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Friday, 23 December 2011

16 December 2011

My apologies if you loathe the expression “not fit for purpose”, but I’m beginning to wonder if we need to ask whether perhaps the European Union is, sorry, “not fit for purpose.”

(If you do loathe the expression, don’t blame me, blame John Reid, who introduced it into the political lexicon in 2006 when he took over at the Home Office and promptly declared the immigration department you-know-what. The Guardian style guide sniffs that it’s “a recent cliché that quickly proved itself unfit for the purpose of good writing”. To which I’m tempted to reply with another neologism: “wha’ever …”)

But I digress. It’s a week now since the bust-up in Brussels that resulted in all those headlines about the UK being left stranded in a minority of one on the question of how to devise a new framework to deal with potential financial melt-downs.

As so often with EU summits, in the cold light of day and when everyone has caught up on some sleep after an all-night negotiating session and too much coffee, the reality seems to be rather more complicated.

For one thing, the framework is so vague that no one seems quite sure what they’ve either signed up to, in the case of 23 EU governments, or refused to sign up to, in the case of David Cameron. Have a listen to our interview with the Swedish finance minister, Anders Borg, which was broadcast on Wednesday, to get a flavour of how opaque the whole thing is.

And to add confusion to the complexity, what are we to make of last night’s confirmation from Downing Street that the UK will have “observer” status at future negotiations and will take part in “technical discussions” about how to move forward.

If you were to conclude from all this that they’re making it up as they go along, I wouldn’t seek to change your mind.

I well remember during the 1990s traipsing from one EU capital to the next, as six-monthly summit followed six-monthly summit, watching in some bewilderment as Europe’s leaders went about designing the EU of their dreams.

The UK dream at the time (this was in the days of John Major at No. 10 and Douglas Hurd at the Foreign Office) was an EU that would gradually transmogrify into an entity that was, in the jargon of the time, “wider, not deeper”.

The Germans and the French, on the other hand, wanted an EU that was both deeper and wider. In other words, open up to new members (remember the Big Bang, when 10 new members joined in 2004?), which was what Britain favoured, and also build what in the words of the founding Treaty of Rome was called “an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”, which Britain was a lot less keen on, even if Edward Heath had signed up to it when we joined in 1973.

So now we have a union of 27 member states, soon to be 28 when Croatia joins in two years’ time, and a currency union to which 17 of them belong and eight more are due to join at some unspecified time in the future.

Can it work? Can the lamb of Malta lie down with the lion of Germany? Can Portugal march hand in hand with Poland? Or has it all become too unwieldy, too stretched as a concept and too unbalanced as an economic entity, to survive the immense stresses to which it is now being subjected?

Perhaps the middle of a deep economic crisis is not the best time to try to tackle these issues. But you only have to listen to the sniping between London and Paris this week to understand that the bonds that bind this union (and I don’t mean bonds as in “sovereign bonds”) are beginning to fray quite seriously.

Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times wrote this week: “Markets and voters are increasingly refusing to obey the grand pronouncements issued by EU leaders at their ever more frequent crisis summits. Add to that the growing tensions between EU members, which go well beyond the isolation of Britain, and you have a formula for continuing confusion and disunity.” That’s the politics of it.

In The Times, Anatole Kaletsky wrote of last week’s “fiscal compact” plan: “It is arithmetically impossible for all the countries in the eurozone simultaneously to deflate their way out of a debt crisis ... By imposing permanent austerity on the whole eurozone, the fiscal compact would guarantee permanent depression. And that in turn guarantees that the treaty supposedly agreed last Friday will never see the light of day.” That’s the economics.

In our interview on Wednesday, the Swedish finance minister confidently predicted that 2012 will be even worse than 2011. And this is the man whom the Financial Times has named as the most successful finance minister in the EU.

23 December 2011

Do you remember what President Obama said 10 days ago when he marked the formal departure of the last American troops from Iraq?

“We left behind us a sovereign Iraq, stable and self-sufficient, with a representative government elected by its people.”

Hmm. Stable? Self-sufficient? Representative government? Maybe, yet again, a US President is allowing wishful thinking to get the better of him. (“Mission accomplished”, anyone?)

Yesterday, multiple bomb attacks in Baghdad killed at least 67 people. Most of the attacks appear to have been aimed at Shia targets, just as they were in the worst days of the sectarian violence in 2006-7, when thousands of people died.

(By the way, I wouldn’t want you to think that the US no longer has a significant presence in Iraq. Its embassy in Baghdad is reported to have about 15,000 people on its staff, and I imagine more than a handful receive their monthly pay cheques from the Pentagon.)

Why has the violence flared now, after several months of relative calm? As always, it seems the context is regional power-plays more than religious tensions. After all, if the US army are no longer a visible presence, doesn’t someone have to fill the vacuum?

Look at it this way: which regional power most wants to be seen as the dominant influence in Iraq? Which regional power has a clear strategic interest in being able to portray itself as a victor in Iraq, while the US is perceived as a loser?

And – not coincidentally – which regional power has most to lose if its one Arab ally, Syria, becomes the latest country where popular protests and armed insurrection topple a brutal and autocratic regime?

The answer, obviously enough, is Iran, Iraq’s giant Shia neighbour to the east which is closely tied to prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maybe that helps explain why within days of the final US troop withdrawal, he has moved to ratchet up the pressure on the country’s leading Sunni politicians.

A warrant has been issued for the arrest of the Sunni vice-president, Tareq al-Hashemi, on terrorism charges, and the Sunni deputy prime minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, who’s now facing a no confidence vote in parliament, told me this week that he regards Mr Maliki as a worse dictator than Saddam Hussein.

So, if the Iranians are keen to bolster Shia power in Iraq, who is likely to be equally keen to stop them? Saudi Arabia, perhaps, which has long been Iran’s main rival for regional hegemony and which regards itself as the protector of Sunni Arabs wherever they are threatened?

Could that be why Sunni bombers are suddenly back in action? (To be fair, we don’t yet know who yesterday’s bombers were, but there’s a widespread assumption that they were tied to, or affiliated with, al Qaeda.)

It’s worth recalling that the coalition government headed by Mr Maliki was painfully and reluctantly stitched together only as a result of enormous diplomatic pressure after the parliamentary elections of December 2005. It took six months of haggling to get it together, after Mr Maliki’s Dawa party and its allies failed to win enough seats to form a majority without the support of other parliamentary blocs.

Take away the US glue that was holding the coalition together, and – judging by the events of the past week – it soon comes crumbling down. Mr Hashemi has fled to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, where the prime minister’s writ doesn’t run, and there’s every reason to suppose that other Sunni leaders will soon decide to have no more to do with Mr Maliki.

In other words, Iraq is once again teetering on the brink of the abyss. It’s not a reassuring sight as we end this year of tumult right across the Arab world.

Footnote: I realise we've brought you a lot more doom and gloom over the past 12 months than you would have liked – so let me suggest what you can hope for in the coming year: a clement winter with no gales, blizzards or floods; an unexpected economic upturn with lots of new jobs; a mysterious benefactor who pays off all the eurozone’s debts; a successful London Olympics with a lovely clutch of gold medals for Team GB; and an end to strife in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, and Iraq.

I didn’t say it’ll happen – I suggested you can hope for it. Meanwhile, as I say at this time every year: enjoy the company of your family and friends; admire the trees and the flowers in parks and gardens; count your blessings.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

2 December 2011

Don’t worry – I’m not going to write about the economy, the euro, or the banks this week; I have no wish to ruin your weekend before it’s even started.

Instead, I’ve been thinking some more about the Arab uprisings which surely will come to be seen as the defining events of 2011, just as the end of Communism in Europe came to define 1989. Soon we’ll be marking the first anniversary of the death by self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street-seller who sparked the uprisings, so perhaps it’s a good time to try to take stock.

(Incidentally, you may remember that when the Chinese Communist leader Zhou Enlai was asked his opinion of the French revolution, he replied: “It’s too soon to tell.” This was in the early 1970s, but unfortunately, it now turns out that he was referring to the events of 1968, not 1789, which rather ruins the story.)

The trouble with revolutions is that they tend to be processes, rather than events. In the words of Professor Stephen Walt, of Harvard university, writing in Foreign Policy this week: “If the history of revolutions tells us anything, it is that rebuilding new political orders is a protracted, difficult, and unpredictable process.”

He offers three examples. First, the French revolution: the Bastille was stormed in 1789; Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were executed four years later; Napoleon didn’t come to power until 1799. In other words, a full decade of turmoil and terror followed the initial uprising.

Or how about the Russian revolution? The Tsarist regime was overthrown in March 1917; the Bolsheviks came to power several months later, but then there was a grim civil war which didn’t end until 1923. And there was, of course, continued turmoil – pogroms, massacres, and purges -- for many years after that.

His third example is the Iranian revolution of 1978-9. The Shah was desposed in January 1979; Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in France a month later, but then there was a prolonged period of political unrest and uncertainty. The country’s first post-revolution president, Abdolhassan Bani-Sadr, was impeached in 1981 over his resistance to rule by the clerics – and you could argue that the debate over the role of the clerical establishment in Iran remains unresolved to this day.

All of which, I suppose, tends to lead to the conclusion that no, this is not yet a good time for a definitive assessment of the Arab uprisings. For one thing, in some countries the uncertainty is far from over: in Syria, most obviously, but also in Yemen, despite the transition of power agreement signed last week, and in Bahrain, where strains between the Sunni ruling family and the Shia majority continue to fester.

