HIGNFY: So sharp, so relevant

Barack ObamaFriday night saw the return of Have I Got News For You? and it’s hard to think of a time when this show has ever been more relevant or important. This latest series in a long line of successes comes complete with new titles, featuring Barack Obama shooting hoops.

Series 37 kicked off with Frank Skinner at the helm. Bouyed by his recent welcoming into the world of journalism via his Times column, Skinner delivered his lines with the dry composure which has been the hallmark of some of the best HIGNFY hosts. The Beeb could do a lot worse than to pick him as the new permanent anchor.

Rotund funny-woman Katy Brand put in a suprisingly intellectual turn on Ian Hislop’s team: “You’re not actually allowed to take a picture of the police or film the police, or even look at the police because of the Anti-Terrorist laws.” Someone has been doing her homework. Paul Merton’s reply? “That’s gonna knock the stuffing out of The Bill, innit?”

But the real highlight came when Hislop laid into the token politican and Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Alan Duncan MP, for his second and third homes. As Hislop put it “I’ve been doing your second-homework.” A truly no-holds barred grilling of the would-be Tory home secretary and a fine example of just why we love Penfold.

What with the world-summits, political scandals and police bust-ups of late, Friday nights have been yearning out for the return of HIGNFY’s unique brand of dry, witty satire. God knows I’ve missed it, and you can tell by the zeal with which Hislop stove into Duncan that he’s missed it too.

Last night’s episode can be viewed on BBC iPlayer for the next 6 days, here.

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G20: The view from the frontline

Firsr damage at Threadneedle Street
First damage at Threadneedle Street

Violent, anarchist protesters grabbed headlines yesterday by smashing their way into a branch of RBS on Threadneedle street, effectively stealing Barack Obama and Gordon Brown’s thunder. Whilst this certainly got people’s attention, it is hardly the most effective way to convince the G20 to listen and act responsibly on the climate and economic crises.

At the frontline the atmosphere was electric – crowds pushing, chants erupting out of nowhere – not dissimilar to a heavy-metal gig or a music festival. It was hard not get swept up with the call and response: “Whose streets? Our streets!”

But it didn’t have to be like this. Had the Metropolitan Police not pursued such stubborn ‘kettling’ tactics on the protest at the Bank of England, the damage could have been mitigated. Admittedly, there were several thugs who were intent on violence, but their ire was spurred on by the thousands of peaceful protesters who had been trapped in this small part of the square mile.

Police surrounded the main area, blocking all the exits by standing shoulder to shoulder and refused to allow protesters to leave “until the protest was over” for fear of the various London protest groups combining to form a riot, but the frustration of being penned in one area for hours without food, water or toilets is enough to make borderline dissidents turn to violence. Such controversial ‘kettling’ practices were only deemed legal in January.

Helicopter hovers over the G20 protest
Helicopter hovers over the G20 protest

Police stood by in full riot gear, but remained calm to the rising tide of anger. Photos were taken from rooftops and helicopters hovered ominously. The basic tactic seemed to be: “Let them loot and smash all they want, we’ll arrest them later.” After half an hour of unbridled window smashing, egg throwing, smoke-grenade lobbing and curtain ripping, 24 police horses were brought in to force the crowd back. In our modern times it is humbling to see such graceful creatures and their composure amidst the chaos. Melanie Reid has written an excellent column about this over at Timesonline.

Eventually an exit was opened, but there was no mass rush to escape. Rather, the disinterested protesters were left to find this back-door on their own. The majority of the protest was peaceful and colourful; full of dancing and accompanied by music from Billy Bragg and Get Cape. Wear Cape Fly. However, without a powerful enough PA to address the entire crowd, the event lacked focus or guidance.

A campaigner talks into a kinetic energy-powered PA at Climate CampClimate
A campaigner talks into a kinetic energy-powered PA at Climate Camp

Over at Bishopsgate, the Climate Camp protest was a much more peaceful affair. The hippie atmosphere provided a welcome relief and the level of debate and discussion was far more intellectual.

