Issue 69: 2016 09 01: Week in Brief: UK

01 September

Week in Brief: UK

Union Jack flapping in wind from the right


IMMIGRATION: The total number of EU citizens living in Britain topped 3 million for the first time last year.  Figures from the Office of National Statistics show the largest group as being 831,000 Poles which now exceeds the 795,000 British residents born in India. Net migration now stands at 327,000, well above the government target of 100,000.

HEATHROW: The Trades Union Congress, the British Airline Pilots Association, Unite, the GMB and Prospect wrote to Mrs May, urging her to authorise the third runway at Heathrow. The government is expected to decide between Heathrow and Gatwick in October. The expansion of Heathrow is opposed by both Mr Corbyn and Mr McDonnell.

BHS: The last twenty-two branches of BHS have now ceased to trade, leaving a total of 11,000 people out of work and a pension fund which is estimated to have a deficit of about £700 million. There are suggestions that Sir Philip Green, who controlled the business at a time when it paid out £400 million in dividends, is willing to make a contribution of £300 million to the pension fund provided that this represents an overall settlement of his liabilities.

LABOUR PARTY: John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, has suggested that Sir Richard Branson should lose his knighthood because he is a tax exile who is trying to undermine our democracy. The attack is the latest move in a saga which began when Mr Corbyn pretended to be unable to find a seat on a Virgin train as a way to promote his campaign to renationalise the railways. The stunt backfired when Virgin pointed out that there were available seats.  It is thought that the Labour leadership view attacks on Mr Branson as being likely to attract them support in the Labour leadership election.

Mr McDonnell has called for Labour donor and Blair supporter Lord Sainsbury, who has given the party £15 million since 2002, to be suspended on the grounds that he has also given £2 million to the Liberal Democrats.  Lord Sainsbury said that the latter contribution was to assist with the campaign to keep Britain in the EU.

The first poll to be published of those entitled to vote in the Labour party leadership elections shows Mr Corbyn leading Mr Smith by 62% to 38%.  Voting has now opened and the result will be declared on 24 September.

THE JUNGLE: Mr Sarkozy, The French ex-president and presidential candidate, has called for the abolition of the Le Touquet accord under which British immigration officers are stationed at the French end of the Channel Tunnel. He suggests that rather than would-be immigrants being prevented from entering the tunnel, they should be held on the British side and be processed there. Other French politicians including Marine Le Pen and the Mayor of Calais have also demanded that the problem be moved to Britain.

Mr Hollande, however, says that his government would retain the accord which, as it happens, was negotiated by Mr Sarkozy.  The issue is not connected with Britain’s membership of the EU.  Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has been assured by Mr Cazeneuve, her French counterpart, that the current administration has no intention of changing the status quo.

NATIONAL TRUST: The National trust has been heavily criticised by Lord Bragg and others for its purchase of land at Thorneythwaite Farm in the Lake District.  Local farmers had hoped to buy the farm and continue to run its flock of rare Herdwick sheep.  By buying the land but not the farmhouse, however, the trust has made continued operation of the farm impossible.  The trust, which acquired the land at well above the guide price, claims and that it will use it in a way “that benefits nature, visitors and the local community.”  This is understood to involve the land becoming wild rather than continuing its historic use for sheep farming.

RACE AUDIT: Mrs May has ordered the Cabinet office to carry out an audit into how race affects daily life. The effect of race on such matters as hospital waiting times, University admissions, welfare, employment, skills and criminal justice, is to be analysed.

FOOD STANDARDS: A freedom of information request by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has revealed that the Food Standards Agency reported 9511 welfare breaches at abattoirs between July 2014 and June 2016. Of these, just under half involved animals being subjected to avoidable pain, distress or suffering above six times a day on average.  The FSA says that this represents only a small proportion of animals passing through slaughterhouses.


DIET: Giovanni de Gaetano, the lead author of an Italian report on the impact of diet on heart disease, has suggested that the National Health Service should consider subsidising fruit and vegetables for people with heart trouble.  Professor Gaetano’s researches, which were presented to the European Society of Cardiology congress in Rome this week, showed that patients suffering from heart conditions were 37% less likely to die during the study period if they changed their diet to one based  on vegetables, fish, fruit, nuts and olive oil.

VAPING: A study by the Athens Medical School has shown that vaping carries heart risks similar to those posed by the smoking of cigarettes. UK experts agreed that vaping is probably not harmless but pointed out that there is far less long-term risk.


CARNIVAL CARNAGE:  There were 440 arrests over the two days of the Notting Hill Carnival, a 15 year high.  25 of those were for assaulting police officers and 90 for carrying knives. The Metropolitan Police Federation has called for a review as to whether the deployment of 7,000 officers to police an increasingly violent event is an appropriate use of resources.

CAMBER SANDS: Five friends, including two brothers, were drowned at the East Sussex beach of Camber Sands last Wednesday. It is thought that the men, who were unable to swim, were caught playing on the beach by the rising tide.

AMPLEFORTH:  Former pupils at Ampleforth College, the leading Roman Catholic public school, have expressed dissatisfaction with the conduct of the prosecution of Paul Sheppard, who was acquitted last year of indecently assaulting a boy twenty years earlier. They are concerned, into alia, that the jury was unaware of other allegations against Doctor Sheppard and at the failure to contact other victims. The Times Newspaper has now interviewed former staff and pupils who had not previously been questioned and is to make the reports of those interviews available to the police.

MOTORWAY: The M20 to Kent was closed for 24 hours following the destruction of half of a bridge which was hit by a lorry carrying a digger. More than 200 tons of debris have been removed.

DEATH OF ATHLETE: Endurance athlete Nick Thomas died attempting to swim to France without a wetsuit.  Mr Thomas who was 44 years old had swum the Channel before.

COMMANDING ROLE: The Royal Navy helicopter carrier, HMS Ocean, will take overall control of naval operations against Isis at the end of the year, giving battle instructions to American and French ships.

ACTOR DIES: Gene Wilder, the actor best known for his portrayal of Mr Wonka, has died aged 83 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for three years.

MANSLAUGHTER CONVICTION: An optometrist working from Boots was given a two-year suspended sentence for manslaughter after failing to notice abnormalities in a child who later died as result of not being treated. The judge said that the optometrist, Honey Rose, had sought to cover up her mistake.  Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, has warned that criminalising doctors may prevent them being candid over errors.

BRANSON CRASH: Sir Richard was injured in a cycle crash on the British Virgin Islands whilst training to complete the Virgin Strive Challenge which involves hiking, cycling and swimming. He hopes to complete the challenge next month.

CRICKET: England batsman Alex Hales scored 171 runs, a record for an England batsman in a fifty over match, against Pakistan at Headingly to put England 3-0 up in the five match series.

ROONEY CAPTAINCY: England manager Sam Allardyce has confirmed that he will be retaining Wayne Rooney as England captain in the first World Cup qualifier against Slovakia on Sunday.