A sense of history may also be useful when outside governments consider how best they can shape events that are still in a state of flux. Professor Walt argues: “History … warns that outside powers have at best limited influence over the outcomes of a genuine revolutionary process. Even well-intentioned efforts to aid progressive forces can backfire, as can overt efforts to thwart them. Overall, a policy of "benevolent neglect" may be the more prudent course …”

I spoke a few days ago to the Syria analyst Peter Harling, of the conflict resolution think tank the International Crisis Group, who take a very similar view. He warned in his most recent report: “At a time when the international community is feeling a compulsion to do something, the overriding principle should remain to do no harm.”

Don’t rush to impose tighter economic sanctions, he argued, because they risk turning Syria into a pariah state and would enable the Assad regime to galvanise support against an “international conspiracy” – and don’t rush to legitimise the Syrian political “opposition”, who may have little, if any, support among the actual protesters on the streets of Syria’s towns and cities.

Politicians hate doing nothing. They are genetically programmed to act, to intervene, to initiate, because they are convinced that if they get it right, they can help to make the world a better place. After all, who’d vote for politicians who just sat on their hands all day, gazing out of the window at the mayhem all around them?

But sometimes, the wisest of them could be the ones who do least. So in my dreams, one day, when I ask a minister what s/he intends to do about the latest outbreak of violence somewhere, I’ll get the reply: “You know what? I think for now the best thing to do is nothing.”

9 December 2011

Perhaps I should start with a statement of the blindingly obvious: Russia is not Egypt.

Yes, there were thousands of anti-government protesters out on the streets of the capital this week. And yes, the security forces responded with great brutality. And yes again, online social networks played an important role in galvanising the protests and giving a voice to the protesters.

But no, an autocrat is not about to be toppled. And no, Vladimir Putin is not Hosni Mubarak. So I suspect any references to a “Russian spring” (in December, for goodness sake?) should be taken with a very large pinch of salt.

Let’s rewind a few days. Last weekend, Russian voters went to the polls to choose a new parliament. This is not an event that normally excites much interest, because there is rarely any doubt about who is likely to win.

But this time was different. It was the first test of public opinion since Vladimir Putin (currently prime minister) and Dmitri Medvedev (currently president) announced that they intend to repeat their little trick of four years ago and swap jobs. (It’s not an exact repeat, in fact, because four years ago, Mr Medvedev was a mere deputy prime minister. But the principle remains the same.)

It seems that Russian voters – or at least some of them – object to being treated as irrelevant by-standers at election time. Last month, there was an embarrassing episode when Mr Putin was booed at a martial arts contest where he tried to make a speech. These things shouldn’t happen in what the Russians call their “managed democracy”.

Then, in the run-up to last weekend’s parliamentary elections, opposition groups started a campaign to persuade voters to vote for any party except Mr Putin’s United Russia.

When the results were declared, they showed a substantial drop in support for United Russia. What’s more, according to independent election monitoring groups and foreign observers, the party would have done far, far worse had there not been widespread vote-rigging and fraud.

That’s why the protesters took to the streets. It’s also why they intend to do the same thing this weekend, after an online campaign that is reported to have gained tens of thousands of supporters.

What does it all mean? Well, it’s easier to suggest what it doesn’t mean, because no Russian analyst to whom I have spoken this week believes that Mr Putin will not be re-elected as president next March. (Apologies for the double negatives: what I mean is that every Russian analyst to whom I have spoken believes that Mr Putin will be re-elected next March.)

Millions of Russians remember the chaotic days of the Yeltsin era, and the financial melt-down which left the vast majority struggling to make ends meet, while a handful of oligarchs snapped up State enterprises and turned themselves overnight into billionaires. There is very little appetite to return to that.

Vladimir Putin has meticulously cultivated an image as a strong leader (remember those pictures of him bare-chested?) while benefiting politically from high oil and gas prices, which have sent billions of dollars cascading into the Kremlin exchequer. It all goes down well in a country with a long tradition of strong leaders.

But something did shift this week. After too many years of cronyism, corruption and inefficiency, young, educated Russians seem to have decided they want something better. The chant of the protesters was “Russia without Putin”.

Did they take their cue from the Arab spring protesters in Tunisia and Egypt? Not consciously, perhaps, but 2011 has become the year of street protests – all the way from the capitals of the Arab world to the Occupy movements of New York, London and many other major cities.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how in an increasingly virtual, digitised world, lived more and more on line and on screen, the most potent form of political action once again is the mass protest on the streets and in the squares of the world’s major cities.

For now, Vladimir Putin seems determined to blame Washington for his troubles. Hillary Clinton has been rude about the conduct of the elections; and in return, Mr Putin has accused the US of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to influence Russian politics.

So far, so predictable. Far less predictable is how the anti-Putin protesters will respond when the security forces try to put an end to their demonstrations.

On your list of things to watch out for in the coming year – the economy, the euro, the Olympics and the US presidential election – you can now add one more item: Russia.

Friday, 25 November 2011

25 November 2011

I don’t suppose many people remember the thoughts of Chairman Mao any more. But there was, in my youth, one particular thought attributed to the Chinese Communist leader that was strangely popular among radical leftists who wanted to overthrow global capitalism.

It went like this: “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery.” (And yes, it was so long ago that I had to look it up to make sure I’d remembered it correctly.)

It’s been in my mind this week as I’ve followed the latest chapter in the Egyptian revolution, played out in Tahrir Square in central Cairo, and in many other towns and cities. Those who’ve been shot at, clubbed and tear gassed will not have needed reminding that they weren’t at a dinner party, or painting a picture.

Some of them may also have recalled another of Mao’s pensées: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” And they’ve proved him wrong on that, haven’t they?

Mao was right about one thing, though: revolutions are about seizing power. And when a group without power tries to seize it from a group with power, then resistance is usually inevitable. (Some of the anti-Communist revolutions in Europe in 1989 were an exception to the rule, in that the power of the elites had atrophied to such an extent that they sometimes crumbled away offering virtually no resistance at all.)

Back in February, on the day that President Hosni Mubarak was finally forced from office, I asked: “Was it a victory for a popular revolution, or a military coup d'état?” And I answered: “Almost certainly, a bit of both.”

Nine months on, I think the answer still stands. But to the tens of thousands of protesters out on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere this week, a bit of both is no longer good enough.

In February, they believed – or chose to believe – that they and the generals were on the same side. But now they are demanding that the military give up the power they inherited from Hosni Mubarak without any further delay.

Egypt is a test case on which a great deal depends. It’s true that so far, Tunisia, where this extraordinary year of Arab uprisings began, has set a pretty good example of how to manage a transition from autocracy to democracy. But Tunisia is a small and relatively insignificant Arab state. Egypt, on the other hand, is anything but.

So in Libya, and now in Yemen – and who knows, maybe one day soon in Syria as well – they are watching anxiously to see what happens next in Egypt. After all, removing a decades-old dictatorship does not automatically lead to the sunlit uplands of liberal democracy. (Somalia and Iraq are just two salutary examples of how it can all go horribly wrong.)

On Monday, barring any unexpected last-minute changes of mind, Egypt’s lengthy, multi-stage election process will get under way. More than 6,000 candidates are standing for election to a People’s Assembly, which is meant to act as a lower house of parliament and set in train a process to draw up a new constitution.

The elections are scheduled to roll on more or less non-stop until mid-January, and then – if the generals’ latest promise is to be believed – in the summer, presidential elections will be held to choose the country’s first elected post-Mubarak leader.

Do Egyptians have the patience to allow the process to proceed at this leisurely pace? Judging by the events of the past week, the answer would seem to be probably not.

But don’t forget: the crowds in Tahrir Square may have looked huge – and they were – but there are plenty of people in Egypt who desperately want the violence and the protests to end, and for whom a much more urgent priority is to get the economy moving again.

If it’s a choice between jobs and democracy, not everyone will necessarily choose democracy first.

18 November 2011

ISTANBUL -- Do you think Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, having deposed their autocratic leaders, are about to join Iran as Islamist republics?

Do you think that after elections are held (the first have already taken place in Tunisia), Islamist parties will take power and install theocratic systems of government in which Western liberal ideas of freedom and tolerance have no place?

Well, I’ve been here in Turkey for the past few days to ask if Islam, democracy and prosperity are compatible. Next week, the Turkish president, Abdullah Gül, will be in London for a State visit – the first by a Turkish head of state for more than 20 years – and you can be sure that his answer (and, come to that, the answer of his hijab-wearing wife) will be a very definite Yes.

Consider: since 1992, Turkey has been ruled by the Justice and Development Party, known here as the AKP. Its roots, and those of its leaders, are in the Islamist tradition – a far cry from the principles of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, who enshrined secularism in the country’s constitution.

Consider also that over the past decade, the Turkish economy has trebled in size. Average incomes have doubled. When I spoke to workers at Istanbul’s main bus station a couple of days ago and asked them if it’s easy to find work here, they answered Yes. There aren’t many countries these days where that happens.

So is Turkey a success story, a good democratic model for post-autocratic Arab states to follow? It depends whom you ask.

No, says former star TV presenter Banu Guven, who lost her job after objecting to a ban at her TV station on interviews with leading Kurdish campaigners. She says there’s growing pressure on the media, even intimidation, leading to more and more self-censorship. Not a good democratic model.

No, says former general Haldun Solmazturk, who argues that the army, which has traditionally claimed to be a guarantor of Turkish secularism, has now been marginalised to such an extent that the AKP no longer has any institutional check on its power. (But perhaps it’s relevant that the army has been responsible for the overthrow of four civilian governments in little more than 50 years.)

