Category Archives: news

People Crisis in Europe

The massive flux of people travelling toward the continent of Europe from many troubled lands has made headline news in 2015. But the first week of September has seen an apparent seismic shift in how European heads of state deal with the problem. It seems that a photo of a small child from Syria drowned in the Mediterranean Sea and washed ashore, and hundreds of people walking from Budapest to the Austrian border have been the galvanising moments in the story.

I was on holiday effectively from the 1st to the 5th of September and did not take my smart phone with me, nor did I watch the news at my hotel in Brussels. On my return home the headlines emanating from Hungary, Austria and Germany were literally “news” to me. Suddenly with the situation becoming dire in Central Europe and Hungary seemingly throwing its hands in the air in despair, the rest of the continent woke up. The problems that Italy and Greece have been dealing with on their own for months almost buckling under the pressure, and pleading for help with the situation have come home to roost so to speak. Finally an attempt at a cohesive joined up effort to deal with the issue is taking place. Or at least that’s how it seemed watching reports on Saturday 5th September, but 24 hours later the political “goodwill window of opportunity” was already being talked of being suspended soon. But in the meantime, transport is being put in place to offer safe passage from Hungary to Austria and Germany (and perhaps beyond) for the thousands of displaced people seeking refuge.

Some may say that the open borders policy of the European Union enshrining freedom of movement has in part created the problem. However, the humanitarian effort today is only possible because of those same laws that bind the European Union nations. I don’t think the necessary diplomatic dialogue channels would be in place otherwise.

Germany looks to be prepared to take several hundred thousand displaced people, whilst early speculation has suggested that David Cameron may take in about 15,000 to the United Kingdom. I’m not overly enthused by the Prime Minister’s stand on this issue, as he only seems to have reacted because he has been backed into a corner. Looking bad in the eyes of other European leaders is no strange notion to the UK political leader, after all our demands for European renegotiation and rebates etc doesn’t make us popular. But if the UK appears to be not “pulling its weight” in this matter then why should our “bleating” be given a fair hearing. Yet if the UK doesn’t get some kind of rebate/new membership terms from Europe as Cameron has promised his electorate he will strive to do, he loses face with the very people who got him into power.

The brief amount of news coverage I watched on Saturday night included seeing Germans applaud the arrival of people disembarking from trains in Munich, and a chat with a Syrian family recently settled in a small German community of 1200 in size. The woman of the family spoke of gifts being given to them within days of arrival (TV, bikes for the children) and the warm welcome received. I was glad they felt safe and secure but couldn’t help wonder how different their story may have been here.

Germany as a nation has a general policy of wide scale social housing availability, home ownership not being the norm. Unsurprisingly then the Syrian family had a fair chance of being offered a roof over their heads once their asylum paperwork had been processed. The United Kingdom on the other hand has wide scale home ownership, has given away for sale most of its social housing in the last thirty years, and not replaced anywhere near the same amount lost. There are large waiting lists for social housing and many have become homeless due to the lack of suitable affordable homes. So when the news triumphantly reported that “many in the UK have volunteered to take refugees in” my views were a little less charitable I’m afraid. Home owners with room to spare are about the only ones able to offer an instant “roof over the head” solution. Local councils have to juggle their waiting lists with available housing stock, and anyone in housing authority properties or private tenants would be in violation of their tenancy agreements, to take anyone unauthorised into their home. Under those circumstances I think any refugee family housed by the council would probably be viewed with suspicion and could face having their windows put in! Not a very nice welcome.

Austerity measures in the UK have seen many basic services funding being cut back to a minimum. We hear reports of NHS difficulties in providing comprehensive cover at weekends, some areas with not enough school places, council subsidies for local transport being reduced, to name but a few. These issues show what a potent mix of “general disgruntlement” we have in this country at the moment, and that is without even mentioning “benefits” to provide a social income for displaced people.

Of course the UK should help people in need, but that does rather depend on our infrastructure being robust enough to provide them with all they require for a decent life. Looking at our society today I’m not all together convinced we are doing a decent enough job looking after those who are already here!

Throughout 2015 news reports have shown hundreds of thousands of people arriving on the European continent mainly through Italy and Greece. I can only assume that the bottleneck of people in Hungary occurred as a direct result of the natural travelling progression of those early 2015 arrivals. Something had to be done quickly to deal with the issue and this humanitarian intervention was the outcome. But if the “goodwill” is short lived the problem could well occur again because many more thousands are arriving on a daily basis in the southern Mediterranean states. Hopefully this wake-up call will result in a more long term cohesive plan being put into action

UK CAMPAIGN COUNTDOWN 2015 DEBATES

On Saturday 21st March 2015 British broadcasting announced the final template for the UK political debates, which are taking place before the General Election on May 7th.  Weeks of wrangling finally seem to be over, and it would appear that both the political and broadcasting groups INVOLVED are by and large pleased with the outcome.

