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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Saturday, 28 February 2009

Britain's Most Famous Lady Scientist is also Rather Funky

Susan Greenfield, the UK's most famous lady scientist, was a fun interview - I'm previewing here as the full text will be published later in the year. I was meeting the Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Oxford and Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain at her comfortable office in the stunning building that she has had redesigned in Mayfair.

She works these two jobs carefully with two PAs, one in London, one in Oxford, who handle her diary and are in constant communication. For my interview I was looking at how she manages running her different jobs, being twin-sited, and how she got started. In addition, of course, Susan is Baroness Greenfield, a Peer of the realm, and though she is pleased to have the peerage amongst the many, many honours she has had heaped upon her, she very much gave me the impression that what drives her are her day jobs, so to speak. She gave me access to her diary and her timetable, talking me through the various activites she is involved in.

Baroness Greenfield is a cutting-edge neuroscientist and populariser of science, leading the way on research into Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. She talks quickly and doesn't waste a second, even using my set up time when I was testing my equipment to run back to her desk and answer three emails.

What I wasn't expecting was her outright funkiness the day I interviewed her; tweed brown shorts, red-hued tights, brown leather ankle boots and a thick top in a warm toning colour. She makes science sexy but she is also deeply fashionable!

One of the refreshing things about Baroness Greenfield is that she says that little more than motivation and passion are required to pursue your dreams, and prides herself on the fact that she has no science A levels. She is a pre-eminent global scientist.

I always find with CEOs that they get up very early and this one is no exception; she regularly gets up by 6am to be in her lab or her office by 7-7.30am as she says that she finds she can get more done that way. She also tells me that she has a low boredom threshold and only some of the dinner parties she attends hold her interest; she prefers to be in bed with a book by 10pm!

Also, she talks of serendipity; how chance encounters can lead to success and fortune. She quotes her own life as an example. And the Professor is helpful; no airs and graces, very down to earth, looks you in the eye and gives you her full concentration. It's very early days yet, only February, but she is going to be hard to beat as my Interview of the Year 2009.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Wendy Richard RIP

I've had a portfolio career and before I became a broadcast journalist, I was a children's presenter/writer/actress. An early high point in my acting career was doing three years on EastEnders as a lead, playing Sufia Karim. So I spent a great deal of time on and off set with Wendy Richard, a dignified, formidable actress. I recall her with her black cigarette filter and blonde bob, sitting waiting for takes at a table. On EastEnders, the crews change with rapidity, but the actors can often stay for many years and Wendy was there a long time, before I arrived.
So it was very often the case that we would be on set, and a props person might try to move something. Wendy would come right in with a sternly shouted, 'That has always been there!' causing the startled props person to disappear suddenly and silently off into the shadows. Wendy would often give the crew short shrift if they tried her patience, but she was very professional and great to work with. Many of my scenes were in her on screen sitting room, with her and other members of her family, and when you spend many hours on a set, over weeks and months, as happens in a long running drama series, the memories are embedded. I am sorry for her passing, and British television has lost one of its special people.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

SWAT Valley Ceasefire Extended, Not An Appeasement, Minister says

The SWAT valley ceasefire has been indefinitely extended, prisoners released on both sides, and the Pakistani government is at pains to point out that this is 'not an appeasement.'

Interestingly, the usually fairly reliable Huffington Post, quoting AKI and Salon, writes that the Pakistani government has allegedly paid $6m to the Talibanis. This money, reports Huffington, includes US funds.

"The amount has been paid through a backchannel, " a senior security official told AKI on condition of anonymity.
"It is compensation for those who were killed during military operations and compensation for the properties destroyed by the security forces.

Huffington quotes Susanne Koelbl writing in Salon;

'government officials in the affected region admit that "the Taliban are using the truce to rearm...
In effect, Pakistan, a nuclear power, has relinquished its sovereignty over an important part of the country.'

