Archive for the Current Affairs Category

Questioning Polls 

Posted in Brexit, Current Affairs, Politics, Referendum, Society on June 19, 2016 by richardhowle

I don’t know about you, but I am fed up with this referendum campaign.  The campaigners on both sides have treated the electorate with contempt as if we are all idiots incapable of making a rational decision based on facts without being bullied, bribed or frightened. It has all been pretty distasteful, pathetic and quite frankly childish. It reached its nadir with the ridiculous spectacle of Bob Geldof and Nigel Farage trading insults each other whilst they floated up the Thames on rival boats. 

All this campaign has done is to expose the dearth of talented politicians that we have in this country. People complain about MP’s pay and their pay rises and whilst with this bunch it is easy to have some sympathy with those complainers, it does prove the old adage – pay peanuts get monkeys. I should qualify that statement by acknowledging that in comparison to most people,  MP’s are paid very well and is certainly not peanuts. But we put a lot of responsibility in the hands of those 650 odd people who represent us (it will be even more responsibility if we vote for Brexit)  so therefore, surely we want the very best people handling that responsibility? To attract the best, we need to pay for the best.  Unfortunately the best can earn far more working elsewhere and an MP’s pay is peanuts in comparison. Why would or should they take a pay cut to become Members of Parliament?

Anyway, I digress before I have even started.  In the last General Election the pollsters famously got it very wrong- throughout the campaign Labour were polling ahead of the Conservative Party and ended up being comfortably beaten. There was shock, not just amongst the pollsters but also the Twitterati – those that inhabit social media. In the lead up to the General Election, Labour supporters were shouting very loudly on Facebook and Twitter, so much so that it was easy to think that this was a true reflection of how everyone felt. But the reality of the situation is that there are vast swathes of the population who aren’t on social media – and of those that are , how many are expressing political opinions?  Think about your own Facebook account (if you have one) – let’s say you have 200 friends, how many of them posted about politics during the General Election? 20, 50, 80 – maybe even 100?  Probably for most people less than half of their friends posted about politics. Now of course many of those who did, did so a lot – and often quite forcibly and on my timeline it was largely in support of the Labour Party. Therefore it was quite easy to wrongly assume that this was what everyone was thinking, particularly combined with the polls which all pointed to a Labour victory. 

In reality, the silent majority spoke and the Conservatives won out, much to the consternation of the left. But why were they silent? I suspect that there are two reasons, and this is only my conjecture and not based on any research. Firstly the naturally more inclined conservative voter is less likely to be on social media (elderly etc), which as discussed earlier is a lot of people. My use of the small ‘c’ in that last sentence was deliberate – less likely to be radical or inclined toward change – supposedly what the Labour Party were offering. Secondly, for those on social media, the vitriolic rhetoric of a lot of the left meant that staying quiet was the best option for an easy life.  They chose to do their talking at the ballot box.  The pollsters claimed that their pre election polls were wrong because many people lied to them and were really secret  Conservative Party voters. I can understand that, such was the climate it is easy to believe that people were  wary or ashamed to admit that they were voting Tory. Although the polling companies will deny this, I think that the way many of the polls are conducted, primarily online, does not truly represent a lot of people – many of whom may be unwilling or unable to participate in an online poll.

Which brings me back to the referendum. It is easy to forget that your social media timelines are unique to you. Your friends are likely to be from a fairly similar demographic.  I work in theatre, many of my Facebook friends or the people that I follow on Twitter do as well.  The social media posts that I read are therefore  not representative of the wider population. With the majority (of those expressing a view) on my Facebook and Twitter feed supporting the “remain” campaign I thought I would conduct own poll on Twitter to see how my followers felt on the subject. Although my followers choose me rather than the other way round, I thought it was reasonable to expect that they were likely to be of a similar bent to the people I follow / am friends with – so I expected a remain victory.

However the poll was quickly picked up by “leave” campaigners, retweeted over 30 times by them and quickly dominated by leave votes.  In the end, Leave comfortably won with 82% of the vote. 

It immediately reminded me of the General Election – where Labour voters dominated social media, creating the impression that it was on course for an easy victory.  So although the “leave” campaign seems to be winning both in the polls and on social media, will the silent conservative (with a small ‘c’) majority do their talking at the polling booth once more  and produce a “shock” win for remain? I for one do not believe the result of my Twitter poll. Leave may very well win, but not by such a large majority.  Polls are not to be trusted. 

Who knows? But one thing is for sure – that I think the majority will be in agreement about – I’ll be glad when it’s all over 

Friendship not Fences

Posted in Current Affairs with tags , , , , on August 2, 2015 by richardhowle

It strikes me as a somewhat of a paradox that the people who rail against those migrants trying to enter into the UK are often the same people who rail against the UK International Development programme.
Over the past few weeks the UK Government has given France millions of Pounds to help boost security in and around the Channel ports and Eurotunnel, but just think how much more effectively that money could be if it were spent in the countries where these poor souls were coming from.


