Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for May, 2015

Britain Right to Target FIFA’s Blatter

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 31st May, 2015

imageimageThe fact that Sepp Blatter’s re-election as President of FIFA failed to get a winning two-thirds plurality on the first round goes to show that a growing number of countries’ football bodies are unhappy at the way the pugnacious Swiss has presided over years of corruption and shady dealings. Though he is not one of the senior FIFA officials currently under investigation by the US Attorney General and the FBI, he should have accepted that the buck stopped with him, meriting his resignation. Instead, his challenger, Prince Ali bin Hussein of Jordan, withdrew instead of pushing the vote to a second round. The margin was too great to overcome, as so many countries around the world that have benefitted from FIFA’s largesse (including, allegedly, bribes and kickbacks to their soccer officials) were bound to give Blatter their support, as did France, shamefully. Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a warm congratulatory message to Blatter on his getting a fifth five-year term. Two of a kind, I can’t help thinking. I was pleased to see the UK Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, John Whittingdale, come out very strongly against Blatter’s FIFA reign in the Sunday Times today, and that newspaper’s long investigation into FIFA’s dodgy side deserves applause. Blatter himself observed snidely that Britain has sour grapes because it did not win either of the two forthcoming World Cup slots, but this only goes to show how out of tune he is with universal morality. Qatar did get one of those fixtures, in a still controversial decision.

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Sebastiao Salgado’s Genesis

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 29th May, 2015

imageimage I took a break from writing this morning to go to see the huge and imposing exhibition of back-and-white photographs by the Brazilian Sebastiao Salgado, which is running at the Galleria Municipal Torreao Nascente in Lisbon until 2 August. I had often seen Salgado’s work in the minimised format of magazine reproductions, but the sheer scale of some of the images full-size is arresting, whether it is a whale surfacing in the ocean to “blow” or a barren landscape populated with thousands of seabirds. The photographer obviously have a soft spot for penguins, but few of his shots could be called cute or even life-affirming. The overwhelming effect (not just because his photographic palate is limited to greys) is one of gloom, even doom. This is of course deliberate, as a major reason for this exhibition, which is touring the world, is to alert people to the dangers threatening the planet. Having earned quite a lot of money from his work, he has ploughed some of it back into reforestation in South America. But at times the exhibition does seem over-didactic. The photographs of people are particularly unsettling, not just because almost none of them smile but because the photographer seems distanced from them, a remote observer, which makes the viewer feel estranged too. There are some particularly fine portraits of tribesmen in Papua New Guinea, but others have treated such subjects with something that seems curiously lacking in Salgado’s technically brilliant work: human bonding, even love.

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Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 28th May, 2015

imageimageThe self-styled Islamic State shot to global prominence largely by its highly effective use of social media and video streaming to trumpet its egregious human riots abuses in Iraq, Syria and Libya, from the graphic beheadings of “unbelievers” and aid workers to the sale and rape of female slaves and pushing homosexuals off the top of high buildings. Until now, not much attention has been given to the ways that IS exploited social media platforms, but that lacuna has been admirably filled by Abdel Bari Atwan’s new book Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate (Saqi Books, £16.99). A veteran writer, broadcaster and editor on the Middle East, the author makes good use of his contacts both within territory controlled by IS and those outside. He understands why thousands of disaffected young Muslims (including converts) from around the world have rallied to the black IS flag, inspired by the notion of a new Islamic Caliphate. He analyses well the origins of IS ideology in the Wahhabi school of thought that developed in what is now Saudi Arabia in the late eighteenth century. He also, correctly, lays much of the blame for the spread of salafist extremism at the door of the Saudis, who have spent billions exporting their narrow prejudices. But in a sobering conclusion, Abdel Bari Atwan warns that IS extremism is likely to blow up in Saudi Arabia’s face one day. Just as Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida condemned the Saudi Royal family for its decadence and departure from the “true” path of Islam so Islamic State has the House do Saud in its sites. It is only a matter of time. And if Saudi blows, the aftermath will be felt globally. So, among all the confetti of recent publications on Islamic State choose this one, to be informed, even enlightened, but also alarmed.