Tuesday, 24 February 2009


From intelligence sources round the world, from visiting hostile environments and from talking to military personnel, my findings are that away from the prying eyes of the public and the media, there is no country where interrogation 'methods' are not used.
I have found men in hospitals with rope marks round their wrists where they have been hung from ceilings for extended periods of time, and others who have had their kidneys 'rollered' and ruined. Another tactic requires electrodes to be attached to sensitive parts of the body.

In the culture of torture, different methods employed in different areas of the world have acquired their own descriptive abbreviations.

Third degree torture, which is illegal, is routinely used across the planet. Humans often find that extreme pain will induce incarcerated individuals to talk, but the quality of the evidence is questionable.

Then, there is misinformation; military personnel and militants tend to be trained to expect a level of interrogation upon capture, and to provide misinformation where possible.

I have seen interrogation rooms, they are generally windowless and bare, with an atmosphere reeking of the intensity of what takes place there. It is mainly those who have experienced torture who reveal anything about this side of conflict and warfare. I don't know anyone who has had third degree torture who has been able to recover fully, either physically, or mentally.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Pakistan Army Fights Back in the NWFP

A leading Pakistani military officer, Inspector General of Frontier Corps Major General Tariq Khan, led a press conference Monday 23rd February in which he announced that the army had gained control of one of the three key valleys leading to Afghanistan. Militants hold sway in this region, and managed to blow up an oil tanker Saturday 21st February that was heading for NATO forces in Afghanistan. At the press conference Khan denied reports that 80 American advisers are in Pakistan training military and paramilitary personnel.

The routes through the Kyber pass and other valleys are vital supply routes for NATO allies which is why there are been a lot of US activity in the area, with drone strikes etc. NATO cannot afford to have these blocked. While Pakistan complains in public about its sovereignty being violated, there was a somewhat compromising incident recently when US Senator Diane Feinstein, Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, announced that US Predators 'are flown out of a Pakistani base'

And in the SWAT valley, the kidnapped government official I blogged about has been released - in return for two SWAT Talibanis.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

To Al Jazeera English Talking About Pakistan and the Taliban

Invited in to talk on the live Newshour programme last evening, Al Jazeera was headlining the story I blogged about 15th February, the 'ceasefire' in the once beautiful SWAT valley (eulogistically described here) in Pakistan.

With the UN's John Solecki kidnapped recently, around 200 girls' schools closed, 20 bridges blown up, journalists killed, 80 video stores closed, 22 barbers' shops shut down and approximately 1,200 killed in recent violence, it is not suprising that roughly 500,000 Pakistanis, a third of the population, have fled the valley. Officials and civilians fear to tread there now, and because of the violence, a million children have not received their anti-polio injections. The Tehrik -E-Taliban led by Maulana Fazlullah want Sharia or Islamic law introduced into the area, and the Government which historically has in any case had little control here may have no option but to capitulate.

Keeping it in the family, feudal politics being a hallmark in Pakistan, Maulana Sufi Mohammad, Maulana Fazlullah's father-in-law, has been negotiating with the government, but it could be that the Sharia law he's talking about is not the Sharia law that the Tehrik - E - Taliban are talking about...the latter's being a slightly more hardline version.

And though the Pakistani regional commissioner announced that the ceasefire was now 'permanent,' the SWAT Taliban spokesman Musliam Khan shot back with a statement saying,

'... as far as the ceasefire from our side we can announce it on our own, and we will do that ourselves.'

The 10-day ceasefire expires Wednesday 25th February, and while I said in the studio yesterday that in any case the SWAT Talibanis have said that they are going to review events then, they have displayed their intent by kidnapping a government official, today Sunday.

But it seems that there is no need for concern. The Taliban spokesman, Khan, told Reuters,

"He [Khan] is our guest. We have to discuss some issues with him. We will serve him tea and then free him."

