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Saturday, February 25, 2017

Is the USA becoming a land of censorship, prejudice and paranoia?

Every politician at some stage or another has a beef about a particular journalist, a publication or a media outlet. It is part of the job. You shrug your shoulders and carry on, because effective scrutiny, no matter how inaccurate you think it is  or how partisan, is what makes our democracy tick. And let's face it, the journalist is just doing his or her job.

It is when a politician starts to use their position to penalise those who don't agree with them that we really need to worry. A coup d'etat starts with the TV and radio stations.  Dictators control the media so as to suppress dissent.

In a democracy those who are obsessed with command and control, who do not feel secure in their position may try to browbeat the media into being a more malleable beast. Normally it stops there but yesterday, the US President and his staff crossed a line.

I like the USA. I have been there a few times and have always found its citizens to be open and welcoming. Admittedly, I have been stopped and searched at airports and ferry ports, but that was in 2004 in Boston at the same time the Democrats were having their convention.

I did not like their immigration control. I felt that it was intrusive, overly-bureaucratic and just a little paranoid. But then again it is their right as a country to check on the credentials of those entering.

Goodness only knows what it is like now, after Trump's executive order and incidents such as that of a Swansea based Teacher being forced from an airplane in Reykjavik because he is a Muslim.

The country that welcomed so many immigrants over the last three centuries and which is built on the skills and passion of those people, many fleeing persecution in their own homeland, is rapidly becoming less and less friendly as it retreats into its shell. It is not a country I want to go back to, at least not whilst Trump and his ilk are at the helm.

And then there is the constant barracking of the press, accusing them of reporting lies and false news because the Trump administration is meeting resistance, because it is hitting the brick wall that are the checks and balances built into the constitution, because the President's own fast and loose way with facts are being exposed and because the contradictions at the heart of this new Presidency are being reported on.

Yesterday, the White House barred several news organizations from an off-camera press briefing, handpicking a select group of reporters that included a number of conservative outlets friendly toward Donald Trump to attend instead. The excluded organisations included such respected institutions as the Guardian, the New York Times, Politico, CNN, BuzzFeed, the BBC, and the Daily Mail.

Conservative publications such as Breitbart News, the One America News Network and the Washington Times were allowed into the meeting, as well as TV networks CBS, NBC, Fox and ABC. To their credit the Associated Press and Time were invited but boycotted the briefing.

All of this followed in the wake of Donald Trump once again declaring that much of the media was “the enemy of the American people”. It is difficult to know which to feel the most disgusted about, the fact that the US President is trying to manipulate and censor the media, or at the journalists who turned up for the briefing irrespective of that power-play.

This development strikes at the very heart of America's democratic traditions. The media may at times be irascible, irritating, biased and a real pain in the backside but they are integral to the freedoms that Americans enjoy. Their role is to scrutinise and in that respect they are the people's friends.

If ordinary Americans are not concerned by these latest developments and the tone and the direction that Trump's administration is going in then they do not know their history. These are worrying times for one of the world's biggest democracy.

The jury is still out as to what sort of America this censoring, prejudicial, paranoiac will leave for his successor. Let us hope that it is one that is still recognisable as the democratic and welcoming country that many of its citizens and their ancestors chose as their home not so many years ago.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Another good night for the Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats were always going to get squeezed out of contention in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland because of where they were starting from and the high profile publicity for the main challengers in each contest, UKIP and the Tories respectively.

Nevertheless, they increased both their share of the vote, the number of votes cast for them on reduced turnouts and their final position in both contests. In Copeland we finished third by nearly doubling our vote share from 2015, whilst in Stoke, the Lib Dems secured a 5.7% uplift in their vote.

The other story of the night though was in the local council by-elections where the Liberal Democrats continued their remarkable run of successes, gaining two seats from the Tories.

In the Charterlands ward of South Hams the result was LIB DEM: 46.1% (+46.1) CON: 39.3% (-25.0) LAB: 10.7% (+10.7) GRN: 3.9% (-15.6), whilst in Barton in Kettering it was LIB DEM: 57.0% (+57.0) CON: 29.8% (-19.3) UKIP: 9.4% (-14.1) GRN: 3.7% (-3.5). Both gains.

The Liberal Democrats have now made 30 net gains in local council elections since 6th May 2016.

In contrast, last night's results were a big disappointment for UKIP. They threw everything at the Stoke-on-Trent Central seat including fielding their leader as candidate in an area which voted overwhelmingly for Leave last June. However, they hardly made a dent in changing the outcome. The only way for them now is down.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

What will be the impact of Brexit on the NHS?

I am sorry to keep harking on about the extra £350m a week promised by the Brexiteers to our NHS but actually it is very important. It is possibly one of the chief reasons the UK voted to leave the EU. It is a significant promise that looks increasingly unlikely to be met.