What can they be fleeing from that means that they are risking life and limb, undergoing horrendous conditions in order to cross two continents to reach this small island? Surely we would be better off trying to address those issues, the root cause of the problems around the Channel ports, rather than dealing with it once they have battled their way to get here. Quite frankly, if migrants have endured the treacherous journey to get here, then a few extra fences are not going to stop them.

By not addressing the root cause of why these people are wishing to leave their countries we are only creating a vicious circle. We need to ensure that there is more reason for people to stay in their country of birth than to leave it, because this situation is fast becoming critical. Not for the wealthy nations of Europe (despite what you may read in the Daily Mail), but for the countries where these migrants are coming from. With thousands of (mainly young) leaving, these countries are being stripped of a generation who, if they were to stay, could build and develop their countries into thriving and prosperous nations. Because, (and perhaps most importantly of all), the people who are leaving the country are amongst those who are best equipped to undertake that rebuilding – the educated middle classes.

It is too easy to dehumanise the migrants, we are encouraged by our politicians and our media to view them as inferior. We all know the name of the lion that was killed this week, but how many of us can name one of the migrants who died trying to cross the Channel this week? But these people are intelligent and (relative to their country-folk) prosperous individuals -it costs thousands of dollars for them to make the journey. The people who are camped in and around Calais are not the poor and the destitute, they are the educated elite, who can speak a foreign language, who have been schooled, who have been sent by their families over here as they have the best prospects of making a better life for themselves.

That is why International Development is so important, in order to avert “crisis” over here (and really in World terms, a few extra hours waiting to catch a ferry is not really a crisis) we need to avoid a proper crisis in the countries where this brain drain is occurring. We need investment to create development programmes so that there is an alternative and opportunity for those people who currently see no other option than to travel thousands on miles in search of a better life. Let us help them to create a better life for themselves and their families and their country and to put an end to the vicious circle.

That, for me, is why is why the International Development budget is so important and why those who are complaining about the migrant issue should be supportive of it. Now, how that budget is spent and used is a whole different subject – why we continue to give aid to countries that have a space programme (India) is a mystery to me. It is this that should be at the heart of international development debate – not the budget itself.

And, finally, how do we solve the current situation, which isn’t really a crisis – but more of a tragedy? Because what I have spoken about here is a long term fix and doesn’t address the current problem of thousands of migrants who are currently at the mercy of ruthless people smugglers. It isn’t going to be solved by the French paying British holiday makers compensation (thanks for that helpful intervention, Harriet Harman), it can only be solved by an EU wide effort – putting proper investment into processing migrants when they first arrive in Europe and arranging for the fair and safe relocation of them across the whole continent. At least by controlling the situation at the point of arrival we can protect migrants from exploitation, injury and death and start treating them as human beings.

Learning From History

Posted in Current Affairs, History, Society, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on March 17, 2013 by richardhowle

I have always loved history. At school I was lucky enough to have teachers who helped me understand that history is about understanding and learning, not facts and figures. Facts and figures are important, yes – but only to aid that understanding and to provide context.

This week Paul and I had a birthday break in Berlin and as we sat on tour bus going round the city (traveller tip – always a great way to get your bearings in a new city) my heart sank as the pre recorded commentary spouted pointless facts and figures about a beautiful city. “This road is 50 meters wide”. Who cares? I can see how wide it is, tell me something that will help me understand its significance to the city, tell me about the things that have happened here…..

Thankfully the whole visit wasn’t like this and a visit to the Checkpoint Charlie museum helped provide an insight into what life was like in the divided city and what impact it had on all of our lives. I have been lucky enough to visit lots of museums and exhibitions in lots of cities around the world that have helped feed my love of history and my understanding of the world that we live in. The ones that have a human edge to them, real life accounts of what life was like, such as the Museum of Occupation in Riga or the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, are the ones that are the most illuminating and informative.

However just reading about events or examining artefacts still isn’t enough. Nothing beats experiencing it for yourself. Meeting the people, seeing the locations,  watching, listening, smelling, touching – getting under the skin of a place is really what makes  history come alive.

When I was younger I was lucky enough to go to Moscow and there I visited the Moscow Arts Theatre and watched a production of Chekov’s A Cherry Orchard. I had studied it school and thought that I understood it. But it wasn’t until I saw the play in context, performed in Russia, by Russian actors with a Russian audience that I really understood it.

