Welcome to my blog. I may write copy here that I would not present elsewhere. This blog allows me to comment while reporting for clients which can include subscription-only platforms. I use it to take a sideways look at running stories, and all views presented here are my own.

Interested parties are invited to comment.

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Thursday, 18 December 2008

Can't Really Beat Cohen, Can Ya?

Alexander Burke sings her heart out on Hallelujah, she has a strong voice.
Of the various renditions, Jeff Buckley's is mesmerizing in its subtlety, its softness and its simplicity.
But come on, can anyone really beat the master and originator, Leonard Cohen?

Hallelujah's history is interesting. Cohen agonized over each word, each verse, as is his wont. He created many different versions, most of which, he says, he discarded.

When he sings 'you' on the track, he pronounces it 'ya.' When he sang it live at Glastonbury and even at Dublin this year, he noticeably performed the word as 'yoooo.'

I think he was just being respectful.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

EcoMuslims Moving On Up

Over to Westminster, Black Rod entrance, for an EcoMuslim Eid meeting in the House of Lords. Omar Faruk is CEO of EcoMuslim. The discussion covered the Climate Change Act, what is going to replace the Kyoto Protocol, and the Road to Copenhagen. Also present, notably, were representatives from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Home Office, and different think tanks.

Omar Faruk talked about the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, describing how the cross-party EcoMuslim group would like to help Muslim majority states to become more energy efficient and reduce carbon emmissions, in addition to other stated aims. He noted that of the top ten carbon producing countries in the world, three were Gulf nations; Kuwait, Saudia Arabia, and Quatar. He said that he felt it was important to work with all countries belonging to the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

My interest stems from my work along the Islamic belt of countries. Before I commenced assignments on those nations, I read the Koran a couple of times. It was particularly necesary because I made a BBC documentary about prominent women in Pakistan called 'Women of Islam.' I was impressed with Omar Faruk's knowledge of Arabic and his interpretations of various Koranic verses. The British-educated barrister told me afterwards that he studied Arabic in the South of France. He is keen to develop EcoMuslim for several reasons. One of them, he explained, was because,

'People who care about the environment seldom undertake activities to destroy it.'

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

RAF Northolt

An interesting private visit to RAF Northolt, experiencing major developments. 32(Royal) Squadron is based here, and some training sessions were under way this afternoon. During the tour, I was struck at one point by the sight of an Augusta 109E Power helicopter landing just by the VIP area, and then there was a surreal moment as a familiar figure in a red suit with white trim, belt, boots, white beard and hat disembarked. Another familiar looking largish gentleman, similarly attired, left the building and took the place of the first person in the helicopter. Local schools receive visits from a familiar figure in the 'SantaCopter' as part of 32 Squadron training sessions. Glad to know that Father Christmas is using modern transportation methods.

Monday, 15 December 2008

The Canada UK Chamber of Commerce yields some Big Fish

In 2007 and at the beginning of 2008 I was working closely with Canadians, so I joined the Canada UK Chamber of Commerce after talking to its Executive Director Nigel Bacon who has to be one of London's best and friendliest aide to networkers.

Being a Chamber member gave me access to some interesting events and people. It also opened my eyes to the whole world of bilateral chambers of commerce which exists in London, and which lays claim to an exclusive guest list of speakers. One of my friends from BBC World Service HQ at Bush House told me once he does something which I do too, but instinctively; attending special events/conferences/lunches and dinners, he said, brings a critical mass of experts in any one subject in one room, almost on a plate, to an interested journalist. I wouldn't say that the experts are all on a plate, because there is work to be done in establishing relationships with the individuals concerned to the extent that they will trust enough to talk, but the theory is a useful one.

While I listen to the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee member Professor Tim Besley at Armourers' Hall over lunch ( a stunning array of shields and helmets seem to be contemplating us silently from on high) or Alberta Energy Minister the Honourable Mel Knight at Quebec House, Pall Mall, I am quietly planning which big cheese to choose for an interview for 2008. I want just one from this arena.
I see part of our profession as fishing; I cast bait into the ocean, and wait paitiently to see which of the prey, bites. Then I start reeling the target in, handling them carefully, answering their questions, putting them at ease, so that I have the interview lined up, before I start close preparation and going in for the final kill, so to speak. The goal of the interview is to ask all the questions I want, preferably some which have not been asked before, and elicit interesting answers. Then I want to keep the interview going until it comes to a natural conclusion, not to have it close down prematurely. Finally, I want to bring the material back safely to my office, log carefully and edit, then write/broadcast the material for publication. The Canadian Chamber hosted lunches with Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney as well as Prime Minister Stephen Harper. One I particularly enjoyed was with Daniel Chornous, Chief Investment Officer, Royal Bank of Canada Asset Managment Inc, Investment Policy Committee who has a really interesting take on the economy.
But the interviewee I chose is someone who has only spoken with one other writer at length since he arrived in London from Toronto in 2007; Michael Lagopoulos, CEO and Head of International Wealth Management, Royal Bank of Canada. He agreed to my request, and negotiations began with his Director of Communications and another member of his team. I hope to preview that meeting here on this blog at some point.