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Issue 69: 2016 09 01: Comfort food (Neil Tidmarsh)

01 September 2016

Comfort Food

Some nourishment harvested from grim headlines.

By Neil Tidmarsh

party 2Yakutsk, in Siberia, 3000 miles north of Moscow, where temperatures drop to minus 50C in winter, and the average pension is £190 a month; now, there’s somewhere that needs some serious cheering-up – and what better way to do that than to get baking? Yes, Yakutsk is way ahead of The Great British Bake-Off  here; it’s reckoned to hold the record for the world’s biggest cake, an 850kg giant made fourteen years ago to honour the town’s 370th birthday.

And this year, to mark Russia’s national flag day on August 22, another huge cake was made – a 250kg beauty in the red white and blue of the Russian flag – and cut up into 1,400 slices all ready as a special treat for the town’s orphans, poor families and pensioners.  However… when the town’s orphans, poor families and pensioners arrived (mouths watering and tummies rumbling, no doubt, in delighted anticipation), they found that not one of those 1,400 slices was left.  Local officials had arrived 30 minutes earlier and gobbled up the lot. The table was bare, not a crumb or a fragment of icing remained.

Well, if The Great British Bake-Off is something warm-hearted and amusing like The Pickwick Papers, it stands to reason that The Great Russian Bake-Off is going to be something deep and gloomy like Crime and Punishment, doesn’t it?  “This is all you need to know about Putin’s Russia” was one Russian Twitter user’s comment on the incident.  This week also saw the publication of a report by the Russian opposition criticising President Putin’s United Russia party as “the party of criminal Russia”, but it was the scandal of Yakutsk’s ‘Russian national flag day’ cake which took the biscuit, as it were, for the perfect symbol of the high-level corruption eating away at the country’s heart.

Nevertheless, it may yet have a happy ending; with elections due in Russia later this month, some commentators are predicting that the outrageous fate of Yakutsk’s 250kg edible Russian flag may well persuade voters that it’s high time that the powers-that-be in Russia were no longer permitted to have their cake and eat it.

Four months ago, I commented here that the world, or at least the media reporting on it, was fixating on food and eating, and no wonder, because it was the first week in May – right in the middle of the traditional Hunger Gap.  This week has seen a similar abundance of equally interesting and revealing food stories – and again, no wonder, as here we are right in the middle of the harvest season.  And, harvest being a time of abundance, the food stories are a little more nourishing for the human spirit this time, even if the headlines from which they are gleaned are as grim as ever.

Could the human spirit shine through even the devastating earthquake in Italy, with its terrible death-toll and the hundreds injured and the thousands made homeless, with the accusations of jerry-building and of the misappropriation of funds for the rebuilding after the last earthquake, and with the rumours that organised crime is behind both those scandals and may well be positioning itself to exploit this latest tragedy?

Yes, indeed it can, and shine through at its best and brightest.  How?  Well, this is Italy, so this miracle, like that of the loaves and fishes, is worked with food.  Reporting from one of the tent cities put up for those made homeless by the earthquake, The Times described volunteers donating and serving food – wine, prosciutto, crusty bread, mushrooms, salami, tuna salad.  It quoted one of the survivors as saying “A psychiatrist dropped by to see if we needed help. I said thank you, but I prefer to eat and drink”. There speaks the authentic voice of the miracle which is the human spirit – practical, resilient, optimistic.

The town of Amatrice – famous as the birthplace of the pork pasta dish spaghetti all’amitriciana – was near the quake’s epicentre.  At least half the buildings there have been flattened, including the Hotel Roma which reputedly made the best spaghetti all’amatriciana in the world, and which would have been at the centre of a local festival celebrating the famous dish this weekend.  A graphic artist from Rome, Paolo Campana, has launched an initiative to raise money for the recovery effort; he has suggested that Italian restaurants donate €2 for every dish of spaghetti all’amatriciana served.  More than 700 restaurants immediately signed up for the scheme, and many more are sure to follow. Thousands of diners enthusiastically embraced the idea; in Turin, crowds formed in Piazza San Carlo as hundreds of people gathered to take part in this ingenious way to help the quake victims.  In the UK, Jamie Oliver has pledged that his restaurant chain Jamie’s Italian will take part, too.

Imagine being a four year old child, born and living in the Middle East, and never having seen (let alone eaten) a tomato, or sweets, or ice-cream, or biscuits, or cake.  In Syria this week, an agreement between the rebels and the Assad regime resulted in the lifting of the four-year siege of Daraya, a suburb of Damascus.  The town was surrendered to the regime, but 700 opposition troops and their families were allowed to leave for the opposition-held town of Idlib, and 4000 other civilians were escorted by government troops to the regime-held but peaceful town of Hrajela.  For four years the starving inhabitants had been living on little more than grass and thin soup; but now they are discovering (or re-discovering) the joys of fresh fruit and vegetables, bread and rice and sweets and ice-cream and biscuits.  Women were amazed (and shocked) when they were welcomed into Idlib by people throwing rice (so rare and precious in Daraya) in celebration, as at a wedding. Many of their children are encountering ice-cream and sweets for the first time. For those opposition troops from Daraya who might consider the agreement as a defeat, this taste of peace for their families must sweeten its bitterness.

Lastly, some black humour from Venezuela and Italy this week.

In starving Venezuela, President Maduro announced that he is putting the army in charge of food distribution, with a general or admiral in charge of each basic foodstuff.  General Rice, for instance, or Admiral Potato. The irony is that the army, like the rest of the country, is starving; the generals and admirals can’t even feed their own troops, let alone the rest of the country.

In Italy, the Portuguese secret service officer arrested for allegedly selling Nato secrets to a Russian spy in Rome, denied the allegations and claimed that he was in fact selling olive oil to the Russian.  Proof indeed that espionage is an oily, slippery, smelly and deceitful business, not the glamorous and exciting fantasy many of its practitioners would have us believe.  Don’t put him in prison, I say.  Make him work round the clock in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant, cooking spaghetti all’amatriciana in aid of the quake victims.  That will teach him an honest trade, and give him a healthy dose of reality too.


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Issue 69: 2016 09 01: Burkini Ban (Lynda Goetz)

01 September 2016

Burkini Ban

Intolerance or safeguard?

by Lynda Goetz

Lynda Goetz head shotWhen I first heard about the burkini ban a few weeks ago, my reaction was mixed.  My first thought (like that of so many others, I am sure) was that it sounded like an unacceptable intolerance on the part of a right-wing French mayor ‘pandering to the Islamophobia of… far-right counterparts in the Front National’, as my colleague Richard Pooley put it. However, as the furore has continued to grow, and other seaside towns have repeated the ban, and the courts have become involved, and the ‘twitterati’ have voiced their outrage at this assault on our liberal society, the more my second thoughts have come to the fore.

