Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for April, 2018

Tata Diplomat Awards 2018

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 24th April, 2018

Diplomat awards 2018Last night I was at the Jumeirah Carlton Towers in Knightsbridge for the annual Diplomat Awards, arranged by Diplomat magazine — for which I have sometimes written — and sponsored by the Tata group (among others). This is the opportunity London’s sizable diplomatic community has to recognise outstanding members within its own ranks. Laureates are chosen within geographical regions and last night’s winners were the Ambassadors or High Commissioners of Algeria, Austria, Belarus, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Malawi and Papua New Guinea, with special awards for the wife of the Cypriot High Commissioner, a young diplomat award for the Press and Culture secretary of the Italian Embassy and an institutional award for the International Maritime Organisation (IMO — the only UN agency based in London). I became involved with the diplomatic community when I was the Honorary Consul of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania to the Court of St. James’s (1991-2000) and as a writer and broadcaster focusing mainly on the Middle East and North Africa I find diplomatic gatherings invaluable for picking up information and making contacts. Diplomats based in London are having a particularly busy time at present, trying to interpret Brexit and its likely consequences, though it is no secret that most believe Britain’s leaving the European Union is an act of folly.

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Pay No Heed to the Rockets

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 23rd April, 2018

Pay No Heed to the RocketsFor such a small territory, Palestine has generated a disproportionate amount of books; I have several shelves-full in my library. But most of those works are about history, war and the search for peace. Literature rarely gets a look in. So Marcello Di Cintio’s journey among Palestinian writers in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, Pay No Heed to the Rockets (Saqi, £8.99, officially published next month) is both refreshing and informative. The writers the Canadian author encounters physically or through texts range from the dead and famous, such as poet Mahmoud Darwish, to brave young literary activists (some feminist, one gay) mainly working in cafés in Ramallah, Gaza City and Haifa. Each has a unique story, all in some way affected by the dispossession and dislocation caused by 1948 and/or 1967, but to very different degrees. Marcello di Cintio says he was prompted to embark on this project — part travelogue, part lyrical tribute to the craft of writing — by a picture of a young girl joyfully retrieving her rather battered books from the rubble of her home after an Israeli attack on Gaza. The author managed to track her down, as well as some of the writers who have been harassed at times by the Palestinian Authority or Hamas. One of the most moving passages in the book recounts a visit he made to a venerable family library in Jerusalem’s Old City which has successfully fought off expropriation by Israel and encroachment by so-called settlers. As usual when Palestine and the Occupation are being examined, there is much to make one angry or depressed, but one of the great strengths of Di Cintio’s book is that he does not become emotionally partisan, nor does he lose his critical faculties while hearing the stories of those he meets along the way. They emerge from the text as recognisable individuals, with their strengths and their foibles, and one gets a clear sense of the environments in which they live and work. All in all, this is one of the best books I have ever read about Palestine and it should prompt people to get to know some of the work by the Palestinian writers themselves.

(Marcello Di Cintio will be visiting the UK 15-20 May)

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UK Should Not Be a Hostile Environment

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 22nd April, 2018

Home Office billboardsIt’s hard to be optimistic about the state of Britain these days, not just because the country’s economic growth rate has sunk from the top of the OECD countries to the bottom as Brexit looms but also because of the tensions now evident in society. The EU Referendum result left the UK deeply divided, and those divisions have got worse, not better, as the months have gone by. Moreover, there has been a surge in xenophobic and racist incidents as an unpleasant minority within the British public has felt emboldened by the Brexit vote to tell foreigners to “go home” or to stop speaking languages other than English. Such actions should be recognised as hate crimes and dealt with accordingly.

May RuddBut what I find even more disturbing is the way that the Conservative government has encouraged such attitudes — cheered on by the more obnoxious elements of the mainstream Press. The latest shocking revelations about the way some members of the so-called Windrush Generation and their children (immigrants who were invited to come to Britain after the Second World War, to help rebuild the country and run essential services) have had their right to remain questioned by the Home Office, leading to some losing their jobs or their homes and being denied free medical care, while others have been put in detention centres or been deported, after living here for half a century. It is now clear that much of the blame for this rests on the shoulders of Theresa May, currently Prime Minister but previously Home Secretary. It was under her watch that the infamous vans went round telling “illegal” immigrants to go home, before they were withdrawn after a public outcry. And it is both Mrs May and the current Home Secretary Amber Rudd who have pursued a policy of promoting a “hostile environment” to people who allegedly should not be here.