Yes, says novelist and cultural commentator Kaya Genc, who argues that the army should play no political role in a modern democracy, and that the AKP represents the views of the majority of Turks far more accurately than did its secular predecessors in government.

But when I met the leading Egyptian actor, film-maker and activist, Khaled Abol Naga, who has come to Istanbul for an Arab activists’ conference this weekend, he dismissed the idea that Arabs need to look to Turkey for a model. The 2011 Arab uprisings are home-grown revolutions, he said, and they need to look to no one for inspiration.

As for the army, which currently rules post-Mubarak Egypt and which is angrily condemned by pro-democracy activists for seeming in no hurry to move to a genuinely democratic form of government, he fears the military – unlike Egypt’s democracy activists – are indeed looking to Turkey as a model.

After all, if the Turkish military could, for many decades, pull the strings both behind the scenes and up on the front of the stage, why shouldn’t the military in Egypt try something similar?

And there’s one, further complicating ingredient to add to this combustible mix. As I write these words, I am looking out of the window towards the elegant splendour of the Blue Mosque and the 6th century Ayia Sofia, once the greatest church in all of Christendom, two powerful reminders of the central place Turkey (and especially this city, in its previous guise as Constantinople) used to occupy in world affairs.

For hundreds of years, the Ottoman empire dominated much of Asia, Europe and north Africa. No one is suggesting that the rulers of modern Turkey harbour similar imperial ambitions – but few doubt that the charismatic, and populist, prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, enjoys his newly-won status as a global statesman.

So as the Queen welcomes President Gül to Buckingham Palace next week, she will know that he represents a nation that has earned its place as a global player. When I asked a leading AKP official if Turkey’s hour has come, he laughed and said: “I hope so.”

Friday, 11 November 2011

11 November 2011

Thought for the day: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – Poet and philosopher George Santayana (The Life of Reason, 1905)

Past? What past? Well, how about 1923 for a start? That’s when Germany started printing banknotes in denominations of up to 100 trillion marks (that’s 100 followed by 12 zeroes), and there were 4.2 trillion marks to the US dollar.

Perhaps that helps explain why Germany is so set against allowing the European Central Bank to buy up shed-loads of government debt from other eurozone countries – printing money (or the modern equivalent: tapping in a few more zeroes onto a central bank balance sheet), which is what it could entail, and which is what the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England have been doing, stirs up some very unpleasant memories.

In Germany, they remember the past.

Or how about 1948, when the US launched the $13 billion Marshall Plan to help rebuild a Europe shattered by war? Did Europe echo to the sound of its people’s undying gratitude for US generosity? Have Europeans thought well ever since of the US and remembered the help provided then? No, they have not.

Which may be one reason why the US, which is the main provider of cash to the International Monetary Fund, is so set against seeing it shovelling cash across the Atlantic to help Europe in its latest hour of need.

In the US, they remember the past.

Or what about 1946-49, when the people of Greece were engaged in a bitter civil war between pro-Western and pro-Communist fighters? Or 1967-74, when the country was ruled by a right-wing military junta, which had seized power in a coup? Perhaps those are two reasons why even today, it has been so difficult for left and right to come together in the face of the financial melt-down.

In Greece, too, they remember the past.

But here’s the point: if we remember the past too well, is there a risk that we allow our memories to cloud our judgement? After all, the world changes, especially economically – who in the 1920s, 30s or 40s could have imagined that one day we’d be fluttering our eyelashes at China in the hope of some lifebelt loans from Beijing and Shanghai?

Back in the days when the creation of a European union and a single market was an ideological project, the belief was that recurrent conflict in Europe would be replaced by mutual commercial interest. It started with coal and steel, France, Germany, Italy and the three Benelux countries – and now, 60 years later, it stretches all the way from Lisbon in the west to Sofia in the east and embraces half a billion people.

Was the creation of a single currency a step too far? Has the euro debt crisis exposed what the doubters always argued: that you can’t have a multitude of democratically elected governments all setting their own tax and spending policies while sharing the same currency?

Or perhaps the present crisis is simply a manifestation of global economic stresses that would have caused problems with or without a single currency. After all, it’s not so long since the US, with its single currency, was struggling through its own very messy debate about how to deal with an eye-watering amount of Federal government debt.

In both Greece and Italy, people are wondering if the markets have now taken over from the voters as the choosers of governments. Lucas Papademos, the new Greek prime minister, may be a splendid chap, but he certainly doesn’t owe his job to the voters. Nor will Mario Monti, the former EU Commissioner who’s now being tipped as Italy’s next prime minister.

On the other hand, if I run up humungous debts on my credit card, which I then can’t pay off, I can’t really complain if the bank starts laying down the law about how much I will have to pay back each month and by how much I’m going to have to cut back my spending on other things.

We’re back to poor old Polonius, in Hamlet: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.” It’s better as poetry than as economic policy, perhaps, but too much borrowing rarely ends happily.

And as for all those people who are urging Germany to “assume its responsibilities” (ie use more of German taxpayers’ money to bail out the Greeks, Italians, Spanish, Portuguese and Irish), well, perhaps they should remember one more bit of history: the last time Germany effectively took over the running of Europe – using military rather than financial muscle – it ended very unhappily indeed.

Germans remember only too well, even if others don’t.

Friday, 4 November 2011

4 November 2011

I’ve been putting it off for as long as I can – but I can put it off no longer. I know it is my duty to write something about Greece, and the euro, and the global economic crisis which some normally sober commentators have now started describing as an impending catastrophe.

But first a word of warning: I am not an economist, and I have an inbuilt tendency to distrust economists who claim to be able to analyse with any degree of accuracy the mysterious workings of international financial markets.

I mean, seriously, how can we trust people who talk about “negative growth”, “taking a hair-cut”, and “quantitative easing”? As far as I’m concerned, the best definition of an economist is “someone who will explain to you tomorrow why what they predicted yesterday didn't happen today.”

So, to Greece. Let’s make it simple: they borrowed too much money, they can’t pay it back, and unless they can get their hands on more, they’ll be bankrupt.

If that’s what happens, a lot of banks who lent them billions of euros will have to kiss those loans goodbye. And that remains the case whether or not the high-stakes gambler George Papandreou is still prime minister.

You probably remember what happened the last time the banks found they’d lent rather a lot of cash to people who couldn’t pay it back. We ended up bailing them out, on the grounds that it’s not a good idea for banks to be allowed to crash.

That’s one reason (not the only one, I know) why the UK government has decided it has to cut back pretty sharply on its spending – because as for everyone else, in the current climate, spending money you don’t have is not regarded as the thing to do.

It’s worth remembering, though, that not everyone is sliding toward the abyss. According to figures from the International Monetary Fund, 20 countries last year registered economic growth rates above 8 per cent. (One of them is Ethiopia, from where Charlotte Ashton reported for us on Wednesday’s programme.)

Of the 20 highest achievers, 10 are in Asia (China and India obviously, but also Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan, and yes, even Afghanistan); four are in South America (Paraguay, Argentina, Peru and Uruguay); five are in Africa (Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Nigeria and Ethiopia). Just one – Turkey – is in Europe (sort of).

Yes, I know, these are, mainly, relatively small economies. With the exception of China and India, most of the main global economies – the US, Japan and Europe – are in the doldrums. And that’s why we’re all in so much trouble.

But according to a report presented to the G20 summiteers this week by Tidjane Thiam, chief executive of Britain’s largest insurer, Prudential, Western investors are sitting on trillions of dollars which could go into financing major infrastructure projects in some of the world’s poorest, but rapidly growing, economies.

The theory goes like this: invest in, say, road-building. More roads mean more trade, which means more business, which means more wealth. More wealth means more people with money to spend, which means bigger markets for clothes, and televisions, and fridges, and cars.

Result: growth. But of course, even if theory turns into practice, it all takes time. And with Greece on the brink, and Italy, Spain and Lord knows who else waiting nearby, time is in short supply.

As you know, I try to stay cheerful – but I fear it’s going to be a tough time ahead.

Friday, 14 October 2011

14 October 2011

I have a proposition for you this week: I’ll give you one pound if you promise to give me £1,000 in return.

No? So why do you think Israel has agreed to release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in return for the release by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas of just one captured Israeli soldier?

The 25-year-old soldier’s name is Gilad Shalit, and he’s probably one of the best known men in Israel. He was snatched by Hamas fighters more than five years ago close to the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip – and he’s been held, incommunicado, somewhere in Gaza ever since.

Within the coming days, he’ll be freed, and there’ll be mighty celebrations across the length and breadth of Israel.

His family, who have waged a relentless campaign to keep his name in the public eye and to put pressure on successive Israeli governments, will be ecstatic.

So will 1,000 Palestinian families, especially the relatives of the 315 Palestinians who were serving life terms in Israeli jails. (There are thought to be in total more than 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons.)

But why did Israel agree to the lop-sided deal? There are several reasons: first, because it is an Israeli tradition to bring every lost soldier home, dead or alive. In the past, similar deals have been done to win the return of slain soldiers’ bodies, or even of body parts.

Israel is a small country, with a conscript army. Israelis accept the reality of combat risk in the knowledge that the State will do anything, if the worst happens, to “bring the boys home”.

Second, because Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, needed a victory. He’s lost two important regional allies – Egypt’s President Mubarak and Turkey under its ever-more assertive prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – and was unable to prevent the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas scoring a substantial propaganda coup at the United Nations last month with his appeal for Palestine to be recognised as a full State member of the UN.

So the deal for the release of Gilad Shalit is, in the words of Israeli political commentator Yossi Verter of Haaretz, “the most important deal of his [Netanyahu's] life … he will forever be remembered as the man who brought back Gilad Shalit.”