For anyone who has studied the history of France, the division between state and church is entirely understandable, although it was not actually put into law until the beginning of the 20th century. France, still a predominantly Catholic country, has been wary of the power of the Church for centuries. The unpopular Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, and their influence on Kings Louis XIII and Louis XIV in the 17th C, were followed in the 18th C by French thinkers and writers of the Enlightenment such as Voltaire, Montesquieu and Diderot, who saw religion as divisive and intolerant, and finally in 1789 by the overthrow of Crown, aristocracy and Church in the French Revolution. After a period during which Church assets were confiscated and priests had to swear allegiance to the Republic, Napoleon came to an uneasy truce with the Church, essentially leaving it alone as long as it confined itself to spiritual matters. The Concordat, as it was known, lasted just over a century from 1801 until 1905, when the Third Republic decreed the separation of Church and State.

This law meant there was strict official neutrality in religious matters. Clearly this meant not allowing any proselytising in public buildings, including schools where future ‘citoyens’ were being educated. In 1937, French schools were instructed to keep religious signs out of school buildings.  This was non-controversial at the time. Following the massive influx of Muslims from the former colonies in the 1960s and 70s, however, things began to change.  It was not the original immigrants who questioned the secular nature of their adopted country, but second and third generation Muslims who, having led different lives from their parents, see things differently. The 1937 ban was overturned in 1989, but reinstated in a modified form in 1994 to ban ‘ostentatious’ signs. Clothing and other symbols were a different matter, however, and until the early 21st C it was for individual schools and their heads to decide how they dealt with each case. Between 1989 and 1996 there were an increasing number of incidents which were taken through the courts, and early this century the loi 224-2004 du 15 mars 2004 was enacted amidst a great deal of controversy and brought into effect at the beginning of the new school year in September 2004. This law, sometimes referred to in the press abroad as ‘the French headscarf ban’, is basically in support of the separation of Church and State and bans the wearing of all symbols or garb which show affiliation with any religion in public primary and secondary schools. This does not affect the numerous religious schools which exist in France.

What has all this got to do with the burkini, you ask? Well, a great deal as it happens, as it all emphasises the extent to which France values its status as a secular (laïque) state. The burkini, unlike the bikini, is not simply a garment of choice on the beach. (Whilst it may help prevent melanoma, it can hardly be comfortable).  The burkini is a statement or symbol of religious allegiance. However, since a beach is not a school, there was nothing in French law to say it could not be worn. It thus fell to individual mayors, like headmasters, to make decisions for their areas of jurisdiction. Are such decisions right-wing, intolerant and Islamaphobic, as many on the liberal left would like to present them, or are they in fact well-judged responses to a creeping and insidious infiltration of secular society by a religion which appears to have little tolerance or respect for those who do not share its beliefs? Are we going to be forced to adapt our society to their religious customs and scruples or are they going to adapt their customs and scruples to the societies in which they now live?  Which way around should this work?

An incident related by journalist Gavin Mortimer in the online Coffee House edition of The Spectator a few days ago was both alarming and illuminating.  His girlfriend, a nervous driver, was threatened at a French petrol station whilst alone and in her car as she made a sign of the cross before continuing her way on the motorway. Her aggressor was a Muslim male who banged loudly on her window, told her menacingly that in France ‘you don’t make the sign of the cross’ and then added for good measure that the next time she went out she should cover herself up. The man’s veiled wife, or daughter, was in the passenger seat of his car.  Female friends of Mr Mortimer’s in France apparently have a fund of similar stories, with Muslim friends on the receiving end of threatening behaviour from fellow but more fundamentalist co-religionists. Various quite serious incidents have been reported in the press. He feels that liberal writers in Britain are failing to understand the degree of extremism now prevailing in France, where Salafists, followers of the most puritanical Islamist ideology, are an increasingly vociferous minority. They want all women covered at all times and, opines Gavin Mortimer, the burkini is part of their strategy.  He shares the view of presidential candidate Nicholas Sarkozy that not only is it a religious statement, it is a political statement.

As with the question of free speech (Issue 51 April 2016), what we should tolerate in a liberal society is a reasonable subject for debate. Those who take the view that it is offensive for the French to police what ‘women should and shouldn’t wear’ are missing the point.  Surely it is, as Alison Pearson suggests in her column in The Telegraph, ‘the repressive, misogynistic culture’ to which these women belong which ‘denies females agency over their own bodies’. That they ‘choose’ to succumb to that cultural tyranny in the countries they or their parents originally come from is one thing; that we should accept that tyranny in countries where we have our own cultural identities and traditions is another.  The old adage ‘When in Rome…’ springs to mind. (And the origins of that seemingly go right back to Saints Augustine or Ambrose, or at the very least Pope Clement XIV in 1777; so perhaps given its Christian origins, the concept does not form part of Muslim cultural inheritance…)


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Issue 68: 2016 08 25: Contents

 25 August 2016: Issue 68
Now back to work! from North Uist

Now back to work!          from North Uist

Week in Brief





The Lessons of Rio by John Watson

The resurgence of British sport gives us an example.

Fit To Be Fat by J R Thomas

Glories of France

English, really?   see Chin Chin

A matter of choice.

Which War, Mr Smith? by Neil Tidmarsh

The wars in Syria aren’t primarily about Isis.

Didn’t We Do Well?! by Frank O’Nomics

Were the reasons for our Olympic success just financial?


Fading Icons – No Service by J R Thomas

If only they were all like Tebay.

Avoidable Accidents By Lynda Goetz

Are we losing our sense of personal responsibility?

Divine Intervention by Chin Chin

Glories of Italy

Glories of Italy

A tribute to the wisdom of the Almighty.

The Olympics by Don Urquhart

A recipe for success.


Jesus Christ Superstar

at The Open Air Theatre, Regents Park.

Reviewed by Adam McCormack.


“Those and Other Games”.

Solution to the last crossword “The US of A”.

Earlier EditionsLarge 600x271 stamp prompting the reader to join the subscription list

Issue 64: 28 July 2016

Issue 65: 04 August 2016

Issue 66: 11 August 2016

Issue 67: 18 August 2016

Issue 69: 2016 09 01: All Well (J.R.Thomas)

01 September 2016

All Well

The policy void at the heart of the US campaign

by J.R. Thomas

Rogue MaleMr Trump’s doctor says that he has never met a man of Mr Trump’s age (that’s 70, folks) in such good health.  Mrs Clinton says that she is vigorously fit and enjoying every minute of her campaign.  Anybody who thinks that that might be sufficient to close off that part of the debate was instantly proven wrong, the Clinton camp saying that the doctor’s report read as if Mr Trump had written it himself (and hinting that he had), and the Trump camp alleging another Hillary lie and that she is seriously ailing.  Both of the candidates have refused to release their health records so nobody knows anything on this matter except what they each say, and they are both honourable people….  The Shaw Sheet pretends no medical expertise but observes that, for contenders among the oldest to run for Presidential office, both candidates do look well on it.

