Friday, 27 October 2017

Reporters: who needs 'em?

Last Monday, the Russian radio broadcaster Tatyana Felgenhauer was stabbed in the neck by an attacker who broke into the offices of the independent radio station Echo of Moscow. (Her father Pavel is a respected military analyst whom I often used to interview on The World Tonight.)

Exactly seven days earlier, the Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed when a bomb that had been planted in her car exploded.

In Mexico, eleven journalists have been murdered so far this year -- more than a hundred have been killed since 2000.

In Iran, the authorities have opened a criminal investigation into 150 staff, former staff and contributors to the BBC's Persian service for 'conspiracy against national security'. The BBC's director-general, Tony Hall, called the action 'an unprecedented collective punishment of journalists'.

In China, several Western news organisations,  including the BBC, the Financial Times, the Economist, the New York Times and the Guardian, were banned from the unveiling of the Communist party's new ruling council.

In Turkey, there are currently thought to be more than a hundred journalists behind bars; 48 more went on trial this week. Earlier this month, a Wall Street Journal reporter, Ayla Albayrak, was sentenced in her absence to two years in prison for spreading 'terrorist propaganda' in her coverage of the Kurdish insurgency.

This is the price journalists pay for insisting on their right to report without fear or favour, wherever there is criminality, corruption and injustice. And they need your support, because it is not only in faraway places with few established democratic traditions that they are under threat.

Do you remember who said this? 'It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write.' (Thank you, Donald Trump.)

Or this? 'It would be helpful if broadcasters were willing to be a bit patriotic.' (Take a bow, Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom.)

Wherever there are despots and dictators, so too there are muzzled media and jailed journalists. Even in the most well-established liberal democracies, the first instinct of any politician in trouble is to turn against the messengers.

In Montana last May, a Republican party congressional candidate, Greg Gianforte, assaulted a Guardian reporter. (A day later, notwithstanding the assault, he won a convincing election victory.) A few days ago, a party official in the same state said she would have shot the reporter if he had approached her.   

No one, not even me, would argue that the Western media are invariably saints. But I wish more media critics would give credit where credit is due. In my memoir, Is Anything Happening?, I list some of the world's iniquities that never would have been exposed without the courage and diligence of journalists: the corruption at the heart of international football, the sexual abuse of young English footballers by their coaches, drug-taking in sport, MPs’ expenses-fiddling, police corruption, corporate tax-dodging, offshore banking malpractice. Not to mention the crimes and alleged crimes of men like Jimmy Savile and Harvey Weinstein.

As Tom Stoppard wrote in his play Night and Day: 'No matter how imperfect things are, if you’ve got a free press everything is correctable, and without it everything is concealable.'

With liberal democracies under increasing attack, it is more important than ever to be clear where the dangers really come from. Is it from authoritarians like Vladimir Putin, who seek to undermine trust in legitimate reporting by peddling fake news and propaganda, or from mainstream media organisations like the BBC, which, for all their short-comings, strive mightily to get most things right most of the time?

According to one recent survey, the proportion of British voters who say they trust  British news outlets has now fallen to a dismal 24%. Another survey found that just 41% of British people think the news media do a good job in helping them distinguish fact from fiction.

Those figures worry me, and I think they should worry you, too. No democracy can survive without a healthy -- and trusted -- press. Just last weekend, a jubilant Donald Trump tweeted: 'It is finally sinking through. 46% of people believe major national news orgs fabricate stories about me. Fake news, even worse. Lost cred.'

No prizes for guessing why he was so gleeful. After all, if nearly half the country don't believe what the press say about him, it won't matter in the slightest how many scandals or how much corruption reporters manage to unearth. 

I've just finished writing a play (are there any producers out there who might be interested in staging it?), at the end of which the central character, a journalist -- more anti-hero than hero, to be honest -- desperately tries to defend the traditional notion of a free press.

