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

Friday, 28 June 2013

How much difference can one leader make?


It's easy to forget, nearly 20 years on, how deep were the fears in 1994 as South Africa prepared for its first, genuinely free, multi-racial elections.

In just the few weeks before the poll, weapons were reported stolen from an air force base; 21 prisoners were killed in a jail riot; 30 people were killed during violent protests by Zulus in Johannesburg; a state of emergency was declared in Kwa-Zulu Natal; and nine people were killed and more than 90 injured when a car bomb exploded in central Johannesburg.

Wherever you went -- and I was there at the time -- there were predictions of a bloodbath to come. The white minority would launch a coup; the armed forces would mutiny; tribal tensions would explode into an orgy of violence and killing.

None of it happened. And for decades to come, earnest historians will earnestly debate why not. Was it all because of one man: Nelson Mandela?

If there had been no Mandela, or if Mandela had been a different kind of man, would South Africa's destiny have been different? How much difference can one man make?

These are not, I know, original questions. But I think, for obvious reasons that I don't have to spell out, this may be a good weekend to ponder them.

What about Gandhi and India? Hitler and Europe? Abraham Lincoln and the United States? King Henry VIII? Winston Churchill? Mikhail Gorbachov? There's a long list of leaders of whom many would say they changed the course of history.

Look at those names again: what, if anything, do these leaders have in common? Perhaps at its most basic, it's simply a self-belief so strong that when everyone around them was saying "You can't do that", these men replied: "Oh yes, I can."

How many people must have told Gandhi that a campaign of non-violence would never force Britain to leave India? How many people told Churchill that his determination to win at all costs against Nazi Germany was doomed to fail? And how many people told Mandela that reaching out to South Africa's whites with a message of reconciliation was naïve and dangerous?

I'm not a great fan of "What if …?" questions -- but I've always been intrigued by the relationship between the individual and the sweep of history. We all have our faults, even the greatest of leaders -- perhaps especially the greatest of leaders -- and when the time comes to draw up the balance sheet, it is right that there should always be two columns, one for the pluses, and another for the minuses.

Euripedes, writing nearly 2,500 years ago, clearly wasn't thinking of tyrannical rulers when he said: "When good men die their goodness does not perish, but lives though they are gone. As for the bad, all that was theirs dies and is buried with them."

The bad that was Hitler's, Stalin's, or Pol Pot's, did not die with them -- the consequences of their pernicious evil lives on to this day and can be seen and felt far and wide.

But similarly, so too can the good that was done by leaders like Mandela. Heaven knows, South Africa has no shortage of problems -- and you will soon be able to read dozens of pieces along the lines of  "Whatever happened to Mandela's dream?"

Yes, of course, South Africa could, and should, be so much better than it is. But it also could have been so much worse. And for that, I suspect, we do have one man to thank.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Iran: so did the sanctions work after all?

This is probably not something that I should mention in polite company, but do you think the Presidential election results in Iran last weekend just might have proved that international sanctions do work after all?

In many quarters, even to suggest such an idea is close to heresy. Sanctions, according to the view widely held in international punditry circles, are a blunt instrument which inflict great misery on ordinary people while having little or no effect on the government they're supposed to be squeezing.

But just suppose that isn't the case, or at least, not always. Suppose one of the reasons why Iranians turned out in such huge numbers to vote for the most moderate of the candidates on offer, Hassan Rouhani, was that they judged he was the most likely presidential candidate to get sanctions lifted or relaxed.

If that is the case -- and I don't say the case is proved, because it's still much too early to say -- but if it is the case, then might there be implications for, say, future policy regarding Syria?

After all, if a Rouhani-led government in Tehran is more inclined to engage constructively with Western powers, then maybe there's more of a chance of finding some common ground on which to create a blueprint for the future of Syria.

So why do I make a link between sanctions and the election result, which seems to have taken most Iran analysts completely by surprise? (Hardly anyone predicted that Rouhani would emerge triumphant with more than 50 per cent of the vote in the first round.)

Well, just take a look at this analysis, by BBC Persian Service, a couple of days before the poll: "The country's economy is in its worst state for decades, with high inflation, soaring unemployment and negative growth … The value of Iran's currency, the rial, has more than halved in a year … [and] has led to a sharp cut in imports and raised Iran's inflation to its highest level in 18 years."

