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Getting to the truth: what future for journalism?
Toby Stirling Hill
Toby Stirling Hill is a freelance journalist. Brought up in Haydon Bridge, Northumberland, he went to Haydon Bridge High School and then on to Oxford University. He graduated in English in 2010. Toby has written extensively on political and environmental issues in Central and South America.
In this piece, written especially for a talk on journalism given to the Tynedale Transformed 2020 Festival, Toby describes the challenges (and dangers) he faced as an investigative journalist in Nicaragua in 2018. With protests against the government of Daniele Ortega breaking out across the country, Toby was determined to expose Ortega’s abuses of power and give a voice to those fighting back. But he then faced a further challenge – getting reported and published in a form that bore any resemblance to what he had uncovered and written!
On the front line – challenging oppression and fake news on a shoestring
Protesters gather outside Managua’s Metropolitan Cathedral, 28 April 2018 (Picture Toby Stirling Hill)
I was freelancing in Honduras, a beautiful but violent country of cloud forests, tropical islands and drug cartels, when protests broke out across the border in Nicaragua. Over the next few days, I followed the news as more than 20 Nicaraguans were killed in a lethal state crackdown. The youngest, Alvaro Conrado, was just 15. He received a bullet to the throat while bringing water to students occupying a university campus.
I dropped my work in Honduras and jumped on a bus to the Nicaraguan capital of Managua. Next to me was Miguel, a student racing home to join his friends demonstrating in the western city of Leon. Behind me was a bearded Californian who’d chosen an inopportune moment to extend his coffee import business into Nicaragua.
Miguel shared a potted overview of the situation in his country. It was a perspective I’d hear many times through the coming weeks. He still had sympathy for the romantic tale of the Sandinistas: the Marxist guerrillas who, inspired by Fidel Castro, overthrew a brutal US-backed dictatorship in the 1970s. The current President, Daniel Ortega, had led the Sandinistas to victory and then ruled the country through the eighties, before losing elections in 1990.
Sixteen years later, in 2006, Ortega returned to power. This time, he was determined to stay, and set about transforming Nicaragua into a one-party state. The Sandinista party itself was unrecognisable from the audacious band of theorists and fighters that had liberated Nicaragua three decades earlier. Many of Ortega’s former comrades had quit, warning of his megalomaniac ambitions. The recent protests, which broke out in April 2018, had been sparked by specific cases of mismanagement, Miguel explained. But they were rooted in deeper anger at a decade of metastasizing corruption, authoritarianism, and impunity.
My hotel in Managua was an eccentric affair. Owned by the bon vivant son of a successful Catholic artist, its walls were plastered with paintings from skirting board to ceiling. A TV played above the reception as I checked in. The news channel 100% Noticias was livestreaming confrontations between students and pro-government forces in the labyrinth of streets surrounding one of Managua’s universities. Reading the subtitles, I saw that this was the Polytechnic University, UPOLI, where a defiant occupation had become a focal point for the growing protest movement.
I dropped off my bags before returning to watch the unfolding scene with the hotel staff. The police and their plain-clothed henchmen had gone; we crowded round the screen as Red Cross ambulances pulled up to treat wounded students.
I was scared, but it was time to get to work.
Carlos, the hotel owner, helped find a taxi willing to drive me to the scene. A young guy pulled up with his girlfriend. We steered through the dark streets, clumps of protesters still out in the plazas, waving flags and shouting at passing cars. The neighbourhood around UPOLI resembled a warzone: paving stones ripped from the ground and piled into makeshift barricades; sheets of metal studded with bullet holes; boxes of Molotov cocktails abandoned in the road; fires, and pools of blood.
Some students were still out, patrolling the streets. One, 18-year-old Reynaldo, told me several had been shot with live ammunition during the night’s confrontation. (One of those hit, 22-year-old Darwin Elias Medrano, would die in hospital two days later). Reynaldo escorted me inside the main campus, where students – aged 18, 19, 20 – were wide-eyed and electric, fizzing with adrenaline. A few rooms had been turned into field hospitals. The students were ablaze with insurrectionary fury: since occupying the university three days earlier, they’d endured nightly attacks. But they were also terrified: in that time, five protesters had been shot dead in or around the campus – and they knew the raids would get worse.