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Bangladeshi Link to 26/11 Mumbai bombings; Official

The Times of India confirms what is slowly being reported in cyberspace but hasn't yet made it onto our Western screens and radios;

Bangladeshi minister for foreign affairs Hassan Mahmud has hinted that terrorists, who launched the November 26 Mumbai attacks, may have used Bangladeshi soil. This is the first time an official from the Bangladeshi government has pointed to a Dhaka hand in the attack.

The Muslim News writes of a banned militant organisation, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami, Bangladesh (HuJI-B), having a hand in the planning and execution of the Mumbai operation. Geo TV News , is carrying the story too. Pakistan itself has already admitted to some Pakistani involvement, as reported on Al Jazeera English on February 12th 2009.

When I was reporting on the Mumbai bombings for Sky News etc, I did hear about a possible Bangladeshi connection quite early on but at that time we didn't have corroboration. For a foreign ministry government spokesman, though, to suggest a Bangladeshi link, means that there is some interesting evidence that has come to light to confirm that angle and we wait to learn more.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

An Envoy to Afghanistan/Pakistan; the New National Must-Have

Richard Holbrooke has responsibility for Pakistan and Afghanistan for the Americans, so not to be outdone, Germany now appoints one of its own. Bernd Muetzelburg, is his country's first special envoy to the region. Deutsche Welle reports;

The former ambassador to India, who was appointed on Monday as a special Foreign Ministry envoy, will meet his US counterpart Richard Holbrooke to discuss international strategy issues, the German Foreign Ministry confirmed on Wednesday.

Germany has the third largest troop deployment in Afghanistan, part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force there. Berlin announced Monday 16th February 2009 that the 3,500 German troops are to be supplemented by a further 600 ahead of Afghan presidential elections August 2009.

During a meeting with a Pakistani diplomat while reporting for the Spectator during Pakistan's 2008 elections the diplomat in question told me that Pakistan has for some time felt that NATO troop deployment in Afghanistan was highly inadequate. So it will be interesting to watch the effect of an additional 17,000 combined US military and support staff being sent into the country, as announced by Barack Obama.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

The Taliban Free a Chinese Engineer ahead of President Zardari's Visit to China

CBS News posts this story of a Chinese citizen, held for for six months, who has been freed by the Taliban. This event took place in the beautiful SWAT Valley, a tourist spot, formerly a charming area filled with craft shops and small hill hotels. I have walked around here in the evenings quite freely in previous years, I loved the twinkling lights of the stalls, the sharp mountain air and low built restaurants but I won't be strolling around here any time soon. The Taliban have asked for Islamic law to be instated in the SWAT Valley. President Zardari is due to visit long term Pakistan ally, China, shortly. Richard Holbrooke, US Envoy to the region, touched down in India today.
American UN worker John Solecki remains a captive. Friday 13th February his kidnappers threatened to kill him within 72 hours.
The Taliban say they will observe a 10-day ceasefire while talks with the Government take place. Really.

Friday, 13 February 2009

I'm Blowing the Whistle on the Lehman Brothers Whistle Blower who Changed his Mind.

Investigating what was going on at Lehman Brothers September 2008, I was sent urgent messages and transcripts of webcasts from Tony Lomas, partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers during the momentous week when Lehman applied for bankruptcy protection and news footage showed anxious employees packing their boxes in New York and London. PricewaterhouseCoopers were brought in as administrators but reports abounded that there was not enough money to pay Lehman staff even for a week.

For my story, I got a senior Lehman Brothers manager to agree to go on the record on condition of anonymity, in a week when none of that company's employees were talking to the press. He asked me to send him my questions. I asked him;
Had he many enquiries from anxious members of staff about whether they would be paid or not,
What kind of questions were people asking him,
What information did he have from PricewaterhouseCoopers, the administrators about money available to pay the staff what they were due (reports were saying that there might not be enough money to pay staff currently working their due monies)
How he was feeling and what his own plans were,
And lastly, what was the atmosphere like around Lehman Brothers in Canary Wharf?