Scarcely surprising, then, that one of the first questions the new president-elect was asked by an Iranian reporter at his news conference earlier this week was about sanctions. This was his reply: "In order to reduce and resolve the problem of sanctions step by step, we will take two measures. First … more transparency. Of course, our nuclear plans are fully transparent, but we are ready to show more transparency and make it clear for the whole world that measures of the Islamic Republic of Iran are fully in the international frames.

"Second, we will increase mutual trust between Iran and other countries. Wherever trust is to be undermined, we will attempt to restore it. I believe that mutual trust and transparency within the framework of international regulations and principles are the solution to put an end to sanctions."

Which sounds to me like a pretty good start. But this is where we have to take a step back. In Iranian politics, the president has only limited powers. The real say remains with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose intentions are as opaque as ever.

It may, however, be relevant to recall that he has in the past been reported by Iranian officials to have issued a "fatwa", or religious ruling, against the production of nuclear weapons. Western officials are reluctant to take it at face value as it does not appear to have the force of law.

Khamenei fell out with the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and presided over (or turned a blind eye to) what is widely thought to have been wholesale result-rigging at the time of the last presidential elections in 2009, to prevent a win by the reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Huge protests followed, they were brutally suppressed, and Iran's overseas image suffered yet further.

This time, it was different. And it's worth wondering why. Might Khamenei and his clerical allies be prepared to allow the new president more breathing space? Rouhani is, unlike the mercurial Ahmadinejad, a cleric himself, with strong ties to Iran's powerful religious establishment. But he also knows how to engage with the West, having served as his country's top nuclear negotiator and having studied in Glasgow in the 1990s. (Some people have been wondering whether that means he speaks English with a Glasgow accent -- I don't know the answer to that, but would love to find out.)

So Iranians have elected a president who promised them a better economic future by engaging more constructively with the West. Yes, I know all about proofs and puddings and all that, but let's at least hope -- and consider where we'd be today if, instead of imposing sanctions, the West had opted for military action and chosen to bomb some of Iran's nuclear installations. I somehow doubt that Iranian voters would have chosen a Presidential candidate who advocated better relations with the West.

By the way, you may be interested to know that I've started a summertime walk along the length of the River Thames, from the source to the estuary. I'm producing little audio slide-shows as I go, so if you'd like to keep up with my progress, just click here and subscribe to my YouTube feed.

Friday, 14 June 2013

What I said last night:

This is an edited extract from my remarks at the University of Westminster last night where I received the Charles Wheeler award for outstanding contribution to broadcast journalism.

I want to say a quick word about reporters, because Charles Wheeler remained a reporter to the very end. Not a presenter, not an editor, or a channel controller -- a reporter, because he understood, I think, that reporting is at the heart of what we do. Without reporters, there is no journalism worthy of the name. So in this age of talking heads, of wall-to-wall pundits, of hastily rewritten press releases, I would like simply to say we still need reporters as much as we ever did, to be where the story is, to dig, to question, and to challenge.

I spent most of my time as a broadcaster sitting in a presenter's chair, but inside my own head, I was always a reporter, and the people I envied were my colleagues who were out there doing the digging. People like some of the previous recipients of this award, among whom I am now so proud to be included: Jeremy Bowen, Lindsey Hilsum, and Allan Little.

Reporters are increasingly an endangered species: they are expensive, because getting them to where they need to be, and keeping them safe when they get there, costs a lot of money. Foreign bureaux are being cut back, reporter numbers are being scaled back. It's so much cheaper to have someone in a studio in London talking over a few pictures and a map, or pulling together copy from the news agencies. Cheaper, and a lot worse. So if we care at all about journalism, we must care about reporters: about training the next generation, employing them, and paying them properly.

Reporters do what journalism was invented to do: they tell us about the world we live in, reveal things that people in power don't want revealed, shine a spotlight into dark corners where terrible things are happening. Whether it's in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or in a children's care home, or at the Palace of Westminster, we need reporters as much as we ever did to dig, to discover, and to reveal.