The real damage to our NHS from Brexit remains with staffing as is illustrated by this Guardian story. They report on a survey by the BMA which reveals that about 12,000 doctors trained in European countries could quit the UK because they feel less welcome following the Brexit vote.

The BMA's research leads them to conclude that roughly two in five doctors who qualified in European Economic Area countries are considering leaving the UK in light of the referendum result:

“These are the people who staff our hospitals and GP surgeries, look after vulnerable patients in the community, and conduct vital medical research to help save lives. Many have dedicated years of service to healthcare in the UK, so it’s extremely concerning that so many are considering leaving,” said Dr Mark Porter, the BMA’s council chair.

“At a time when the NHS is already at breaking point and facing crippling staff shortages, this would be a disaster and threaten the delivery of high-quality patient care. But this isn’t just about numbers. The quality of patient care is improved where doctors have diverse experiences and expertise,” he added.

Quite. Even if we did get the extra money, and that looks more and more unlikely, we would be struggling to find the staff to fill the posts.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Is Putin haunting our democracy?

Following the revelations of Russian interference in the US Presidential election I was a bit startled today to see in the Independent a former Minister allege that there is “clear evidence” that Russia interfered directly in UK elections.

They say that Rhondda MP, Chris Bryant has told Parliament some of the top-level decisions affecting security in Britain have been “compromised by Russian infiltration”. The former Europe minister’s comments came after it emerged that political parties in the UK have approached the security agencies for help following a cyber attack during the 2015 British general election:

“There is now clear evidence of Russian direct, corrupt involvement in elections in France, in Germany, in the United States of America, and I would argue also in this country,” said Mr Bryant.

“Many believe that some of the highest level decisions affecting security in the United Kingdom, in Germany, in France and in the United States of America are now compromised by Russian infiltration.”

The head of the UK’s new National Cyber Security Centre, Ciaran Martin, said that “informal” talks had been held with the parties and a programme to protect their sensitive online information will be put in place in the near future.

There had been persistent and rising reports of the Kremlin’s interference in the West’s political system using cyber attacks, including the hacking of the Democratic Party emails as part of an alleged campaign by Vladimir Putin’s government to help Donald Trump win the US presidential elections.

There are also fears that coming elections in Holland, France and Germany, with right-wing populist parties which have varying degrees of Russian support, may be vulnerable.

Emmanuel Macron, the favourite to become the next French president, has also accused Russia and its state-owned media of using hacking and fake news to interfere with the French presidential race.

These claims of interference have been rejected by the Kremlin.

There has been much talk about how social media and on-line tools have transformed the way that political parties campaign. However, if these allegatoins are correct the biggest influence of new technology on elections is much more insidious and a threat to the democratic process itself.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Donald Trump and the Swedish question

The so-called leader of the United States has now qualified his statement regarding immigrant-related incidents in Sweden but nobody is any clearer.

According to the Independent, Mr Trump says that he was referring to a story broadcast by Fox News. The TV channel ran a clip of a film by Ami Horowitz on Friday that alleged Sweden had seen a surge in gun violence and rape following an influx of immigrants.

The only problem is that the facts in that film are in dispute. The paper says that Mr Horowitz's documentary has been criticised for being riddled with inaccuracies. One Swedish terrorism expert told them that the film "grossly exaggerated" the amount of crime in the country and wrongly conflated drug violence in Swedish cities with crime perpetrated by refugees.

Of course these links are debated on the media and elsewhere all the time, but that does not make it right that the US President should quote these disputed allegations as facts. Sweden, and everybody else should expect that Donald Trump would set a higher standard.

Many of Trump's supporters are now accusing the media of covering up the facts. It is not clear how many of those supporters know where Sweden is never mind the truth over their crime rate. So what are the facts?

According to this site, crime levels in the United States are 28% more than in Sweden. The USA tops the league table for violent crime, three times more than Sweden and the murder rate in the US is five times that of Sweden.

Perhaps Donald Trump should put his own house in order before seizing on disputed documentary films so as to distract from his own problems.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Who is fooling who over Article 50?

On the BBC yesterday Liz Truss was anxious to underline that once Article 50 has been invoked then there is no turning back.

As the Independent reports, the Justice Secretary told viewers that there is no prospect of Britain staying in the European Union after triggering negotiations on Brexit. But is that true or are the government trying to manufacture a no-win situation for those who believe that, the Theresa May's version of hard Brexit is inappropriate, that we should stay in the single market and that the British people need to have the final say on whatever deal is negotiated?

Like the referendum outcome itself, this is not a black and white issue and Ministers would do well not to suggest that it is. The paper says that Liz Truss's claims are a direct contradiction of the views of Lord Kerr, the former UK diplomat who, in his role as Secretary General of the European Convention, wrote the laws that include Article 50:

Mr Kerr said last year: “It is not irrevocable – you can change your mind while the process is going on.

