Winner of the 2014 Editorial Intelligence Independent Blogger of the Year award

Friday, 21 December 2012

"Guns don't kill people." Really?


I'd like you to imagine that you're a teacher in a classroom full of young children. Suddenly, a masked man bursts in, with an automatic weapon in each hand.

In your desk drawer, there is a revolver. You know it's there, because you put it there. You also know that it's loaded and ready to fire.

I don't have to ask the question, do I? Would you, or wouldn't you?

I'll make my own position as clear as I can, which I am able to do as I am no longer bound by BBC rules of impartiality. I am not, repeat not, in favour of arming teachers, or indeed anyone else, in schools.

But I recognise why others may disagree. In America, in the numbed aftermath of the Newtown killings of 20 children and six adults, there have already been suggestions -- apparently in all seriousness -- that the best way to protect children in schools is to arm either their teachers, or other members of staff.

Er, no actually. Because here's another scenario: you notice a man at the school perimeter fence. You think he looks odd; he's acting strangely and scares you. He stares at you and very slowly puts his hand inside his jacket as if to pull something from an inside pocket. A child is running between you and him, and you're convinced he's about to pull a gun.

But you have a gun in your pocket, too. Would you, or wouldn't you?

Guns don't kill people, say the anti-gun control activists, people kill people. Well, yes. The same could be said of tanks and Predator drones, yet somehow no one argues that the Second Amendment of the US constitution ("A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed") should guarantee the right of any US citizen to own, and use, the really big bazookas.

One local Connecticut resident was quoted a few days ago as saying: "Personally, I feel safer where there's guns. I don't want to go to any gun-free zones any more." I happen to take the opposite view, and feel a great deal safer where there are no guns at all.

I remember many years ago getting into a huge row with a man from Texas who refused to believe that I had never handled a firearm. It was the absolute truth: I had never, ever held a gun. But he regarded that as so intrinsically incredible that he called me a barefaced liar and stormed off.

The US has the 10th highest firearms-related death rate (homicides and suicides) in the world: 10.2 per 100,000 population. (Above it come countries like El Salvador at No. 1, followed by Jamaica, Honduras, and Guatemala.)

The highest placed European country is Switzerland at number 21 with 3.5 firearms-related deaths per 100,000; the UK comes in at number 65, with 0.25 deaths per 100,000.

According to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey, figures from 2007 suggest that with less than five per cent of the world's population, the US is home to roughly 35–50 per cent of the world's civilian-owned guns. I find it difficult to believe that the number of guns has nothing to do with the country's high gun-related death rate.

Middle America has a deep distrust of government, based in large part on the country's early history as a destination for dissenters and rebels. Many Americans believe that the right of the individual to bear arms will always trump the right of their neighbours to feel safe.

Recent US opinion polls suggest that popular sentiment post-Newtown may be marginally more sympathetic to the arguments of the pro-gun control lobby, although the numbers are still only a little over 50 per cent. But perhaps there is now going to be a real debate.

You will have noticed that I have chosen, in my first post-BBC blogpost, not to write about the BBC. I hope you'll agree that I've chosen to focus on the right thing.

Friday, 14 December 2012

14 December 2012

Last night, I presented my last edition of The World Tonight. (My last Newshour will be next Tuesday.) That means this is the last of these newsletters in their current form, although if you would like to continue to hear from me, there are details at the end of this newsletter.

I wrote the first one on 8 July 2005, more than seven years ago, a day after the London bomb attacks that killed more than 50 people, and two days after we'd learnt that London had been chosen to host the 2012 Olympic Games. There was plenty to write about that day, and there's been plenty to write about pretty much every week since then.

History, someone once said, is just one damn thing after another. News is the same. Another day, another batch of headlines: a never-ending cacophony of crises, conflicts, and disasters.

What we try to do on The World Tonight -- what I've tried to do in the 40-plus years I've been a journalist -- is make sense of it, or at least some of it.

As a rookie reporter, you're taught to ask the five basic "W" questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? To me, it's the fifth -- Why? -- which is always the most interesting, even if, too often, the only honest answer is "Don't know."

The great joy of the job I've been doing for the past 23 years is that -- as I said on the programme last night -- I've learnt something new every day. Does it mean I understand more? Probably not, or at least not much more … but it's still been well worth trying.

When I started back in 1989, the Cold War was coming to an end. The Berlin wall came down, Germany was reunified, and soon the Soviet Union collapsed. Night after night, we asked what it meant -- was George Bush (the first one) right to talk of the dawning of a New World Order?

Then Yugoslavia imploded, exploded into violence. Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo -- nasty, brutal wars in which thousands died, in a conflict on a continent which thought it had said goodbye to war in 1945. (Among the casualties, our much-missed colleague John Schofield, killed at the age of 29 in Croatia while covering the war for The World Tonight.)

Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and an international military force kicked him out again, but left him in power in Baghdad. Somalia disintegrated into anarchy, and Rwanda drowned in the blood of the 800,000 people killed in the genocide of 1994.

Nelson Mandela was freed from jail, and apartheid made way for democracy in South Africa. In 1998 came the Good Friday agreement and the end (almost) of the violence in Northern Ireland and the IRA's bombing campaign.