In 2010 the UK held their first ever election debates with the three main national party leaders taking part in three discussions. I’ve seen the viewing audience figures for these described as 22 million, but I’m unsure if this is an average number, the largest number for a particular evening, or a cumulative one.  Anyway the project was deemed a great success and the process considered from that point onward, as an integral part of the general election campaigns. Undoubtedly the biggest winner in 2010 was Liberal leader Nick Clegg the least known debating member, compared to Conservative David Cameron and the then Labour leader Gordon Brown. The Liberals could promise many things in their manifesto without the concern of having any real chance of winning power and having to make good on them. In the 2010 election the Liberals did better in the polls than usual, which gave Nick Clegg the leverage needed to broker a deal to form a coalition with David Cameron and the Conservatives. However, that coalition deal I feel has caused the Liberal party irreparable damage as their promises have shone less brightly working in the shadow of Conservative dominance.

Initially for 2015 the broadcasters tabled the proposal of three debates (all held in April), two of them with multi-party participation and one a head-to-head debate between Labour’s Ed Miliband and Conservative’s David Cameron. These two men are the ONLY ones with the party power and public support behind them to take the keys to No.10 Downing Street in May. Unlike Ed Miliband who declared he would debate anyone, anywhere at any time, the Prime Minister David Cameron began making demands to change the debate format. He would only take part if the Green (!) party were included, then he would not go head-to-head with Labour and finally he would only take part in one multi-party debate. Initially the broadcasters held out against these demands even suggesting the preposterous notion of an empty chair, or that an un-elected media minion could stand in for the Prime Minister instead. Finally though the media capitulated and reformatted the debate platforms to accommodate the Conservatives stipulations. So what are we left with?

On Thursday March 26th just five days after the debate deal was brokered, a question and answer session will be broadcast by Channel 4 and Sky News. This will feature David Cameron (Conservative) and Ed Miliband (Labour) SEPARATELY talking to a studio audience. On April 2nd ITV will broadcast a seven party debate where ALL invited representatives will be present, including the Prime Minister. Taking part will be David Cameron (Conservative); Ed Miliband (Labour); Nick Clegg (Liberal); Nigel Farage (UKIP); Nicola Sturgeon (SNP-Scotland); Natalie Bennett (Green); Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru-Wales).  The BBC will host a five party opposition debate on April 16th (excluding coalition partners Cameron and Clegg) and a special Question Time discussion on April 30th. The final programme will feature the Labour, Liberal and Conservative leaders, with the BBC reassuringly stating that other interested parties will have a presence of some kind to ensure fairness. I admit I found the “reassurance” statement utterly laughable to say the least.

Broadcasters should have had the debate format ironed out months ago and the whole negotiation process regarding the issue, has taken focus away from the actual election campaign “sucking the life out of it” to quote David Cameron. He has said in the past that these debates are essential to the political process in the UK, yet as Prime Minister has done nothing to ensure the smooth running of it. In fact his actions have only hindered the negotiations protracting them out far longer than was necessary.  And the final debate format is a smorgasbord of discussions that strike me as being a shambolic farce for democracy. I say shambolic because the whole negotiating process has been a bit of a nightmarish joke where the idea of seven leaders trying to talk over each other makes me think of “squabbling simpering school kids”.  Also, when one major group has been deliberately excluded from the debating forum it makes a mockery of the word democracy.

My British passport declares me a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Yet NOWHERE are the Northern Irish people represented in these debates, although their leaders have appealed to the BBC Trust against their exclusion to no avail. My initial research on the internet seems to suggest that David Cameron was initially keen that the DUP the biggest party in Northern Ireland be included. If this was the case however, the Prime Minister has had a distinct lapse of memory in recent weeks. It was the Green party he fought for inclusion in the end. The DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson heads eight MPs in the House of Commons the FOURTH biggest party representation in parliament. The Northern Irish contingent has more MPs than four of the parties invited to the debates. So WHY the hell is Northern Ireland being excluded I wonder?

It appears the BBC Trust has argued that the candidates in Northern Ireland elections do not have party representation in the remainder of the UK, and so should be excluded! Having never seen a Northern Ireland ballot paper I cannot comment on that, but if you can presume that the NI parties are vaguely aligned with the three mainstream UK party principles (left, centre, right for simplicity), then that argument is invalid. When you consider the SNP are only on Scottish ballots and Plaid Cymru on Welsh ballots the BBC Trusts stance becomes implausible. I can only think that there lurks a remnant of the old animosity toward Northern Ireland that stemmed from the troubles.