But the truth is that this deal has been on the table, more or less in its current form, for quite a while. What's changed is the regional political environment.

As Mr Netanyahu himself candidly put it: “With everything that is happening in Egypt and the region, I don't know if the future would have allowed us to get a better deal -- or any deal at all for that matter ... This is a window of opportunity that might have been missed.”

As for Hamas, it needed to do something to show, after Mr Abbas’s coup de théâtre at the UN, that it's still in the game. A thousand celebrating Palestinian families means thousands more Hamas supporters. The message is a simple one: Hamas’s armed struggle gets 1,000 prisoners released, whereas the endless non-negotiations of Mr Abbas’s Fatah get nothing.

Each side made some concessions to get this deal signed. Israel agreed that some, although not all, of the released Palestinian prisoners will be allowed to live in the West Bank or Gaza Strip (there was, apparently, endless haggling over individual names); Hamas agreed that some of the best-known prisoners, including the charismatic Marwan Barghouti, much touted as a potential future Palestinian leader, will stay behind bars.

As for what follows, who can tell? With both Netanyahu and Hamas strengthened, and with a shaky Gaza ceasefire in effect yet again, might they now be able to move forward on more substantive issues?

Optimists say it’s possible. But in my experience, when it comes to the Middle East, optimists are usually disappointed.

Friday, 7 October 2011

7 October 2011

I’m going to assume, for the sake of argument, that you are deeply concerned about what’s happening in Syria.

I’m also going to assume, for the sake of the same argument, that when you mull over the options for international action to put pressure on the government of President Bashar al-Assad, you would much rather that such action was sanctioned by an appropriately worded UN security council resolution.

In other words, you thought – by and large – that the NATO-led military intervention in Libya was more acceptable than the US-led invasion of Iraq.

So here’s my question: now that Russia and China have cast their vetoes to block a Security Council resolution on Syria – a resolution that had been much watered down in the hope of winning their acquiescence, if not their approval – what would you do?

Your choices are these: do nothing, on the grounds that you tried and failed; try again, with a different form of wording in an attempt to win over the Russians and Chinese; or say to hell with the UN, we’ll go it alone, put together as broad a coalition as we can, and do what needs to be done to bring an end to the ghastly mess that Syria is becoming.

There is little doubt that the crisis is worsening. According to the UN, the death toll since the start of the anti-government uprising in March is now close to 3,000 – and many thousands more are believed to be in jail.

There are also growing indications that at least some of the anti-government protesters are now armed – in the cities of Hama and Homs there are now daily reports of clashes between security forces and armed opponents. From here to civil war is a short and slippery slope.

Why did the Russians and Chinese cast their vetoes? China did because Russia did – and because Chinese leaders are deeply suspicious of any foreign interference in what it regards as a country’s domestic affairs. (If I say Tibet, you’ll understand why.)

And Russia, according to the pro-government MP Sergei Markov whom I interviewed on Wednesday, won’t endorse any UN resolution that might be seen as a step along a path which leads to a Libya-style intervention.

Remember, Moscow abstained in the vote on Security Council resolution 1973, which authorised the use of “all necessary means” to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas in Libya, short of foreign troops on the ground.

It’s been regretting that abstention ever since. What’s more, now that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he expects soon to resume his former duties as President Vladimir Putin, there are already some signs that Moscow’s foreign policy stance is beginning to harden, perhaps in anticipation of his return to the presidency.

The European Union and the United States have already imposed a long list of sanctions on Syria – and its powerful neighbour Turkey is talking of doing likewise.

But if President Assad was worried that he might face the full wrath of a toughly-worded Security Council resolution, he can rest easy: the threat has passed.

And those governments – in Washington, London and Paris – who worry about the threat to regional stability if Syria spirals into all-out civil war are left with a dilemma: how can they exert real pressure, and remain on the right side of international law, without the agreement of Russia and China? (By the way, South Africa, India, Brazil and Lebanon all abstained on the Syria resolution this week, so there’s evidently still a lot of persuading to be done.)

Incidentally, a key factor in the Libya intervention was a request from the Arab League for a UN-approved no-fly zone. And there’s no sign – at least so far – of any similar request being made regarding Syria.

In other words, stand by for many more weeks of diplomacy and arm-twisting before the UN tries again to come up with an acceptable formula for action.

Oh, and by the way, changing the subject entirely, if you enjoy radio drama, you may like to make a point of listening to Radio 4’s Afternoon Play on Monday at 2.15pm. It’s called “A Time to Dance” and one of the characters in it … no, I really shouldn’t spoil it for you. Let’s just say you might recognise the voice.

Friday, 30 September 2011

30 September 2011

I know you’ll have been glued to your TV to watch Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour party conference in Liverpool this week. Ah, you weren’t?

Well, you’ll have followed every word of Nick Clegg’s in Birmingham last week, won’t you? Oh, you didn’t.

David Cameron, in Manchester next week? Maybe you’ll have better things to do. Maybe speeches to party conferences don’t matter any more.

Or, there again, maybe they do.

Six years ago, after the Conservative party conference in Blackpool, just as the Tories were about to choose their new leader, I wrote: “A less-than-fiery speech from one Tory leadership contender – and an absolute humdinger of a speech from another one – has changed everything in the leadership stakes.”

The humdinger, you may remember (no notes, striding across the stage as if he owned it), was delivered by a chap called David Cameron. Mind you, I can’t remember a word of what he said … but what lives on is the memory of how he said it.

And if we peer back further into political history, how about these?

Nye Bevan, 1957: voting for unilateral nuclear disarmament “would send a British Foreign Secretary naked into the conference-chamber”.

Hugh Gaitskell, 1960, after losing a vote on the same issue, pledging to “fight, fight and fight again to save the party we love”.

Harold Wilson, 1963: talking of the need for “far-reaching changes in economic and social attitudes which permeate our whole system of society” in order to create a “Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution …”

Margaret Thatcher, 1980: “You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning.”

David Steel, 1981: “Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government.”

Neil Kinnock, 1985: attacking the Militant Tendency in Liverpool – “the grotesque chaos of a Labour council – a Labour council – hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers.”

Tony Blair, 1996: “Ask me my three main priorities for government, and I tell you: education, education, education.”

Iain Duncan Smith, 2002: “Do not under-estimate the determination of a quiet man.”

Iain Duncan Smith, 2003: “The quiet man is here to stay and he's turning up the volume.” (A month later, he was gone.)

I could go on, but I suspect you’d rather I didn’t. The point is simply this: every one of those quotes comes from a speech by a party leader to a party conference, and every one of them – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse – helped to define who they were, and what they were about.

Which brings us to Ed Miliband. According to The Economist, what he delivered on Tuesday was “a strange speech, a defensive speech, a timid speech, a speech that hinted – just for a moment – at all sorts of ambitious and radical ideas, only to turn tail and run away to the comfort of empty, unthreatening phrase-making until it said very little that ordinary voters are likely to notice at all.”

Or, if you prefer, it was, according to Peter Oborne in today’s Daily Telegraph, “an intellectually ambitious and admirable contribution to public debate” in which Mr Miliband “sought to reshape the terms of political argument and so redefine the territory on which the general election will ultimately be fought.”

You pays your money and you takes your choice. What I don’t think you can do is argue that none of it matters. For good or ill, this week’s speech will almost certainly help define Mr Miliband’s place in national political life.

Friday, 23 September 2011

23 September 2011

I’d like you to meet Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin. They are, if American intelligence officials are to be believed, two of the most dangerous men in Afghanistan.

What’s more, they are – again, according to US officials – virtually run by Pakistani military intelligence. And they are at the centre of a blistering row between Washington and Islamabad which risks seriously derailing the US Afghan disengagement strategy.

The Haqqanis go back a long way. Jalaluddin first became an important figure during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. At that time, he was backed both by the US and by Pakistan – but he later made common cause with the Taliban and was appointed a minister in the Taliban government in the 1990s.

After the post-9/11 defeat of the Taliban by US-led forces, he took up arms against the Americans and has been fighting them ever since. He and his son are now thought to have anything between 4,000 and 10,000 fighters under their command, and they’ve been blamed for a series of audacious attacks against US targets. (Their network is also one of the suspects in the assassination this week of the former Afghan president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, by a suicide bomber.)

But here’s where it gets really tricky. According to the outgoing chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, speaking to a US Senate committee yesterday, the Haqqanis act as a “veritable arm” of the Pakistani military intelligence agency, the ISI.

Yes, that’s the same ISI that’s meant to be working hand-in-glove with the US to confront the continuing insurgency in Afghanistan. And yes, it’s the same ISI that was widely criticised for either not knowing where Osama bin Laden was while he lived quietly in his Pakistani villa, or, even worse, knowing but doing nothing – or, yet worse still, actively protecting him.

US officials have claimed for some time that there are close links between the ISI and the Haqqanis. But, in the words of the New York Times today, “Admiral Mullen went further than any other American official in blaming the ISI for undermining the American military effort in Afghanistan.”

Note those words: “undermining the American military effort.” That’s serious stuff – and President Obama’s top security advisors are due to meet on Monday to discuss what to do next.

The problem is this: the US accepts that the insurgency in Afghanistan will never be defeated unless the insurgents are denied their bases across the border in Pakistan. But the ISI insists that as long as the fighters operate only in Afghanistan, they’re not Islamabad’s problem.

When I spoke to a former head of the ISI, General Asad Durrani, on the programme last night, he went even further: Pakistan should be supporting the anti-US opposition in Afghanistan, he said. If the US insists on launching drone strikes against targets in Pakistan, sometimes killing innocent Pakistani civilians, then the US and Pakistan are in a state of what he called “low-intensity conflict”.