As the nineties turned into the noughties, we talked endlessly of liberal interventionism, the Blair doctrine, the responsibility to protect -- fine-sounding phrases to describe a desperate, perhaps forlorn, hope that somehow the combined might of international powers could save civilians from the horrors of war and oppression.

Then came 9/11, followed by the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. A decade of bomb attacks, blamed on jihadis inspired by al Qaeda: among them Bali in 2002 (more than 200 dead); Madrid 2004 (nearly 200 dead); the London bombings in 2005; Mumbai 2008 (160 dead).

China and India became major economic powers; climate change became a major source of international concern; the internet, mobile phones, Facebook and Twitter revolutionised the way we communicate with each other, do business with each other, and defame each other.

You get the picture: over the past two decades, the world has changed in countless fundamental ways. And of course, it is still changing. Governments are still struggling to control a globalised economy; the international financial system struggles to recover from the near melt-down caused by reckless lending and casino banking. Britain still hasn't decided what it wants its relationship to be with the rest of the EU; nor has the US decided what kind of relationship it wants with China.

In many ways -- although it's easy to forget this amid the babble of the headlines -- the world is a far, far better place than it was 23 years ago.

Fewer women die in childbirth; fewer children die before the age of five. In 1990, roughly half the global population lived on less than a dollar a day; by 2007, the proportion had shrunk to 28 per cent. Economic growth has been faster in the poorest regions like sub-Saharan Africa than across the world as a whole.

We're also winning the global battle against infectious diseases. Between 1999 and 2005, thanks to the spread of vaccinations, the number of children who died annually from measles dropped by 60 per cent. The proportion of the world's infants vaccinated against diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus climbed from less than half to more than 80 per cent between 1985 and 2008.

I shall continue to watch, and read, and think -- and write on this blog as well as elsewhere.
So I won't say goodbye, but I will say thank you. Thank you for listening to the programme, and thank you for reading this blog. Let's stay in touch.

Friday, 7 December 2012

7 December 2012


Something ugly has been happening in Egypt this week -- and it threatens to tip the Arab world's most important nation into renewed turmoil.

The scenes have been reminiscent of the street protests at the height of the anti-Mubarak uprising nearly two years ago. Once again, the chants have been ringing out across Egypt's towns and cities: "The people want the regime to fall."

But there is a difference. No one believed that Hosni Mubarak was the legitimately elected head of state, chosen by the people in free and fair elections. Mohammed Morsi, on the other hand, can claim to be exactly such a leader, even if the elections that he won last May were far from uncontentious.

Morsi won 51.7 per cent of the vote in the second round run-off, against 48.3 per cent for his main rival, Ahmed Shafik. It is perhaps too easy to forget now just how close that result was -- and how deeply disappointed the many non-Islamist Egyptian voters were.

Revolutions rarely happen neatly, or in a straight line. The revolutions in eastern and central Europe in 1989, which saw successive Communist regimes toppled one after the other, were a rare exception, and they probably gave us a misleading impression of how simple it could be to sweep away decades of authoritarian rule.

In Egypt, President Morsi's opponents believe that he, together with the Muslim Brotherhood which they deeply distrust, has made an audacious power grab, by decreeing that -- even if only temporarily -- presidential decisions will no longer be susceptible to legal challenge.

Moreover, the Brotherhood have rushed through a new draft constitution, which is meant to be approved in a referendum in just eight days' time. This isn't the careful, methodical building of a new political system which many of the revolutionaries had in mind during those heady days of early 2011 -- instead, it looks to them like a bare-faced attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood to grab hold of the power they won in the elections, and make sure they'll be able to hang on to it for ever.

The counter-argument is that the courts are still stuffed with Mubarak-era judges, determined to prevent the country's new political leaders from effecting the changes that they believe the revolution legitimised.

Egypt is split in a multitude of ways -- by class, by religion, by education and by wealth. No one political group, and certainly not the Muslim Brotherhood which has emerged as the country's overwhelmingly dominant post-Mubarak force, can claim to represent the interests of more than one section of Egypt's voters.

The accusation being levelled at President Morsi is that he still thinks, and acts, like a Muslim Brotherhood leader, not like a national leader. He may say the right things -- but his opponents say his actions tell a different story.

And remember, as I have pointed out before, why the fate of Egypt matters so much. Its population, at 81 million, is greater than the combined total populations of all the other Arab Spring nations -- Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

It has a history stretching back more than five millennia to the pharoahs. Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo has long been regarded as the seat of Sunni Muslim orthodoxy. And every head of the Arab League since its inception in 1945, with one brief exception, has been an Egyptian.

Just last month, Egypt was again instrumental in mediating a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian movement Hamas in the Gaza Strip. And with Syria in flames, no one in the Middle East wants to see Egypt slip into chaos, or worse.

So the challenge facing President Morsi is a daunting one. Judging by his TV address last night, he is in no mood to offer concessions to the protesters gathered in the streets. They, similarly, are in no mood to let him get away with what they insist is behaviour quite out of keeping with the aims of the anti-Mubarak uprising.

The stakes could hardly be higher.

Next week will be my last at The World Tonight after 23 years; my final programme will be on Thursday. That means that next week's newsletter will be my last in its current format, although it will continue in a somewhat different guise, and I will continue to write independently in the New Year. Full details will be in next week's newsletter.