The next day, a massive protest march – estimated at 100,000 people – flooded the streets of Managua. It was a thrilling occasion. For a decade, only pro-government gatherings had been tolerated, taking place under the red-and-black colours of the Sandinista flag. State forces had responded to the past week’s rebellion with lethal force. A report from Amnesty International, which documented 76 deaths between 19 April and 11 May, concluded that “a considerable number of the causalities could be considered extrajudicial executions.” A delegation of four UN Special Rapporteurs looked on aghast: “We are appalled by the security forces’ response,” they said.
But this strategy of lethal repression had backfired. While the protests began among students and the urban middle-class, they now flared across all sectors of Nicaraguan society. This morning, the Managua streets were a chromatically inverted sea of blue and white – the colours of the Nicaraguan national flag, which had come to symbolise the protest movement.
I talked with dozens of protesters as the march made its way to its endpoint: UPOLI. The streets around the campus, which last night had been strewn with debris, glass, spent bullet cases and fire, were now filled with thousands of people, chanting and waving placards. Students, who just 12 hours earlier were entrenched amid gunshots and tear gas, poured out of the campus gates and were embraced by the crowd. The air was filled with hope; change felt inevitable.
Not everyone, however, was optimistic. One source whose insight I relied on throughout my time in Nicaragua was Sofia Montenegro, a former Sandinista guerrilla who’d fought alongside Ortega in the seventies. “Ortega will do anything to hold onto power,” she warned me. “This will get much, much worse.”
I’d arrived in Central America two months earlier, planning to cover the aftermath of a disputed election in Honduras. Honduras’s authoritarian regime, in power since 2009, was accused of fixing the ballot. But it defied calls for a revote and, with US backing, re-established control, ordering a crackdown on street protests that left 30 dead.
Now, however, I found myself caught up in a different rebellion – one it seemed the rebels might win. I decided to stay in Nicaragua, and see how it played out.
For a few weeks after the march to UPOLI, the repression receded. Subsequent marches passed without incident. Nights of violence still occurred: on 10 May, another UPOLI student was shot dead, and three more injured by gunfire. But despite its totalitarian instincts, the government seemed to have learnt its lesson: a forceful crackdown only fuels more opposition.
I moved out of the hotel, which my freelancer’s budget couldn’t sustain, and into a house of young locals. I was in luck: they were wonderful people, passionately engaged with the unfolding situation and partial to nights of ron, cerveza y cumbia.
Ortega agreed to hold talks with the opposition, mediated by Nicaragua’s powerful Catholic Church. For a man who hates to compromise, it was an unprecedented concession. My housemates and I watched enthralled as a Catholic TV service livestreamed the first session of the talks.
These negotiations continued for the next two weeks, but made little headway. Then, on 30 May, everything changed.
It was Nicaragua’s Mother’s Day and another march was planned. It would be led by ‘the mothers of April’ – bereaved mothers whose children had been killed in the earlier repression. It too had a university as its destination, the University of Central America (UCA), where some of the first demonstrations – against the mishandling of fires raging through a rainforest reserve – had been held. It proved to be the biggest protest yet, and the mood was jubilant. In the middle of the crowd, I found one protester burning their Sandinista party t-shirt. “I’ve quit, my husband’s quit,” she told me. “Ortega must go!”
I was talking with campesinos, or small-scale farmers, who’d ridden into the city that morning on a convoy of trucks, when rumours reached us of an attack near UCA. I set out on the long hike to the head of the column. People were pushing backwards into the bewildered protesters in the middle of the crowd. I advanced into a growing atmosphere of panic.
A familiar figure materialised through the heat haze. The previous night, I’d met a photographer with Deutsche Welle: a movie character journalist, linen-shirted, ironic, unphased by the volatile situation. Now he was coming towards me, pale as a ghost. “It’s horrible up there,” he said. “I’m getting out of here.”
I continued into the chaos. Smoke billowed through the streets. Explosions cracked the humid air. Hundreds of protesters were streaming into the university campus. Ambulances and pick-up trucks were parked haphazardly across the road, picking up bodies. At the centre of the action was a street which ran alongside another university, the University of Engineering, also occupied by students. Half-way down it I could see a tall barricade built from paving stones, with a few protesters crouched behind it. At the far end I could just make out a phalanx of riot police. “Get out of here,” one wide-eyed young man told, “they’re shooting, they’re shooting bullets.”