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Media and Democracy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 25th May, 2015

imageBefore leaving London for Lisbon, I was one of two guest speakers (alongside my friend and colleague Lawrence Joffe) at a seminar on media and democracy at the House of Commons for visiting students from Turkey. I argued that without a free and diverse media than can be no true democracy; hardly original, I know, but particularly important in the context of modern Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is overseeing an assault on much of the Press — not just the Zaman media group affiliated to s ears thine friends but now major critics, the Gulen MovemeNt but really any last form that dares to challenge the orthodoxy that what the President does is right. In a few days time, Turkey will go to the polls, and although it is expected that the AKP will fall back a little it’s support is still strong in the rural areas especially, where people’s main source of information is the staterun television! which gives an un realistically rosy picture of events (as was shown graphically in its non-coverage of the Gezi Park protests a while back). Turning to the recent UK election I said that TV leaders debates are here to stay, and even if some of the content was superficial the fact that so many people watch them underlines their significance. Of particular relevance for an audience of school pupils, however, was the role of social media which, I maintained, offer people a way of engaging with politicians and holding them to account. Certainly no politician worth his or her salt can afford to ignore them.

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Dubai’s Creek

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 19th May, 2015

imageDubai has become synonymous with extravagant shopping malls and high-rise buildings, not least the current tallest edifice in the world, the Burj Khalifa. But when I have had free time in the city I have always gravitated towards the Creek, in the old city centre, which is one of the few places that hasn’t changed much in the 30-odd years that I have been coming here. The little passenger boats that shuttle people back and forth across the waterway are still there, and only charge 1 dirham (20p) for the ride — by far the best value attraction for any visitor. The area on the Bur Dubai shoreline has been smartened up, with several of the beautiful nobility’s houses with their wind towers tastefully restored, not least Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum’s house, which also doubles as a museum, with several rooms of fascinating black-and-white photographs of Dubai before modernisation and the oil boom. When I first came to the city, the airport (now very much downtown) was surrounded by desert and development along the Creek petered out very quickly. Lovely wooden dhows from Iran used to moor alongside the Deira waterfront, spilling their cargoes onto the walkway, while their crews, mainly from the Arabic-speaking areas of the Abadan coast, stared in a mixture of wonder and apprehension at the comparative sophistication of Dubai. These days they are fewer and have to tie up further up the Creek, somewhat out of view. I find it extraordinary that most Western tourists and expats working in Dubai prefer the malls and now the new marina to the Creek. It’s their loss, and our gain, for those of us who join the locals and the labourers who keep the area so vibrant.

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No, Simon Hughes Doesn’t Want a Peerage

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 14th May, 2015

Simon Hughes 1Simo0n Hughes thank you partyFor me the saddest, and in many ways most unexpected, result last Thursday night was Simon Hughes’s ousting from Bermondsey and Old Southwark after 32 years as the area’s member of parliament. One knew that Labour had been absolutely flooding the place with campaigners for months — including shedloads of Labour MPs who were urged to make the short trip across the Thames when they had a few spare moments — but Simon could have hardly have worked harder for his constituents throughout his long tenure. I am sure that those people in the constituency who voted Labour in the hope of keeping the Tories out will soon realise what a mistake they made. Anyway, this evening, at The Grange in Grange Road, there was an election thank you party for all who helped in Simon’s campaign, as many hundreds did from all over London and beyond. Far from being a wake, the event was quite joyful, not least because of the more than 11,000 new members who have joined the Liberal Democrats this past week, over 100 are in Bermondsey and Old Southwark, bringing useful new blood to an already strong local team, who have already declared that the fight back has started. Simon helped the upbeat mood by quashing the Labour Party rumour that he will accept a peerage. But being Simon he then made a speech that took us all down memory lane, from the very first time he stood for election as a Liberal in the area, as a GLC candidate. I was interested to note that he no longer says “thirteenthly” when he enumerates the points in his speech, and has instead learned that if one starts at three and moves down to one, you can then move back up again to another three without many people noticing. Because he is so widely loved, we all view such tactics with affection. Most of us even agreed to sing a song he had heard on SmoothFM as he was driving out of the House of Commons car park in his signature yellow taxi for the last time earlier today. And it was gratifying to hear from the man who was until last week Minister of Justice that he could not have borne to be in the department with the new incumbent Michael Gove in charge.