“During that period, if a country were to decide actually we don’t want to leave after all, everybody would be very cross about it being a waste of time.

“They might try to extract a political price but legally they couldn't insist that you leave.”

Lord Kerr's advice should give sustenance to those who want the final deal to be subject to another referendum.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Another Paul Nuttall claim is debunked

As if the Hillsborough fiasco was not enough. the Independent reports yet more controversy regarding some of the claims on the UKIP leader's website.

The paper says that Paul Nuttall is facing fresh allegations about his honesty after he wrongly claimed he was a board member of a training charity:

In September 2009, an article published on Mr Nuttall’s website stated he had accepted an invitation to join the board of the North West Training Council (NWTC).

It quoted Mr Nuttall as saying: “If facilities like this existed for youngsters when I was at school, many of my classmates would have kept on the straight and narrow.

He then said: “I was very impressed by my visit to the NWTC and have nothing but praise for their contribution. They are doing a first-class job and I am thrilled at the honour of being a board member.”

However, the organisation’s chief executive, Paul Musa, said that, while Nuttall had visited the NWTC several years ago, he had never served on the board.

Mr Musa told The Guardian: “Mr Nuttall was never invited to become a board member of NWTC as this would need to be a directive of the NWTC board, who he never met.”

The Ukip’s leader’s name does not appear on any documentation filed by the NWTC with either Companies House or the Charity Commission, the paper reported.

Mr. Nuttall claims that he has been the victim of a smear campaign, but it seems that he is his own worse enemy.

Being a party leader and the candidate in a high profile by-election brings with it enhanced scrutiny, something that he does not appear to have been prepared for.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Tony Blair is right, but......

The level of bile directed at Tony Blair over yesterday's intervention in the Brexit debate was extraordinary, not least as most of it came from the party that he used to lead and which, I believe, he is still a member of.

It was extraordinary because Blair was speaking a basic truth, that the referendum did not specify what form Brexit should take, did not detail a path for the government to take and that the approach currently taken by the Tories does not actually have any mandate.

Referendums are not the same as an election. They present non-binary choices in a binary way, but as with an election it is up to the politicians to interpret the outcome in the best way they can.

That is because we live in a representative democracy in which those elected have regard to the wishes of their electorate but act in accordance with their own conscience and the more detailed information at their disposal.

In the case of the Brexit referendum, Blair is absolutely right. People did not vote for hard Brexit, they voted for a whole host of reasons, after being lied to and misled as to the consequences of their vote, to leave the EU. But did they vote to leave the single market? That was not on the ballot paper and many leavers told them they would not have to do do.

They voted for a £350m a week boost to the NHS, but that was never going to materialise. Instead we are going to have to pay billions more to the EU for the privilege of leaving. And they voted in some cases to control immigration, when most of that immigration comes from outside of the EU. They were lied to about that too.

It is not Blair who is insulting the intelligence of the British population, Boris, it is you and your cronies, who have consistently lied to them and who want to impose a solution on them without giving them a chance to vote on it.

In the face of all this, the reaction of the Labour Party is quite astonishing. They have abandoned all pretence at opposition and instead have swallowed hard Brexit, hook, line and sinker. So much so that even those who have been allies of Blair in the past and who are known as pro-European feel obliged to criticise him publicly.

People have a right to change their mind once they have seen the terms of the deal. That is why the Liberal Democrats have argued for a referendum on that deal. But the question must be posed: is Tony Blair the right person to lead the campaign for that to happen?

Well, firstly he stopped short on calling for another referendum, almost as if he believes that he is going to reverse the tide through some sort of electoral osmosis. He must know that another plebiscite is the only way to achieve his aim of rejecting hard Brexit.

Secondly, Blair himself is such a divisive figure, a man who lost the trust of the British electorate over Iraq, that any leadership role he assumes or is given is doomed to failure.

By all means Blair should devote what resources he can to the campaign for a second referendum but he needs to step back and let others take the lead. It is what the Liberal Democrats have been doing for some time.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Italy celebrates National Cat Day

If the poor misguided English are a nation of dog lovers then we are left looking to the continent for a bit of feline commonsense. And they do not disappoint.

Today is National Cat Day in Italy. They also have a Black Cat Day on 17th November. Cats both indoor and outdoor have been protected in Italy since 1991, when a new law made it illegal to harm or kill street cats.

Local public health authorities are responsible for neutering and spaying them, and animal rights associations can be awarded management of outdoor cat colonies, whose members have the right to roam free and undisturbed.

As the article also says an eBay survey over the past year has shown that in Italy, cat-themed or cat-shaped objects - such as cell phone covers, clothes and accessories, home decor, costume jewelry and stuffed animals - are changing hands every seven minutes.