I hung back, talking with demonstrators. One described how she’d been among protesters confronting the riot police when, suddenly, a man in front of her had fallen. She saw soft matter spill from his skull onto the black tarmac. Others told similar stories: protesters who’d abruptly collapsed, struck by bullets that seemed to fall from the sky.
I got home after nightfall and immediately set out to report what the Nicaraguan government was doing. Up to this point, I’d been writing for Vice. But I wanted to publish somewhere that would gain more traction. I tried the Guardian, but they already had a stringer, US anthropologist Carl-David Goette Luciak. It’s at this point, as a British journalist still clinging to some vestiges of idealism, that you’re faced with the abject state of your country’s media. If not the Guardian, then what other outlet do you write for? Murdoch’s Times? The Daily Mail? (Look left and it only gets worse, by the way: the Morning Star was busy disgracing itself, regurgitating Nicaraguan government propaganda from a desk in London, as state forces gunned down peaceful protesters in the streets).
One newspaper was looking for stories: the Telegraph. I was uncomfortable with writing for them: in an idealistic mood, I’d say contributing to the propaganda organ of Britain’s traditional elite goes against the very principles I entered journalism for. (In a less idealistic mood, I might add the word ostensibly to that sentence.) But then what did my principles matter here, compared to circulating what was happening as widely as possible? And let’s be honest, if any paper is likely to have readers with influence, it’s the Telegraph.
So I published a full-page spread in the Sunday Telegraph. My editor tried to sneak in the word ‘socialist’ to describe Ortega, but backed down when I complained. As well as witnessing the march itself, I spent days taking photos, interviewing victims’ families, talking with medical experts, legal experts, security experts – developing a clear picture of what had occurred. I spent another day writing the piece up, and it was published as a ‘dispatch’, featuring my headshot and leading that Sunday’s world news coverage. And, for all this, I got paid £250.
There’s a myth on the left that the reporters covering foreign news for mainstream outlets are all inside the establishment, in one way or another, and are paid handsomely to reel out the establishment line. The truth, in most cases, is the reverse. These days, newspapers are broke. They can barely afford a single correspondent to cover an entire continent. Most events – particularly those occurring in smaller, geopolitically isolated countries such as those that make up Central America – are overwhelmingly covered by freelancers like me, who’ve taken themselves out there, frequently with no contacts, and are distinguished primarily by their willingness to work for a pittance.
This isn’t to call out the Telegraph specifically. They paid marginally worse than Vice or the Guardian, but not by much. This is just how what was once grandly referred to as ‘foreign correspondence’ now works.
On a side note, scraping by as a freelancer was far less stressful for me, coming from the UK, than for my counterparts from the US. As bullets flew and pro-government thugs beat up their opponents, I knew that if I were injured, I could return home for free medical treatment on the NHS. For my US friends, it was very different. As broke freelancers working in something approximating a warzone, they were unable to find affordable medical insurance. The solution? They worked uninsured. As a result, a serious injury would likely mire them in tens of thousands of dollars of debt. That was just an additional risk they ran. It was a vivid reminder of the freedom created by socialised healthcare.
Still, the travails of freelance foreign correspondents aren’t really the fault of the newspapers. Their revenues are in freefall, as people’s reading habits fragment across myriad free-to-access online sources. Some readers have gone to Breibart; others to the Canary. (Another left-wing outlet, incidentally, that disgraced itself by regurgitating Ortega propaganda, this time from a desk in Bristol).
But what I witnessed in Nicaragua also demonstrated the vital role journalism can play in challenging oppression. The Nicaraguan government deployed its extensive media apparatus, alongside the police and other institutions, to push a false narrative that the violence was the result of right-wing extremists, not a state crackdown. (This was the line slavishly regurgitated by the Morning Star and Canary). But Nicaraguan journalists fought back, giving a voice to the thousands of victims of state violence. In one indispensable piece, Wilfredo Miranda visited the private hospitals where voluntary brigades were treating injured protesters. A doctor showed him x-rays of demonstrators who’d been shot dead. They revealed a terrifying pattern. Many of the deaths were the result of precision shots to the head or neck. Some – showing massive cranial damage from impact at an elevated angle – were almost certainly the result of snipers. As the medic told Miranda: “From all that I’ve seen, they are shooting with scientific precision: straight to kill”.