Wednesday, 10 December 2008

The Prince's Trust

I am away for a couple of days to attend a Prince's Trust Celebrate Success Awards ceremony in the East Midlands of England, as we say on the World Service. I've judged the Sony and the Race in the Media Awards and for the Prince's Trust I have given a keynote speech and participate in events when invited, along with colleagues from broadcasting like Jon Sopel, Kate Adie, and entertainment folk like Rod Stewart, Stephen Fry, etc. I try to have awareness and money raised for the PT through my own networks. The Trust events, my son Jairaj who often comes with me has noted, are much more about real people than the more superficial showbiz galas we might go to.

Core consituents who have benefitted from the PT are highlighted with moving, well made films, as are some of the dedicated staff who are also honoured at these awards. There is a final ceremony held in London Springtime which HRH The Prince of Wales attends. Kevin Spacey, Gwyneth Paltrow and Richard E Grant were there this year, but the bit I like very much is when the lay winners make a grab for HRH on stage when they have been announced, and chat to him, give him a hug or even a kiss on the cheek. He gives them as much time as they want. These are informal, special moments not seen by the outside world.


Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Interview of the Year 2008

Since the twelfth month of 2008 has arrived, I can announce my Interview of the Year!

Before I do that, I should say that each interview I conduct brings me joy, for I discover aspects and material about a person and his or her world which I might never learn over an ordinary conversation, a meal, or even in a relationship.
Interviews give me the chance to explore my insatiable curiosity, within professional boundaries.

My Interview of 2008 has to be the world exclusive with Secretary -General of the Organisation of Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), Angel Gurria.

With Davos 2008 on the horizon, I started bidding for Mr Gurria a few weeks in advance. I was carefully checked by his excellent Head of Directorate of Communications, a Wall Street Journal alumni -Nick Bray. To reach interviewees sometimes mean establishing relationships with such persons and getting them on side is very important.

I was quite surprised when Nick emailed me to say that he was granting me a sit down interview at OECD HQ in Paris for the eve of Davos, and my editor at the Spectator was delighted until he found out that I wasn't actually in Paris and would need to be sent there post-haste. I began frantically hunting down flights and accomodation while prepping my meeting.

Nick told me that I was the only journalist being admitted to the OECD and the only one being granted a full interview with the Secretary-General through the Davos season, which meant I had the international exclusive. That's the kind of thing I like. The world's editors-in-chief and their teams would be at Davos, the annual World Economic Forum fest, and they would only be able to get soundbites and passing comments from panel meetings. Nick told me he would meet me for lunch on the Monday, before the interview which was scheduled for 6.30pm, just before Mr Gurria was due to board his flight for Switzerland.

My son Jai drove me to the airport, and I flew off to Paris 6.am Monday, arriving at a comfy bijoux hotel 15 mins from the OECD in Paris Cedex 16. Nick told me that he had double booked lunch having forgotten that he had to dine with a visiting Saudi diplomat but he said he would catch me afterwards and identified a rendezvous.

It was exciting and a bit like being in a film, waiting for Mr Bray in a typically busy but genteel restaurant on a cobble- stoned Parisian street corner. After being flown out to work in Montreal a few months previously, and speaking Quebecois French, it was good to be back in Paris speaking....Parisian French. In France. With French people. You know what I mean.

Nick swept in, wearing a large dark blue overcoat, and calmly sized me up over a pot of tea and some further questioning. He had a dry, amusing wit. When he described various countries' relationships with and attitude towards the OECD, he commented casually, 'The British don't like Foreign.'

We arranged to meet later for the interview, and I ran back to my hotel to get everything ready.
Walking up to the Rue Andre Pascal, where the spacious OECD HQ is located, I was only a little bit nervous. Nick showed me round the building which was being renovated, and I saw the huge meeting rooms with many mics on semicircular tables in which different experts from different countries converge with different departments of different OECD Directorates -its a big organisation- right through the year.

Then we walked to the orginal OECD offices, which are very grand and ornate. Nick went through some final points with me before leading me up to the Secretary-General's office. Outside were two bright paintings - chosen, I was told, by the latter. Inside, I was met warmly by Mexican Angel Gurria, who shook my hand and sat me down at a long table next to his desk.