Even some Labour Home Secretaries, such as the jovial Alan Johnson, used that terrible phrase sometimes. And it is hardly surprising that it has been embraced by those who dislike the multicultural reality of much of Britain today. But it is not only people of colour who are feeling the impact. Even EU citizens have been the brunt of attacks and nasty comments. No wonder some have left and that many others (some married to UK partners) are worried about their future. Mrs May and her ghastly government have failed to tackle this problem head on. Indeed, both by their words and their actions, they have encouraged it. That is why on 3 May those who live in an area holding elections use their vote to send a clear message to 10 Downing Street: this is not the Britain we believe in.

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BBC Arabic Festival 2018

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 21st April, 2018

BBC Arabic Festival 2018 openingLast night I was at the Radio Theatre at Broadcasting House in London for the opening ceremony of the 2018 BBC Arabic Festival. Now an annual event, this celebrates the output of young and independent filmmakers producing work that reflects the changing Arab world of today. That includes some full length feature films, but most of the films screened are non-fiction shorts or documentaries, inevitably focusing predominantly on conflict, occupation and exile. There is an added reason for celebration this year as it is the 80th anniversary of the BBC Arabic language radio service (which used to broadcast a lot of my current affairs talks in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was based at Bush House). Last night’s programme featured a live interview with Gazan film director Mohamed Jabaly, winner of the 2017 festival’s Young Journalist Award, who introduced and showed nine minutes of his latest work in progress, Stateless, about a diverse group of young Arab asylum seekers sharing a flat in northern Norway. Also screened were Rana Kazkaz and Anas Khalaf’s Mare Nostrum, about a Syrian father’s attempt to get his six-year-old daughter safely across the Mediterranean to Europe, and Fate, Wherever It Takes Us, an experimental autobiographical short by a Syrian woman, Kadar Fayyad, who has found sanctuary in Amman, Jordan. The festival runs at the Radio Theatre until 26 April; entry is free but tickets must be booked online via the site linked below:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/showsandtours/shows/bbc_arabic_festival_2018

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Isle of Dogs ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th April, 2018

Isle of DogsWes Anderson’s quirky imagination and deep love of film guarantee that anything he directs will give cinephiles much food for thought as well as entertainment, and in his latest stop-motion animation offering, Isle of Dogs, there is so much content that at times it is hard to digest. The basic plot is simple, however, like any good fantasy or fairy tale: a cat-loving despotic mayor in a dystopian future Japanese city banishes all dogs to an island used as a giant garbage dump. But his 12-year-old ward is distraught at the loss of his guard-dog, Spots, and sets off to find him. Meanwhile the dogs have started to organise themselves and a plan is put into place to turn the tables on wicked Mayor Kobayashi, with the aid of a feisty American girl exchange student in a blond fright wig. However, this simple tale is framed in settings of immense complexity, stuffed full of cultural and cinematic references. There is a distinct irony in this, as so much classical Japanese theatre uses almost no scenery, leaving the audience to imagine the location from the context of the words and action, whereas in Anderson’s film there is so much visual detail that at times one’s mind is totally consumed by taking it all in, to the extent that one’s concentration drifts away from the story. All the classic Japanese stereotype scenes are there, from sushi preparation to sumo wrestling and falling cherry blossoms, much to a soundtrack of dramatic taiko drums. But other references are more nuanced, including not only homage to Japanese art and architecture but also Japanese cinema, from Kurosawa to anime. Much of the dialogue is in Japanese, only some of which is translated, which may sound a bit strange yet works effectively in intensifying a sense of mystery; the dogs have difficulty understanding much of what the humans are saying. The dogs all talk American English, voiced by well-known actors such as Bryan Cranston and Scarlett Johansson, For me that was the only really jarring thing about the film, playing into a subconscious Hollywood narrative of a plucky American kid helping dogs overcome a monstrous adult. Otherwise, the film could not do more to celebrate Japan and things Japanese, though some people might feel at times it veers towards cultural appropriation. I don’t think that is the case. Having studied in Japan as a young man, I revelled in a lot of the references as well as in the jokes. There is a clever balance between humour and seriousness throughout. But I do think Anderson tried to cram too much in — which probably means one needs to see the film more than once to get anything like a full appreciation.