I discovered the same, copying Miranda’s idea and visiting a hospital after the Mother’s Day Massacre. The visit confirmed my initial suspicions about what had taken place. Protesters facing off with riot police had been ambushed by snipers positioned in Nicaragua’s national sports stadium, which looked over the march’s endpoint. Eight people were killed and a further 86 injured around UCA; at least another eight were killed in other parts of the country. The semi-ceasefire was over: the government had switched tactics. The sudden, lethal attack marked the start of a new strategy: to terrify people off the streets.
In the ensuing weeks, Ortega unleashed gangs of masked gunmen into Nicaraguan cities. Atrocities followed in their wake. A family of six was burnt alive in their own home. A 14-month-old baby was shot in the head. Two students were shot dead as gunfire rained down on the last remaining university occupation. 35 people were killed in a single day in an assault on the Carazo region, a stronghold of anti-government resistance.
Protesters had established roadblocks across major highways to try and force the government into making concessions. But facing relentless attacks with military-grade weapons, there was nothing they could do. The death toll climbed above 300. Tens of thousands fled the country. Hundreds of protest leaders were imprisoned. Street demonstrations were immediately crushed. Conversations in bars became increasingly hushed, with codewords replacing the names of particular organisations and individuals. It was my first taste of totalitarianism.
Working as a journalist was becoming close to impossible. Having regained control of the streets, the government was determined to impose control of the narrative. I interviewed the head of 100% Noticias, who predicted his news channel would soon be shut down. Less than a month later, police stormed the studios, and he was thrown in jail. Other local journalists – facing infinitely greater danger than foreigners like me – showed huge courage in continuing to document the repression. But all endured death threats and incessant intimidation.
I was reporting for the Guardian now, after their stringer was dragged out of bed by police, roughed up, and deported. The groundwork for this attack was laid by arch-bootlicker Max Blumenthal, who wrote a hit-piece insinuating that Goette-Luciak was a US intelligence asset, which The Canary republished. Sitting on your ass in Bristol, endangering vulnerable freelancers working to expose the abuses of brutal dictatorships: not sure this is the future of journalism, lads.
For its part, the Guardian looked after me well. The pay was still derisory, of course. But their Americas editor called me more than once, and we discussed my safety as I supped yet another coffee in a café garden thick with tropical plants.
I had some close calls. On one occasion, I was on my way to the Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights, which had done more than anyone to expose the state’s strategy of lethal repression. As I turned the corner towards their office – usually a hive of activity – I hit a police roadblock. They’d ringed the building and were interrogating anyone attempting to reach it. A kid with an AK47 shook himself to attention and asked my name. In a split-second decision, I gave a false one. The boy raised a clipboard and wrote it down. In another column, he noted a brief description of my clothes. Then he asked to see my papers; I said I had only my passport, and had left it in my hotel. He called over an older officer, also armed, and they conferred quietly while looking me up and down. The older officer pulled out a mobile, took a photo of me, and called someone before disappearing down a side-street. The kid returned to his position by the roadblock and told me to wait. At this point, I realised my utter ignorance of how modern state systems work: was it possible for the officer to check my name with immigration? Could they be comparing my photo to a database of unwelcome gringos? I didn’t want to hang around to find out. I smiled at the kid and said I was going to buy a bottle of water from the petrol station round the corner. As soon as I was out of sight, I waved down a taxi and named a destination on the opposite side of the city. It was time to leave.
My journey back to the UK was delayed by chaos at Gatwick Airport, as reports of drones grounded all flights for three days. I was put up in a 4-star hotel in Costa Rica to wait for the UK authorities to regain control. While I was there, a group of international monitors who’d been invited into Nicaragua by the government during the negotiations of May published a long-awaited report. It concluded that Ortega should be tried for crimes against humanity.
Today, however, two years since I crossed the border into Nicaragua, Ortega remains in power.
Transforming our communities: Transforming what and why?
24 September 2020
Since Covid-19 there have been moments in the lacuna of restrictions where hope has sprung through the gaps and proclaimed…Things will never be the same again! How true. Since March 2020 tens of thousands of people have died, tens of thousands have lost their jobs and millions have had their lives interrupted. The only certainty is that we are all living in an accelerated world where everything is standing still. Most people are focussing on the small details whilst a huge narrative plays out. All this we know and during these contradictory times, voices can be heard above the whispers about opportunities for: climate change, for different ways of working, for neighbourliness and kindness. Or that’s how it seemed at the beginning.