That’s not what Washington wants to hear after having pumped billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan over the past decade. So yesterday a US Senate committee voted to tie any further aid to greater cooperation in fighting the Haqqanis. And that’s not going down at all well in Islamabad.

It was only last week that the US embassy in Kabul came under attack – the assault lasted 20 hours and ended with about 25 people dead, including the attackers. Yesterday, Admiral Mullen blamed the Haqqanis.

Three days earlier, more than 75 US troops were injured and two Afghan civilians were killed by a suicide truck bomber at a military base south-west of Kabul. Yesterday, Admiral Mullen blamed the Haqqanis for that attack as well.

According to a report in today’s Guardian, US intelligence had got wind of the impending truck bomb attack, and the American commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, personally asked the Pakistani army chief of staff to intervene to stop it. The report quotes a Western official as saying that General Kayani promised “to make a phone call.”

We’ve known ever since the Americans killed Osama bin Laden last May without tipping off the Pakistanis that they don’t trust their supposed Pakistani allies. Now, courtesy of Admiral Mullen, we know that Washington suspects the ISI of actively backing – even controlling – the Americans’ most dangerous enemy in Afghanistan.

It doesn’t bode well for the future of the US’s counter-insurgency strategy.

Friday, 16 September 2011

16 September 2011

If you were an Egyptian, or a Moroccan, or a Jordanian, what would you think of the role Turkey is now playing in the Middle East?

Compared with Iran, for example, would you regard it as a positive or a negative influence in the region?

It’s not an idle question, especially not in the week when the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been making a triumphant tour of the three Arab states where they’ve managed to overthrow their autocratic rulers: Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Nor is it a question to which we have to guess the answer. According to an opinion poll commissioned by the Arab American Institute in Washington, and conducted in Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, favourable views of Turkey range from an astounding 98 per cent in Saudi Arabia to a “low” of 45 per cent in Jordan.

Iran’s ratings, by comparison, range from a high of 63 per cent in Lebanon, to 6 per cent in Saudi Arabia. And if you’re interested in trends, over the past five years Turkey has been vastly improving its regional reputation, while Iran’s has been plummeting.

Why is this interesting? Because Turkey is rapidly emerging as a key player in the region, and Mr Erdogan seems determined to increase his country’s influence wherever he can. His message on his visits this week has been an attractive one to Arab audiences – look at us: Muslim, democratic and prosperous. Do as we did, and you can have all this too.

No wonder Turkey’s reputation at the moment is sky high. (There are exceptions, of course: you won’t find many Kurds or Armenians who share the general Arab view that a resurgent Turkey is a Good Thing.)

Ah, did I mention, Mr Erdogan is also a vociferous critic of Israel, whose ambassador he has just sent packing in the continuing row over the killing last year by Israeli forces of nine Turkish citizens on an aid flotilla heading for the Gaza Strip.

In a speech last Tuesday to the Arab League in Cairo, he accused Israel of behaving like a spoilt child, and said: “Israel will break away from solitude only when it acts as a reasonable, responsible, serious and normal state.”

That word “solitude” was carefully chosen. Turkey used to be on good terms with Israel – the two countries’ military forces worked closely together, and Ankara acted with some success as a mediator between Israel and Syria.

Those days are long gone. As Mr Erdogan well knows, Israel now has no friends in the region, and is watching anxiously as Egypt’s new rulers suggest that the Camp David peace agreement signed by Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin in 1979 “is not a sacred thing and is always open to discussion.”

The Turkish prime minister enjoys playing to the crowd, both at home and abroad. He has good Muslim credentials, with a background in Islamist politics. He, like most Muslims, but unlike the Iranians, is a Sunni, which means that on a religious level he is much closer to the vast majority of Arabs than to the ayatollahs of Tehran.

Until quite recently, Turkey harboured real hopes of being allowed to start a negotiation process that would end up with it joining the European Union. But deep hostility in France, Germany and elsewhere seems to have put an end to those hopes, at least for the forseeable future. In many western European eyes, there are three big objections to Turkey joining the euro-club: it’s too big, it’s too poor – and it's too Muslim.

So now Mr Erdogan seems to be shifting from his former foreign policy stance of being friends with everyone and enemies with no one. He hasn’t abandoned his dream of joining the EU one day, but in the meantime he is fostering much closer links with the Arab world’s new leaders.

What he has in mind is very different from the days of the Ottoman empire, when for the best part of 600 years, from the Atlantic coast of north Africa to the eastern seaboard of the Arabian peninsula, the Turks dominated the Arab world as colonial masters.

But his new brand of muscular diplomacy, coupled with enticing offers of economic and technical assistance and populist anti-Israel rhetoric, make him a man who has to be taken seriously.

For now, Washington, and his other NATO allies, are prepared to watch and wait to see how far he intends to go. But there will be tensions and disagreements (the vote next week at the UN on whether to recognise Palestine as a state will be the next one) as Turkey gets used to its new status as the most influential kid on the block.

Friday, 9 September 2011

9 September 2011

I can’t remember exactly when, on September 11, 2001, I first heard the words: “The world has changed for ever.” But it was very soon after the attacks in New York and Washington, and I remember feeling sceptical: I have a deeply engrained distrust of such sweeping generalisations.

On that occasion, though, I was probably wrong to be sceptical. For many millions of people – in the US, of course, but also in Europe, in the Middle East, and in Afghanistan – the world did change as a result of what happened that day.

So what have we learned over the past decade?

First, that we understand far less than we should about what is going on in faraway places – and that we ignore them at our peril. Before 9/11, had you heard of al-Qaeda, or Osama bin Laden? How much did you know of what was happening in Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia?

Second, that military might – even US military might – does not solve problems as easily as we might like to imagine. The Gulf War of 1991, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, was an anomaly: an easy victory that achieved its stated aim at relatively low cost.

Third, that “temporary” anti-terrorism measures have a funny habit of becoming permanent – as any air traveller has discovered.

Fourth, that we can learn to live with fear. Just as Londoners did during the IRA bombing campaigns of the 1970s, now New Yorkers, Madrileños, Parisians, residents of Mumbai and Delhi, Karachi and Islamabad, Kabul and Kandahar, have discovered that you can get on with your life even in the knowledge that a bomb may be about to explode at any moment.

It’s true that since 9/11 – with the exception of the attacks at the Fort Hood military base in Texas in 2009 when 13 people were shot dead, allegedly by a Muslim American serviceman – there have been no further attacks in the US. But there have been several unsuccessful attempts, including by the so-called “underpants bomber”, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly tried to blow up a plane on its way to Detroit in December 2009, and the attempted bomb attack on Times Square in New York in May last year.

(Last night, US officials said they had received “specific, credible but unconfirmed threat information” relating to the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks this weekend. It was reported that at least three people – one believed to be a U.S. citizen – had flown to the U.S. last month, apparently from Afghanistan, planning to set off a car bomb.)

Ever since 9/11, Muslims living in non-Muslim countries have found themselves being regarded with suspicion and incomprehension. Islamophobia is just one of the new, and unlovely, words we have learnt, along with Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition, waterboarding, control orders, and assymetric warfare.

But perhaps there are dangers if we focus too much on 9/11: that we try to relate everything that has happened over the past decade to what happened on that terrible day – and that we fail to acknowledge the other profound changes that have been under way while we’ve been concentrating on potential suicide bombers.

As the former Foreign Secretary David Miliband pointed out in an article this week, over the past 10 years, the combined GDP of Brazil, Russia, India, and China more than doubled, from 8.4 per cent of the global economy to 18.3 per cent.

It was also the decade when, in his words, internet access went global – from a third of a billion people in 2000 to more than two billion people today. And the US started to realise that it is no longer the undisputed global super-power that it once was.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if historians, when they look back on this first decade of the 21st century, devote at least as much space to those developments as to the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers.

Terrorism is sometimes described as the weapon of choice for those who have no other weapons. And perhaps the best news in this grim 10th anniversary year is that tens of thousands of young Arabs who a decade ago may well have felt they had no other weapons with which to press their demands have now discovered the power of mass street protest.

Over the past eight months, in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain (Libya, where they quickly took up arms, is in a slightly different category), angry and ignored young people have turned their backs on the nihilism of al-Qaeda ideology and have decided instead to confront their own leaders on their own streets. Their demands for democracy, freedom and choice couldn’t be further from the vision of Osama bin Laden.

It doesn’t mean that the threat of more terrorist attacks has gone away, and we still don’t know whether their protests will eventually succeed – after all, overthrowing a hated dictator is not the same as building a better future – but at least they’re not blowing up themselves, or us. For that, surely, we can be thankful.

Friday, 2 September 2011

2 September 2011

You will have noticed, I hope, that there have been dramatic developments in Libya over the last couple of weeks. You may also have noticed that there have been continuing protests in Syria.

But how about Bahrain – and Yemen? Two more Arab nations which, earlier this year, were very much in the headlines as they too became engulfed in popular protests. Since then – well, what?

Bahrain first. Two days ago, according to a report by the Associated Press news agency, hundreds of protesters tried to reclaim control of a central square in the capital Manama, which had been the symbolic hub of the protest movement after it began in February. Riot police used buses to block roads and fired tear gas to disperse the demonstrators.

Yesterday, thousands of people – tens of thousands, according to one activist quoted in the New York Times – were out in the streets again, for the funeral of a 14-year-old boy who was said to have been killed during Wednesday’s protests.

