Friday, 30 September 2011

Russia's presidential saga resolved as Duma election takes a familiar shape.

Last Saturday a lengthy political saga finally came to an end at United Russia’s conference in Moscow.  Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin announced that the latter will contest next year’s Russian Presidential election.  This resolves the “will he or won’t he” speculation about President Medvedev seeking a second term in office.

There will, of course, be many Russian liberals who see this decision as a fatal blow to Russia’s democracy.  There will also be a chorus of “we told you so”s from commentators hostile to the Kremlin who always maintained that Medvedev’s presidency was a sham.  

Their arguments have some force, but they’re very far from the full picture.  

The President has defended his decision to step aside and let Putin contest the election, observing that the Prime Minister is Russia’s “most authoritative” leader.  

The Russian public has consistently expressed its preference for Putin, ahead of Medvedev, where polls gave a choice between the two men.  Alexei Levinson, from the Levada Institute, runs through the figures on Open Democracy.

Another switch of positions between Medvedev and Putin hardly suggests flourishing political competition, but it is broadly reflective of the will of the Russian people.  Russia will end up with the President whom a majority wishes to fill the post. 

Earlier in the year I mentioned the thesis of Richard Sakwa’s book, The Crisis of Russian Democracy.  Sakwa argues that the competitive element in Russian politics is subsumed within the administrative system but he also maintains that the ‘constitutional’ aspect of Russian politics holds the worst excesses of the unelected ‘administrative regime’ in check.

He can’t be re-examining his theory with any undue concern this week.  The competitive element seems more than evident after the liberalising Finance Minister, Alexei Kudrin, was forced to step down, when he expressed unwillingness to serve under the new arrangements.  And the fact that Putin felt obliged to observe the letter of the Russian constitution, before launching his comeback, emphasises that proprieties hold some force.

Witness the Kremlin’s efforts, now in disarray, to establish the market-friendly party Right Cause as a contender in December’s State Duma elections.  Sakwa has a fascinating article in OD explaining how the leadership of billionaire, Mikhail Prokhorov, has fallen apart.

Only months ago Right Cause was being touted as a pro-Medvedev, liberal alternative to Putinite United Russia.  Now Prokhorov has been ousted, Right Cause is in a mess and Medvedev has stepped aside to give Putin a free run.

There is a justifiable degree of scepticism about the independence of the parties which can realistically challenge for seats in the State Duma; whether it’s Just Russia or even Zhirinovsky’s LDPR, but although United Russia is dominant, the party isn’t allowed to hold a monopoly of power and both Putin and Medvedev remain a step removed from it.   

That’s just another small reason why the “Putinism = the new Stalinism” editorials which graced many papers on Monday morning seem so hysterically shrill. 

So we move towards an election in December that will be viewed effectively as a plebiscite on the inverted Putin – Medvedev tandem which will surely follow the presidential contest in March.  It's all a little familiar, given the equivalent contest in 2007.    

Friday, 16 September 2011

You don't learn basic honesty at journalism school.

For months now the Johann Hari affair has gripped the political blogosphere.  The Independent columnist caused consternation when he was caught out embellishing some of his interviews with quotes taken from other sources. 

Now I don’t intend to make any contribution to the highly personalised debate which has taken place for and against Hari.  I didn’t particularly enjoy his columns, but neither did they send me into apoplectic rage.  The most I can say about his writing is that it was highly ideological and as such it had that precocious-but-angry adolescent feel to it.

His interviews, I must admit, I rarely bothered to read.  The Independent may take a great deal of pride in its ‘journalistic integrity’, but it’s by some distance the least read national quality newspaper and it is (let’s be honest) seriously dull. 

Its coverage of the UK regions is frankly shameful and the best that can be said about the re-modelled paper is that it’s dropped those intensely irritating ‘issue’ front pages, which had a minimum of text and a big picture illustrating the ‘outrage’ of the day.

I did buy the Independent yesterday though and I  read Hari’s ‘personal apology’.  It was highly unconvincing.

The columnist is promising to take a four month course in journalism, after which he intends to continue working at the Independent.  He assures his readers that any future articles will be published online with accompanying foot-notes and, where interviews have taken place, video evidence of their content.

Now, I know that Hari must attract readers to the Independent, but for goodness sake, give it up!  

Who on earth wants to read a journalist who is so discredited that he has to jump through hoops before anyone can believe a word that he’s written?  "Interesting interview, but I’d better boot up the old computer and double-check that it actually took place"!

Imagine if a cowboy handy-man caused litres of brown sludge to swamp your bathroom; would you employ him six months later if he pledged to undertake a plumbing night-class?

The preposterous conceit here is that Hari didn't quite fully realise that he was doing something wrong, because he’d been fast-tracked through the world of journalism and hadn’t received the necessary basic training.  As someone who isn’t a trained journalist, but who has tried, for a spell, to make a living writing in newspapers and magazines, I resent that analysis.

Hari is accused of plagiarism. 

He went to Cambridge for goodness sake.  Is anyone seriously suggesting that no-one ever walked him through a few basic lessons in not copying huge chunks of other people’s work and claiming it as his own?  That’s one of the first things that any university drills into its students nowadays.  It’s even a major theme in schools.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that anyone can walk into a newspaper and do the job of a seasoned reporter.  But honesty - basic intellectual honesty - in writing, that’s not something that can be picked up at journalism school. 

Since time immemorial writers have taken different paths into journalism.  But if you’re currently thinking of making money by penning articles professionally and you haven’t come up through the traditional route, working for a local paper, whether your background is academia, politics or even blogging, your prospects have just got that bit bleaker.