So whilst I have read a lot about Berlin, the second world war and the cold war, actually visiting Berlin has given me a whole new level of understanding. Seeing the city, understanding the geography and impact of the wall, visiting the museums, viewing the exhibits and displays and imagining what life must have been like. Then sitting on a train opposite an old German woman and realising that she had lived through it all, suddenly makes it real. Makes it human. What if it was you, what if it was your city? This didn’t happen to the nameless and faceless, this happened to you and I.

Berlin wall

A City Divided

This is why history is important. To help us understand what has happened, to provide context for what is happening today and to help inform our decision making about tomorrow.

Facts and figures, dates and statistics are all very good, but they don’t explain why and how. History is a real, living thing and we will do well to listen to it and to learn from it.

BBC bashing

Posted in Current Affairs with tags on November 12, 2012 by richardhowle

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a fantastic country and its people are amongst the finest in the world. It is a country and a people that have contributed so much to humanity and that have achieved so much. Yet to talk like this is distinctly un British

For of course we aren’t brilliant or the best all the time. Quite often we are distinctly average. But what annoys me is the way that when we are good at something we always talk it down and try to destroy it.

Take the BBC, probably the finest broadcaster in the world – we should be immensely proud of it. Yet, whenever it makes an error, displays a misjudgement we give it a disproportionate kicking. I am not saying that it should be untouchable and that it should have some sort of saintly status, but we are much less forgiving of it than we are any other media organisation.

And, actually, perhaps that’s the key. Is it really the British people who turn on the BBC or is it other media organisations? Do they take the lead when it comes to BBC bashing which everyone follows, or do they just reflect the prevailing mood?

I suspect it is the former. I think our news media is, on the whole, really good – travelling around the world and seeing how insipid other nations news reporting is, makes you realise how lucky that we are to have such strong journalism in this country. But they do have this distasteful habit of building something or someone up only to knock them down. There is a desperation to create their own stories, rather than just report what happens. In the case of the BBC, such is the vilification of their treatment one can only think that there are other motives. Jealousy perhaps?

The worst thing is that, so cowed has the BBC become, it now tends to lead the criticism of itself in a kind of masochist self flagellation. In doing so it only seems to make the problem worse.

There are three things that have struck me in the recent scandal / crisis.

1. This whole affair has meant that we the viewer/listener/reader have now been subjected to weeks of the media’s favourite subject – The Media. There is nothing more that journalists like talking about than themselves. On Saturday, BBC Radio 5 live they announced a special extended bulletin at lunchtime – had there been a terrorist attack? Had peace broken out in Afghanistan? No, the BBC Director General had spoken to one of the corporations journalists. Complete self indulgence. Do the public REALLY care? Surely there are more important things going on in the world

2. The DG eventually had to resign later that day because, as Editor in Chief, he had to take responsibility for his journalists making false accusations against someone. Yet I don’t remember any newspaper editors resigning when they falsely accused Christopher Jeffries of murder Story here

3. So busy has the media been talking about itself,that the real issue – child abuse – and the real victims seem to have been totally forgotten about.

I really hope that the British public are intelligent enough to see through it all. To recognise that, although the BBC has made some serious errors, it remains a fantastic institution that we should all be immensely proud of. This country would be a poorer place without it.

Silly Season

Posted in Current Affairs with tags , , , , on August 27, 2012 by richardhowle

It’s August Bank Holiday. An August Bank Holiday with an uncertain weather forecast. Now whilst it is very welcome after a tough couple of weeks at work, there is always the question of what to do. For me it has been quite productive – I am particularly pleased that I have been able to sort out a few more nagging issues on my new website and learnt a bit more than I thought I needed to about web hosting.

If only the nations media could be a bit more productive in what is commonly known as the “Silly Season”. For this is the time of year where “nothing happens” – the world of politics is quiet – our political leaders are on holiday (hands up if you know that Theresa May is currently running the country – true) and many journalists are away, drinking themselves into a stupor in deepest darkest France.

So how does the Silly Season manifest itself? Well how many column inches and broadcast hours have been wasted on an army office having fun in Las Vegas (despite countless polls saying that the public don’t care)? And this weekend dozens of pointless hours have been wasted by hapless journalists reporting about the sightings of a Lion in Essex, despite it being patently obvious that it never existed.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because of course there are things happening in the world. Important things like the deteriorating situation in Syria, more violence in Afghanistan, significant changes in Burma’s government and the impending nomination of one of the most right wing US presidential candidates we have had in a long time. All of which have the potential to have more impact on our lives than a party Prince and a (non existent) rogue lion in Essex.

With the Olympics dominating the news agenda from the end of July it means that we have effectively been cut off from proper news for nearly six weeks. Did anyone see the story that the UK government unexpectedly had to borrow £600m in July (in July 2011 there was a £2.8bn surplus)?

We have some fantastic journalists in this country and for 11 months of the year we have some of the finest news reporting in the world. As September rapidly approaches, please can we return to these high standards and bring an end to the Silly Season.