Witnesses said he was hit in the head by a tear gas grenade fired at close range. (The interior ministry said a coroner’s report indicated that the boy’s injuries were not consistent with being hit with a tear gas canister or rubber bullet, and that there had been no clashes at the time he was said to have received his injuries.)

Also in Bahrain, a group of 14 doctors who are in jail awaiting trial on charges of having turned their hospital into a “terrorist base” when the protests first erupted last February have now gone on hunger strike in protest against their treatment. (There’ll be more about Bahrain on the programme tonight, Friday.)

So, what about Yemen? Two weeks ago, nearly 150 opposition leaders formed themselves into a “national council” to act as a sort of government-in-waiting, while the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was seriously injured in an apparent assassination attack last June, remains in Saudi Arabia.

On Wednesday, government forces backed by fighter planes killed 17 people in the south of the country in what officials said was continuing action against al Qaeda-linked militants. In the poorest, and most volatile, country in the Arab world, the dangerous stalemate continues.

Why do we hear so much about Libya and Syria, and so little about Bahrain and Yemen? True, Bahrain is tiny by comparison with its much bigger neighbours – its population is barely half a million – but it happens to be home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, and its position as an island in the Gulf, linked to Saudi Arabia by a 16-mile long causeway, gives it a strategic importance that far outweighs its size.

As for Yemen, it too is of immense importance to the Saudis, with a long and ill-policed border and suspected jihadi bases which the Saudis regard as a permanent potential threat. For the past few years, President Saleh has been cooperating closely with the US in counter-terrorism operations, aimed principally against groups believed to be linked to al Qaeda.

Anwar al-Awlaki, an American jihadi of Yemeni origin and sometimes described as the world’s “number one terrorist”, is based in Yemen and is said to have been linked to a string of recent attempted terrorist attacks, including the so-called “underpants bomber”, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly tried to blow up a plane on its way to Detroit in December 2009; the attempted Times Square bombing in May last year; and the dispatch of explosives-filled toner cartridges from Yemen last October.

In other words, Western security agencies have a lot invested in Yemen, and although no one pretends that President Saleh is the world’s number one democrat, there’s no great appetite – in either Washington or Riyadh – to see him replaced.

And if you were wondering why King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain is never spoken of in the same breath as Muammar Gaddafi of Libya or Bashar al-Assad of Syria, despite continued reports of serious human rights violations, well, he was an invited guest in Paris yesterday at the Libya conference hosted by President Sarkozy and David Cameron, where he joined them in celebrating the overthrow of a hated tyrant.

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Friday, 12 August 2011

12 August 2011

The first thing we have to do is decide what to call the events of the past few days. Disturbances? Riots? Orgy of looting?

My preferred description, I think – not entirely seriously – was offered by one of our contributors last night: “shopping with violence”. But not “protests”, because with the exception of the original protest in Tottenham last Saturday, after the shooting dead by police of Mark Duggan, there hasn’t been much sign of anyone out on the streets protesting overtly about anything.

So what were they doing, apart from the obvious? Like me, you’ve probably heard dozens of explanations, and I’m sure you have plenty of your own.

Last Tuesday, on The World Tonight blog, I asked a series of questions. Among them:

 Is it a mistake to look for reasons why? Is the answer simply that what we've seen has been gangs of hooligans and criminals doing what hooligans and criminals always do?
 Can we learn something by analysing the targets the rioters chose to attack? Electronic goods shops, sports goods shops, jewellers? All of which could be seen as "status" goods stockists?
 Is the violence related in part to feelings of power and powerlessness? When an American TV reporter asked one young rioter what he thought the violence achieved, he is said to have been told: "You wouldn't have been talking to me without it, would you?"
 Is inadequate parenting in part to blame? How many young rioters come from stable, loving, two-parent homes?
 After several months of reports of alleged law-breaking by politicians, police and press, have some youths now decided that taking what you’re not entitled to is something they can try as well?
 Has gang culture become so engrained in some communities that obeying gang rules (follow orders, look strong, be brave, own the streets) is more important than obeying society's rules?
 Why were the police apparently so slow to react when the violence spread from Tottenham on Saturday night? Are they under-staffed, under-resourced, or too demoralised by talk of deep cuts in police numbers?

We journalists have an annoying habit of asking sometimes: “Was it X or was it Y?” In this case, “Was it a reaction to prolonged economic stagnation and high levels of youth unemployment, or an anarchic outburst of greed and criminality, born from a culture of amorality in which there is no understanding or recognition of what is right and wrong?”

Perhaps the most useful answer is: All of the above – because as I listened to some of the young looters who’ve been interviewed this week, I was struck by how varied their responses have been.

“It was a bit of fun ... I wanted to get back at the police ... I wanted to show rich people we can do what we want ... It was a chance to get something I wanted without paying for it.”

I was also struck by something the pyschotherapist Nancy Secchi said on the programme on Tuesday: that in some cases, the looters behaved like toddlers, throwing a tantrum, smashing their toys, destroying the nursery. All with no thought whatsoever for the consequences, because they’ve never learned to consider consequences.

But of course there are consequences. As of last night, more than 1,000 people had been arrested. Some have already been processed through the courts and sent to jail. Yesterday, a 23-year-student was sentenced to six months in prison for stealing bottles of mineral water worth £3.50.

Over the coming days, we’ll learn much more about who the looters were – or at least we’ll learn more about those who were caught. So far, it seems they come from a wide spread of ethnic, social, and economic backgrounds.

And in a few months from now, what will we think as we look back? A terrifying warning of a society in deep trouble – or a moment, a spasm, of mid-summer madness, what Macbeth would have called “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing"?

Friday, 5 August 2011

5 August 2011

Democracy’s a funny old thing, isn’t it?

In the over-quoted words of the over-quoted Winston Churchill: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

So I wonder what you make of the government’s relaunched attempt to encourage more of us to play a direct part in the democratic process by signing online petitions which could – note that word “could” – lead to a debate in the House of Commons.

Here’s how it’s meant to work: first, create your petition (the relevant website is at www.direct.gov.uk/e-petitions). There are, of course, certain rules that have to be obeyed. Jokes, nonsense, anything libellous or offensive – not allowed.

So, presumably, no more petitions like the one three years ago, signed by nearly 50,000 people who wanted Jeremy Clarkson to be made prime minister. (He is a TV presenter, m’Lud, apparently well-known for his love of motor cars.)

Second, wait for 100,000 people to sign it. That’s about 0.2 per cent of the 46 million people who are entitled to vote in the UK. Everyone who signs has to provide an email address, but I’m not sure how they’ll stop people creating multiple addresses and signing up more than once.

Then, if you’ve got that far, and if you haven’t broken any rules, your petition will be considered by the Backbench Business Committee of the House of Commons. If they like it, they’ll schedule it for debate.

And then … ah, funny you should ask.

Because if you’ve ever tried to follow the progress of a parliamentary proposal, you’ll know that unless it has government support, it doesn’t get very far. In fact, it doesn’t get anywhere at all. In the words of the old saying: “You can have your say, but the government will have its way.”

As of midnight last night, incidentally, it was the anti-capital punishment petitions that were in the clear lead, with about 7,300 signatures, compared to around 4,500 signatures on the pro-capital punishment side.

Other popular demands were: keep Formula 1 racing on free-to-air TV (3,800); withdraw from the EU (3,500); and legalise cannabis (1,200).

At the other end of the scale, a proposal that the UK should switch from driving on the left to driving on the right had managed to acquire only 11 supporters.

But suppose, in a few weeks’ time, more than 100,000 people have signed up for the restoration of capital punishment – or for the UK to withdraw from the European Union. Suppose the Commons committee decides it’s a proper subject for debate. And suppose a handful of MPs turn up for the debate, and most of them argue in favour of the petition.

The Leader of the House of Commons, Sir George Young, wrote in the Daily Mail this week: “If politicians want to regain the trust of the public, then they need to trust the public. Giving people more power is the right place to start.”

But you could argue that a mechanism for triggering a parliamentary debate is not necessarily the same as “giving people more power.”

Because what happens if after the debate, the government does precisely nothing? The Conservative MP Louise Mensch wrote yesterday: “The death penalty is interesting in terms of representative democracy versus referendums. I would not vote for it if 100 per cent of the public were for it.”

So are the petitions going to usher in a bright new über-democratic dawn? Will MPs obediently follow the expressed wish of 0.2 per cent of the electorate? Or will they follow Ms Mensch’s example and use their own judgement when it comes to voting on tricky issues?

And if they do ignore the views of the petitioners, will trust in our political system have been enhanced – or reduced?

Perhaps the very act of organising or signing a petition will in itself represent a welcome advance.

On the other hand, if you think it’s all nonsense, you’ll be pleased to know there are already petitions up and running to demand the ending of petitions.

Friday, 29 July 2011

29 July 2011

I probably don’t need to remind you that it’ll soon be 10 years since foreign forces invaded Afghanistan following the attacks of September 11, 2001.

It’s also now more than four months since foreign forces started taking military action in Libya, ostensibly “to protect civilians” as authorised by UN security council resolution 1973.

Why do I link Afghanistan and Libya? Because, simply put, both campaigns are going badly. Some analysts would put it even more starkly: both campaigns are failing.

Afghanistan first. After nearly 10 years, what has been achieved? Well, within weeks of the US-led invasion in late 2001, the Taliban had been overthrown and al Qaeda had been denied its Afghan sanctuary. That was the easy bit.

Scroll forward a decade, and what do we have? Taliban and allied insurgents apparently gaining in strength and bravado in many parts of the country; President Hamid Karzai, on the other hand, looking ever more precarious in Kabul and facing the prospect of an imminent thinning out of the foreign troops on whose security presence he depends.