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Liberal Democrat Resilience

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 12th May, 2015

LibDems join usLast week’s general election results in Britain were a shock to almost everyone — including the opinion pollsters — but the cruellest blows were for the Liberal Democrats, who lost 48 of their 56 seats. Ministers such as Simon Hughes, Ed Davey and Vince Cable were among the casualties, as well as high flyers like Julian Huppert and Jenny Willott. In London, Labour crowed, though as their party was almost wiped out in Scotland and their leader Ed Miliband fell on his sword for failing to win the election, they had little real reason to do so.  I lost count of the number of Labour supporters tweeting how the Liberal Democrats are “finished”, “destroyed”. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Though the eight LibDem MPs are now outnumbered more than tenfold by their counterparts in the House of Lords, the party’s membership base is expanding rapidly. Over 8,000 new members have joined the LibDems so far this month, most of those following last Thursday’s election. That is a remarkable affirmation not only the party’s resilience but also of the need for a strong liberal voice now that we have a purely Conservative government which will start implementing some of the things that LibDems prevented them doing in Coalition. The LibDem bird Libby is indeed like a phoenix, rsing from the ashes of last wek’s defeat. And it is the duty of every local party to engage with the new members and to get them involved, including those who left because of the Coalition deal with the Conservatives but who are now ready to return to the fold.

To join the party go to: http://www.libdems.org.uk/join

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Europe Day in Oslo

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 9th May, 2015

imageimageNorway is not a member of the European Union, though as a member of the EEA, they have to obey European single market laws without having any imput into their formulation. In Oslo, they call that “fax diplomacy” — these days receiving instructions from Brussels by email, if they want (as they do) to function within the European single market of 500 million consumers. Incidentally, when they observe British conservatives flirting with the possibility of a Brexit, Norwegian politicians urge: Don’t do it! Anyway, it was interesting to be in Oslo today for Europe Day (9 May), not attending a concert in St John’s, Smith Square (London) for once, but at the City Hall in Oslo, following the Council meeting of the ALDE Party (European Liberal Democrats), which includes members from beyond the EU’s current boundaries. The (female, Conservative) Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, opened the event, demonstrating a singularly Nordic inclusiveness that is sadly still lacking in the UK. I attended a lunchtime fringe which was particularly interesting, showing how it is possible to increase wheat output in the EU, while at the same time boosting bio-diversity (including bird and bee life). This evening, we were the guests for Europe Day celebrations at Oslo City Hall, an extraordinary structure whose interior is redolent of the Socialist realist/fascist aesthetic of the 1930s. But the welcome from the Venstre deputy Mayor — young, trendy, and wearing orange Nike sneakers — could hardly have been more post-modern. As he said, in his welcome remarks, Oslo as a city would happily vote to be a member of the EU, but as for Norway, well, not yet…