'Even when we print utter garbage,' he says, 'a free press is something we cannot afford to do without. Even when we get things wrong, we must have the freedom to be wrong. Even when we behave badly, we must have the freedom to behave badly. Do we want a government that has the power to tell us what we can and can’t print? What we can and can’t say? There’s a name for that kind of government: it’s tyranny.'

I think I agree with that. After all, I wrote it.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Hey guys, it's really not complicated

There seems to be a view in some quarters, following the grotesque disclosures about the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, that men are confused about what is, and is not, acceptable behaviour.

Well, I'm a man, and I'm not confused. (Nor am I a paragon of virtue, but we'll come to that later.) So, in an attempt to be helpful to my fellow males, and to even up the balance a bit after a deluge of articles about 'What women should do about sexual abuse in the workplace', here are my thoughts about what men should do instead.

1. Understand the nature of power relationships. In the words of the US Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast McKayla Maroney, who says she was sexually abused by a team doctor over a period of several years: 'Wherever there is a position of power, there seems to be potential for abuse.'

If you're a boss, or in any kind of a senior position, you do not flirt with, or make advances towards, or suggestive remarks to, younger or more junior colleagues. Nor do you ever suggest, explicitly or otherwise, that you might be prepared to advance their careers in return for sexual favours. (This applies especially, of course, to teachers and lecturers.)

Boss to employee: 'Hey, your tits look great in that top. Fancy a drink later, and then maybe come back to my place to talk about that promotion you're hoping for?' Not acceptable. Never was, never will be.

Colleague to colleague, equal status: 'Fancy a drink after work? I'd love a chance for a proper chat.' Perfectly acceptable. Always was, always will be.

2. Think carefully at office parties, or other social gatherings away from the workplace. (Take special care at 'awaydays' in country hotels.) Boss to employee: 'See you in the bar later? Wear something sexy and who knows what might happen.' Not acceptable.

Colleague to colleague: 'I think I need some fresh air -- fancy a walk outside?' Acceptable -- but be prepared to take No for an answer. 

3. Be aware of the importance of personal space. At the photocopier, or the coffee machine, or squeezing through a doorway, don't 'accidentally' brush against a colleague's body.

4. Be aware of the importance of words. 'New hairstyle? It suits you.' Not a problem. 'Wow, that skirt is a real turn-on.' No. 

5. Take seriously -- and act on -- anything you're told about inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. All men know of other men who are sleazebags -- remember the line often attributed to Edmund Burke: 'The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.'

Harvey Weinstein is not a unique monster. There are probably mini-Weinsteins in just about every single office and workplace -- men who believe that being in a position of power offers them a degree of immunity when they intimidate, humiliate or harass women who need their support to stay in work or make progress in their career.

I am sure I have sometimes made inappropriate remarks or behaved inappropriately to fermale colleagues, and I have squirmed with shame on reading the flood of personal testimonies from friends and colleagues who have joined the #metoo campaign on social media. (If you want an example, read this deeply distressing account by my former BBC colleague Rajini Vaidyanathan.)

There's no point telling us men to imagine what it must feel like to be a woman subject to abuse, harassment and worse -- we are not women and we will never be able to imagine what it is like. (You might just as well tell us to imagine the experience of giving birth.)

But how about we try to imagine what it might be like to be admitted to prison, where we might feel uniquely vulnerable, and then be subjected to a never-ending litany of sexual taunts and threats? 'Hey, lads, look what we've got here. Anyone fancy a go?'

If more women now know that they are not expected to suffer abuse, humiliation and harassment in silence, then some good may come from this after all. And perhaps more men will learn how to behave like decent human beings -- and employers will be obliged to adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards offenders.

Inappropriate behaviour was never acceptable, but too often, it was accepted. No longer.

Guys, it's really not complicated.   

Friday, 13 October 2017

The White House babbler

It may or not have been Plato who said it first, but I like it anyway: 'As empty vessels make the loudest sound, so they that have the least wit are the greatest babblers.'

