Jonathan Fryer

Witney: A Golden Opportunity

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 19th October, 2016

img_1518Tomorrow the voters of Witney in Oxfordshire will be going to the polls in a by-election caused by the resignation of former Prime Minister David Cameron. Normally this would be safe Conservative territory (despite the fact that one previous incumbent defected to Labour), but these aren’t normal times. David Cameron made the disastrous mistake of calling June’s EU Referendum, convinced that he would win, and his successor as PM, Theresa May, seems determined to march down the road to a “hard Brexit” despite all the warnings from economists about the damage that will do to Britain’s GDP. Interestingly, West Oxfordshire (of which Witney is the administrative seat) voted for Remain in the Referendum, but the Tory candidate is a Brexiteer. All this could produce a perfect storm for the Liberal Democrats as the party  that is not afraid to show its European colours. The LibDem candidate, a personable local businesswoman and councillor, Liz Leffman, is well known, having fought the constituency in 2005. Several pro-EU groups have endorsed her and hundreds of LibDem volunteers have been pouring in daily to campaign for her. The Tories deliberately called the by-election quickly, to avoid any opposition head of steam building up, so it is probably not likely that Liz can win, but coming a very strong second would send a very powerful message to 10 Downing Street. And if Liz did pull off an Orpington-style victory then the whole story of Brexit could be changed.

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UKIP’s Death Spiral?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 18th October, 2016

steven-woolfeThe UKIP MEP, Steven Woolfe, who was favourite to become the party’s new leader, has dramatically quit UKIP, though he intends to stay on as an MEP (why wouldn’t he, given the salary and benefits?). He recently spent several days in hospital after a fracas in the European Parliament with one of his fellow UKIP MEPs and he probably needs to watch his back now. He stuck the knife into his colleagues, metaphorically, with his resignation by declaring that UKIP is in a “death spiral” and that is “ungovernable”. Diane James, UKIP’s version of Lady Jane Grey, recently gave up the leadership after only 18 days, saying she did not have the confidence of the party, even though she got a firm mandate from UKIP members. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage, twice the party’s leader, is in a caretaker role, though he seems to think advising US presidential candidate Donald Trump to be a higher priority. Farage famously is at odds with UKIP’s single Westminster MP, Douglas Carswell. So things are looking pretty dire. However, it would be unwise to write UKIP off (much as the Conservatives, in particular, would like to do). MEPs defecting or setting up their own party have been a feature of UKIP’s history over the past decade or so, but that did not stop them coming top of the poll in the UK in the European elections in 2014. Some people argue that now that the Conservative government unwittingly finds itself in a situation where it is aiming to oversee Brexit then UKIP ceases to have a purpose. But if Prime Minister Theresa May is unable to bring about the “hard Brexit” she indicated at the Tory party conference then UKIP may be able to rally the more hardline Brexiteers. And of course, if Brexit doesn’t happen — a slim possibility, but not impossible — then UKIP would definitely be re-energised — with Nigel Farage once again at the helm?article-2737206-20e2281200000578-660_634x450

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We Chose to Speak of War and Strife

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 16th October, 2016

we-chose-to-speak-of-war-and-strifeFew people would call John Simpson, the septuagenarian BBC World Affairs Editor, a shrinking violet. For several years there was even a BBC programme called Simpson’s World and fellow broadcasters like to rib him about the time he “liberated” Kabul in front of the camera. But the ribbing comes mainly from admiration for the solid body of work that Simpson has carried out, not least in dangerous war situations, such as in Baghdad or Sarajevo. He is very much the go-to face to explain conflicts to the viewer, in a way that Kate Adie used to be. His exploits and associated reflections have moreover been covered in a series of books recounting what it is like on the frontline of international news. However, his latest volume (We Chose to Speak of War and Strife, Bloomsbury, £25) is somewhat different, as it is essentially a celebration of the world of foreign correspondents past and present, from Henry Crabb Robinson onwards. Scores of names — many who will be familiar to avid TV viewers and newspaper readers — fill the book’s pages, moving not so much chronologically or geographically but thematically. Chapters have such headings as Journeys, Scoops, Taking Risks and Getting Involved. Some foreign correspondents, such as Martha Gelhorn and Marie Colvin, showed incredible ingenuity as well as bravery, the latter paying for it with her life.