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Back to My Roots

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 5th May, 2015

Jill, JF, DeniseOver the Bank Holiday weekend I had to take some enforced leave from general election campaigning to be in Manchester to take part in filming for a TV documentary about my childhood adoption and the recent reunion with my two blood-sisters. The past few months have been an emotional roller-coaster, from the moment my sisters wrote to me out of the blue, after tracking me down 63 years after our mother gave me up for adoption. The adoption itself was not a happy one and I could not forgive my adoptive parents for steadfastly refusing to give me any information about my mother, though they had met her and (as I have learned only recently) for several years she was living with my two sisters within walking distance of the house where I grew up. It was only after David Owen helped change the law in Britain, giving adopted children the right to access their original birth certificate, that I was able to start some detective work on my origins when I returned to London after seven years working in Brussels. I thus discovered my original identity was as Graeme Leslie Morton and that I had an elder sister; the fact that there was another, younger sister born after our mother remarried came as a complete surprise to both of us last year. Anyway, the story of our reunion was picked up by the Manchester Evening News (by a strange coincidence, the first newspaper that published my freelance articles when I was a teenage reporter in the Vietnam War), there was then a three-way Radio Manchester radio interview and now a full-blown TV documentary, filmed by Ricochet Productions, scheduled to be broadcast on BBC1 this summer. There were some emotionally tense moments during filming, not least when we visited our mother’s grave yesterday afternoon — the first “contact” I had had with her since she gave me up from adoption — but in many ways I feel I have achieved a degree of closure of many things that tore me apart as a child. Moreover, whereas I had rejected Manchester comprehensively because of my unhappy childhood I can now cherish my roots and appreciate my home town again. And for anyone who is in a remotely similar position I can testify: it is never too late to find out who you really are.

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The BBC Leaders Debate

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 1st May, 2015

Leaders Debate 2Television debates have now firmly established themselves as part and parcel of the British political process, even if Prime Minister David Cameron has tried to avoid a repeat of the 2010 head-to-heads with Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg, at which the Liberal Democrat leader established himself as the exciting new kid on the block. Cameron, Clegg and the new Labour leader, Ed Miliband, provided an hour-and-a-half of stimulating entertainment on BBC1 last night, in a Question Time special, even if the format was a series of half hour sessions with each in turn facing David Dimbleby and a feisty studio audience in Leeds rather than a genuine debate. Cameron went first, but as so often when he is interviewed he looked uncomfortable, even petulant at times. He avoided answering the question about exactly where a Conservative government would find an extra £12bn in welfare cuts and kept on insisting that the Tories were aiming for an overall majority on 7 May, even though not a single opinion poll in recent months has suggested that is possible. He is unlucky in that his face is so smooth that it looks somehow unhuman, though I’ve always thought the Guardian cartoonist’s caricature of him wearing a condom over his head somewhat cruel.

general election 2015Miliband was the most eagerly awaited, to see how he would fare, but I am sure I was not the only viewer astonished when he categorically ruled out any “deal” (let alone a Coalition) with the Scottish Nationalists — something the opinion polls suggest is almost inevitable if he is to get to No 10 Downing Street. He even said he would rather not be Prime Minister than have an arrangement with the SNP — a statement he may well live to regret. He echoed a phrase of David Cameron’s about secret Coalition talks in darkened rooms, similarly ignoring the fact that most of the British electorate has realised that we have moved into an era of Coalition politics in Britain, whatever the Labour and Tory leaders might wish. As he left the tiny raised stage Miliband slipped and almost fell onto a member of the audience. Metaphorically, he had indeed tumbled, and I suspect this will be the last time he is seen on a Leaders Debate.

Nick Clegg had the great advantage of coming last and even if he no longer has the novelty appeal of 2010 he is a consummate performer. An inevitable hostile question about tuition fees started off his interrogation, but he swiftly turned his response into a catalogue of the good things Liberal Democrats have done in government. He spoke eloquently about why he believes Britain must remain a member of the European Union (winning loud approval from The Economist on twitter) and came over not only as the only true internationalist of the three but also the only really human being. He was also the only who managed to make a joke that got the audience laughing, by suggesting that Cameron and Miliband ought to go and lie down in a darkened room if they thought they were capable of getting an outright majority. I may understandably be accused of bias but I do feel he “won” the debate. And it was definitely Ed Miliband who came off worst.

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