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Kiss your sanity goodbye

March 12, 2010 1 comment
The National Newspaper

Kiss & Tell story?

I’ve made many observations in the past about the stupidity of the law, and it’s now becoming clear that different laws and different legal systems are stupid for different reasons.

Take Sharia for instance. There are many people I know who believe it is a perfectly sensible system and who abide by it every day, and on the face of it, Sharia is no different to the Ten Commandments, upon which most common law is based – actually, it’s just common sense.

What’s not common sense is when a law is hi-jacked and used by extremists to impose their morals on others, or exploited by small-minded fools to hold back the development of a society.

Take this story pictured in the National newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, where a British ex-pat and a UK visitor were seen kissing in a hotel restaurant after having a drink, and as a result have been sentenced to a month in jail and then deportation.

Now, I have plenty of friends who have worked in the Middle East and who relate ludicrous horror stories like this every time I see them.

I have also visited the Jumeriah Beach Residence in Dubai and know that it is an ultra modern hotel which like many in the region, sells alcohol to ex-pats and foreign visitors, and feels entirely like any other luxury hotel anywhere in the world.

So here’s a few matters arising:

Some friends meet for a drink and a meal, in a place where food and alcohol are openly and legally sold to them.

Some woman, who has her kids with her at 2 o’clock in the morning, sees them kissing, but doesn’t see them well enough to be able to tell whether it is on the lips or the cheek, tells the authorities and suddenly these people are arrested and face jail time.

Now, if someone is jailed for having drunk alcohol in a place where alcohol is on sale, isn’t that called entrapment?

If you are taken into an environment where you are treated very much as if you were at home, and arrested for doing something you would normally do there, are you not being deliberately misled?

If I had my children in a hotel bar or restaurant at 2 o’clock in the morning, shouldn’t I expect to be arrested for child abuse and have my kids taken away by social services?

Unfortunately, this is all perfectly normal in the fairytale-land of the Middle East, and it tells you a lot about how the people of this region are simply not ready to deal with the West, despite claims to the contrary by it’s leaders, even though almost all of them have not been elected, and who treat their own people like children.

Cities like Dubai have spent jaw-dropping amounts of money on buildings and infrastructure, using an army of slave labourers from South Asia; they have enticed Western businesses with tax-free financing to set up shop there so they can point to these developments and say they are democratic and modern, and they build fantastic hotels and allow them to sell alcohol to ex-pats so as to encourage these businesses to bring staff over.

But underneath it all, the old laws remain in place – the laws that were developed in the Middle Ages still hold sway, and of course, ignorance is no defence.

And there’s the problem: Western people are encoraged to go into cities like Dubai, they are made to feel at home, given all the comforts of home plus tax-free wages, or stay in luxurious hotels where food and alcohol are freely available.

But technically, the laws still apply, even inside the hotels.

Add to this a swathe of local people who see huge amounts of money being spent on Western-style business and hotels and not on them, and you suddenly have an army of spies who are full of righteous indignation and happy to exploit the old laws to their own advantage to make life uncomfortable for any Westerner who strays.

If you treat people like children, is it any surprise that they act like them?

The same is true in the stone-cold sober world of business, and I have heard many a tale about Western business people held in the country they called home, against their will, because there is a dispute over their business dealings, usually because the local partner faces having to take some responsibility for their actions and like a pouting teenager would rather falsely blame it on the “corrupt” Westerner.

Again the local laws are little changed from the Middle Ages and in countries where you need a visa to leave the country, and where bureaucracies are still based on paper and fax, where there are no bankruptcy laws and where debtors go to prison (and the local labour laws prevent them from finding other work) and where the court system is as transparent as mud, there’s no wonder Western businesses find the cards stacked against them if things go wrong.

Until these iniquities are sorted out, the Middle East will never be a safe place for Western companies and executives to do business, and that won’t happen until these countries grow up and drag their people and their legal systems into the modern age, and start treating them like grown-ups.

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Publish and be…. censored?