john-simpson Rather a lot of Simpson’s subjects perish in the later chapters, which is partly a reflection of the way that attitudes to correspondents have changed. When I was a cub reporter stringing for the Manchester Evening News during the Vietnam War it never entered my head to wear camouflage or a flak-jacket. Both sides in the conflict wanted their story told and were eager to help. But these days, all too often journalists are themselves targets, either for hostage-taking or gruesome execution, not least by fanatical Islamist groups, if not just ending up as collateral damage on the battlefield. Simpson being Simpson, of course he interjects his own experiences into that of others, sometimes as colleagues, but often in a more editorial fashion. He betrays a certain competitiveness which has indeed characterises much of the relationship between foreign correspondents working for different organisations, but there is also compassion. He has his favourites among colleagues, including Lyse Doucet and Frank Gardner, as well as some by whom he has been less impressed. He rightly laments the fact that even as news outlets and platforms have multiplied in the digital age the resources that are devoted to employing and dispatching foreign correspondents has shrunk substantially. So in a sense one is left with a feeling at the end of this book that it something of a swan-song, not just for John Simpson but also for the profession. That would be a shame, to put it mildly, as there is so much out there in the big bad world that we need to know about. .

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Brexit and the Commonwealth

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 14th October, 2016

jf-speaking-at-upf-conference-smallYesterday I was a keynote speaker at a conference on Cultural Diplomacy and the Commonwealth hosted by the Universal Peace Federation (UPF) and the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy (ICD) in London. My brief was to address the consequences of Brexit for the Commonwealth; some Brexiteers had argued that leaving the EU would enable the UK to forge closer links, especially in trade, with countries such as Australia. But they glossed over the fact that whereas trade with the rest of the EU accounts for 44% of total UK trade that with Australia is only 1%, and the potential for great expansion is not there. Moreover, Australia has in recent decades recalibrated its own trading relationships to focus more on China and South East Asia.

During the referendum campaign, some UKIP supporters in the North of England were telling Muslims of Pakistani origin that after Brexit, EU migrants would no longer be able to come to the UK as a right and that therefore more people could come from Pakistan. But that flies in the face of the fact that the Conservative government is determined to reduce numbers of immigrants across the board. The prospects for Commonwealth students are discouraging as well, as Home Secretary Amber Rudd has said that she will make it harder for students to come, which incidentally is economically illiterate as they are a big boost to the UK’s economy and should not be included in immigration figures at all.

Parts of the Commonwealth have done well out of Britain’s EU membership as African, Caribbean and Pacific nations were able to benefit from the Lomé Convention aid and trade deal and its successors. That has been especially useful for small and island countries. When Britain leaves the EU it will no longer be a champion for Commonwealth countries’ concerns over such matters as sugar and bananas. Although Malta and Cyprus will still be able to speak up, being both EU and Commonwealth members, their voice is inevitably weaker than that of Britain, as the Cyprus High Commissioner, Euripides Evriviades pointed out in a speech following my own at the UPF/ICD event. The Conservative government appears not to have fully taken into account how significant the impact will be of not having a seat at the EU table at the myriad ministerial and other meetings that take place, thereby seriously weakening the country’s influence. Furthermore, the withdrawal process from the EU and the subsequent complex bilateral trade negotiations between Britain and its trading partners are going to consume most of the government’s time and energy for years to come, as well as costing a great deal of money.

[photo by Euripides Evriviades]

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A Closed or Open Brexit?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 11th October, 2016

ciaran-devane-and-anSince the British EU Referendum in June there has been a lot of talk about “Hard Brexit” versus “Soft Brexit”, with Prime Minister Theresa May giving the impression that she favours the former, i.e. sacrificing access to the European single market in order to “get back control” of immigration. Remainers like myself not surprisingly think that is utter madness. But last night, at the British Council headquarters off Trafalgar Square, the Council’s CEO, Sir Ciaran Devane, asked an invited audience to think instead of the alternative between a “Closed Brexit” (with a more isolated Britain) or an “Open Brexit”, in which Britain would remain outward-looking and open not just for business but also for cultural interchange. Sir Ciaran was giving the Edmund Burke Lecture, sponsored by the venerable publication Annual Register and ProQuest, and made no secret of his own preference for Britain’s remaining in the EU, but if Brexit is going ahead then it is important that it proceeds in the most positive way possible. The British Council of course does have global reach, being active in around 150 countries and does far more than just promote British culture and values. Through its Young Arab Voices programme, for example, it is giving young people in the Middle East and North Africa skills that will help them express themselves. Other projects have a clearly developmental element of empowerment. Sir Ciaran lamented the fact that once Britain is out of the EU Ministers and officials will no longer be part of the regular meetings with our current 27 partners discussing all sorts of issues that impact on the creative industries. So it will be important to find other ways of exchanging information and views to prevent Britain becoming further isolated.