Maybe that’s because verbal abuse is good for the circulation.  There can have been no election, at least since the nineteenth century, in which so much and such vitriolic personal mud was flung.  Any discussion of policies seems to be simply limited to alleging that the other side have none.  That does appear to be largely true, quite possibly because trying to set some out may offend one or other group of voters; so policies are really limited to the most general statements or downright platitudes.  The most concrete statements – literally – relate to that wall which Mr Trump says he will build along the Mexican border to stop illegal Mexican immigration to the United States.  He continues to be for it, Mrs Clinton profoundly against it. Interestingly though, Mr Trump has started to making slightly more cautious noises about when and how the wall will go up, and how it will be paid for (quite apart from where all the concrete will come from to build 1,989 miles of wall).

Here we might just divert into further analysis of this building project.  Or at least into the politics of it.  Nearly 600 miles of border, mostly in the most populous areas, is already security fenced, and the USA Senate has authorised a further 100 miles of fencing, though at present it is not funded nor will President Obama authorise the funding. (Whatever else he wants to be remembered for, it is not a fence).  Mrs Clinton, though against a longer wall, seems not to be against the existing fence.  She is not suggesting changing the existing guarding arrangements – which involve 20,000 border agents and a mass of low technology (trucks and helicopters) and high technology (all sorts of listening and watching equipment).  Here are some interesting statistics:  about half a million Mexicans try to enter the US each year; more than half of them are detected and prevented; and, of the 200,000 or so who do enter,  most in due course go back home.  So that leaves about 80,000 illegally staying in the US.  The numbers have been dropping for several years.

Enough fencing. The Democrats and the GOP both continue to fight off distractions which are increasingly giving the contest (67 days to the election if you read this on the day of issue) an air of utter unreality.  The poll figures have barely moved – Mrs C continues to be between 4% and 8% ahead.2016 Presidential race

Hillary is still struggling with her email problem; those that have been released do rather give the impression that a lot of state business was been conducted over her private server, and senior FBI officials, who cleared the lady although saying effectively that she had sailed very close to the mark of what was permissible, are looking increasingly grim faced on the whole subject (these emails are being released via Wikileaks so may indeed be different to what the FBI came across). What is said to be bothering her campaign team even more is that Wikileaks are threatening to release another 15,000 or so; what is in those, other than cheerful ones to grandchildren and chiding ones to Bill, only Hillary knows.  Her best hope is that either there is not much in them, and the press will be bored and move on; or that Wikileaks may decide not to release them in case by doing so they let Donald into the Oval Office.

In any case Mrs C has a new problem, the bizarre behaviour of Anthony Weiner, husband to her closest aide Huma Abedin.  Mr Weiner has been caught behaving bizarrely (check the details elsewhere; but truly bizarre), now for a third time; and Ms Abedin has finally left him.  Though this is causing much excitement in the campaign camps, Ms Abedin has come out of it all rather well – forgiving her man on the first two occasions and now reluctantly deciding that enough is enough.   A semi-saintly wife indeed, and very deserving of all our sympathy.  And cynically maybe, distracting from the fact that she has long acted as Mrs Clinton’s gatekeeper, and has been letting through the gate some persons whom one would expect a Presidential candidate not to want to meet – even if they were very generous donors to the Clinton Foundation, the family charitable trust.  You might think that this is a good time to move the fight on to cooking up some substantive policies that the voters can relate to; if only to distract from all the dirty campaign washing hanging out for public edification.

But the Trump team has been equally useless in the campaign kitchen.  This time it is a case of an ever revolving brigade of chefs, all with different ideas as to what cuisines to serve up.  We will pass over those that have been and gone and focus on the most recent, and most powerful, arrival, Stephen Bannon.  Mr Bannon got rich working for Goldman Sachs on Wall Street; he is a living breathing version of what Gordon Gecko could have become if he had gone into politics.  Mr Bannon is chairman of what he has made the leading right-wing on-line news media, Breibart News; a wheeler dealer in all sorts of business and political situations; and a devoted Trump supporter who has now seized the ultimate Trump political prize going, the chief executiveship of the Trump presidential campaign.  Mr Bannon is certainly able, but his reputation is that he is very aggressive.  In a campaign team that is recently put together, that has failed to gel and that has  suffered endless leavings and change, it remains to be seen quite how Mr Bannon will get everybody cooperating and pointing in the same direction.  He has two months to win the election, and too little money in the kitty.  But if he pulls it off… .

One immediate obstacle to him pulling it off is that Mr Trump has also appointed a new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, a longtime Republican strategist, who replaces Paul Manafort, flushed away last month by his Ukrainian history.  Already Ms Conway and Mr Bannon have clashed as to who is doing what and indeed as to who is actually in charge.  But both do seem to be convincing The Donald that he needs to get some policies set out, especially on the economy where his vague views on putting up trade barriers (more walls) are going down very badly with large American corporates.  Word is we are now going to hear more about low taxes on business, more about infrastructure renewal, more about deregulation and freeing up American business to do business.  His new campaign team has panels of businessmen formulating policy ideas and these are to be rolled out in the next week.  And the team also want to show Donald for the nice guy he is, and stress that his wit and humour has been misunderstood.  And more attention to women, to ethnic minorities, to the disabled.

In this he will be catching up from a long way behind with Hillary, who is a master of the hug, the friendly handshake, the winking acknowledgment of folks in the audience.  At this rate we will be back to kissing babies and joshing with the seniors in the sunset homes.  With all this and a policy debate too, could 2016 yet turn into a traditional election campaign?


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Issue 69: 2016 09 01: Furling the Umbrella (J.R.Thomas)

01 September 2016

Furling the Umbrella

A banking scandal not worth the mention

by J.R.Thomas

Rogue MaleStrange goings on at Lloyds Bank.  Once the smallest and most conservative of the big Four UK clearing banks, and certainly always the most careful and cautious, especially in relation to any novelty such as technology, it was also one of the most old fashioned, in business, in innovation, and in ethical standards; the ultimate in black brollied and bowler hat type banking.

When the crash of 2008 reduced other great banks to shaking wrecks, Lloyds looked as though that conservatism had stood it in good stead.  Costs were lower, and the bank had grown much more slowly than its aggressive competitors.  The Black Horse, logo of the  bank for over three hundred years – long before banks had logos – continued to figure largely in its advertising, a symbol maybe of a calmer, slower, approach to banking. That conservatism had extended to lending policy as well.  Lloyds liked to deal with people it knew, in sectors that long experience had taught it were lower risk, and on terms where it was a lender and not a partner (a distinction that became increasingly lost on some of its competitor banks).