However, it seems that, seven months down the road, we are becoming increasingly oppositional in our behaviour, eschewing masks and social distancing, bending the rules for get-togethers; but who are we opposing and who is at risk? The infection rate is going up, the satires on the U-turn motorway that is government policy continue, and the economy is tanking.
Sadly, the twists and turns of policy have meant that the silence of the roads is now a roar, as the only safe way to travel is in a car. The marvellous bird song is presumably still there, we just can’t hear it. Those with no small children and a spare room delight in home working, and those of us outside the cities enjoy the outdoors as we take our daily exercise. Like all complex situations there were, and still are appalling consequences and privations as well as opportunities and pleasures, all with virus droplets as a mediating force.
The nation is getting restless while people try to live as normally as possible, whether that means congregating in each other’s houses, caring for each other’s children, going to the pub, cramming onto public transport or all going to Bournemouth at the same time.
As for wearing masks, God help us. We ignore those countries such as Spain and France, both of whom are ahead of the curve, where wearing masks outside, not just in shops and on public transport, is mandatory. It should be noted that, for decades, many South Asians have customarily worn masks at the first hint of a cold, let alone a pandemic. What is it about the face mask that provokes such emotion?
As if a pandemic wasn’t sufficient to test the mettle of any country, what about Brexit? There will probably be: no deal, no progress, no regard for the law. No matter which way you voted, truth and honour were truly taken hostage by the Brexit,“£350 million pounds for the NHS”, claim on the side of a bus. They were further sacrificed by Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle and put to death by the prospect of the UK breaking international law. If we are to follow our leaders our national excuse for breaking the lockdown will be that, to quote Brandon Lewis, we are doing it, “in a specific and limited way”.
It seems that there has been a move over a relatively short time from unity against an invisible threat, to a disharmonious response to an unintelligible authority. If we only we had grown-ups leading us in a grown-up way, grown–ups like Jacinda Ardhern in New Zealand, where the nation pulled together because they understood what was being asked of them and why.
If we have lost our initial sense of solidarity against the virus, where has it gone? Are we seeing a deep-seated antipathy to authority and a national lack of trust? Many commentators have described our recent behaviours and choices as acts of self-harm. Flouting the restrictions may seem to be this. As ever the evidence contradicts this, and here we come full circle. The groups and neighbours who came together at the beginning of the pandemic are still doing so.
This is where our hope lies, in our communities. Seven months ago there were many examples of unity and action. A time when we clapped for carers, walked round our gardens to raise money, helped people who were shielding, organised, cooked, shopped, and supported our front-line workers. These many hundreds of examples of community action demonstrate that there is an alternative. What’s more, groups and individuals are still supporting each other and those in need.
But does it go far enough? The stakes are certainly high. Unemployment will, it is estimated, reach over 4 million. The Budget has just been scrapped because long term planning is untenable. Furlough is coming to an end. Businesses, big and small are going bust.
So what can we do? We need to organise and make our communities resilient. The foundation for community transformation is there. There is evidence everywhere of: community groups, centres, co-ops, after school clubs, the WI, church groups, community energy companies, environmental groups, community interest companies, credit banks, housing co-ops… communities making their own choices about the way they want to live and how they want to operate. Communities have always shaped their streets, villages, towns, and cities to suit their needs. With austerity and a huge recession in prospect the need to organise was never more pressing. We just need to come together to do it, at home, in the workplace, where we live, to protect our most vulnerable and to protect ourselves from a system that is about to fail us on a massive scale. The pandemic may be global but our futures are local.
first published September 2020 in North East Bylines. https://northeastbylines.co.uk/transforming-our-communities-transforming-what-and-why/
Building Back Badly
13 August 2020
Under the new system there will be planning zones, including brown-field sites, new towns and renewal areas. There will be targets and time limits speeding up the system. All this may sound like a good idea; the stories of endless planning processes and delays for permissions to build a car port are myriad but, as ever, the devil is in the detail.
Following the statement by Dominic Cummings in The Times on 30th June, that he would like to “take an axe”, to planning laws, Boris Johnson has now publicly stated that he wants to “tear down the system and start again”. Obviously, a reprise of Cumming’s intentions, the result is essentially the same. Either way, chopping or tearing, planning had better watch out! The new White Paper outlines how things will change.