[photo: Sir Ciaran Devane and event chairman Alastair Niven]

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We Are Arrested

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 10th October, 2016

img_1484Silivri prison is a deliberately colourless place; the grey concrete, beige walls and lack of plants and even soil are all part of the system’s attempt to grind inmates down, to remove hope and joy from their lives and to drive them to obedience and conformity. In Silivri are thousands of Turkey’s political prisoners — people who dared to “insult” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or wrote critical pieces in newspapers or books, or who simply belonged to the Gulen movement, once Erdogan’s ally but now public enemy number 1. For three months, Can Dundar, Editor-in-chief of the prominent newspaper Cumhuriyet, was jailed in Silivri, after he published a piece exposing the covert shipment of arms to radical groups fighting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Like many others, he was held in solitary confinement, his every movement monitored, his contact with the outside world restricted, his future uncertain, as there was a real possibility that he would be given a life’s sentence when his case came to court. However, he was able to write, on the back of regulation order forms for prison meals and acccessories, and his writings were transmitted to his newspaper and foreign media including the Guardian, as well as forming the basis of a prison diary, We Are Arrested (Biteback £14.99). Moreover, because of his status, supporters mobilised, demonstrations and vigils were held outside the prison gates and freedom of expression NGOs such as PEN and Amnesty lobbied on his behalf. Meanwhile, Dunbar had the chance to meditate on many things, from the nature of freedom to the importance of family relationships and the petty tyranny of power. This means that his book is at times lyrical, at other times polemical, but always moving. He was lucky, because a court ruled that his imprisonment was illegal and he was released. But others have not been so fortunate and many thousands of people are in jail in Turkey, for believing or writing the “wrong” things. Indeed, in the wake of this summer’s abortive coup, people are still being picked up and incarcerated every day.

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Driving with Selvi

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 8th October, 2016

driving-with-selviAlthough the government of India banned child marriage in 2006, ten years later the practice is still prevalent, though numbers have been steadily falling. There are therefore still millions of young girls in India and other countries in Asia and Africa who are married off well before the age of 18, thereby losing the chance of continuing their education and being put at risk of violence from abusive husbands and serious complications or even death from pregnancies at too early an age. One such victim was Selvi, a young woman in the southern Indian state of Karnataka who was forced into marriage by her mother at the age of 14 and then ordered by her husband to sleep with other men for money. Many young girls in that situation would have committed suicide, but Selvi was fortunate to be welcomed into a progressive centre for young women after she ran away from her husband. There, one of the directors, Stanly (sic), gave her confidence by urging her to learn how to drive which led to her becoming first a taxi driver and then qualified to handle buses and trucks. She also found a loving new husband who was supportive of her unusual choice of career and when her first daughter was born, she determined that the little girl would be spared the misery and exploitation she had had to endure. That, in a nutshell, is the story at the heart of the documentary film Driving with Selvi by Canadian cineaste Elisa Paloschi, who presented it at the Bertha DocHouse in Bloomsbury, London, last night, with support from the United Nations and the Canadian High Commission. But the synopsis does not do justice to the arresting charm of the film itself, much of whose power derives from the extraordinary resilience and determination of Selvi herself, who is filmed over a period of 11 years. She is a simple, uneducated young woman from a small village but she learns how to cope with life in a patriarchal and often exploitative society, finding great joy in the self-validation provided by the experience of getting behind the wheel of a vehicle and being in control. The metaphor is obvious and in less capable hands the movie could have been saccharine, however Elisa Paloschi steers well clear of sentimentality, instead letting the story unfold and Selvi’s growing maturity develop with immense sensitivity and humour. It is a great study of female empowerment, in which anger and despair are channeled into something positive by someone who can be an effective role model for abused girls in India and beyond.. .