March 9, 2010 Leave a comment

A few months ago I noted the start of the ‘new’ blogs section on the Al Jazeera English website, and the utter lack of imagination that had been put into them, not least by the correspondents, who seemed to think that describing the tedium of their journey to their latest interview was a suitable substitute for in-depth analysis and investigative reporting.

Since then I have been watching with a growing sense of despondency the accumulation of lazy, pointless hackery which only serves to bolster the ego of the correspondent (as they weren’t bolstered enough by useless managers and acquiescent editors) and leave the audience wanting, especially while the excellent Focus section of the same site dwindled and atrophied.

Fortunately there have been some rare exceptions, including one excellent posting in February from Jane Dutton about her visit to Eritrea to interview the country’s president – now, you can follow the link if you like, but as of today, it goes to an Error 404 page, as it seems the article has been removed from the Al Jazeera website.

The posting, when it existed, was the perfect example of how to use blogs and first person narrative to get behind the story, and give the audience more understanding about the context of a piece – in this case using a blog written after the fact to get around the government minders and reporting restrictions so often imposed on journalists by dictatorial regimes.

Now though, it has been removed, the blogger has been censored and the truth has been lost, probably on the orders of some invertebrate, obsequious lickspittle of a manager who knows nothing about news and journalism, and cares even less about his audience.

A quick Google search explained why – Qatar is doing business with this secretive and brutal African regime for its own ends, and the Eritrean president is lapping up their money and their largesse, while his people are trapped in their own country, and will be shot if they try to leave – no wonder the emir of Qatar wanted the truth about Eritrea suppressed, and since he pays for Al Jazeera, he calls the shots.

So much for Al Jazeera’s code of ethics, and its claim to be editorially independent, impartial and objective.

Fortunately as well as being spineless and brown-nosed, Al Jazeera’s managers are also remarkably stupid, as the article had been published long enough to be cached by Google and many other search engines; however in the interests of freedom of information, here is the article in full:

Eritrea’s president declares me ‘insane’ – by Jane Dutton

We hadn’t even arrived in Eritrea when I started to get a sense of the man I had been sent to interview. Our flight from Dubai airport was delayed. Nobody told us for how long or why. Four hours later, when the plane finally arrived, we found out the president had decided to borrow it for the morning, on a whim.

We were on our way to one of Africa’s most secretive regimes.

Granted a rare interview with the Eritrean president, Isaias Afewerki, a man constantly ranked in the top 10 of the world’s worst dictators and accused of helping turn the Horn of Africa into one of the most volatile regions on the planet.

Our plane – Eritrea’s only carrier – was one of the few international flights that still fly into the country: a desolate place blighted by years of war with Ethiopia and Yemen, and increasing political isolation.

At the airport we were met by unfamiliar silence – no network connections, no SIM cards, no blackberry! And Rafael, our minder. Rafael is a man of contradictions: even his backcomb appears to grow forward.

“Let me tell you the truth,” he would say every couple of hours, immediately followed by anything but. He also ominously warned that he could keep a watch on our every movement if he chose to do so, at our hotel, on the job.

Our interview was scheduled for Saturday and we were told it would take two hours to get to the city of Massawa, the president’s new bunker retreat on the coast. He is reported to spend more time there after an attempted assassination last year.

The roads are manned by checkpoints. The population’s every move seems to be watched and noted in this country. And it probably is. Eritreans need a visa to leave and there is very little chance of them ever getting one. But that hasn’t stopped tens of thousands escaping every year.

The UN estimates that 63,000 sought asylum abroad in 2009. Around 1,800 brave the shoot-to-kill police orders to cross over into Sudan every month. The majority say they are fleeing the permanent military service and repressive nature of the regime.

After several shouting bouts with Rafael, we finally get to Massawa, an exotic port city built by the Turks in the 14th century – a fascinating place with narrow alleyways and looming mosques. It is supposed to be the hottest place on earth. And I would concur.

I noticed then it wasn’t just the capital that was surprisingly clean – everywhere we went in Eritrea was immaculate. The streets are shiny bright, the hotels are spick and span, even the food is safe.

Our interview was delayed by a day and instead we were corralled into watching Massawa’s 20-year celebrations of liberation from Ethiopia. We decided to shoot a promo for our interview while we were there. People were out in that sweltering weather to see their long-time leader, carefully controlled by police.