The new proposals appear to have local authorities as key players. Those very local councils, which have had up to 70% of their budgets cut over the past 5 years and which are struggling to deal with the impact of Covid-19, will have targets for new houses and deadlines for planning and could be fined if they miss them. The fear is that a lack of consultation and funding will result in a system that allows developers to build fast and loose, with little accountability.
Even under our present planning laws, homeless people are re-housed, supposedly temporarily, in converted shipping containers. Tin boxes that are freezing in the winter, damp, cramped and boiling hot in the summer, and often located in areas not served by public services. If the ghetto-isation of the homeless is happening now under our present planning system, imagine what will happen under a government- run free-for-all. Even Tory MP Geoffrey Clifton – Brown claims that the watering down of the council veto could lead to lower quality homes, “We have got to be really sure that we are not building slums of tomorrow by building today at low quality.”
London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has also expressed his concern over this missed opportunity to build sustainable, affordable housing. The term ‘affordable’ currently raises the question “affordable for whom?” What will happen when there are no requirements on developers to build any so- called affordable housing, let alone the real thing? Where is the green, sustainable housing in this White Paper? Where is social housing that isn’t made from steel hulks? Where are local infrastructural implications? Where is planning for communities? What will happen to all those town plans?
This could be the biggest deregulation of building controls for decades and the White Paper has been presented during Parliament’s summer recess.
So, how might the Tories in the shires respond? Although driven by commercial interests which chime with Tory tenets, the building of 300, 000 new homes will impact on the existing market and house prices may be affected, as will the composition of communities and local environments.
But is the White Paper an indicator of something bigger?
The7th August headline in the i newspaper, ‘Demolition of Planning rules hands more power to No. 10’, seems to signal the next instalment of another wrecking and centralisation move by Number10.
Behind the scenes at No. 10 is fascinating at the moment. The PM is in sway, not only to Dominic Cummings, but to two other unelected influencers and this piece of planning law has all their hallmarks. One is Claire Fox and the other, Munira Mirza. Mirza is head of the Downing Street Policy Unit. Claire Fox stood as a candidate for the BREXIT Party and has been nominated for a peerage by the Government. Both were members of the, now defunct, Revolutionary Communist Party. All three special advisors play into Johnson’s right- wing libertarian urges to dismantle the state, with the caveat that the, so- called, free market will take over. The balance of power between our underfunded and crippled public services, an increasingly centralised power base, and the Conservative Parliamentary majority, means that soon we will not recognise our public institutions.
This White Paper may seem to be about a cheap housing fix; it is about so much more. The indicators are that the dismantling of the state has begun in plain sight and that this is just the start.
first published August 2020 in North East Bylines. https://northeastbylines.co.uk/building-back-badly/
A Global World Transformed through Local Solutions
In July 1945 the United Kingdom went to the polls for the first time since 1935. Most commentators expected the Conservatives, led by Winston Churchill fresh from Victory in Europe, to triumph. But no, the Labour Party, led by the undemonstrative Clement Attlee, won a landslide victory.
Why? Quite simply it was because the country wanted and demanded change. After two world wars people were not prepared to go back to the way things were and the Labour Party offered a vision for a new society. A vision based around the Beveridge Report of 1942, a report originally commissioned to consider changes to Britain’s existing, limited, social security system. The report in many ways went beyond its remit by identifying “five giants on the road to post-war reconstruction – want, ignorance disease, squalor and idelness” – (poverty, education, health, housing and unemployment).
The Labour Government elected in 1945 stood on a platform that promised to address Beveridge’s five evils. And the Labour Government of 1945-1950 delivered, despite a massive debt overhang from the war. Council houses built, education acts, non means tested social security and unemployment benefits, and the National Health Service. Remarkable! And underpinning it all were economic and industrial policies based on Keynesian economics – policies directed at maintaining sufficient levels of demand in the economy to ensure full employment.
The 1945 Labour Government established an economic consensus that remained until 1979, and the arrival of Margaret Thatcher. Margaret Thatcher, together with the US President Ronald Reagan, set a new economic agenda, neoliberalism. An economic agenda based on free markets, free trade, and global, unfettered financial capital movement. This agenda has given us huge inequalities of wealth, in every nation and every region of the world. It has given us the financial crash of 2008. And most damagingly, its emphasis on economic growth has given us environmental destruction and climate change.