So Lloyds looked as though it would be the great survivor; adequate capital, lower loan loss provisions, lower costs, high quality customers, and, in Eric Daniels, an accomplished CEO who had guided the bank well in the enormous footsteps of his predecessor, Sir Brian Pitman.  And so it would have been, if the then Lloyds Chairman Sir Victor Blank had not got into a conversation with newly elevated Prime Minister Gordon Brown, at, so rumour suggested, a cocktail party (oh, the dangers of chatting at cocktail parties).  Whether it happened at a cocktail party or not, Mr Brown suggested that it would be very helpful if Lloyds could help the government clear up the smouldering mess known as HBoS, the strange outcome of a merger of Halifax, a Yorkshire based mortgage and consumer finance business, with Bank of Scotland, an old established but undercapitalised Scottish bank.  It had been  a short lived union brought down by what bankers politely call “aggressive lending strategies”.  Why Sir Victor and Mr Daniels agreed to it, we don’t know, but they bought HBoS and tried to sort it out.  It was not a problem capable of a solution and  the government ended up having to resolve the consequent disaster by injecting large amounts of public money.  However, whilst its similarly busted Scottish rival Royal Bank of Scotland – no relation – has seemingly proved incapable of salvation, Lloyds HBoS (bankers are not overly good at thinking of snappy new names to stick over their front doors) took the deep immersion cure (including terminating the careers of those dealmakers Blank and Daniels) and came up renewed – so much so that the government has been able to profitably sell large parts of its stake.

There are several reasons for that, but one of them was the appointment of a new chief executive, Antonio Horta Osorio, who is what bankers like to think of as a banker’s banker.  He had a career history of great distinction: Citibank; Goldman Sachs; Santander, becoming chief executive of Santander UK in 2006.  He steered Santander through the recession, gathering up and sorting out the tottering remains of two failed ex-building societies as he did.  That got him a place on the Court of the Bank of England – no greater honour is there for any banker.  Finally he was chosen to gallop to the rescue of Lloyds Banking Group (the HBoS bit being carefully hidden behind a filing cabinet somewhere).

There, he has been a major success – a strong leader, who can carry his team with him by persuasion and not by terror or throwing things at them (not unknown in the recent past of some banks), with an ability to concentrate on the essentials and not get bogged down in detail, yet with a quick grasp of all that matters.  And a human figure too.  After about a year in the job he went down with nervous exhaustion.  Normally in the City that is only admitted when the poor sufferer is removed in a special ambulance, leading to career termination and redeployment to a carpentry business in the Brecon Beacons to spend “more time with his family”.  Not so Mr Horta Osorio, who publically disclosed his illness, discussed the implications, and took a couple of months off.   He recovered and came back.  His admission and openness were praised by many for having opened up a matter previously dealt with awkwardly and often cruelly; the City’s handling of mental health issue has been changed as a result of his (and others’) examples.  In spite of having to make some tough decisions, including firing a lot of people, he has remained as popular with his staff as tough leaders ever can be.  He turned down his bonus for the affected year and said he would only take bonuses when his contribution was clear and the group results showed it.  The man is almost a saint!

The City-where mammon overshadows godliness

The City-where mammon overshadows godliness

Or was, until he was outed by various tabloid newspapers a couple of weeks ago, concerning allegations of time spent with a lady not his wife at a conference.  There is no suggestion of any conflict of interest or financial impropriety.  You may have seen the details or you may not; you may even think that what a man does in his private life, what the nature of his private relationships are, is nothing to do with anything if it does not affect his ability to run the business.  You may well be right, and given his success in running Lloyds, you might think his colleagues would be similarly robust.  Not so his chairman, Lord Blackwell, a businessman, former academic, and Conservative politician.  He summoned Mr Horta Osorio and told him to apologise to the public, the bank staff, and investors.  The suggestion is that Lloyd’s standing in the world has been hurt by their chief executive’s naughty (or not) behaviour – if only by carelessness in front of a few paparazzi.  And, of course, the modern approach after eight years of public hatred of bankers is for any bank board under fire to get a fulsome apology out.  Even before they know what the offence is, it sometimes seems.

Mr Horta Osorio has duly apologised, though in tones that suggest he is not entirely clear what he is apologising for, given that any apologies required should be to any who may have been hurt personally by his behaviour, and not to types who feel that the world should only by led by those of saintly demeanour or those devious enough never to get caught.   Those who have failed both tests include the Presidents of France and Russia (allegedly), and a former President of the USA.  Lower than that we will not go, but we could fill endless daily editions of the Shaw Sheet with salacious details of persons in positions of power and influence, whose standards have fallen below the definition of saintly.

It is an odd feature of human behaviour that even in times of exceptional openness, when almost nothing is sinful or frowned upon, we still set others standards which are difficult to meet; we seemingly delight in falls from grace, whatever the faller’s contribution to our health, wealth, and wellbeing.  Private pain and recrimination is bad enough, but how much worse it must be to suffer the endless salaciousness of the media and the uninformed gossip of others, the half-baked attempts to prove some “public interest”, the trotting out of vague moral excuses to justify straightforward nosiness.

It is doubtful whether any harm was done to Lloyds shareholders, staff or customers by what may or may not have gone on at that conference – but it is certain that the public outing has not assisted any of them.  Hopefully, everybody will get over it very soon and bankers can get back to the serious business of being boring.


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Issue 69:2016 09 01:Week in Brief Financial

1 September 2016

Week in Brief: Business and the City

NEWS, the word in pink on a grey background

BRAKE AND ACCELERATE:  Tata’s UK subsidiary JLR – or Jaguar Land Rover as it is better known – reported a good second quarter to the end of June.  Or was it a bad second quarter?  In terms of volume it was certainly very impressive; sales were up 16% on the comparable period last year, with more than 132,000 cars sold.  That pushed total earnings up to £5.45bn – but that is only 9.2% up.  The reason for that is that JLR is selling an increasing range of smaller cars, with the continuing success of the baby Range Rover, the Evoque, the new Discovery Sport, and, on the Jaguar side, the XE and the F-Pace.  More cars but lower priced cars translates into lower profits – down from £638m to £399m.   JLR also pointed to the immense amount of investment in the business since Tata bought it 2008 – over £11bn – which is also putting a brake on profitability, though likely to lead to much greater growth in the future.  Another factor suppressing profits this year is the less certain economic environment in China, one of Land Rover’s biggest markets, especially for the top of the range, and most profitable model, the Range Rover.  JLR think that that market will recover – but probably never to the level it achieved for JLR  in the past, as the Chinese government is placing greater emphasis on home produced, or at least locally built, luxury vehicles.  But JLR remains confident that all that investment has given it a solid basis for future growth for quite a while – the F-Pace and the XE look to be selling strongly and are both doing especially well in the USA, plus there is a new Defender due out shortly – a direct descendent of the original iconic off roader that began the Land Rover business.