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Last Chance for EU Citizens?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 17th April, 2018

EU citizens register to voteToday, Tuesday 17 April, is the last chance for people to register to vote in the local elections on 3 May, if they are not already on the electoral roll. This is particularly important for citizens of EU countries other than the UK, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta, as it is unlikely that they will retain their voting rights after Brexit, so this may be the last opportunity they have to make their voice heard. The franchise in all UK elections is currently given to all legally resident Commonwealth and Irish citizens, but other EU nationals don’t have the right to vote in the national parliament elections. However, everyone will lose their vote for the European elections, which are due in June next year, as the UK will no longer have the right to send MEPs to Brussels/Strasbourg. In London, which has all-out elections in all 32 boroughs, there are a large number of EU citizens; in some wards, one or two thousand, which means that their participation in next month’s elections could swing the result. That’s why a number of community NGOs, as well as several political parties, are urging them to register and to vote, to send a strong anti-Brexit message to 10 Downing Street (and to Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, for that matter). A strong performance by anti-Brexit parties, including the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, will help boost the campaign for a People’s Vote on the final deal agreed between the UK government and the EU. And as public dissatisfaction over looming Brexit realities (as opposed to Brexit fantasies) grows, there is even an outside chance we could pull back from the brink.

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The People’s Vote Rally

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 15th April, 2018

13270BDE-5C74-40BF-8ED6-AF751E5A5521Over a thousand people gathered at the Electric Ballroom in Camden Town this afternoon to call for a People’s Vote on the Brexit deal that Theresa May and her Brexiteer Ministers are already having problems negotiating. Actor Sir Patrick Stewart — who had been on the Marr Show earlier in the day, championing the Exit from Brexit cause — gave a stirring keynote address, after which a cross-party panel of MPs took up the baton: Caroline Lucas (Green), Layla Moran (LibDem), Chuka Umunna (Labour) and Anna Soubry (Conservative). There was a tiny demonstration of pro-Brexit supporters outside the venue, but they seemed overawed by the long queue of people waiting to get in, eagerly picking up stickers and flags to wave in the hall. The central argument of the campaign (which has consistently LibDem policy, incidentally) is that the British electorate deserves to have the chance to say yay or nay to whatever is on offer for Britain’s future relationship with our current 27 EU partners. It is clear that many of the Leave campaigns promises cannot be delivered. Indeed, as Anna Soubry stressed, no deal that will be on offer can be as good as what we enjoy as members of the EU. The rally followed nationwide street stalls and demonstrations around the country yesterday, and for those of us who believe that Brexit is an act of collective madness from which people should be given the opportunity to retreat, it is encouraging how many more people are getting board the cross-party movement for a People’s Vote — including many Leave voters who have since realised they were conned.

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BBC Wrong to Air “Rivers of Blood”

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 14th April, 2018

50C742FC-9CF2-4D0C-9C21-7E1CA9809270I worked for BBC World Service for 20 years from 1983 and was proud to be part of an organisation that broadcast quality, objective news around the world. From Hanoi to Santiago de Chile, millions of poeople tuned in to hear the stories their own local media denied them. So it has been personally distressing to me to witness how the Corporation’s standards and news values have declined in recent years, notably since we have had Conservative Prime Ministers in 10 Downing Street. The BBC possibly swung the Leave victory in the 2016 EU Referendum, by giving undue airtime to Nigel Farage (on Question Time more often than any other person bar the presenter, David Dimbleby)  and by failing to challenge politicians who came out with outright lies on air. But today, the BBC is hitting rock bottom by broadcasting in its entirety Enich Powell’s notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech, which stoked racism and anti-immigrant sentiment in 1960s Britain. To claim that it is justifiable to broadcast the speech now because it is its 50th anniversary is disingenuous. There has already been a surge in xenophobic incidents in Britain since the Brexit vote and the BBC should not be surprised if after today there are more. The producers and managers concerned should hang their heads in shame.