Like 1945, post COVID-19 we must not allow a return to this normal. We must demand change. This change needs a vision and this short article is asking you to consider, discuss, and build this vision. The basis of this vision, I would suggest, is an acceptance that we live in a global world. But this world needs to be transformed and the way to do this is with local solutions: solutions that meet the need of each locality, and from that each region, each nation …. and all nations. A transformation that means the basic needs of all humans on our planet can be met whilst preserving our environment. Here are some are ideas for us to explore and discuss together:
· A sustainable economic framework based around the ideas of the doughnut economy
· A green new deal
· Meeting local needs with appropriate housing, transport, education, employment, and community approaches to food, infrastructure, energy, and climate change
· Fair taxation of both income and wealth to ensure public luxury and private sufficiency
· A reform of our welfare system, with consideration given to a universal basic income
· Different and better models for business ownership; with a greater role for co-operatives and appreciation of the importance and role of all stakeholders
Why not add to these ideas or better still take one, develop it and lead a discussion!
Our NHS – Now and Then and Now Again
I’ve been writing about the NHS for the last 35 years. Earlier this year I published a paper in the British Medical Journal (http://bmj.com/cgi/content/full/bmj.m1374) recounting what has happened to the mental health of staff across that time and how this affects the care they’re able to give. The paper couldn’t include what has been happening to the service over that period – the background to the levels of staff stress and depression that are higher than most members of the public. This brief article describes how the mental health of staff reflects the political background of the country and the care that we receive.
During the eighties and nineties, the NHS deteriorated. ‘Patient choice’ and the ‘Market economy’ were introduced and huge amounts of money diverted to create Trusts – semi-independent organisations that competed for business and created a perfect base for buying in services from private providers: not just the cleaners and bank staff, but private clinics to deal with arthritic hips and other maladies. By 1997 a number of factors showed that things were getting dire: there was a general malaise that affected many aspects of care and especially its quality and safety.
The Bristol child heart scandal brought this to light more than any other. In the period 1991 to 1995, as the Bristol Royal Infirmary struggled to become the best in this new competitive system, between 30 and 35 more babies died after open heart surgery than might have been expected, and many others were brain-damaged. Thedata were buried and the whistle-blower struggled to be heard, lost his post and had to emigrate. Thanks to Private Eye rather than any other media, we voters finally realised that, over the previous 15 years the service had become detached in some way, increasingly underfunded whilestruggling to compete and market its wares rather than making better patient care its primary aim.An inquiry,of which I was a part,found “staff shortages and… a lax approach to safety.”
In 1998, just as that scandal was concluding, the GP Dr Shipman’s murderous careerbecame apparent and we wondered how hundreds of murders in our ‘best-in-the-world health service’ could have been completely missed for so many years.
That was the NHS faced by the Labour government that came to power in 1997. Blair at once promised the NHS the improvements that were desperately needed after 17 years of Tory governments. Money was pumped in to bring it closer to that provided by most EU countries. Patient safety was generously funded and systems put into place to transform services, such as centres of excellence for various cancers. The competitive agenda was largely gone and patient care – and outcomes – improved dramatically as a result. Some privatisation continued but it began again to be a service that we were very proud to be part of.
Sadly, all that ended in 2010 with the new Conservative government and Lawnsley’s horrendously costly ‘reforms’. Now NHS managers became highly paid commissioners, awarding themselves huge salaries and choosing services from a variety of providers – the NHS, charities and private providers. Although they are supposed to consider quality in this choice, money is naturally a very critical factor: shareholders have to be paid as privatisation escalates. The purchasing system inevitably lowers the quality of care. Mental health staff, for example, are made to provide brief packages for patients. A package of care might work for hips, but the complexity of mental health issues turns such a system into an idiotic revolving door for patients.
Private healthcare providers who won a contract to take over a whole hospital found they couldn’t make enough profit to pay their shareholders and so gave up. The only way to make a good profit is reduce the service offered (as has happened in mental health where last year alone suicides rose by more than 11%) or to reduce the seniority of the staff that serve patients – and so senior staff have gradually been made redundant or not replaced. Stress levels in junior staff are always higher, experience is inevitably lower, so what quality of care would you expect from them? But that’s privatisation: shareholders must be paid. Morale has plummeted over the last ten years, and no wonder.
Under the last Labour government, we had the most efficient and equitable health service in the world, while the US was the least efficient. Now our current government is looking to the US as a model for us to suffer under.In the early ‘80s we had by far the lowest management costs of around 4%. Now with competition and commissioning costs these are heading towards 20% and services are inevitably worsening. In 2014 a third of all the contracts offered were won by the private sector while by 2018 this increased to 70% of new contracts. Just because the NHS logo is there to comfort you, it doesn’t mean someone isn’t making a very large profit.