ENERGY CORNER:  Britain’s power business is under great pressure at the moment, with growing worries that the output from the aging network of power stations will fall short of demand should we have an exceptionally cold winter in the next few years.  The further delays on Hinckley Point, and in building new nuclear power stations generally, the closure of most of the first generation nuclear stations and practically all the coal fuelled stations, the difficulties in getting reliable output from alternative fuel sourced stations, and the slow build-up of green energy sources, all mean that peak power coverage is only just positive even in beneficial conditions.  In the long run, the outlook is much better – the various wind farms now under construction (mostly offshore) will be more efficient than their land based siblings, the UK’s shale oil and gas reserves will provide a reliable source of carbon based fuel for traditional power stations, and bio-mass is becoming more efficient all the time.  Now the National Grid, which manages the supply and demand equation, is to invest in battery storage facilities so it can store power from renewable energy outputs – which tend to be less regular in output than carbon type generators.  Large capacity battery technology has moved on a great deal in the last ten years, assisted by the amount of research going into batteries for electric cars.  The first round of NG facilities is comparatively modest – £66m in eight smaller schemes around the UK, located next to power stations and windfarms, which will charge up during periods of power surplus, and then be able to come instantly on-line when needed.  This has always been possible – the Ffestiniog Power Station in North Wales for instance pumps water up into a storage facility during surplus, the water been released into the turbines of a hydro power facility when required – but lithium battery technology means power can be stored for much longer.  It’s why your electric torch stays alight for so much longer – soon it could also be why your home lights stay lit on cold nights.

INDIGESTION:  Although the food industry reports that the budget restaurant business is booming after the Referendum – apparently we are all feeling so good about the future that we are eating out much more, or in London, having it delivered to the door –  the upsurge in outsourcing eating has come a bit late for Restaurant Group.  The FTSE250  company operates a number of lower and mid-market eatery chains, such as Frankie and Benny’s which has 263 Italian style outlets, and Chiquito’s which is Mexican style.  The first half of 2016 showed a £22m loss compared with a £38m profit for the comparable period last year.  This is blamed on problems in the Frankie and Benny’s chain, where customers have been resisting prices rises, and menu changes and lower quality of service have also led to lower footfall and spend.  The group have decided to close 33 sites including 11 Chiquito’s – and dispense with the services of its chief executive – although it also continues to open new restaurants.  That makes understanding the figures a bit complicated – but stripping out new openings, sales are down about 4% on comparables, although 3% up overall, with a £59m charge to reflect closure costs and site down-valuations.

NOT MOVED: We may be eating out more as signs of new found Brexit confidence – but are we are moving house less post referendum?  Residential mortgage approvals for July were down about 10% on the previous running average, and on last year.  Early to say but maybe we are cutting back on large purchases until we can see more about our future post European lives.  Car finance lending showed a similar pattern, so both these will be good indicators of consumer confidence as negotiations progress.

“IF YOU WANT A FRIEND…  get a dog”, said Gordon Gecko in that favourite film of every City banker, Wall Street.  But now bankers have a new friend, and a very surprising one at that.  Carolyn Fairbairn, newly appointed Director General of the CBI, the representative body of businesses and employers, has said that bankers have paid their penance for their role in the 2008 recession.  Now, she says, the time has come to forgive and move on, to let the bankers “off the naughty step”, because we need a strong independent and innovative financial sector as the country moves to and through its exit from the European Union.  She went further, saying that the regulators of City institutions should now start to “prioritise competitiveness”, remarking that this might require amending legislation to change the remit of the regulators.  She has also called for the withdrawal of the 8% top up tax which banks have to pay on profits, saying that this will enable the banks to rebuild capital more quickly, and be more competitive.  She signalled that her next speech will urge the government to seek in its Brexit negotiations a strong position for UK financial services in Europe, and to ensure that British finance houses are able to employ the best talent from around the world by a liberal visa system that will encourage mobility of labour in the UK market.  Ms Fairburn sees Britain’s banking industry and the City as integral to the future strengthen of the British economy – and she would like the CBI to become a representative body for the financial services industry by encouraging many more financial houses to join.


(as at 30th August 2016; (commodity prices and FTSE as at 26.08.16 due to Bank Holiday), comments refer to changes on the week; $ is US$)

Interest Rates:

UK£ Base rate: 0.25%, unchanged: 3 month 0.42% (rising); 5 year 0.37% (rising).

Euro€: 1 mth -0.23% (rising); 3 mth -0.28% (steady); 5 year -0.28% (steady)

US$: 1 mth 0.50% (steep fall); 3 mth 0.75% (rising); 5 year 1.20% (rising)

Currency Exchanges:

£/Euro: 1.17, £ rising

£/$: 1.31, £ steady

Euro/$: 1.12, € steady

Gold, oz: $1,322, falling

Aluminium, tonne: $1,627, falling

Copper, tonne:  $4,621, falling

Oil, Brent Crude barrel: $49.80, rising

Wheat, tonne: £126, falling

London Stock Exchange: FTSE 100: 6,838 (steady).  FTSE Allshare: 3,729 (rising)

Briefly: The dollar sees continuing upward pressure in longer rates (though short rates fell abruptly).  Commodity prices headed down again, including wheat as farmers began forward selling this year’s harvest – longer delivery dates are noticeably firmer.   Sterling is also rising in the longer rates, and oil still tests the US$50 barrier.


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Issue 69: 2016 09 01: With Autumn Comes Brexit (John Watson)

01 September 2016

With Autumn Comes Brexit

The seconds will soon be out of the ring.

by John Watson

Watson,-John_640c480 head shotAll in all it has been a good summer. The sun has shone and Team GB has done spectacularly well at the Olympics.  A new government has moved into place with a minimum of fuss, and although the currency has fallen, that is helping exports.  Holidays abroad are more expensive, of course; but even so, prices on much of the continent do not seem to be any higher than they are here. Many, on both sides of the Brexit debate, will be giving a gentle sigh of relief. So far the roof has not fallen in, and as we move from the haze of August to the browns of September, the country is beginning to wonder if it should draw the conclusion that the process of acclimatising to change will be less difficult than it first seemed.

It would be hard to imagine a conclusion sillier than that. The process has not even started yet and neither the market, the politicians, nor the Archbishop of Canterbury himself has the slightest idea what it will really be like.  On the surface of course you can see a possible map.  Surely the EU and the UK will work together where it suits both of them, for example in the maintenance of academic cooperation.  Then you might expect some of the funding previously provided by EU institutions to be met instead by the UK government out of EU contributions saved – we were a net contributor, after all.  Then there is the vexed questions of the market.  You would think that we would only be allowed access on a general basis if we accept free movement of people, so (free movement being a political “no, no”) tariffs will have to be negotiated sector by sector.  That will take time, but meanwhile in many areas the increase of tariffs to WTO levels will be compensated by the drop in the pound.  Nasty but not unexpected.

More worrying is the question of the City’s dominance in financial service.  Business will clearly be lost if only because it is no longer a financial centre within the EU. No doubt the French will produce regulations designed to scupper some of its activities. This is a war that will be fought out on the ground but at least we know it is there, a “known unknown” to put it in Rumsfeldspeak.  We don’t know what the outcome will be but we can plan for the worst.