And you have Johann Hari to thank.  

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Boundary changes in Northern Ireland

If you're one of the chosen few pouring over details of the boundary commission's proposed changes to the electoral map in Northern Ireland, this map will prove useful.  We're set to lose 2 out of our current 18 Westminster constituencies and these are the commission's plans to change the boundaries.

The possible electoral ramifications will keep pundits busy over the coming weeks and months, but a few weird and wonderful geographical / local identity issues will also keep debate boiling.

For instance it's intriguing that the new mid-Antrim constituency will snake out from the coast to encompass Ballymena, as well the East Antrim locale of Larne and Carrickfergus.  Indeed Ballymena town will be separated from outlying villages like Cullybackey and Broughshane, which are part of Ballymena council and undoutbedly part of the same area.

No doubt there will be similar issues elsewhere.  Intriguing.  

Monday, 12 September 2011

Guest Post: Rugby, thuggery, and the judge

A guest post by itwassammymcnallywhatdoneit

Rugby, thuggery, and the judge

Manu Tuilagi is an outstanding rugby player and at 20, he is the youngest of six professional rugby playing brothers.

His 5 older brothers have all represented Samoa, but Manu, having arrived from Samoa at the age of 13, declared for the England senior team having played through the National age grade structures. Season 2010-11 was Manu’s first season in the Aviva Premiership and he almost immediately showed his potential, not only as an outstanding prospect for his club Leicester, but also as a future England international.

In boxing parlance, he weighs in at 17.5 stone and stands 6.1 tall (reach undeclared) and as he proved on the 14th May, when lining out for Leicester against Northampton, in the Aviva Premiership semi-final, he packs a hell of punch.

His Tysonseque attack (shown here about 30 seconds in) on England’s winger Chris Ashton, would have been worthy of Iron Mike himself and resulted in both players being sin-binned. After the game, which was a knockout blow, not only for Ashton but also for Northampton’s Premiership interest, a clearly angry Northampton coach, Jim Mallinder, whilst acknowledging that Ashton had pushed Tuilagi, reasonably complained that “you cannot react with three punches to the head without a red.”

In the fallout from the affair, Jon Sleighthome (ex England and Northampton), observed in the Northampton Chronicle and Echo, the following Tuesday - “I am sure that the citing officer, and the disciplinary panel will make an example of Manu, and the outside chance that he had of being in England’s World Cup squad were extinguished in a blow.” But although Sleighthome’s prediction did seem like a reasonable one, with Tuilagi indeed being cited and the incident being categorised as a “top level entry offence”, he hadn’t reckoned with the RFU disciplinary committee, headed up by His Honour Judge Jeff Blackett.

Blackett commented that “the top-end range is eight to 52 weeks and we determined that the appropriate entry point within that range is 10 weeks." And having gone for the lower end of the range the committee then decided that the 10 weeks should be “reduced by 50% to reflect Manu's youth and inexperience, his admission of guilt and his genuine remorse."

As the English rugby blog Blood and Mud  commented “He's 20, not 12 so youth is no mitigation. On the 'Admission of guilt'; he was recorded on TV from two angles punching the shite out of someone, how exactly could he plead not-guilty? Then we have 'Genuine remorse'; where he's basically being rewarded for not saying "I'm glad I smacked the bastard and I'd happily do it again".

The convenient leniency shown by the RFU for such outright thuggery not only reflects very poorly on English rugby in particular - with their National team’s pedestrian midfield now bolstered by the dynamic Tuilagi at the World cup - but also reflects very badly on the image of rugby in general. …and for those of us, who like to complacently lecture football (soccer) supporters on what they can learn from Rugby what this tawdry episode and others (such as the Bloodgate affair also featuring Judge Blackett) reminds us of, is that there are far more serious matters than falling over in the penalty area and arguing with referees which are rather more deserving of our attention.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Four points or bust for Northern Ireland in next two games

Another Northern Ireland match is looming.  Last time the team took an early lead against the Faroe Islands, before falling into the old pattern of slow sideways passing.  Luckily the introduction of Niall McGinn, early in the second half, revitalised the line-up and Steven Davis notched up a second from long range, before Pat McCourt decided to take the Islanders apart twice with his mesmerising ball skills.

This time the opposition is a sight stiffer.  Mind you, over at The Social Club, Jonathan Wilson notes that the Serb manager, Vladimir Petrovic, has indicated that he would be happy to return from Belfast with a draw

It is therefore likely that the Serbs, with a number of players missing, will set up defensively against Northern Ireland.  Nigel Worthington is also an innately cautious manager and it looks probable that McCourt and Kyle Lafferty, both of whom are reportedly suffering from calf-strains, will be missing,   It's therefore shaping up to be a turgid encounter.  Think about the Italy game, where both sides were happy to sit in front of each other’s defences.

Theoretically a draw would keep Northern Ireland in the hunt, with all eyes then turning to Tallinn, where we play Estonia on Tuesday.  My feeling is that a win is needed, because it is by no means likely that we will take three points in an away game against reasonably credible opposition.  Estonia have already beaten Serbia during this campaign.

Without a shadow of doubt, two draws will leave too much to do.

It's not that supporters ought to expect Northern Ireland to qualify, but they do have a right to expect the team and the coach to give it their best go.  Unless there is a properly committed performance on Friday night and unless there is a clear will to win, as distinct from a will not to lose, then calls for another manager to be given a chance in the next campaign will grow louder.