Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for April, 2008

Writing the Truth about Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 30th April, 2008

Last night, I attended the first UACES-Reuters Reporting Europe Awards, at the splendid Reuters building in Canary Wharf — or, to be more precise, the headquarters of the new company Thomson Reuters, as it became less than a fortnight ago. It’s nearly 25 years since I worked for Reuters in Brussels, but the need for accurate information about the European Union is just as imperative now as it was then. Alas, swaths of the British press prefer to peddle lies and myths. The keynote speaker at the awards ceremony, Niall FitzGerald, Deputy Chairman of Thomson Reuters, gave an amusing but also rather depressing run-through of some of the more grotesque stories of recent months. This was doubly depressing, in that firstly popular organs such as The Sun and the Daily Mail still peddle such misleading rubbish, and that secondly such a high proportion of the British public reads this gleefully, so they can indulge in a good bit of Brussels-bashing down at the pub or the golf club.

But the point of the new awards is to celebrate good, fair and accurate reporting of European issues, and it was reassuring to see just what a strong short-list of nominees the judges had to choose from: Bertrand Benoit of the Financial Times, John Peet of the Economist, the blogger J Clive Matthews and the BBC’s Europe Editor, Mark Mardell were the commended runners-up. However, the award went to my former colleague Allan Little, BBC World Affairs Correspondent — and well deserved too. As we approach the Euro-elections of June 2009, thank God there are some informed and sane voices among the cacophony of scare-mongers and xenophobes.


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Tesco’s Public Relations Disaster

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 30th April, 2008

Tesco’s has a love-hate relationship with the Liberal Democrats that is symptomatic of the ambiguous intercourse the company enjoys with both the public and the media. On several occasions, Tesco’s has generously sponsored receptions at LibDem Party conferences, a gesture much appreciated by those attending. And I’m sure I am only one of hundreds of thousands of LibDem members and supporters who have a Tesco ClubCard and regularly shop in its stores. So I am paticularly dismayed that at times the company pursues a line of action that offends my Liberal principles.

Domestically, that is sometimes related to the systematic acquisition of land, partly to keep it out of the hands of competitors. At other times, it is the stifling effect Tesco super-stores have on neighbourhood shops. Moreover, Tesco’s offshore tax structures have raised some LibDem eyebrows — and landed the Guardian with a libel suit for alleged false reporting of the situation.

But the reason I am moved to blog about a company that I otherwise value is its lunatic decision to sue three of its critics in Thailand for grossly disproportionate amounts of money. I cannot comment on the accuracy of the newspaper columns which provoked Tesco’s ire, and I understand the wish of any enterprise to defend its reputation, but I concur absolutely with the decision of leading fellow members of the writers’ organisation, English PEN, that Tesco’s response to the criticism is more than taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut: it is an assault on freedom of speech. If the defendants in the Thai libel cases are found guilty (under a pretty draconian law, which probably itself needs revising), they risk prison or massive fines, which will bankrupt them. The President and Director of English PEN, Lisa Appignanesi and Jonathan Heawood, as well as the LibDem peer Anthony Lester and leading authors Mark Haddon, Nick Hornby, Marina Lewycka and Deborah Moggach, have written an eloquent letter of concern to Tesco’s CEO, Sir Terry Leahy, urging the company to drop these actions. I like Sir Terry and in general I like Tesco’s, so I hope they will take heed. Surely they can see that this is a public relations disaster? You can read further details in today’s Guardian, or in Lisa Appignanesi’s piece on Comment Is Free.


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The Nick and Brian Show

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 29th April, 2008

Earlier this evening, Nick Clegg and Brian Paddick did a double act at a meet-the-people event at London Metropolitan University in the Holloway Road, chaired by the LibDem PPC for Islington South and Finsbury, Bridget Fox. Nick has been shuttling round the country recently, making himself accessible, while Brian is looking remarkably perky in the final straight for the London mayorals. It must have been all that training for the London Marathon.

Nick reached out to those people who are turned off by politics, acknowledging the high level of cynicism that exists among the British electorate, which largely explains the low turnout in recent elections. And he bluntly set out the real challenge facing him as leader of Britain’s third party: ‘How do you turn being right into being popular?’ For too long, the LibDems (and the Liberals before them) have waited like surfers for the wave of disaffection with either Labour or Conservatives to sweep them high up the beach (my analogy, not his!). The crucial test will be to build a sufficient swell of people who vote for LibDems for positive, not negative, reasons.