That is how you might think it will work, but the trouble is that you will almost certainly be wrong because events will push the future off course.  We are told that that the government is anxious not to trigger article 50 until it has a plan for the negotiations. That may be wise but it should also keep in mind the words of that 19th-century Prussian field marshal, Helmuth von Moltke the elder.  “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.” So it is in politics too, and particularly in political negotiation where the only certainty is that things will not be as expected.

An obvious disrupting factor is domestic politics.  Not our politics this time, but rather the politics of other member states. Look at France, for example. In 2017 there will be a presidential election and Mr Hollande’s party is in serious trouble. There are a number of hopefuls who would like to stand as the Republican candidate and, so far, thirteen have put their names forward for November’s primary. They include establishment figures like Sarkozy and Juppe who lead in the polls, and one might think that one of them will secure the nomination. Well, perhaps they will, but who knows? Establishment candidates haven’t done too well in the Republican primaries in the US, nor for that matter did establishment views fare too well in the Brexit referendum. Is France different, and if not, what sort of things will the winning candidates have to promise to get home? Being fair-minded to the British in the Brexit negotiations is unlikely to be one of them.

It doesn’t end there either. The election itself will not be a run-off between Socialists and Republicans but there will also be the National Front of Marine Le Pen. Suppose again that the polls get close. What sort of promises might, say, Mr Sarkozy give in his bid to secure victory?

We have had a taste of this already in relation to Calais. The arrangement under which British immigration officials are stationed in France to prevent illegal migrants from entering the Channel Tunnel is known as the Le Touquet Accord. It has nothing whatever to do with the EU and was negotiated by Mr Sarkozy himself. Now we hear him saying that it is unfair, that it puts too much strain on northern France to solve what is essentially a British problem. He would much rather see it torn up with the refugee camps in Dover rather than Calais.

On a practical level the retention of migrants in camps on British soil is impractical. It is one thing to stop people rushing through a tunnel but it is quite another to stop them breaking through a perimeter fence into the wider countryside.  Of course Sarkozy knows this but that has not stopped him attacking the Accord for domestic political purposes. Britain of course has refused indignantly, but what happens if push comes to shove?  We cannot force our officers onto their soil.  There are already suggestions that we might threaten to withdraw the security assistance which we give to France. Destroy the Accord and we will let the fundamentalists blow you up. Is that to be the negotiating position between friends?

Of course it’s no surprise that French domestic politics should affect its international arrangements. German domestic politics may have a similar effect there as well. And why should they not? After all it was British domestic politics which brought about the Brexit referendum in the first place.

Prepare for a stormy winter; it is certainly coming.


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Issue 69: 2016 09 01: The QALY of mercy (Frank O’Nomics)

1 Septenber 2016

The QALY of mercy

How do we decide which charity to support?

by Frank O’Nomics

It was perhaps not the best time to attempt to apply economic theory to an everyday dilemma.  I had just been given my change at a seaside convenience store and was looking to put in it one of the charity tins, normally an instinctive response that, if nothing else, saves wear and tear on trouser linings.  But which tin to favour?  Unusually there were four, and it struck me that deciding how to commit a few pence is less than straightforward if you pause to examine which is the most deserving charity.  While a very minor decision in this instance, when we look at the more significant sums we donate to charity it becomes important if we are trying to generate the biggest impact from our benevolence.  While “deserving” should not be confused with efficient – and charities which have a particular personal resonance because they address issues that have affected us in some way might be supported regardless of any measure of the relative impact that they have – I wondered whether it would be helpful to have a framework to help make a rational decision on economic grounds.

It is perhaps helpful to first look at the range of charities being offered to me. Not surprisingly, one was the RNLI, a charity  I  tend to favour because I spend some time on the water and know that they receive no government funding.  Next to them was a tin for an animal sanctuary, which did not seem to have a specific beast in mind, although a picture of a donkey did feature.  Here I have historically been less sympathetic, being inclined to favour charities that benefit mankind more directly. The other two tins were for a local hospice and a cancer research charity, so, across the four, I think there was a good representation of the charities favoured by regular givers.

You cannot just boil these decisions down to hard numbers, but I think it a good place to start, and the process is generally known as “effective altruism”. Economists have spent some time producing a measure called “quality adjusted life years” (QALYs) to try to measure how best to prioritise various health programmes, and this process can be applied to the charities above (apart perhaps from the animal sanctuary) quite readily.  There are two ways in which charities can help mankind; either they can save someone’s life, or they can improve the quality of  life, and the QALY combines them into one metric.  If a drug treatment improves someone’s quality of life by 20% for their remaining 10 years, this equates to 2 QALY’s (0.2 x 10). Alternatively if their quality of life was deemed to be around 80% of ideal, but a drug extended their life by 10 years at the same level, this would be 8 QALY’s (0.8 x 10). Most measurements would feature a combination of the number of QALY’s generated by the improvement in the quality of life plus those resulting from an extension of lifespan.  Not surprisingly, the difficulty comes when one tries to get reliable data with which to calculate the number of QALY’s that a £1 donation to any given charity could generate.  Still, but we can make some calculated guesses.

Applying the process to the 4 charities generates some very different numbers and depends a lot on the assumptions made.  People spend relatively short periods in a hospice (typically less than 6 months), but their quality of life is likely to be increased significantly for that time, while the length of their life will see little impact (1 month on average).  The total number of QALYs may not be that high, but we would also need to add any increase the QALYs generated for family and friends by having their nearest and dearest in hospice care and this will increase the number of QALYs significantly.  For the RNLI, it is much more about life saving and hence increasing life expectancy. Given that the average age of those the RNLI saves is quite young they will generate a lot of QALYs. This would suggest that the RNLI generates a bigger impact from donations than a hospice, but  the number of people impacted by the RNLI is a mere fraction of those who receive the benefits of a hospice.  The RNLI claims to rescue 22 people per day, but it is likely that some would have been rescued by the public and, even if you include them all, it is still just a fraction of the 120,000 people who benefit from hospice care each year.  The other 2 charities are harder to generate calculations for, but the cancer research charity, if it produces an effective drug, can improve both the quality and duration of life significantly, and for a much greater number of people than will be saved by the RNLI or helped by a hospice.  To compare it with the other 2 charities we would need to assign a probability to an effective treatment being developed, but the success over the last few decades suggests that this probability should be a reasonable one. The number of QALYs delivered in the short-term will be close to nil, but over a longer–term they could be infinite.  As for the animal charity, the only we to generate a QALY estimate would be to ascribe the improvement in quality of life of humans that is generated by knowing that animals that were previously ill-treated or killed were living contentedly. For some people this will be very important, and I would not discourage them from giving accordingly, but for the majority I would suggest that the number of QALYs generated is difficult to measure.

