph and London Evening Standard, Max Hastings, who is not exactly a shrinking violet, wrote this week that he hangs his head in shame at how our trade has been behaving. So do I. And I’m angry, too, because I would much rather have written this week about the Iraq war testimony in Washington, or the reports of an Israeli air attack on Syria last week, or the deepening crisis in Pakistan. Instead, despite our best efforts to keep our own reporting from Portugal to the absolute minimum, I find the agenda has been hijacked.

Oh, didn’t I actually mention what this is all about? Sorry about that … but you knew anyway, didn’t you? (Apologies to readers overseas. A quick look at the website of any UK news organisation will reveal all …)

By the way, I’ve helped put together an online photographic essay with the picture agency Magnum, to mark their 60th anniversary. It looks back at six decades of conflict photography around the world. I do hope you’ll take a look and listen to the commentary … it’s at http://inmotion.magnumphotos.com/essays/conflict.

Friday, 7 September 2007

7 September 2007

I’m sorry, there’s no escape. It’s time to bite the bullet, or perhaps to grasp the nettle. The Great EU Debate is back.

I re-enter it with great trepidation. I know that, like the Middle East, or genetically-modified food, it is a subject which bores some of you to distraction, and enrages others of you to a state of near apoplexy. So just bear with me, all right?

As you may remember, there once was a proposal to draw up a constitution for the European Union. The voters of first France and then the Netherlands shot it down in flames in two referendums. That was a little over two years ago. There followed a period of stunned disbelief as EU leaders tried to work out why voters at least in those two countries seemed to see things so differently from their elected political leaders.

Now they’ve come up with something called the EU Reform Treaty. It either is, or is not, depending on whom you ask, as near as damn it the same thing, with merely the word “constitution” removed.

It is not for me to make a judgment on such matters, but I like to be helpful if I can, so let me point you in the direction of two websites which may be of assistance. The official government line (“It’s nothing like a constitution”) is admirably set out at www.europe.gov.uk. The opposing viewpoint (“Oh yes, it jolly well is”), together with a line-by-line, word-by-word comparison of the Reform Treaty and the draft constitution, can be found at www.openeurope.org.uk.

But it struck me during last night’s programme, during our discussion with Trevor Kavanagh of The Sun and Polly Toynbee of The Guardian, that perhaps all the huffing and puffing about having a referendum is a bit of a red herring. As I suggested last night, perhaps what it boils down is that those who don’t like the treaty do want a referendum, because they think they’d win it – and those who do like the treaty don’t want a referendum, because they think they’d lose.

But does any of this really matter? Well, sorry, but yes, it does. First, there’s not much point belonging to a club if it can’t take any decisions or deliver any benefits to its members. Second, the euro-debate has brought down prime ministers before now: the names Thatcher and Major spring to mind, and I suspect Gordon Brown has no wish to see his own name added to the list.

I remember a decade or so ago officials in Brussels used to say that the EU was like a bicycle: if it stopped going forward, you’d fall off. They tend not to say that any more, not since the disobliging voters of France and the Netherlands delivered their well-aimed kick to the wheels of the bicycle. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that the EU still needs to do much more to persuade sceptical voters, not only in Britain, that what is being proposed is both necessary and beneficial. But I’d be interested to know what your view is.