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The Case of Nabeel Rajab

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 7th October, 2016

nabeel-rajabYesterday I joined fellow member of English PEN along with other human rights activists at a vigil outside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London for the imprisoned Bahraini human rights campaigner Nabeel Rajab. He was due to be sentenced that day by a court in Bahrain, but in the event the decision was postponed until 31 October. He is charged with a list of freedom of expression “offences”, including insulting a Bahrain state institution and Saudi Arabia in online postings. He is also accused of “spreading false news and rumours and inciting propaganda during wartime which could undermine the war operations by the Bahraini armed forces and weaken the nation”. The government has insisted that Rajab, aged 51, remain in custody throughout his trial despite recurring health problems, for which he was briefly hospitalised in June. Nabeel had previously been serving a prison sentence for his human rights work, before being pardoned on health grounds, but he was rearrested in June, prior to his hospitalisation. Since the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, there has been a crackdown on dissent, especially among the island nation’s Shia majority, who argue that they are marginalised from society by the Sunni ruling elite. I used to go to Bahrain several times a year and prior to 2011 it was one of the most liberal states in the region. However, that has changed dramatically over the past five years and the last time I tried to go to Bahrain I was refused entry because of tweets I had posted criticising the government’s crackdown and in particular, the imprisonment of doctors who had treated wounded demonstrators. Yesterday, outside the FCO, I gave a short interview to LuaLuaTV, in which I said I was ashamed of the way that Britain’s Conservative government continues to give unconditional support to Bahrain’s regime despite its egregious human rights abuses. So does our royal family, for which they should be challenged. In the meantime, human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Index on Censorship will continue to campaign for Nabeel Rajab and other detainees and journalists such as myself will make our voices heard. jf-interviewed-by-lualuatv

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Can Istanbul Be Saved?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 30th September, 2016

img_1450When I first came to Istanbul nearly 50 years ago (as described in my childhood memoir, Eccles Cakes), it was an enchanting and exotic city of wooden houses, water-sellers and boats across the Bosphorus. Today, it is six times larger and the more they build and widen roads, the more the cars and lorries rush in to fill them. The romantic skyline looking northwards across the Golden Horn is now pierced by glass and steel towers in the distance. But it is not only in previous suburbs or vacant areas that high-rise development of an often undistinguished kind is racing ahead. Even in Pera, which used to be the elegant “European” quarter running down from Taksim Square, whole blocks are being demolished, and where new buildings are going up, they are totally out of character and bland. Even worse has been the loss of green space and trees. This morning I went to look at the gardens that used to be at the side of the (now refurbished) Pera Palas hotel. But they have gone, replaced by a huge, flat concrete slab — foundations for what, I wonder? The proposed removal of Gezi Park at Taksim brought thousands of protestors into the street and a temporary dispensation. But other areas around have been flattened and paved over. As the government prepares to prolong the state of emergency imposed after this summer’s abortive coup, will even Gezi Park be up for grabs for a megastore once again? Istanbul still has great appeal, but it it is no longer the unforgettably beautiful city that it was, and unless rigorous planning and preservation orders are brought in, I fear it will be totally ruined within a generation.img_1448


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Brexit and the Baltic States

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 26th September, 2016

Baltic States flags.jpgA few days before June’s EU Referendum invited to Riga to give a lecture on Brexit at the University of Latvia. The mood among the audience (and other speakers) was one of total mystification: why would Britain want to leave the EU after more than 40 years, when other countries are knocking on the door to get in? Three months later, the attitude of the Baltic States to the Brexit vote is one of sorrow and dismay, partly because they believe Britain’s departure (if it happens) will weaken the EU but also because they feel it will affect them. The possible return home of Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonia migrants currently working in the UK is one outcome, but as the Lithuanian Ambassador to the Court of St James’s, Asta Skaisgiryte, said at a Political and Economic Circle Forum at the National Liberal Club this evening, a major concern is about security, in particular the way that the EU will or will not continue to stand up to Russia. All the Baltic states are nervous about Vladimir Putin, following the Russian encroachment into Georgia and Ukraine, not to mention the dreadful decades of Soviet occupation, human rights abuses and deportations. But the Ambassador also highlighted a specific potential threat from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, arguing where would its growing naval and military might be focused if not westwards to Europe? Baroness Judith Jolly, a LibDem spokesperson on defence in the House of Lords. also concentrated on security matters in her comments from this evening’s panel. Although Britain will remain a member of NATO, pulling out of EU cooperation could weaken the North Atlantic Alliance. Moreover, Brexit could be a prelude to other political events that would have been unthinkable only months ago, such as a possible Donald Trump victory in the US presidential election in November or the triumph of the Front National’s Marine Le Pen in next year’s French elections. It was interesting that an unusually large turnout had registered for the seminar, which also heard from Tom Brake MP, LibDem Foreign Affairs spokesman in the Commons, Vytis Jurkonis from the Freedom Association office in Vilnius, and the Chairman, Lord Chidgey.

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