He was voluble, articulate and entertaining, and gave me one and a half hours instead of the scheduled 40 mins. At one point he broke off to answer a phone call from Brazil from his wife, and then politely explained to me why she was calling and what the conversation was about. These are the kind of thoughtful inclusive gestures which stay in the memory, along with the interview itself.
There was one question which I wanted an answer to which I had to ask at least four or five times before I was satisfied. Nick told me afterwards that Angel knew exactly what I was doing and wasn't going to roll over too easily for me. I got a publishable answer in the end. I am patient.

Interview over, Angel Gurria said he had to dash for his flight. I shook hands with them both and dashed back down the cobble stones to my bijoux hotel room which was cosy and warm after the cold Paris air. Across the street was a patisserie whence I bought some goodies including chocolate cake - to see me through a long night- my deadline was midday Tuesday.

I transcribed faster than I have in my whole life, then selected my quotes and started writing. My return flight to London was at 8am and Jai picked me up, driving home through rush hour traffic. I was rewriting in the car. Then, straight to my office, a final rewrite and I filed.

The full article can be read here:


Monday, 8 December 2008

Mergermarkets Breakfast leading to Thoughts about Food

A fair few breakfasts ago, I was invited to Gibson Hall by Merrill Corporation Global M&A for a mergermarket and Debt Market panel forum. The sumptuous petit dejeuner slid nicely into my stomach and I'm sure it helped my brain to digest the panel discussion more easily.

If I have a highly intellectual or strenuous day I always eat a big breakfast, to make sure that I have enough energy to last through until my next meal. The only exception is when we are travelling, for instance, into the mountains to pick up an interview, say, with a military commander, and the terrain is tough. Then I eat minimally.
Mark Tully taught me to always accept what I was offered out on location. He observed me once turning my nose up at a glass of hot milk served just as we were about to interview a feared religious leader after we had travelled for hours to talk to him, a former militant known as 'the Fox' who was revered and head of his rather luxurious village. Mark gracefully accepted his stainless steel tumbler of milk, and the interview proceeded with decorum.
Mark loves the soil of his adopted country, and the inhabitants of said adopted country adore him back too. I haven't met a journalist like him and he's one of my influences. He is, however, seen as an Indophile, whereas I feel as equally attached to the soil of Pakistan, the land of my forefathers.

Anyway, back to the food. If I'm doing a business meeting over a meal, I can eat heartily enough. But while I am interviewing someone, even if the tastiest delicacies are put in front of me I can't eat a thing, not even a sip of tea, as I like to concentrate hard. I want that audio to be recorded perfectly, so my mind is on the equipment, the interviewee, the questions and the answers. My eyes dart between these various objects while I nod manically at my interviewee so that he or she is reassured that I am engaging with him or her. I think so intensely I'm sure I have a slightly strange look on my face, compounded by the glasses balancing half way down my nose.

And this conference? The Moderator was Merlin Piscitelli, Director, International DataSite, Merrill Corporation. The discussion looked at the impact of the debt market on global M&A trends. It featured the funny and frank Sander Griffejoen, MD, M&A, ABN AMRO, David Brooks, Head of M&A Grant Thornton Corporate Finance, and Scott Simpson, Head of European M&A at the snappily titled Skadden, Arps, Slate Meagher and Flom.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Sovereign Wealth Funds in the Global Investment Landscape

I was at a conference organised by the City of London and the OECD with IMF participation, and there was an interesting collection of experts from the SWF, private financial institution and recipient government community. The day was designed to examine how SWFs and recipient governments can build mutual confidence and trust.

Among the more notable speakers were Reuben Jeffery, Under Secretary of State, US Department of State, and David Marchick, from the Carlyle Group, Washington DC. I ran up to Reuben Jeffery and asked him a question about the subject, to which he gave the only directly quoteable answer of the conference- that the principles of the IMF and the OECD are very clear, and are articulated so that all policy should be based on best practice. Being the only one to get a question to him, I was a little narked to find Reuters and Bloomberg hot on my tail recording his words too, then I remembered that I would have been doing exactly the same had I been in their position with a valuable speaker not really talking to the press.

Michael Skancke, Director General at the Norwegian Ministry of Finance gave me an interview (Reuters/Bloomberg were almost stuck to my shoulder by now but they seemed harmless enough) and was really interesting on the home country benefits of Sovereign Wealth Funds. Norway is held up as a good example and he was quite candid on the way his ministry conducts itself. Credit Suisse’s Julia Bond was clear and concise on the business view of recipient country benefits of SWFs.

David Marchick from the Carlyle Group talked engagingly about national security concerns. Udaibir S. Das, (there always seems to be at least one South Asian in these kinds of positions), Head of Sovereign Assets and Liability Management at the IMF, gave me my best headline of the day.

The Kuwait Investment Office backed out of speaking at the last minute, a telling omission, and a disappointment to the organisers. The absence led to an unspoken conclusion about the Kuwait Investment Office’s position within the debate as described in the title of the conference.