One speaker used a PA system powered by kinetic energy from a bicycle and invited passers-by to play climate change Top Trumps. If meaningful global change is going to come from direct action and protest, this seems like a much more likely source than the aggressive anarchist tactics which were unleashed at Threadneedle Street.

I took all of the above photos – to see more and two video clips from this protest, visit my Flickr stream page. My partner-in-crime Abby Edge has a lovely slideshow of photos she took on the day and some great analysis over at her blog, Grassy Roots.

Obama: Mugabe is a ‘Threat’

Diplomatic hostilities resumed today between Zimbabwe and the rest of the world, as Barack Obama lead several countries in pouring condemnation on Robert Mugabe’s regimen. The decision to uphold trade sanctions against Zimbabwe for another year is hardly surprising, but what is really noteworthy is Obama’s choice of rhetoric:

The crisis constituted by the actions and policies of certain members of the government of Zimbabwe […] has not been resolved. These actions and policies pose a continuing, unusual and extraordinary threat to the foreign policy of the United States.

Seems rather similar to a certain G.W. Bush nearly six years ago:

The terrorist threat to America and the world will be diminished the moment that Saddam Hussein is disarmed.

I’m not comparing Obama to Bush, or suggesting that an Iraq-style campaign against Zimbabwe should be undertaken. However, it seems like ‘threat’ is a very active noun for Barack to use, and it suggests escalating action in the near future. He may not refer to terrorism, but the choice to call this an ‘extraordinary’ threat sets up Zimbabwe as an unavoidable issue.

The main reason the UN has not interfered in Zimbabwe so far is that the only threat Mugabe poses is to his own people. Whilst his actions and policies may result in a domestic humanitarian crisis, it is not a crisis of international relations. Therefore the rest of the world contentedly sits on the sidelines and prefers to act via aid rather than intervention or, dare I say it, regimen change.

One thing is clear: Zimbabwe cannot stay the way it is for much longer.

Plankton To The Rescue!

Obama? A joker. Ethical Living? Pointless. So how are we going to save the world from climate chaos? The answer lies with plankton.

Yes, plankton. The tiny little grubs that whales feed on. It seems environmental scientists have started to get desperate. Either that or the nation’s journalists are resorting to desperate measures to stave off ‘green fatigue‘.

In a nutshell, boffins from the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton have just completed an experiment in which they dumped iron filings in the South Seas to boost plankton levels. The little buggers are quite useful in taking in CO2 from the environment, something we sorely need. Whilst this may have worked, it fell short of the projected amount of CO2 taken in by a factor of 15 to 50 times. (Not sure how that can call themselves scientists and be that imprecise, but nevermind…)

This latest attempt to solve the environmental mess we’ve got ourselves into may be way off the mark, but it does raise for me an interesting issue. Plankton fertilisation is a prime example of geo-engineering. In plain English, the scientists have resorted to messing with the natural balance of things to correct the damage we have already done. Frank Pope at The Times opposes this by arguing that we are meddling with complex eco-systems that we don’t fully understand, but if we can’t use out ingenuity to solve this problem, then how else can we find a way out? It seems logical to put faith in our ability for innovation to ensure the survival of the human race, but if we shy away from experimenting in this way, then surely we are just conceding defeat? Dumping iron filings on plankton is essentially polluting to save the environment, and I’d like to see a Government give funding to that!

New President, New Approach

Getting down to work
Getting down to work

A week on from Obama’s inauguration, and he sure is quick getting to work on the unenviable task of cleaning up the biggest mess America has found itself in since the ’30s.

Closing Guantanamo Bay on Day One was obviously a key symbolic victory for liberty and the concept of a fair trial, and his early diplomatic phone calls show his commitment to pursuing peace in the Middle East.

But today we hear the news which, for me at least, is the biggest step forward for this new administration. Obama and his team are ready to take on a global villain called Robert who has been wreaking havoc in Africa.