Just over the past few months, in the key southern city of Kandahar, the former Taliban stronghold, four major figures have been assassinated. In April, the police chief. Then, two weeks ago, President Karzai’s powerful half brother. At his funeral, a suicide bomber killed the city’s top religious leader. And last Tuesday, the mayor was similarly killed by a suicide bomber who had hidden explosives inside his turban.

What they all had in common was that they were regarded as close to the president, and were backed by the foreign coalition. Whoever was responsible for their deaths (the Taliban label can disguise a wide variety of ethnic, clan or tribal groups), the message to the Afghan people was clear enough: “The foreigners can’t even protect their own people, nor can the president. There will be no peace until our demands are met.”

And the message for the rest of us? “We know you’re preparing to leave; and we know you no longer have the heart for this war. All we have to do is wait until you’ve gone.”

As for Libya, well, four months is a lot shorter than 10 years. And of course, unlike in Afghanistan, there are no foreign troops on the ground. (In fact, that’s probably not precisely true, unless we turn a blind eye to the advisers, spies and target-spotters who everyone believes are there, but who are careful to remain well out of sight.)

It was, to say the least, unfortunate timing that just a day after the British government announced that it was recognising the anti-Gaddafi National Transitional Council in Benghazi as the country’s “sole governing authority”, the rebels’ military commander was shot dead in the most obscure of circumstances.

On the battlefield, it is clear that neither side is capable of landing a knock-out blow. However many targets the NATO warplanes find to bomb, they have not destroyed Muammar Gaddafi’s forces, nor have they blitzed the way for a rebel victory.

No wonder there is frustration in foreign capitals, and growing signs of splits within the anti-Gaddafi camp.

The commander who was shot dead yesterday, General Abdel Fattah Younes, was a deeply controversial figure. He was a former interior minister, and until the start of the uprising in February, he was seen as one of Colonel Gaddafi’s most influential friends and allies. Even after he defected to the rebel cause, there were doubts about where his true loyalties lay.

Throughout yesterday, the city of Benghazi, the rebels’ headquarters, was swirling with rumours about his whereabouts. Some reports suggested he had been arrested by his own side to be questioned about alleged unauthorised contacts with Gaddafi forces. Officially, he was being brought to Benghazi to discuss the progress of the rebel campaign.

Then, reports began to circulate that he had been shot dead. Late last night, the reports were confirmed – the official story was that he had been ambushed and killed by pro-Gaddafi loyalists on the road to Benghazi.

Perhaps he was. Or perhaps he was killed by his own side. Perhaps by the time you read this, the picture will be clearer. But whoever killed him, it is hard to escape the conclusion that his death significantly strengthens the pro-Gaddafi cause and weakens the rebels.

That’s not the message they wanted to hear in London or in Paris.

22 July 2011

Here’s a little exam question for you: list the following news items in order of importance …

1. Phone-hacking: allegations of a too-cozy relationship between the prime minister, the police, and one of the world’s biggest global media corporations, some of whose journalists illegally accessed private voicemail messages and paid police for information.

2. Eurozone crisis: growing fears that Greece, and perhaps other eurozone countries, will not be able to pay their debts, leading to renewed financial and economic turmoil. (At the same time, unless the Obama administration can do a deal with Congress on debt ceilings, there’s a chance of a US default as well.)

3. Famine in east Africa: the UN has declared an official famine in parts of Somalia … tens of thousands of people have already starved to death, and many more are suffering from acute malnutrition in a crisis described as the worst for several decades.

On Wednesday night, as it happens, those were the three main news stories of the evening. We had to choose how to structure the programme, something we do every night, but which sometimes poses tricky issues of news judgement.

I know, because a number of you have told me, that some of you feel we have devoted too much attention to the phone-hacking saga. In last week’s newsletter, I tried to explain why we think it’s important.

And on Wednesday’s programme, Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian said he believes the saga illustrates an important truth about how we are governed – in his words, it shows “a corporate titan with overwheening power over both the police and successive governments.”

So, on Wednesday, the first item on the programme was about phone hacking. Not necessarily because we thought it was clearly the most important story of the day, but because we thought we had some interesting material and some interesting contributors.

In addition, we knew that the following night – ie last night – we would almost certainly be leading the programme with the eurozone crisis, because yesterday EU leaders were meeting in Brussels to thrash out a new rescue plan for Greece.

On the Somali famine, we had a powerful interview with the former president of Ghana, John Kufuor, but we remembered that we had already covered the drought crisis in some depth over previous weeks, which is why it didn’t go at the top of the programme.

Last night, as we had expected, the top story was indeed the eurozone deal. It was announced at about 8pm, perfect timing for us, because we were able to report the terms of the deal, analyse its implications and garner some first reactions from Germany and Spain.

We hadn’t planned to do any more on phone hacking, but then, mid-evening, two important new developments forced the story back onto the agenda. We are, after all, a news programme; our task is to report the news as best we can in the time available, and if something significant happens a couple of hours before we go on air, we are duty bound to cover it.

Which is why we also had to make space for a tribute to Lucian Freud, the titan of contemporary British art whose death was announced shortly before 10pm.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, I think it might help you understand how we decide what goes into the programme each night. Every day we try to strike a balance, because there’s no point in us coming in to work each day unless we can persuade you to listen to the programme.

We want you to be informed, interested, surprised and – sometimes – entertained. We want to bring you up to date with the latest developments in long-running stories – and help you understand their significance and their context.

So, yes, we’ll keep an eye on both phone hacking and the eurozone – we’ll have a series of reports from around Europe over the next couple of weeks – and we’ll watch the fraught budget debate in Washington as well.

And if something unexpected happens – news, perhaps – yes, we’ll cover that as well.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

15 July 2011

What is it, do you think, about (some) bankers, (some) MPs, and (some) News of the World journalists?

What was going on inside their heads when they behaved so appallingly that – when the rest of us discovered what they were up to – the institutions for which they worked teetered and shuddered under almost unbearable strain? (In the case of the News of the World, of course, the strain really was unbearable.)

Did the bankers really think there was nothing wrong with investing billions they didn’t have in financial products they didn’t understand?

Did the MPs really think it was fine to claim money back from tax-payers for expenses they either hadn’t incurred or which clearly had nothing to do with their jobs?

Did the NoW journalists really not pause, even for a moment, to wonder if maybe hacking into people’s voicemail messages was not something they were perfectly entitled to do?

And while I’m at it, did Scotland Yard really think it was a good idea to hire a former senior NoW editorial executive as a PR adviser even while they were supposedly investigating allegations of illegal phone message hacking – by the News of the World?

We all have different ways of judging what we regard as ethical or moral behaviour. But I suspect there aren’t many people around who see nothing wrong with the way these various bankers, MPs, and journalists have behaved.

Me? I try to apply the Private Eye test: how would I feel if my actions were to be published in the next issue of that satirical organ of investigative reporting and lampoonery? If the very thought brings me out in a cold sweat, I quickly deem the proposed actions inappropriate.

If the bankers, MPs and journalists had done the same, we may well all have been spared a huge amount of trouble.

But of course it goes deeper than that. If bankers had been more open about how much they were lending to whom, and on what terms, maybe someone, somewhere would have sounded an alarm bell.

If MPs had been obliged to publish their expenses claims, as they are now, maybe some of them would have thought twice or even three times about the claims they submitted.

And if the News of the World had published at the bottom of each relevant article: “The information reported in this story was obtained by hacking into the voicemail messages of person X”, well, maybe, they wouldn’t have.

So, much as I hate the use of the word in this context, the secret seems to be more transparency – openness, if you prefer.

The more we know about why and how people in positions of power or influence take the decisions they do, the more able we are to let them know when we think they’re going off the rails.

And if you think we’ve been making a bit too much of all this phone-hacking stuff, consider this.

A democratic, capitalist society requires several sound and stable institutions to ensure that it serves the interests of the most people possible. It requires basic freedoms, including the freedom of an unfettered press which afflicts only the comfortable and comforts only the afflicted; it also needs a parliamentary system in which politicians govern with the fully informed consent of those whom they govern.

Plus, a system of finance which offers fair dealing, stability and prosperity; and a police service to deliver peace and harmony without fear or favour.

It’s beginning to look as if on each of those considerations, Britain has been falling well short of what its citizens are entitled to expect. And the reasons, perhaps, in just a few words: arrogance, secrecy, and greed. If we can chip away at the secrecy (as a journalist, I would say that, wouldn’t I?), we might be better able to discern whatever arrogance and greed remain.

Meanwhile, the financial storm clouds are gathering again. President Obama could be heading for a major budgetary crisis – and unless it is averted at the 11th hour, which it may well be, the global markets are likely to tumble headlong in panic.

Oh yes, and Italy is heading for trouble too. The markets have woken up to its shaky economic prospects and vast public debt, and the respected Italian finance minister Giulio Tremonti is embroiled in a major domestic political row.

He has warned his compatriots in stark terms of the likely consequences if he is forced from office. “If I fall, Italy falls. And if Italy falls, so does the euro.”

So I suspect we’re in for a long, hot summer. (And no, that’s not a weather forecast.) Next Tuesday, for sure, will be a scorcher: Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson, Rupert and James Murdoch, and Rebekah Brooks, will all be giving evidence to parliamentary select committees on the same day. You can be sure the MPs on those committees will not want to miss the opportunity to show what they’re made of.