I’m disappointed that the leaders of the SNP and Plaid Cymru have not stuck up for their smaller national counterpart. I shake my head in disbelief when I hear “the British people want and need these debates” knowing that a small but significant cohort of my fellow British citizens are being DELIBERATELY EXCLUDED from the process. Considering the people of that region have far stronger feelings toward the Union flag (for and against) than many other parts of the UK, I find it shocking how easily Northern Ireland has been ignored for the election debates, and feel a lone voice in the wilderness.

A few short months ago I expressed the earnest hope that Scotland would not vote for independence but remain within the UK. I said “all for one and one for all”, yet this whole debate debacle has shown me that perhaps we are not as unified a democracy as people would like to think. It appears the Prime Minister can pull rank and manipulate the broadcasting media when it suits him. The media seem to have an underlying political agenda of their own despite the fact they are supposed to be neutral. And all those involved have colluded to exclude the Northern Ireland voice that has just as much right to be heard. Democracy…I think not, shame on you.

NEWS VIEWS 2

Once again I return to my growing “disquiet” over news headlines and the feeling that I’m not always getting the full story.

A & E Waiting Times

Austerity measures worldwide are biting hard and Great Britain is no different. The big news story over the last few weeks has been the waiting lists at A&E (accident and emergency) units in English hospitals, where it is stipulated that patients should be seen within four hours of arrival. Many hospitals have failed to comply with this “mission statement” and the BBC is heralding a website where hospitals A&E statistics can be viewed by the public. My husband heard on a BBC Radio 5live breakfast show a caller reporting his local hospital had a 75% rating for A&E admissions. There was outrage from other callers and the studio presenters. Out of curiosity Rob checked our local hospital’s stats and found a rating of 61%. Neither of us is a bit surprised though as the hospital is a recent new build development to replace older stock. However, there are fewer beds provided in the new facility and thus fewer staff to monitor patients and less ancillary staff to run the place. This reduction also falls in line with “austerity measures” put in place to save money. The population of the area has not fallen; in fact it has probably increased. It isn’t rocket science to work out fewer beds and medical staff for more people means increased waiting. And I know for a fact this has been going on since at least last summer, because the hospital I volunteer at in another county has picked up some of the fallout. Suddenly with winter deepening the issue is big news. What angers me is that the BBC by advocating the name and shame website is creating fear and alarm. Although being in possession of the facts can be useful at times, it will be no good to the sick person at the back of an ambulance being driven to the nearest hospital.

Prescriptions to Pay or Not To Pay

My husband and I both use regular prescription medication and each of us has an annual pre-paid certificate to cover costs. In this way we save a bit of money and remove the need to pay on the spot for items. Apparently the government is considering introducing a database naming those individuals who qualify for free prescriptions, in an attempt to stamp out prescription fraud. The matter-of-fact headline stated “with 9 out of 10 prescriptions being free this is a serious issue”. I realise that under 16s, full-time education, the elderly, unemployed and sufferers with certain conditions are exempt, but the rest of us pay. Perhaps if Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland figures are lumped in with England the numbers add up, since the other three home nations don’t pay prescription fees. But if Rob and I sat in a room with eight other patients we would highlight the falsehood of such a sweeping statement. It proves to me what I have always thought “you can make numbers say whatever you want”.

Water Shortages in Northern Ireland

On Monday 19th January 2015 I was appalled to see a news feature showing people in certain parts of Northern Ireland melting snow for water. A pension’s dispute between Northern Ireland Water and their employees had meant a work to rule policy and no out of hours repair work going on. As a result NI Water customers involving thousands of properties and households had endured disrupted water supplies for weeks. The dispute had begun before Christmas but this was the first time I was aware of the issue on the main news. Again I had the feeling of being fed “selective news” as this should have been flagged up much sooner. The industrial action by NI Water was suspended on Wednesday 21st January. Perhaps this issue from NI was dwarfed by the bigger story concerning the Stormont government taking so long to agree their budget plans. Austerity measures have not hit the area quite so much and the NI assembly has effectively spent money it never really had. Now they have to claw back some of that deficit by making severe cuts. The NI Water pensions dispute that involved an increase in employees personal contributions, may well have resulted from the cutbacks central government has to make.

Britain & the United States (a special relationship?)