Does this mean that we should be giving all of our money to charities like the RNLI, Air Ambulance etc, together with those that seek to cure major disease?  The answer is of course no.  There are many other factors that should be taken into account when deciding on the most effective form of altruism.  Clearly the number of people that the charity touches is important, and medical research has a broader reach than rescue services.  Secondly, it is helpful to know how cost effective the charity is, ie how much of your £1 is going towards its principle objective, and how much goes in administration. It is also worth knowing the track record of the charity too, for example, knowing that Action Medical Research helped to develop the first polio vaccines, ultrasound in pregnancy and the rubella vaccine, may encourage us to support them.  Fourthly we need to have some idea of how much the charity needs the money. If it seems likely that, without our donation there would be sufficient pressure for government funding then we may be less inclined to help. There is also a limit to how much money a charity needs. The RNLI can only make use of so many lifeboats, and the number of people drowning off our coasts fell to 67 last year from 110 in 2013, while the need for hospice care is likely to grow with an ageing population. There is also a limit to how and how quickly a charity can make use of the funds – there are inevitable lead times to set up new projects.

Taking into account all of these other factors, the decision becomes far less easy.  Boiling down your giving, planned or otherwise, to simple economics is helpful when the charities are easily comparable, but there are many motivations for charitable giving.  By now, of course, the queue in the shop behind me is getting quite large – it would have been much easier if they had only offered one tin.


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Issue 69:2016 09 01: Keeping it Clear (Richard Pooley)

01 September 2016

Keeping It Clear

Why the British need to learn how to speak English… to foreigners (part 1)

by Richard Pooley

photo Robin Boag

photo Robin Boag

It must be frustrating sometimes being a French foreign correspondent.  Even though French is spoken by 274 million people around the world, half of them live in Africa and a quarter in France itself. So, unless Marie-Claire or Jean-Pierre are reporting from, say, Senegal, the Ivory Coast or the Republic of the Congo, it is likely that any interview they conduct in a foreign country will have to be done in a language other than French, often in English.  No doubt they can speak the local language well, but if they are working for a French TV or radio station, those interviews will need to be translated into French before they are broadcast to viewers and listeners in France. A lot of information can be lost in those translations, especially on radio – the intended irony, the subtle criticism, or the unspoken fear.  It must be even more frustrating to be a French TV or radio presenter of a current affairs programme who is required to interview people abroad.  Finding someone who has something to say relevant to the news item and who can also speak French is rarely possible.

Living in France, I listened last week to news reports on the Italian earthquake on RMC, a popular French radio station, and via the BBC. The only Italian who spoke French to the RMC reporter was someone living in Rome whose family came from the area around Amatrice.  Everyone else spoke either Italian or, mon dieu, English.  So, you might think that presenters and reporters working for the BBC and other media organisations in English-speaking countries have it easy.  After all 1.5 billion people are said to be able to speak English.  But there is a problem: few native English speakers know how to speak English to non-native English speakers.  And those few do not, in my experience, include many journalists.

On Radio 4’s Today programme last Friday Mishal Husain interviewed two Italians about the earthquake.  She and they spoke in English.  The first Italian was from Save the Children.  He was in Amatrice to set up a playground for children who had survived the earthquake but whose parents had died, were missing or were in hospital.  Husain’s first question was a good one.  It was short and specific and had elicited this information.  It was also clear that the Italian was a confident speaker of English.  But here is her second question: “And do you try and talk to them about the earthquake or do you wait until they bring it up themselves and ask questions?”  He replied: “Yeah for the moment we are waiting to open our activities. We will do that in one hour, a couple of hours.  So, at the moment we are not talking to the children but we are meeting a lot of children…”  He continued for another 30 seconds or so, still without answering her question.  Why not?  First, her question was far too long – 24 words.  Even the most confident non-native English speaker would still be processing the first part of her question as she was speaking the second part.  I am sure the Italian only actually absorbed “And do you try and talk to them about the earthquake”.  The words after “or” were lost.  Hence, his only reference to her question is “we are not talking to the children.”   What then should she have done to make sure he listened and understood the whole question?  Simple: pause before “or” long enough for him to have finished processing the first part and be ready to listen to the second.  She would have turned one 24-word question into what sounded like two questions – an 11-word one and a 13-word one.  Even then our Italian might have had a problem with one of the six verbs Husain used in her question (native English speakers love using verbs where many non-native speakers would use nouns in their own tongue).

Verbs with a preposition or adverb, bring up in this case, are a nightmare for most non-native English speakers.  So many of them have multiple meanings. Try explaining: I get on with John. So, I’ll get on to him and get him to get on with it. Mind you, he is getting on. Or my favourite: They cut the tree down and then cut it up.  The trouble is we Brits love using these phrasal verbs, as grammarians call them.  What could Husain have used instead of bring up?  How about repeating talk about?  Repetition of words which only have one meaning is another tip for those wishing to be fully understood by non-native speakers.

Husain’s second interviewee was a rather pompous and very garrulous Italian professor of architecture. The interview did not start well:

Husain: “When you are faced with an earthquake zone…”

Professor: “Excuse me?”

Husain: “When you are faced with an earthquake zone, as you were, how do you decide where to begin?”

Can you face an earthquake zone? In her introduction to this interview she posed two simple questions about the buildings hit by the earthquake: “How were they built? How will they be rebuilt?”  If she had asked the professor those questions, I am sure we would have had clearer, more interesting answers.  He told us that the priority in rebuilding would be “hospitals…and all the buildings related to the emergency”.  Good.  But he then rattled on about the response to the earthquake that had hit nearby L’Aquila. Not the one in 2009 but one of the three that occurred in the 18th century (there have been ten since 1315).  It was quite clear to this listener that he wanted to keep control of the interview and hoped to stop Husain asking him another befuddling question.  She did manage two more questions. Unfortunately, his response to the third one had to be cut short.  She had run out of time.  Yet he had just started to tell us how corruption had ensured that buildings were, and would continue to be, unable to withstand major earthquakes.  Here, at last, was the newsworthy opinion she was presumably seeking.

Husain has many admirers.  My wife is one.  To the native English speaker Husain speaks beautifully.  Nor is she the worst at interviewing non-native English speakers.  I could have given you far more egregious examples from other BBC news programmes and other media companies, British and non-British.  And there are one or two who are very good at it.  If you listened to the BBC’s World at One on Tuesday this week, you would have heard an exemplary interview by Martha Kearney of an Italian from Médecins Sans Frontières.


The problem is not just confined to the media. Too many British and American business people cause costly problems for themselves and their companies because they are unable to speak English in a way which can be understood by foreign colleagues, suppliers and clients.  I will return to this in a future article but will leave you with three puzzles.  First, why did the word formation cause a BBC reporter and a French diplomat to talk at cross-purposes during a radio interview?  Secondly, why has the London branch of a Japanese bank been training its British staff to speak English over the past five years?  Thirdly, why should my esteemed fellow columnist Chin-Chin not use his sobriquet when toasting Hashimoto-san and Kogure-san (as I once did) at a dinner in Tokyo?


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