Friday, 8 July 2011

8 July 2011

So will you be buying a last copy of the News of the World on Sunday? A souvenir, to show to your grand-children: “This is what we used to call a newspaper”?

Maybe not. Maybe you’ve never bought a copy in your life, and have no intention of starting now. Maybe you’re delighted that a tabloid rag (your words, not mine) has finally been forced out of business.

Well, I hope you’ll forgive me, but I’m a journalist, and I can never celebrate the death of a newspaper. Yes, of course, the News of the World is guilty of some appalling errors – it has behaved shockingly and it has paid the price.

But, as we pointed out on last night’s programme, its record is not all bad. Some of its investigations really were in the public interest, and not just of interest to the public. (A fine distinction, I know, but a crucial one when we start discussing what is and is not a legitimate investigation.)

I’m a former Fleet Street news editor. (Or perhaps, in the style of Alcoholics Anonymous, I should say: “My name is Robin and I am a recovering Fleet Street news editor.”)

I never worked for a mass circulation Sunday paper (the one I worked for sold a tiny fraction of the copies the News of the World sells every week) – but I do know a little bit about the pressure to get stories.

So over the past few days, several people have asked me why on earth journalists would even think about trying to hack into the voicemail messages of bereaved military families or missing schoolgirls.

It’s quite a simple question to answer. What matters more than anything to reporters is that they get good stories printed in the paper – preferably at the top of the page, even better on the front page.

That makes their editors happy, because it makes the proprietor happy, because it means the paper will sell more copies. As the former information commissioner Richard Thomas put it in his prescient report “What price privacy?”, published more than five years ago: “Journalists have a voracious demand for personal information, especially at the popular end of the market. The more information they reveal about celebrities or anyone remotely in the public eye, the more newspapers they can sell.”

Do newspaper readers want to read about tragedy and heartbreak? Do they lap up heartrending tales of grief and suffering? You know the answer as well as I do.

(And if you don’t believe me, just look at the numbers. Biggest selling newspaper in the UK? News of the World.)

I sometimes liken journalists to undertakers. They both perform an essential task, but the detail of how they do it does not always make pleasant reading. If journalists break the law (and hacking into people’s voicemail messages is illegal, just as paying a police officer to disclose information is), then they face prosecution. And a jury will decide whether what they did was in the public interest.

There will now be enormous pressure on the press to clean up their act and strengthen the monitoring of their behaviour. It would not in the least surprise me if the Press Complaints Commission, which two years ago concluded that there was nothing much to worry about in the phone-hacking allegations (“the Commission could not help but conclude that the Guardian's stories did not quite live up to the dramatic billing they were initially given”) is now quietly put out of its misery.

In a statement on Wednesday, it admitted that “it can no longer stand by its 2009 report on phone hacking and the assertions made in it.” But if it is replaced, you’d better be prepared for many months of anguished debate about the correct balance to be struck between press freedom and the right to privacy.

Ed Miliband is making a speech today in which he calls for the Commission to be replaced by something with much sharper teeth. Trouble is it’s a very slippery slope from a system of regulation that includes the power to impose sanctions to a system of government licensing of newspapers.

The former chairman of the PCC, Sir Christpher Meyer, commented this morning: “If Ed Miliband wants a press watchdog to be able to take evidence on oath, and have police powers of investigation, that's state not self-regulation.”

If it comes to a choice between entrusting our freedoms to government or to newspapers, I am sometimes reminded of Thomas Jefferson: “If it were left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Let the debate begin.

Friday, 17 June 2011

17 June 2011

The trumpets will sound; the drums will beat; the flags will flutter proudly. Remember those words? Of course you do: they’re the words with which I started my first newsletter of 2011 – and I was writing about Sudan.

I’m writing about Sudan again today – because with just over three weeks to go until the official birth of the new nation of South Sudan (trumpets, drums, etc.), there are ominous signs of a deal unravelling and a fragile peace giving way to renewed conflict. Just last night, President Obama expressed his “deep concern” about the growing violence.

Sudan is one of the most important countries on the African continent. It’s the biggest (two and a half million square kilometres, or nearly a million square miles); it has a population of around 40 million, and substantial oil reserves in which China has a major interest.

It’s also the only country in the world whose head of state is an indicted war criminal. A year ago, Omar al-Bashir was charged with genocide by the International Criminal Court in connection with offences allegedly committed during the war in the western region of Darfur, in which between 200,000 and 400,000 people are estimated to have died.

Osama bin Laden was based in Sudan in the early 1990s, after he left Saudi Arabia and before he set up shop in Afghanistan. In 1998, the US launched a cruise missile attack against a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory that it said was linked to al Qaeda and might have been used for the production of chemical weapons.

In other words, we ignore Sudan at our peril. The conflict in Darfur was, for a time, the focus of widespread global concern – and it’s by no means impossible that it could be reignited if current tensions boil over.

The birth of the independent nation of South Sudan next month is meant to mark the end of a grim 20-year chapter of civil war between the northern and southern parts of the country. A referendum held in January saw something like 99 per cent of southerners vote for separation – but even after the votes had been counted, and after President Bashir had said he would respect the result, tensions remained.

For one thing, the exact demarcation line between the two entities hadn’t been finalised. In one region, Abyei, there was meant to be a separate referendum in which its residents could decide whether they wanted to be part of the north or the south. The referendum still hasn’t been held.

In another region, South Kordofan, which is on the northern side of the notional border, most people feel a greater loyalty to the south. Two days ago, the United Nartions reported that an estimated 60,000 people had fled from the region after bombing raids by the Sudanese air force.

One southern group accused Khartoum of pursuing a “genocidal campaign’ in the region, and the UN was reported to have referred in a confidential document to what it called a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” by President Bashir.

So the omens aren’t looking good for South Sudan’s Independence Day on 9 July. At stake are vital reserves not only of oil, but also of water, on which the lives of millions of people depend. Perhaps paradoxically, it is the great misfortune of Abyei and South Kordofan to find themselves slap bang in the middle of some of the potentially most valuable Sudanese real estate.

President Bashir has shown himself over many years to be a master of saying one thing and doing another. There was a huge international sigh of relief when the independence referendum was held in January and the president responded with magnanimity.

But now, in the last few weeks before his country is formally split in two, the question is whether his actions will match his words, or whether he will seek to prevent the south seceding by returning to war.

By the way, if you’ve discovered the joys of Facebook and/or Twitter, you may like to know that The World Tonight now has its own presence on both. On Facebook, we have formed a World Tonight group – you’ll find us by searching for The World Tonight, BBC Radio 4 – and on Twitter we’re @bbcworldtonight. Happy hunting …

Friday, 10 June 2011

10 June 2011

I wonder how you confident you feel that you know what’s going on in Syria. Me? I don’t feel at all confident.

Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I always feel much happier when there are journalists whom I trust on the ground, out there with their notebooks, recorders, and cameras – reporting back to me what they can see and what they can hear.

I’m even happier if I’m there myself – but in Syria, there are no independent journalists operating because none has been allowed in. Local reporters can’t work freely, because there are no free media.

And that’s why we rely on social network sites likes Facebook and Twitter. Throughout my working day, my computer screen flashes constantly with a never-ending stream of updates from people in Syria and elsewhere, telling me what’s going on where they are, now, this minute. It’s mesmerising – but it can also be deeply misleading.

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you may remember that six weeks ago I posted a link to a Syrian blogger who called herself “A Gay Girl in Damascus”. She wrote unusually vividly and movingly, especially about the day when armed men came to her home late at night to arrest her.

She described how her father stood up to the men, talked to them, lectured them, and shamed them until eventually they left without her. “As soon as the gate shut, I heard clapping; everyone in the house was awake now and had been watching from balconies and doorways and windows all around the courtyard ... and everyone was cheering ... my Dad had just defeated them! Not with weapons but with words ... and they had left ... I hugged him and kissed him. I literally owe him my life.”

Then, last Monday, a woman describing herself as the blogger’s cousin, wrote that Amina (the “gay girl in Damascus”) had been abducted while walking in the streets of the Syrian capital. A huge internet campaign swung into action, mobilising friends and supporters to press for her release.

But here’s the point. It quickly emerged that no one actually knew the blogger. No one in Damascus had actually met her, or knew anyone who had. Even her supposed girl-friend in Canada, whom we interviewed in all good faith on the programme on Monday, later admitted that she had neither met nor even spoken to her – their entire relationship had been conducted online, via email.

So who is Amina? Is she someone who is hiding behind a false identity, perhaps for her own security, or is she a work of fiction? Does she even exist? (The pictures of herself that she posted online turned out to be of someone else entirely.)

Does it matter if one blog among millions turns out to be a fake? Unfortunately, it does, especially in an environment where independent reporting is impossible, so that blogs and other online media become the only available substitute.

If Amina does not exist – if she isn’t who she says she is, or if the events she writes about didn’t happen – then we have learned an important lesson: that we must be doubly cautious when we use the information provided by bloggers and Tweeters as a basis for our reporting.

According to human rights groups in Syria, well over 1,000 people have been killed since the current wave of unrest exploded two months ago, and more than 10,000 people are believed to have been arrested.

Yesterday, more than 2,500 people were reported to have fled across the border into Turkey to escape an expected army onslaught on the town of Jisr al-Shughour, where, according to official media, 120 people were killed last weekend in what seems to have been a partial army mutiny.

I wrote eight weeks ago: “If you want to know what's really worrying Washington as officials anxiously survey the anger sweeping through the Arab world, it's not Libya you should be focusing on. Try Syria.” It was true then, and it’s even truer now.

More than ever, we need accurate information about what is happening there – and more than ever, accurate information is in scarce supply.