During David Cameron’s visit to see President Obama in Washington a BBC reporter referred to the President as “considered a bit of a rock-star in Europe (if not at home) and that Cameron would hope to bask in some of that reflected glory during this election year”. I’m not really sure Barack Obama does have such a high rating in Europe, but I can easily believe David Cameron would use anyone/anything to make him look better. My initial reaction was that of the typical “fawning attitude from the BBC toward anything USA”. I say this cautiously, but it does seem to me that when the USA sneezes Great Britain catches the cold. I remember just before the London Olympics opened in 2012, an Israeli tourist bus travelling to the airport from a Bulgarian seaside resort was blown up by a suicide bomber. I remember the spectre of Munich 1972 springing to my mind. Shortly after the bus bombing, a man dressed as the nemesis of Batman opened fire in a cinema in the Aurora district of Denver Colorado. The bus bombing story was largely dropped from our news headlines and for days (4 or 5) Denver was the main story. Surely for the security of the world, an Israeli bus bomb loosely attributed to Syria and its civil unrest, merits more importance than a domestic dispute in the USA. With London about to host the biggest sporting event in the world, the threat from potential international terrorism was far more serious and relevant to us. But you would never have known, as the daily news was filled with issues regarding the “American right to bear arms” mantra.

Grab the Headlines

Headlines grab the attention and the emphasis on words in a spoken report can make a huge difference in how you respond to a story. Two big news items from the latter part of 2014 instantly come to mind in this regard. This is how both stories sounded to me, with the words in bold being the ones emphasised during news reports.

Ashya King a SICK CHILD TAKEN FROM HOSPITAL WITHOUT PERMISSION by his parents who are JEHOVAH WITNESSES. This little boy was removed by his loving and well meaning parents after disagreements regarding his care plan. An international arrest warrant was issued, the Kings jailed and Ashya put under police protection and prevented from family contact for several days. I noticed the BBC quickly dropped the reference to the family religion probably in case of calls of discrimination. But it was clear from the beginning that the reference was meant to imply that the family were refusing treatment for the boy. This was not the case; they were seeking an alternative care plan instead. Once the dust settled and some sense was brought to the matter, Ashya received the treatment his parents wanted in Europe. He seems to have responded well to the therapy but remains in Europe with his parents, as they fear a return to Britain will result in them losing custody of him to the authorities.

OSCAR PISTORIUS GETS FIVE YEAR JAIL SENTENCE. Yes he was given that term but a technicality within the framework of the sentence means that he will only be required to serve TEN MONTHS in jail, the remainder of the term being on licence I presume. To me, the smaller jail time issue is a far bigger headline, when you consider that a life was taken however unintentional. But you have to admit it does not have the same sensational impact as the Five Year term. I also wondered at the time WHY the BBC felt it necessary to present day after day live coverage of the trial’s duration, when it had nothing to do with anything related to the British judiciary. I think Oscar’s fame and celebrity had more to do with the decision than the desire to see South African justice being done!

Despite my misgivings regarding news coverage in Great Britain, I still believe we have a fantastic news system with the BBC. It is far better in its range and impartiality than many other nations press core. On listening to the BBC World News Service on the radio, I marvel at some of the incredible in depth reports presented on minority subject areas. Yet for the mainstream TV news reports, I still can’t shake off at times the distinct feeling that an agreed “national party line” is being kept, and that coverage of subjects depends on an agreed agenda for the day.

NEWS VIEWS

On Wednesday 7th January 2015 a major news story developed in France, when several people were killed by gunmen in the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. My husband and I were aware of events through Twitter and breaking news mobile phone apps. We were in London for a private exhibition viewing for members of the National Portrait Gallery. We didn’t bother switching on the TV news in our hotel so were largely in a “bubble” until we returned home, but when I eventually did tune in to the news channels my growing “disquiet” at media coverage of events crystallised fully.

The satirical publication Charlie Hebdo through cartoons takes a serious swipe toward the Islamic faith in particular. The ideal of freedom of speech is the notion of a person being able to fully express their views and feelings without censorship, and I whole heartedly support that idea. Charlie Hebdo upheld that ideal in the fullest sense publishing in a nation where “freedom” is enshrined in the republic. So when two Islamic brothers opened fire on Charlie Hebdo employees, the French nation clearly saw that as an attack on their republican heritage. It is abhorrent to think that a democracy that upholds the ideal of freedom of speech could be held hostage by religious fanatics. But my unease was heightened by the reaction of the authorities and the general public to the events unfolding.