Finally, I want to remember some of my friends and colleagues who lost their lives because they were reporters. David Blundy of the Sunday Times and Sunday Correspondent, killed in El Salvador in 1989; Farzad Bazoft of The Observer, executed in Iraq in 1990; John Schofield of The World Tonight, killed in Croatia in 1995, and of course, Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times, killed in Syria just last year. It is in their memory as some of the finest reporters of our time -- reporters who did exactly what journalism was invented to do, exactly as Charles Wheeler did -- that I gratefully accept this award. Thank you.




Let's hear it for the oldies ...

Here's a little conundrum for you to chew over: it's estimated that over the next decade, there'll be something like 13.5 million job vacancies in the UK, but only 7 million young people will be leaving full-time education. So who's going to fill those jobs?

Don't say immigrants, because the government says it wants to reduce net immigration to fewer than 100,000 a year. So how about that much-maligned section of the population, the baby-boomers, those of us born in the immediate post-war years and now gracefully sliding towards, well, what exactly?

According to an article in the Financial Times this week, for the first time there are now more than a million over-65s still working in the UK. The number has doubled in the past 20 years and is likely to keep on rising. Yes, there are more of us, and we're healthier and living longer. What's more, many of us need the cash.

In Japan, the problem is far more acute, because there, the birth rate is falling dramatically while life expectancy is sharply increasing. Not enough young people, too many old people -- it's not a recipe for a healthy society or a healthy economy.

At least here in Britain, we're still having lots of babies. (Well, when I say "we", I don't mean us baby boomers, obviously …) In fact, the UK birth rate is currently among the highest in Europe (an average of 1.93 births per woman of child-bearing age), in part because of higher birth rates among migrants who tend to be younger than the indigenous population.

Now, your attitude to all this will depend on how old you are, how rich you are, and how much you enjoy your job, assuming you have one. You can't be forced any more to retire when you reach 65, and that's one reason why the numbers of oldies in work are rising. The retailers B&Q are well-known for encouraging job applications from older people, but apparently even McDonald's now have more than 1,000 employees over the age of 60.

Baby boomers get a bad press these days: we're the 60s generation, pot-smoking, sex-obsessed, flower-waving hippies who never had to fight a war or struggle for a job. The year I was born, 1948, is said to be the luckiest year ever to be born in: we were delivered by the newly-established NHS, we were never called up to serve in the armed forces, and if we were fortunate, we got onto the housing ladder at the start of a 30-year-long boom in property prices.

Those of us lucky enough to go to university (about 5 per cent of school-leavers in the 1960s, compared to more than 40 per cent now) received a government grant -- and yes, it's true, we went around quoting William Wordsworth every single day: “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven.”

Two years ago, the cerebral government minister David Willetts (born 1956, and therefore himself a boomer) wrote a book provocatively titled: "How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children's Future - And Why They Should Give it Back." His argument -- and I simplify somewhat -- was that we risk leaving to our children a world in which they are taxed more than we were, work longer hours for less money than we did, and live in a degraded environment thanks to our love for central heating, fuel-hungry motor cars and anything that runs on oil.

OK, guilty as charged -- up to a point. But I'm not sure that we boomers can fairly be blamed for all the sins of our age; after all, the world in which we grew up, the 50s, 60s and 70s, was a world that had been created by our elders. True, we benefited from it, but we didn't make it.

What we were guity of was a belief that we could have it all, for ever, at no cost. The hippies among us believed (or wanted to believe, which isn't necessarily the same thing) that if we all made love, not war, the world would become a perfect place. Life would be good, would always be good, and could never be bad. We know better now.

We also know that the country may still need our labour for a few more years.  So perhaps we can attone for our past sins -- if sinners we were -- by working till we drop. Last night, I was honoured to receive an award in memory of the late BBC broadcaster Charles Wheeler, who remained a hard-working reporter until he was well into his 80s. For that reason, among many others, he will always be my hero.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Turkey: democracy on trial

There is no bigger test for a democracy than when the voters are split down the middle. Turkey is the latest country to face that test -- and it's failing.

Street protests are an essential part of a democracy. Violent police suppression of those protests -- and the arrests of anyone who voices opposition to the government -- definitely is not.

In the last Turkish general election almost exactly two years ago, the AK party of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a smidgen under 50 per cent of the vote. Less than a month later, in Thailand, the Pheu Thai Party headed by Yingluck Shinawatra (sister of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra) won a similar proportion of the vote (48.41 per cent compared to the AKP's 49.83 per cent).