If it isn't already, I suggest it should be inscribed in gold lettering over the entrance to the White House. After all, it is the home -- at least for now -- of the US's undisputed Babbler-in-Chief.

I have, belatedly, learnt to stop worrying so much about his babblings, because I have come to the conclusion that they have little or no significance beyond signalling the emptiness of the vessel from which they emanate. (I am well aware of the risks of tempting fate, but I still think the point is worth making.)

Pride of place in the Babblers' Hall of Fame came just a couple of days ago when, as the New York Times headline put it: 'Trump Makes Puzzling Claim That Rising Stock Market Erases Debt.' The story's first line said it all: 'President Trump suggested on Wednesday evening that a soaring stock market might be “in a sense” reducing the national debt, a statement that is not true, in any sense.'

As for the much-heralded wall along the border with Mexico? Babble. The repeal of Obamacare? More babble. (His latest attempt, by cutting off government subsidies to health insurers, faces immediate challenge in the courts.) The 'total destruction' of North Korea? Babble, babble. (Thank goodness.)

Over the past few days, we've had threats to revoke the broadcasting licences of TV networks such as NBC (the babbler doesn't have the power to do that), and the staggeringly inane remark that 'It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write.' (I'd love to be the White House aide who draws his attention to the first amendment to the US constitution: 'Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech or of the press ...)

So I'm not exactly surprised that, according to a hair-raising account in Vanity Fair, the president 'seems to be increasingly unfocused and consumed by dark moods', largely because he hasn't been able to do any of the things he wants to do.

Those of us who are terrified by the prospect of him actually achieving any of his policy objectives have some reason to be thankful. But that is not the same as being complacent -- one thing he can do is launch a nuclear attack, and there have been several reports suggesting that he sometimes seems to be itching to do just that.

According to Vanity Fair, 'One former official even speculated that [White House chief of staff John] Kelly and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have discussed what they would do in the event Trump ordered a nuclear first strike.' The question being, of course, would they be able to stop him?

None of this is meant to suggest that the Trump presidency has had no impact anywhere. According to the New York Times, the Environmental Protection Agency, which under its Trump-appointed director has adopted a policy of doing as little as possible to protect the environment, has 'moved to undo, delay or otherwise block more than 30 environmental rules, a regulatory rollback larger in scope than any other over so short a time in the agency’s 47-year history.'

And even without a border wall, the number of illegal immigrants caught trying to get into the US from Mexico has dropped by 20% compared to last year. Mind you, this is in large part the continuation of a well-established trend: when I was last in Mexico four years ago, there were already more migrants crossing south from the US into Mexico, because of economic stagnation north of the border, than there were crossing in the opposite direction.

The truth is that when the babbling emanates from the White House, it can sometimes have an impact even if it is not translated into executive action. It makes a noise, and people adjust their behaviour accordingly. The number of refugees being admitted from Muslim-majority countries has fallen, for example, even though the president's 'Muslim travel ban' has remained largely frozen by court rulings.

It also has an obvious impact on the way the rest of the world regards the US. The president is its symbol, and if the president is an incoherent babbler with only the most tenuous grasp of reality, well, that's not great news for the nation's global reputation or its ability to protect its national interests.

Which brings us to the Iran nuclear deal, which at the time of writing, President Trump is reported to be preparing to 'decertify'. But again, it is perfectly possible that whatever he says (remember 'the worst deal ever negotiated'?), it may amount to little more than yet more babbling.

All the other signatories to the agreement -- Russia, China, France, Germany, the UK, and the European Union -- are determined to make it stick. How Iran might react to more Trump babble, however, remains an open question. As does the reaction from Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang.

The US secretary of state Rex Tillerson is reported to have called Trump 'a (expletive deleted) moron' after a meeting in which the president apparently suggested that the US should increase its nuclear arsenal ten-fold. So in future, when Tillerson seeks to reassure nervous allies abroad, I suggest he simply tells them that the Babbler-in-Chief is babbling again, and they should take no notice.

It might make them -- and us -- feel just a little bit safer. Or not.