What amazed us was that the police had no qualms about beating women and children with sticks a few feet away from where we were shooting. A truly shocking scene. And our cameras were still rolling.

The next day we were all set up and ready at our interview location in time for the planned dawn o’clock interview. We guessed the president would keep us waiting, and he did. Six hours later he arrived. We were all drenched with sweat and jangled with angst by the time he sat down.

Was he going to throw us out of the country for asking the questions we wanted asked? Why is he helping Iran supply weapons to Hamas in Gaza and the Houthi fighters in Yemen? Why does he order the police to shoot-to-kill anyone escaping from the country? Why is there no free press or free speech? Why were all of his political opponents whisked away never to be seen again? How come he refuses to let aid agencies feed the two-thirds of his country who are starving?

This was a man who came in on a promise of liberating his people 20 years ago. Every question I asked was met with a blank stare, a flat denial, cold laughter and finally allegations that we were making it all up. And he told me personally I am simply “insane”.

Back in the car and back on the winding roads, climbing thousands of feet to the cooler capital of Asmara. You can smell coffee percolating through the streets: thick, lovely and freshly brewed – the legacy of Italy’s colonial rule under Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime.

All the buildings boast a beautiful jaded art deco influence, and the streets are full of old men cycling with their hats doffed to one side alongside colourful Fiats from the 1960s. We ended the day with a piece to camera from the tank graveyard on the outskirts of the city. Thousands of armoured vehicles dismantled and stacked heading for the trash heap.

They were used in the 30-year battle against Ethiopia. And although that was two decades ago, Eritrea remains on a permanent war footing. The majority of the population is conscripted – whether it be in the army, in the hotel bar, as a street cleaner or our ever present minder Rafael. They remain braced for an Ethiopian attack that may never come.

The joke’s on … who?

May 24, 2009 1 comment

The collective sound of jaws dropping across the breakfast tables of Britain was almost audible this morning as people read the details of how the leader of the UK Indpendence Party, Nigel Farage, has claimed £2 MILLION in expenses as a member of the European Parliament.

Compared to the expenses claims of our national MPs, Mr Forage’s efforts make their’s look like fiddling small change, and only go to prove that if someone is doing something wrong, someone, somewhere is doing it bigger and better.

Like many, when I first read of this, I was tempted to launch into one of my usual rants about MPs, polticians, tax-payers money and especially the gold-plated gravy train that is the European Parliament.

But how could I? By boasting publically, Mr Farage has made a bigger statement about the inherant, and accepted, corruption at the heart of the the EU than any rant by a mere blogger.

Indeed there is something deliciously ironic about the expenses system of the European Parliament being exploited, perfectly legally it would appear, to help fund the UK Independence Party’s message that the UK should get out of the EU.

The expenses, of course, are on top of Mr Farage’s salary of over £64,000 a year, and his party is jumping on the domestic expenses row to call on voters to punish “greedy” MPs at the European elections on June 4.

Cue the predictable braying from MPs in the UK, who lifted their noses from the trough long enough to heap scorn on Mr Farage, claiming he is a hypocrite and no better than they.

Sadly this only further demonstrates their stupidity and the genius of Mr Farage’s revelation and his timing – what they forget is that they themselves pledged that they would be honest, and they will now reap the whirlwind at the ballot box.

However, when it comes to anything to do with Europe, the electorate is so used to stories about the endemic corruption at the heart of Brussels, that we would probably have been more shocked if Mr Farage hadn’t been cashing in!

The other thing to note is that by using the money to promote UKIP’s message, Mr Farage has, at least, remained true to his principles, which is a damn sight more than most of his political peers have done.

Honourable? Don’t you believe it

May 20, 2009 Leave a comment

Conservative MP and so-called “Tory grandee” Anthony Steen is to become the second MP to announce that he is stepping down over his expenses claim.

The Totnes MP claimed tens of thousands of pounds worth of OUR money to pay for the upkeep of his “country mansion” in Devon, including work on 500 trees, leaking pipes, a wrought iron fireplace and lighting.