The gentleman answered my questions, I wrote up the story, and then something happened to make him change his mind. He suddenly started sending me feverish messages asking me not to publish him, he told me he was scared about losing his job, and after giving the matter due consideration I agreed to his request. In fact, I rewrote the story completely. Now, more than three months on from the event, to the best of my knowledge the sense of danger the manager was feeling has passed, he has relocated in the City and I can publish his answers.

The Lehman Brothers manager told me that, at the time, employees were running in and out of his office desperate to know about their salaries and whether or not they would be paid at the end of the week in question. He said that the atmosphere was febrile, that people were highly emotional and crying. He mentioned one employee who had been away on a holiday, somewhere exotic like Mauritius, who was getting married and was planning a luxury honeymoon; all on his Lehman salary which in all probability had just disappeared! The source told me that he had not been able to inform this employee that PricewaterhouseCoopers had been brought in as administrators and that Lehman Brothers was no longer operating commercially, so the bridegroom-to be was going to get a nasty shock when he headed back into London.

The source said that with a wife, children and mortgage he was really worried about his own future although he did feel that in his position, with his responsibilities, he would be kept on for the immediate future.

Of course I would never reveal the name and contact details of my source; the rules of my profession forbid this. And I respected his request, even though, legally, I could have ignored it - there was some discussion about this in the office.

But given the relative innocuity of his answers, and his guaranteed anonymity, I wonder what or who it was that made him change his mind after he had taken the trouble to talk with me and answer my questions. Was it just the paranoia and fear surrounding those who work for sinking companies? Or was there something more? If anyone connected with the matter can shed some light on this, I'd be interested in finding out.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

The Treasury Select Committee Got Gladiatorial

It was so packed at the much-vaunted Treasury Select Committee meeting in Portcullis House Tuesday 10th February 2009 that people had to be fitted into an overflow room and journalists like Robert Peston, a former TSC witness himself, were schmoozing the duty policemen to ensure their places. In we filed, officials, MPs, witnesses (the bankers), journalists, etc. Events were broadcast live on all news channels and the Chairman, John McFall, allowed the expected 90 minute hearing to run to three hours. The two CEOs and the two bank chairmen seemed like schoolboys hauled before a headmaster and his team. Each of the bankers was asked to apologise right at the beginning, and they did. Though as the questioning unfolded, the bankers appeared unsure about where culpability might lie, precisely. The bankers said that Alan Greenspan influenced them, but claimed that they did not anticipate the market turning as fast as it did.

The Oxford dictionary definition of a bank was discussed, as were bonuses, over and over. That tired city phrase 'going forward' appeared , as in the former Royal Bank of Scotland Chairman Sir Tom McKillop saying that he felt that a review of remuneration packages was needed, 'Going forward.'

The best dressed folk in the room were the bankers and the MPs though the journalists too were suitably attired for an appearance in the Palace of Westminster. And though the discussion was rivetting and revelatory, my eye was often caught by a security gentleman who had some of his black hair, tied up in a pony tail, dyed a similar colour to his maroon suit and who had up to three piercings on his face. The cameras don't pick up these details. (I talked to him afterwards, and he was quite well spoken).

John Mann MP scowled at the bankers continuously. He leant moodily across his chair and occasionally seemed about to explode. His question to Andy Hornby, fomer CEO of HBOS, concerning the definition and amount of a 'JSA' (Hornby neither appeared to know that it stood for Job Seekers' Allowance nor that it stood at roughly £60.50 per week) was a significant moment.

The question of banking qualifications among CEOs, Chairmen, executive and non-executive directors was debated in detail, as was the precise hiring process conducted by the Financial Services Authority in appointing said CEOs. Colin Breed MP asked one CEO, 'Did the FSA interview you and approve the appointment?' back came the answer, 'no, I was not interviewed.'

But the biggest jaw-dropping moment of all came after the question, 'Have you asked for or are you being given any legal advice on the subject of criminal negligence?'