I watched intently last March as the spectre of Mugabe seemed to wane, before he heartlessly overthrew the election result and drove his opponent Morgan Tsvangirai out of the country. Now it seems the UN is finally readying itself to step in, taking the lead from Obama’s UN Ambassador Susan Rice.

This policy decision is all the more admirable considering the aforementioned American mess – you would have thought Obama would be content with juggling a collapsing economy, motor industry and two contentious foreign conflicts. I guess he just likes a challenge.

This move for me marks the biggest difference between the Bush years and the fledgling Obama era. Instead of simply consulting the UN just in case they agreed before firing gung-ho into Iraq, it looks like though Obama is keen to get everyone (or at least the majority) onside before getting serious about Zimbabwe. Seems international diplomacy isn’t dead after all…

p.s. For those who prefer their commentary on international politics to be more well-read and erudite, please have a look at this blog by my good friend Charlotte.

[Wordpress spellcheck – Obama, not found. Suggestions: ABBA?]

One For The History Books?

Can you smell what Barack is cooking?
Can you smell what Barack is cooking?

This has been the week that Obamamania reached fever pitch, and let me say first off, I’m very glad that he won. Barack Obama will make a much better president of the USA than John McCain, and with his powerful majority in congress, he is in a position to bring about big changes in American foreign, economic and environmental policy.

But let’s not get carried away. A great number of reports marked this as an historic event, a momentous occasion, a new dawn (if you would believe the words of the great man himself). This seems a bit sensationalist to me. Of course having a black man in the white house is a landmark victory for the civil rights movement, but from here on in the rhetoric from Team Barack will change. Let’s not forget just how serious the global economic problems are, or the fact that the Middle East is as unstable as it’s ever been. Obama’s rhetoric in his campaign was fantastically well-aimed at cultivating an aura of hope and excitement around his policies. Now he must force all of America to lower its expectations, or we will all be severely disappointed when we find out that he can’t actually walk on water.

This has all been said before this week, and much more cogently, by Martin Samuel and Matthew Parris at the Times. What I think I can bring to the table however, is the question of Obama making history.

It’s easy for us to look at this week and be pretty damn chuffed that the Americans have elected the first black man to run their country. But, as Orwell once put it, history is written by the winners, and this holds true even in these modern times. At my delightfully backward-thinking Private school where I toiled away for seven of my teenage years, we were taught that nothing can be considered history until 50 years have passed. We need this distance and perspective to accurately and objectively judge the actions of political leaders. Anything more recent, we were told, was just Politics. Whilst this may be a step too far, I think we need more than four days to judge an event to be historical. We need about four years.

The tenure of Barack Obama as President of the USA will be judged on results and not origins. The true measure of his success will be gauged in four years time. If he can bring about the changes he promises, then America stands to become a much better place. Furthermore if he can win a second term in office then he will have a great opportunity to shape the future of America. Until then it is important that we are cautiously optimistic. Piling any hyperbolic expectation on his shoulders will only make it even harder for him to really get a grip on his new job.

Obama on the Home Straight?

With nine days still to go before the American Presidential election, many are already calling this a one-horse race.
On Roy Greenslade’s Media Guardian blog today, he highlights that Alaska’s biggest newspaper title, The Anchorage Daily News, has ditched Sarah Palin and formally endorsed Barack Obama as the best man for the job.
Yet, Roy also points out that Alaska is still seen as a Republican stronghold, so maybe this will make little difference on November 5th. Do local newspaper’s editorial stances really hold that much sway over their areas?
Newspaper endorsements aside, can anyone really see Obama losing from such a strong position?
Not the BBC.
Today they published 5 expert projections, all predicting an Obama win.
Ben Macintyre from The Times suggests the Tom Bradley effect could come into play, but many discredit this idea, calling it outdated.
For my part, I’m looking forward to a historic election result, but can’t rule out the off-chance that Americans will side with an experienced conservative in these times of high economic crisis.