Yesterday another Tory MP, Douglas Hogg, resigned over expenses he claimed for having a moat cleared at his stately pile. He is otherwise known as the 3rd Viscount Hailsham.

Three points here – the first is that both of these men are long-standing MPs – Steen has been an MP since 1974, while Hogg was first elected in 1979.

These are people who know the rules of Parliament intimately, they know how the system works and how best to make it work for them – one wonders how many other expenses they have claimed over the last 30+ years that we are still unaware of?

Secondly, while it may sound like these people have done “the honourable thing” by announcing they are stepping down, one should remember that by “stepping down” this does not mean that they will be resigning immediately.

“Stepping down” means they will not seek re-election, so they will continue as MPs until the next elections, whenever that may be, and continue to benefit from all the trappings of grandeur and the perks that the post of MP brings with it.

Finally, they will also benefit from the pensions and other benefits that come to former MPs, including lucrative seats on gravy trains including NGOs, non-executive directorships in business or on government quangos, or even seats in the House of Lords.

Some punishment eh?

So don’t be fooled by the faux show of remorse by these people – what really grates is that had I, or any ordinary member of the public tried to get away with claiming for the upkeep of their homes against the public purse, say through our income tax or VAT returns, we would fully expect to be languishing in a jail cell now.

Election? Why not Gordon?

May 20, 2009 Leave a comment

The first Prime Minister’s Questions after the full extent of the MPs’ expenses row was an instructive affair, and proof, if any were needed, that the whole British political system is languishing in a mire of institutional sewage and needs some brave, innovative thinking to drag itself into the 21st Century.

What was desperately needed was something which would begin the process to try and re-build the public trust in politicians and the poltical process.

What we got was the same ignominous braying from a bunch of arrogant parasites who have time and again thumbed their noses at the public who pay their wages; the whole thing descended into the same old party posturing, a pointless diatribe which characterises what passes for real debate by our so-called leaders.

Gordon Brown, the still un-elected PM refuses to call a general election, but the best reason he can muster is of the “chaos” that would be caused by a Conservative government.

Hang on a minute – this is Gordon Brown, admitting to his party, and the country, that he doesn’t think Labour will an election if one was held now.

And that’s why he won’t call one. Have you ever heard anything so craven and pathetic?

There is, at last, a growing, palpable anger among the British people about what has happened, and the way that they have been taken for a ride by their own elected representatives; Gordon Brown’s answer is to run away and hide, is there any wonder this country is in the state it’s in?

The other reason Brown musters is that, being in the middle of a recession, it is the wrong time to go to the country – again, this is utter hogwash. The current administration were responsible for getting us into this mess, how on earth can anyone have any confidence that they are the right people to get us out of it?

In 1979, when the UK economy was being flushed down the pan, the only thing that pulled the country round was the fact that James Callaghan, another un-elected prime minister, was forced to call an election because his government’s five years were up.

There were calls for him to go to the country in 1978, but he didn’t, and the economic consequences made the ensuing recession last far longer than it needed to.

The problem was that after successfully turning the country round, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party went too far the other way and destroyed much of the industry that made Britain what it was with an ill-conceived programme of deregulation and privatisation which laid the foundations for the economic crash we are now living through.

Maybe Brown is right, would we be any better under the Conservatives, or the Liberal Democrats, or would we just have more of the same from a party political system which is failing to respresent the needs of the electorate?

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The speaker now departing from platform erm…

May 20, 2009 Leave a comment

So the Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin has finally resigned, but once again, he managed to screw that up, showing the now contemptible lack of leadership which has become a hallmark of his tenure.

The long-awaited statement on Monday about reforms to MPs’ expenses contained nothing about his conduct, or lack of it, and as predicted, there was no apology for the shockingly bad way in which “Gorballs Mick” has handled this whole issue.

We had to wait until Tuesday afternoon for the announcement of his resignation, and even then he didn’t express one iota of remorse for the way in which he had conducted himself, indeed he did not even acknowledge he had any responsibility at all for an episode which has seen the Mother of Parliaments dragged through the mud.