Brian (who has an op-ed in tonight’s Evening Standard) reiterated his message of persuading people to use the opportunity of the two-vote system in the London mayoral election to give him first preference, and then to give their second preference to whichever of Ken and Boris they dislike less. Journalist Pippa Crerar of the Evening Standard tried to pin him down as to which of the two he personally preferred, but he wisely said that on his own postal voting paper he had chosen someone who was neither Ken nor Boris (though he wouldn’t say who) for his second vote, thereby neatly avoiding what both the other leading candidates have been salivating for: his endorsement.


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Brian and Boris Woo the Latinos

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 27th April, 2008

Several hundred members of South London’s large Latin American community filled the main hall at the Elephant and Castle Leisure Centre this afternoon, to hear Brian Paddick and Boris Johnson make their mayoral pitch. Brian went down well with his observation that he left the Metropolitan Police because of his unhappiness over the handling of the Jean-Charles de Menezes affair. And his commitment to work to overcome the gap between rich and poor that has grown even wider since Labour have been in power, both in Downing Street and at City Hall, got a warm reception. Brian niftily batted a question from a Christian gentleman who asked whether he would drop mayoral support for Gay Pride by replying that London celebrates its diversity and he would be happy to see some support for religious festivals too.

Boris Johnson followed, the television and still cameramen almost falling over each other as he loped to the stage with the air of some crazed Icelandic nobleman. He banged on about putting more policemen on buses, and made quite a good joke about hoping that in future kebabs would be the most dangerous things in Peckham High Street. They say Central Office is keeping him on a short leash during the final stages of the campaign, but he still seemed pretty bonkers to me. Goodness knows who will actually run the Mayor’s Office at City Hall if Londoners are conned into voting for him.

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The Ghost of GBS and Michael Holroyd

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 25th April, 2008

Last night, I was at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square, Camden, that hotbed of socialist fervour, for a special meeting of the Shaw Society, at which its new President, the biographer Sir Michael Holroyd, was induced and toasted with deliciously chilled cava. Before the induction and refreshments, Jeremy Crow of the Society of Authors gave an informative and amusing account of George Bernard Shaw’s involvement with that body, on whose governing council he sat for several years, before withdrawing because of his anti-War views in 1915. Michael Holroyd, of course, wrote a celebrated 4-volume life of GBS, and has inherited tangentially a nice combination of seriousness and wit. The surroundings of the Tower Library at Conway Hall were just perfect for the event, and the assemblage of people appropriately diverse and (for the most part) quintessentially English.,uk


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Why I’ve Voted for Ken

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 25th April, 2008

For several years now, I’ve had a permanent postal vote, as that enables me to spend election day more usefully rather than traipsing to my local polling station. So I have already voted in the London Mayoral and GLA elections. In the former, an odd system is used, where voters get first and second preferences (why not go the whole hog and introduce STV?). My first preference went to Brian Paddick, of course, and after much agonising, I decided my second preference had to go to Ken Livingstone.

I scoured the list of the ten other candidates to see if there was anyone I could feel enthusiastic about, but there wasn’t. Sian Berry of the Greens ruled herself out by calling for the closure of City Airport (which has helped regeneration in East London where I live, and taken some of the pressure off Heathrow). Several of the others have unspeakable political views. So it was a straight choice between Ken and Boris Johnson. I understand why some people are so browned off by the current Mayor that they argue ‘anyone but Ken!’. And I think it is bad that he (or any other incumbent) was not limited to two terms. But the thought of Boris in charge at City Hall makes me choke. Ken has done some stupid things and there are sides to his character which I find off-putting. But he has also done some good things for London. Would Boris? I remain to be convinced. Anyway, Boris got ‘nul points’ from me. 