As I switched on the TV another hostage crisis was occurring in a kosher supermarket in a separate Paris suburb, and again it seemed that two armed people were responsible for the outrage. Reports from the scene told me that police were staking out the supermarket and on a “manhunt” for the Charlie Hebdo killers. The most alarming thing to me was seeing the swarm of police vans thundering up and down the French motorways on the trail of the Kouachi brothers, and the swat teams armed to the teeth around the supermarket. I know the event was serious and had to be dealt with in an appropriate manner, but looking at the media coverage for the first time, I would never have imagined that FOUR people were responsible. It looked like half the French police were in pursuit of a small army of perpetrators spread over a vast region, because why else would EVERY school in an area be evacuated. Journalists in hot pursuit of the story were stopped on the road by armed cops making it VERY CLEAR they were going no further, and I didn’t doubt they would have used their weapons if they felt it necessary. At that point France did not seem a particularly free nation but more like a police state! The authorities would undoubtedly say everything was done to keep people safe, but at the time of extreme agitation, who keeps the people safe from the authorities? I just knew that the offenders would end up dead before the day was out. When news reporters suggested that the authorities would have preferred to bring those responsible to justice, I actually laughed, and at that moment I realised how cynical I have become to how the news is reported.

The reaction of the general public was understandably shock and confusion and occasionally the question “why France?” Thinking about it I wasn’t so surprised that France had come under attack. Not so long ago the wearing of the “burkha” was banned in public by France, saying it was un-French and not constitutional or words to that effect. Whilst I agree that foreign nationals/cultures should assimilate with the traditions and laws of the nation they find themselves in, I’m sure that Muslims affected by the burkha decree felt more marginalised. And I vaguely recall a football commentator saying during a World Cup match that the parents of Zenedine Zidane (French captain) didn’t have a vote in France. At the time (about 13-17 years ago) I remember thinking that information must be wrong, but maybe it wasn’t. The very nature of Charlie Hebdo is deeply offensive to the Muslim faith which views any unwarranted reference to their holy prophet as blasphemy. When a society upholds the right of such a publication to exist whilst potentially marginalising the faith group it offends, a potent mix can be created.

The incidents in Paris have been global news just like the death of Princess Diana in 1997 and the September 11th events in 2001. The rolling out of 24hr news coverage in the last 15-20 years has meant that we can know instantly when something grave has happened, although the monotonous “round robin” nature of it can be incredibly irritating. Two days later you can still be seeing the same thing as “news” because nothing has changed. The BBC sent out a huge team to France to cover what was happening. You know things are serious when Lyse Doucet is deployed but she had at least four other big name colleagues reporting in the vicinity as well. Although the Charlie Hebdo story was big, and the ramifications from the event are potentially huge, was the size of the BBC report team really needed! Other news was happening in the world but you would hardly have known it and I was reminded of the week Princess Diana died. Two other big names passed away at that time but barely made a blip on the radar Sir Georg Solti and Mother Teresa. At the time I remember thinking we were being fed “selective news” and that the general mass hysteria generated from Diana’s passing was considered the normal. The frenzy of emotion in 1997 was picked up by the media and magnified for their big headlines. Looking at the Paris news coverage I am once again picking up on an emotional frenzy being broadcast as the consensus feeling. Heaven help anyone who is perceived as not being part of that consensus, the least they could expect is to be lambasted through social media.

I don’t think that a publication such as Charlie Hebdo could exist in Great Britain, it’s just a feeling I have. There has been some legislation created almost by stealth which makes me think that the true ideal of freedom of speech doesn’t really exist here. When you can be jailed for an idiotic tweet and covert monitoring is going on in the name of “security” I seriously question the rights we have.

As I write this post there is a mass demonstration taking place in Paris in support of unity, freedom and democracy, and several world leaders have arrived in the city to show support including British PM David Cameron. When London suffered its own terrorist atrocities ten years ago I don’t recall any world leaders coming to our support. When policewoman Yvonne Fletcher was gunned down outside the Libyan embassy in 1984, I cannot recall French police standing in honour at her loss, as our Metropolitan police did this week. Different times and different attitudes I know, but to my mind a clear indication of how much Great Britain is viewed around the globe, not very well and of little significance.

I have always felt that the sense of “freedom” is as much a state of mind as anything else. Never more has that been made clearer to me than this week. The other day I seen on Facebook a reference to Stephen Hawking that said “although I cannot move and I have to speak through a computer, in my mind I am free”. When I heard the people of Paris say they would be looking over their shoulders on the metro I was saddened. By allowing followers of a radical ideology to create in you a sense of fear in your everyday life they have won. Only by remaining hopeful and true to the ideals that are dear to you can you truly remain free.