No doubt glowing tributes will follow and the professors of rotational medicine who still haunt the corridors of power will relentlessly paint Martin in a good light, eventually trying to re-write history.

I hope, for the sake of posterity that they don’t succeed – Martin’s nine years in the chair have seen him preside over a shocking decline in the public trust of politicians and Parliament as whole; he has allowed mendacious and corrupt potilicans to take us into illegal wars and pass legislation which has demeaned British society and the human rights of everyone living here.

And right to the end, at a time which the House of Commons desperately needed someone to grasp the issue and deal with it like a true leader, Martin just sat and let it happen, he completely failed to lead and made it look as though there was tacit approval of all the corrupt practices that had been going on.

Thankfully he has gone, “Gorballs Mick” will not be missed – actually “No Balls Mick” is probably now a more appropriate description.

Time to go – and well overdue too

May 18, 2009 Leave a comment

Speaker of the House of Commons Michael Martin, the man who crushed the honour of Parliament under his clumsy Glaswegian hob-nailed boot, is making a statement today in the face of growing criticism from MPs that he didn’t do enough to tackle the issue of MPs expenses.

I’m betting it won’t contain the words “sorry” and “I resign”, but I can live in hope, and still, from the public, there is apathy; well OK, there have been some localised outbursts as reported in The Observer:

Bricks were thrown through the constituency office windows of Julie Kirkbride [she and her husband, Andrew Mackay MP, claimed for separate family homes, although it is only his expenses that are under scrutiny, not hers]; politicians’ wives face abuse in the street; and police are protecting the home of Scunthorpe MP Elliot Morley after revelations that he claimed £16,000 against a mortgage he had already paid off. Voters, says Labour veteran Diane Abbott, want “dead MPs hanging from lamp-posts”. Even one of the government’s steadiest performers, Margaret Beckett, was booed by the audience on last week’s Question Time.

Oooooooooooooo scary. I won’t bother myself with the stupidity of Diane Abbott’s remark, there’s nothing so ineffective as hanging someone who is already dead.

As an aside, in the same paper, Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson says of “Gorballs Mick”:

“He has sadly become part of the problem.”

No, Ms Swinson, he became part of the problem ebulliently, sarcastically and enthusiastically. Sadly, he has become part of the problem. Maybe if we had required our MPs to speak English properly, this wouldn’t have happened, as idiots like Martin wouldn’t have been eligible.

But I digress. Some people though are starting to see the depth of the problem though – one angry voter has set up a website to try and rally the disillusioned.

He’s rightly worked out, as I have said before, that MPs in a safe seats will get re-elected no matter how badly they behave, because they can count on the party faithful; in the meantime good MPs in marginal seats can be ousted, not because they have done anything wrong themselves, but because the electorate is punishing their party and its leaders – what kind of a stupid system is it that punishes the good and rewards the bad?

The problem, of course, is the party political structure, and the fact that there is very little recourse to punish MPs, because it is MPs who make the rules for their own employment.

At the moment the worst that can happen is that an MP can have the party whip withdrawn, effectively expelling them from their party; but with dozens of MPs involved, and from all parties, as one Labour aide told The Observer:

“Are we going to start removing the whip from 30 or 40 people? They could practically form their own party.”

Aye, and there’s the rub – they can’t actually be fired, but they can hang on until the next election, and what would be the manifesto of this new “Gravy Train Party”? One shudders to think.

Which raises another issue – why not have an election now? Ruth Fox, from the Hansard Society, a constitutional thinktank told The Observer:

“In the past, a general election would serve as a cleansing element to the body politic. That option is not available to voters now.”

Why not? The UK does not have fixed-term Parliaments, the maximum is five years, but at any point MPs can have a vote in no confidence in the Government, and the Prime Minister is obliged to dissolve Parliament and call a general election.

Maybe it would restore what little public confience there is in Parliament if all MPs were to vote for a general election right now, and every one of the MPs implicated either stood down, or stood as an Independent candidate; if the electorate felt that their worth outweighed the seriousness of their expenses claim, they would have no problem being re-elected.

Or better still, let’s try something new.