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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.