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Selling Europe at Kingston Grammar School

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 24th April, 2008

 This lunchtime, I was the guest speaker at the Politics Society at Kingston Grammar School (mercifully not stymied by the teachers’ strike). My brief was to put a pro-European case (something I am always happy to do), so I talked about the things that the EU has achieved over the past half century, what its potential is, and how it could be improved. Having done a number of school events around London over the past few years, I was expecting a more sceptical response, but the students were gratifyingly well informed, curious and constructive. Younger people in general, of course, are more receptive to the pan-European case, having realised not only the opportunities offered for study and work within a European single market of 500 million people, but also the fact that we live in a globalised world in which continental or sub-continental regions are going to be increasingly important.

I was interested to learn that a while back they had Gerald Batten, UKIP MEP for London, to speak to them. I met him a couple of years ago, when we both guests at some Euro-do, and he struck me as being perfectly pleasant but, as one might expect from UKIP, a bit off the wall on European realities. Apparently the Kingston students gave him quite a hard time. Gerald is of course standing for London Mayor, in the UKIP cause, which strikes me as being a hiding to nothing. But if I ran into him the street tomorrow, I would ask him: why are you as MEP running for Mayor of London? Do you think the European Parliament (for which the taxpayer is paying a lot of money for you to attend) is worthless, or do you think you will lose your European seat in 2009?


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Chris Davies and MEPs on the Fiddle

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 23rd April, 2008

Chris Davies, LibDem MEP for the North West of England, has made himself pretty unpopular amongst some of his colleagues with his campaign to open up MEPs’ expenses to greater scrutiny. But that doesn’t stop him being right. The fact that MEPs have now voted 442 to 209 against the publication of reports which uncovered widespread abuse of staff allowances can only result in greater public disdain for the European Parliament, which is anyway an institutuion of which few EU citizens know much. The cover-up is handing the issue on a platter to anti-European forces such as UKIP. But Chris Davies has rightly won the press coverage on this matter, and LibDems should champion their core belief in transparency and honesty in politics and its funding.


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A Brief Encounter on Waterloo Bridge

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 23rd April, 2008

Bleary-eyed and somewhat jet-lagged, I joined a pack of Southwark and Camden councillors, Simon Hughes, Chris Rennard and other LibDem worthies early yesterday morning, for a photo-shoot with Brian Paddick on the central reservation of Waterloo Bridge, as we all pretended to be a cross-river tram. The TV crews and phoographers loved it, even if the commuters struggling past us looked distinctly bemused. It made a change from delivering leaflets, anyway.

At the other end of the day, I was at the Gallery in Foyle’s bookshop for the launch of Andrew Hosken’s unauthorised biography of Ken Livingstone (Arcadia, £15.99), described by the Evening Standard in the following terms: ‘No book is more eagerly awaited in all campaign camps’. How many people will have the chance to read it before polling day next Thursday is another matter, but I shall be reviewing it. Hosken’s earlier book was about that other extraordinary London political figure, Dame Shirley Porter. Labour gliterati were out in force at the Foyle’s launch, but so too Merlene Toh Emerson, who is flying the LibDem flag in London West Central in the GLA elections. 

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Slovakia and the EU

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 21st April, 2008

 I spent most of this afternoon at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which hosted a conference on Slovakia’s accession to European Monetary Union, organised by the Slovak Embassy and International Financial Services London. As we heard from the Slovak Economy Minister, Lubomir Jahnatek, and the Governor of the National Bank of Slovakia, Ivan Sramko, Slovakia is on course to adopt the euro on 1 January next year. This is a remarkable achievement, when one thinks that this was meant to be the more disadvantaged half of the old Czechoslovakia, before the ‘Velvet Divorce’.

Moreover, Slovakia not only meets the Maastricht Criteria, which is necessary in order to enter EMU, it does so by a large margin on a number of issues, such as the inflation rate and public debt. As Manfred Schepers of the EBRD commented, Slovakia now finds itself strategically well placed to benefit from growth in the EU, the Balkans, Russia and the rest of the CIS. Interestingly, it is adopting the euro maybe as much as three years ahead of the Czech Republic. In Mr Jahnatek’s opinion, ‘now is the right time to join the euro, because Slovakia is very small, and its productivity is only 70% of the European average. Recently, the Slovak crown has been very strong, which has meant some enterprises have been operating at a loss.’ But being inside the eurozone should bring greater stability and a sharp increase in foreign trade and investment.


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