Why do I mention Thailand? Ah, what short memories we have. Have you already forgotten the red shirts and yellow shirts who brought Bangkok to its knees and threatened lasting damage to the Thai economy between 2006 and 2011? And the more I think about it, the more parallels I see between the Thai tensions then and the Turkish tensions now.

So let's put to one side those facile and misleading comparisons between Taksim Square (Istanbul) 2013 and Tahrir Square (Cairo) 2011. The anti-government protests that have swept through Turkey over the past week are not a "Turkish spring", but they are -- perhaps -- a Turkish equivalent to the Thai yellow shirt movement.

Here are some of the parallels -- none of them exact, to be sure, but political parallels, unlike mathematical ones, never are. Anti-government protesters in Turkey: largely middle-class, urban, educated, suspicious of the government's democratic credentials. Yellow shirts in Thailand: ditto. According to an excellent background analysis by the International Crisis Group: "The bulk of the protestors thronging Istanbul’s central streets by day are middle-class, often spurred into action by social media networks. Many of them hold regular jobs, including bankers, lawyers, academics and other private-sector personnel. Women are notably numerous …"

On the other side of the divide are the AKP's supporters: mainly rural, more conservative, ignored in the past by the country's traditional ruling elite. Pro-Shinawatra red shirts in Thailand: ditto.

But perhaps the Thailand parallel seems a bit remote. How about something closer to home: how about the huge pro-fox hunting demonstration in London back in 2002, when an estimated 400,000 people took to the streets? They were, you may remember, mainly rural protesters bitterly angry that mainly urban policy-makers were simply ignoring their long-cherished cultural traditions.

Or, a bit further back in history, the poll tax riots in 1990, when an estimated 200,000 protesters demonstrated their fury at a tax imposed by the Thatcher government that they believed represented only the interests of the wealthy and the privileged?

Or, more recently, the Occupy Wall Street protest, when demonstrators in New York -- and many others in many other capital cities around the world -- voiced their anger at banking malpractice and social and economic inequality.

What they all had in common -- and what set them apart from the Arab Spring protests -- was that they all took place in democracies. What they represented -- and what the Turkish protests represent -- was the anger of voters who blame the politicians in power for ignoring their interests. They should be seen, I would suggest, as a manifestation of the obvious truth that parliamentary politics alone do not always provide an adequate forum for the exchange of ideas and the expression of opposition to government policy.

Let's not forget that freedom of speech and freedom of association are two fundamental human rights, as enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights adopted in 1948. Article 19 says: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression." And article 20: "Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association."

So mass demonstrations, even angry ones, are not a sign that democracy is failing. Where concern is justified is when the party in power fails to recognise that protesters may have a legitimate grievance, or when the police use unreasonable force to end the protests.

That's why the government response to the protests in Turkey is far more worrying than the protests themselves. It's not surprising that secular, urban Turks are suspicious of what they see as the creeping Islamisation of their country, and of a steady move towards a more authoritarian style of government. (On Wednesday, the police arrested 25 people accused of using Twitter and other social media to "stoke anti-government sentiment". And this is a country that wants to be seriously considered as a candidate to join the EU.)

Turkey has a long-established traditional political elite, grounded in the secular principles of the modern state's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. But since the election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan a decade ago, the members of that elite have found themselves steadily pushed further from the levers of power, and they don't much like it.

Nor did the conservative royalists in Thailand, who were ousted by the rural supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra  -- or even, arguably, the rural, fox-hunting Conservative voters of England after the election of Tony Blair in 1997.

So here's a thought for you: maybe the protesters on the streets of Turkey's towns and cities are the minority -- the ones who, admittedly by the slimmest of margins, have lost the last three elections. Their protests may be well be justified -- there is no doubt that Erdogan's instincts are not those of a liberal, and his crushing of the independent media does not mark him out as a convinced democrat. But, for better or worse, the ruling AKP still commands the support of a great many Turks who credit it with a decade of economic growth and rising living standards.

The AKP's critics have every right to protest against the government, and most importantly, to do so without being bludgeoned or tear-gassed by the police. What's more, Mr Erdogan should remind himself that only half the country voted for him, and that he needs to respect the rights of those who didn't.