I have always liked Italy and other Mediterranean countries like Malta and Turkey where cats are treated with the respect and care they deserve.

World Cat Day, by the way, was set up in 2002 by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and is celebrated on August 8.

Note: the photo was taken by me in Sorrento harbour in 2011. The cats wait there for the fishermen to dock and unload their catches.

Misinformation and intimidation in Stoke-on-Trent Central

There has not been such an intense, no-holds barred, dirty by-election since Birmingham Hodge Hill. It is an indication of how high the stakes are both, for a beseiged Labour Party and for a struggling UKIP, desperately trying to become relevant once more.

The UKIP leader and candidate Paul Nuttall has been at the sharp end of the attacks as his personal and political flaws are pulled apart by his opponents and the media. But Labour have not escaped scrutiny either.

The Labour candidate has been criticised for his historic twitter positions and for his support for the remain campaign. He has been put in the impossible position of defending Labour's new enthusiastic support for the UK leaving the EU whilst apparently not believing a word his party's leadership says on the issue.

And then there are the dirty tricks, the latest of which has made the news this morning. The Guardian reports that the Lib Dems have alerted the police after messages sent to some Muslim voters in Stoke-on-Trent suggested they could go to hell if they failed to vote Labour to keep out Ukip’s Paul Nuttall:

The anonymous message, distributed locally to some in the Muslim community by text and Whatsapp, called for people to vote Labour so as not to help “enemies of Islam”.

It said voting for the Lib Dem candidate, Dr Zulfiqar Ali, a Muslim, could help “far-right, anti-Muslim, anti-Islamic Ukip party” take the seat, which is being contested in a byelection triggered by the resignation of Labour MP Tristram Hunt.

It is not known how many people received the message, but the Lib Dems claimed it had been “distributed in large numbers” in support of the Labour candidate, Gareth Snell.

The Lib Dems demanded an apology from Labour on Thursday in a letter to the party’s election agent, copying in the police and Stoke returning officer.

Ian Horner, the Lib Dem election agent, wrote: “I am sure that you realise that the religious nature of one of these messages could also be deemed to be covered by the ruling on ‘undue spiritual influence’ in the matter of a mayoral election for the London borough of Tower Hamlets held on 22 May 2014, when the Labour party were the victims of such tactics.”

The party also called on Labour to condemn the “campaign of misinformation and intimidation currently under way in their name in Stoke-on-Trent”.

It is impossible to say what the impact of all this fighting is going to be on the result or indeed, how voters will react to it. Given the turnout record in Stoke-on-Trent I suspect most voters will just stay at home.

But if the remain voters do decide to come out and back the only candidate who represents their views, the Liberal Democrat, Dr Zulfiqar Ali, then there could be an upset.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Lost in UKIP fantasy land

The 12 year old Paul Nuttall may well have been at Hillsborough, however, the fact that he and/or his staff have subsequently sought to build up a personal mythology around that tragedy is clearly inappropriate and insulting to the families of those who died and to the community in which they were rooted.

As the Independent reports, the false claim that Mr. Nuttall lost “close personal friends” in the Hillsborough disaster was made twice on his website and repeated in a news story on the BBC. These claims have sat on his website for over five years without any apparent attempt by the MEP to remove them.

Now Mr Nuttall is in a high profile position and under scrutiny, we are asked to believe that the mistake was made by a staff member and the website has been taken down. But who was really to blame for the 'error'?

The Independent says that despite Lynda Roughley, a press officer for Mr Nuttall, saying that she had offered to resign because she had been “entirely responsible” for the website post, in fact the same claim that Mr Nuttall had lost close friends at Sheffield Wednesday’s stadium were repeated in another post on his website in 2011 and in a contemporary BBC report.

They add that questions now remain over whether Mr Nuttall was aware of the separate claims made on his website and in the BBC report. It is also unclear whether Ms Roughley was responsible for both of the posts on the Ukip leader’s website.

But where did the claim originate from in the first place? This website says that the first posting on Nuttall's website in 2011 was actually made over an hour after he made the claim to the BBC, when it appeared on their website:

The dates and times are unquestionably being preserved intact in the facsimiles.

As you can see, the creation date/time of the BBC article is 17 August 2011 at 14.44pm and 48 seconds.

The creation date/time of Nuttall’s entry is 17 August 2011 at 15.39 and 56 seconds – almost a full hour later.

In other words, Nuttall gave his quote to the BBC, who then put it on their website. And 55 minutes later, Nuttall or his ‘staffers’ copied it to his blog.

It never seemed credible that any press officer would invent something like this to enhance the reputation of their employer.

Thanks to the fact that the internet has a habit of logging everything that is posted on it, the chain of events are now open to question. Is it possible that the claim that the UKIP leader lost close personal friends at Hillsborough could have originated from an interview given by Nuttall to the BBC back in 2011?

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