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Winning Here

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 10th April, 2018

0BC563C7-00F1-4254-A995-6EFB48B87F6DFor more than two decades, Chris Rennard was the Liberal Democrats’ campaign guru, masterminding successive by-election wins and astounding many media professionals by being able to predict results with uncanny accuracy (sometimes winning himself some useful cash with judiciously-placed bets at the same time). But as his memoir Winning Here (Biteback, £25) makes clear, he was something of a political anorak when he was barely out of short pants (and an orphan), cutting his teeth in the not always friendly environments of Liverpool and Leicester. His talents were soon recognised at the HQ in London, where he graduated from being a one-man campaign band to be the head of a team of 20. Ah, those were the days. Under his stewardship (later with the starring role of Chief Executive) he nurtured the growth of the Party until it won 62 seats in the 2005 general election, post-Iraq War, with Charles Kennedy as party leader. Willie Rennie’s by-election win soon after was the cherry on the top, taking the LibDems to an unrivalled 63 in the House of Coomons (and a hefty contingent in the House of Lords, too, including Chris Rennard himself).  But the wheels we’re beginning to come off the LibDem bandwagon, with Charles’s imminent resignation because of unchecked alcoholism, Simon Hughes’s sexual orientation confusion and Mark Oaten’s walk on the wild side. The book ends there, on a note of triumph, but with storm clouds gathering. But I am sure I cannot be alone in being a little perturbed by the fact that the cover says this is Memoirs Volume 1. Given the rumpus over Chris’s alleged inappropriate behaviour (unproven, a subsequent inquiry decided), maybe it would be wiser to call it a day here. As it is, for a longstanding campaigner and serial candidate such as myself, this book is a treasure trove of memories and anecdotes. I know/knew virtually everyone mentioned, and campaigned with many of them. Interestingly, the European elections get only scant coverage, confirming my suspicion that Chris (and some others in HQ) saw them as a somewhat irritating sideshow. The parliamentary by-elections were the things that kept him motivated — often working grotesquely long hours, detrimental to his personal health — and we can gloriously relive them all here and remember when for Liberal Democrats, the good times really were good.

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Full LibDem Slate for Tower Hamlets

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 5th April, 2018

THLDs 1Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrats are running a full slate of borough council candidates for the election on 3rd May, for the first time since 2010 (when I was the parliamentary candidate for the constituency of Poplar & Limehouse). Elaine Bagshaw is our Mayoral candidate. This time I’m standing for Council in my home ward of Mile End, along with Richard Macmillan and Tabitha Potts. As in much of the country, the local party was hit badly by the fallout from the 2010-2015 Coalition government with the Conservatives (despite the fact that several positive LibDem policies were introduced during that time, including the pupil premium, a substantial rise in the personal tax allowance and same sex marriage). However, in common with most other London borough local parties, Tower Hamlets LibDems have experienced a great surge in members (now well over 700) and keen young activists. Many of these have been motivated by the shock of the 2016 EU Referendum result (for which London as a whole did not vote Leave, Tower Hamlets markedly so) and the linked fact that under the leadership of Vince Cable the LibDems have firmly established themselves as the party of ExitFromBrexit, in sharp contrast to Theresa May’s Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. That is a message that is going down well on the doorstep, not least among the thousands of (non-UK) EU citizens — many of them married to or living with Brits — who are alarmed by the threats to their situation post March 2019. Of course, EU citizens can vote in local elections (but not in national ones, unless they are from Ireland, Cyprus or Malta) and their participation in this May’s vote could have a decisive effect on the outcome. Both for them, and for UK and Commonwealth citizens resident in Britain who are not yet on the electoral register, do please register by the deadline of 17 April. It’s a quick and easy process to do online through the government website:

https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIodGxhKKj2gIVir_tCh3SDAO1EAAYASAAEgLmV_D_BwE

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