Dominic Raab has been clear about wanting to end the NHS completely but many of our current Tory politicians have large investments in private healthcare companies, so the galloping privatisation isn’t surprising. The NHS, as one of the largest organisations in the world is a cow to be milked and so it very unlikely to end while so many are profiting from it so easily. Just look at the inefficient incompetence shown in all aspects of COVID-19 but particularly around provision of PPE. Look at how other countries have behaved to care for staff and patients. With the US hovering to hoover up lucrative contracts after Brexit, the future looks grim. The mega-corporations such as Google and Apple are already putting in possibilities for what they can offer and gain from the data that are being collected by our government under COVID.
We’re small fry, but we can protest and we can still vote. Labour invented your NHS and this brief history shows us that only Labour protects it. And protecting it means protecting you and your children and your grand-children. Please don’t forget.
Fairtrade and the Coronavirus
We will all be aware that for many farmers in poorer countries making a living involves a tough daily grind at the best of times. The threat first of climate change and now the coronavirus has made this struggle even more brutal.
Fairtrade challenges an unfair international trading system misleadingly known as Free Trade. It is misleading because those with the power that wealth and monopoly can and do control the market and impose prices on producers. Fairtrade gives a better price and secure contracts. Fairtrade also embodies a challenge to a system where multinational companies and power blocs such as the US and the EU insist that countries in the poorer South should open up their markets to tariff-free trade, while continuing to subsidise some of their agricultural products, in particular cotton.
There is also a financial aspect to the scandal of the international trading system. Governments in poorer countries with less highly developed tax structures depend on tariffs for income. Shockingly, multi-national companies avoid paying tax in these countries by means of sophisticated shifting of taxable profits, operations, and finance from one country – a developing nation – to another, most probably a tax haven where they pay little or no tax.
Fairtrade acts within this abysmal system to empower small-scale producers in the South. In the current combined disaster of climate change and the coronavirus, farmers and workers have been receiving advice and support through their local Fairtrade Producer Network. These Networks operate in Africa, Latin America and Asia, and each body is working hard to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect farmers and workers in their region.
One of Fairtrade’s responses to the pandemic has been to facilitate flexible use of Fairtrade Premium income, to allow farmer co-operatives to buy protective equipment, or take all the Premium as a cash payment to address their immediate daily needs.
There have also been initiatives by Fairtrade producers themselves in Africa and South America.
The current restriction of movement in Uganda has left some community members unable to meet their daily nutritional needs in a region where many already live hand to mouth. In recent weeks, the Fairtrade certified Bukonzo Organic Farmers Cooperative Union Limited has stepped in to support initial government aid for the most vulnerable including the elderly, unwell and informal workers who rely on their day-today earnings.
In Brazil the Fairtrade certified coffee cooperative CAFESUL has used their Fairtrade Premium to provide cleaning supplies, masks, money and coffee to a local elderly home. In addition to this donation, the co-operative has also distributed kits among their members containing cleaning products, protective masks made by CAFESUL women’s group, and a manual prepared by the Secretary of Agriculture with recommendations to prevent the spread of the virus.
In Ghana, Asunafo North Farmers Union, which has 8,108 members spread across 67 communities, has embarked on a series of efforts to protect their communities. They have used their Fairtrade Premium to donate cash and sanitary items to the local municipal offices to be distributed to local communities around Asunafo. They have supplied 600 bottles of locally produced liquid soap for hand washing to help prevent the spread of the virus. Similar initiatives have been taken on the Ivory Coast, and one co-operative has used its Fairtrade Premium to create educational posters for distribution to their members together with demonstrations on good hand washing.
In Colombia sixteen Fairtrade certified banana co-operatives joined forces and contributed 55,000 dollars from Fairtrade Premium funds to install a COVID-19 diagnostic centre in the Uraba region, where around 700,000 people live in 11 villages, and where the main economic activity is banana production.
What we can do is to continue to buy Fairtrade products. Many of you will know about Traidcraft which sells many Fairtrade products, iincluding pasta, a variety of nuts and dried fruits as well as very many choices of coffee, tea and chocolate. Traidcraft is taking orders and sending out sales by post.