Sir Tom McKillop replied for RBS. 'No,' he whispered, visibly shocked.

Afterwards, TSC member George Mudie MP asked me if I had enjoyed the proceedings. I replied by asking him how he was feeling. He said that none of the MPs had known that the Chair, McFall, would extend the hearing to three hours, and that they would have close questioned even more if they had known in advance. He pointed out that the RBS's former CEO, Sir Fred Goodwin's comments at the end were interesting, as it was the first time that a banker had discussed securitisation at these TSCs.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Disney Leaves the Studio

Film and television companies make all sorts of forays into the performing arts and live events to accompany their films and shows, a noteable example being Disney's The Lion King live musical production based upon the successful 1994 animated film featuring the voices of Matthew Broderick, Whoopi Goldberg, Jeremy Irons and James Earl Jones.

And of course the various theme parks round the world are great showcases for both Universal as well as Disney to turn their films into sensational experiences for the public. I've often reported on theme park science and innovation. Once, I had to file live for BBC Radio 5 from Universal Florida using their in house radio studios with their in house American engineers. ('Maybe Rani's getting a bit stressed out, I think Rani could do with a massage') I remember one of them saying as I was still waiting for my live report to go out on air via London just two and half hours before my return flight to the UK was about to take off.

Disney is steaming ahead of the pack following the UK premiere of the Disney Channel original movie The Cheetah Girls One World with a whole series of free Saturday workshops in London designed to encourage children to express themselves.

This is new because regular classes are different to performances and show events. This is local stimulus encouraging self-expression. The stakeholders, apart from the Disney Channel UK, based in Chiswick, West London, are Anupam Kher's Actor Prepares School and Heathrow City Partnership who brokered the deal. The teaching takes place at the Ealing Institute of Media.

I was the first journalist to get to Michael Cairns, Vice President and General Manager of Disney Channel UK, the day of the launch, and we both went behind a curtain to do the early-morning interview. He told me that the classes were designed to help celebrate the movie Cheetah Girls in the UK, and that the Saturday clubs where children can learn Bollywood routines can help with self-expression. He said that this was a further development from what Disney did with High School Musical, where shows were created. Cairns said that he was really keen to have the involvement of local schools. He described how Disney chose its partners on this project very carefully, identifying Indian film and theatre Anupam Kher 'We felt he was the right person, and the link with Disney fits in with the global aspect of his aspirations.'

Disney Channel UK is also increasing progamming originated and made in Great Britain. Michael Cairns said that Disney is planning to introduce more short-form programming, three-minuters such as Undercover Coach and Life Bites. This is in contrast to what traditional UK network channels are doing, cutting their childrens' TV spend or removing it completely from their budgets, a move which is upsetting many in the industry.

The Disney initiative is a real push towards encouraging community youngsters to aspire and to achieve. By identifying and encouraging activity through dance and drama, childrens' self-esteem and artistic expression is supported. The film Cheetah Girls itself celebrates aspiration, cultural diversity and the achievement of dreams. The setting is Mumbai and historic Udaipur, and a lot of local talent was employed. That local talent included 45 principal core dancers, and 450 ensemble members.

The project signifies something more important and I don't think it is just about a multinational corporation building brand awareness. It is actually addressing something fundamental about second, third and fourth generations of former immigrants. It is about helping them with their identity and their knowldege of their own historical culture. Many will not have access, often through ignorance as well as because of limited means, to the resources that the project is providing, free of charge, so this collaboration can go far in helping the psyche of those who participate. It feels altruistic.

I went to ask the Chief Executive of Heathrow City, Ash Verma, for an exclusive explanation. Sitting in his Southall HQ, after a moment of reflection, he told me,

'21st century multicultural Britain should be about setting an example to the world on how, through entertainment, film and TV, we can bring different cultures, mindsets and communities together. The Cheetah Girls One World movie is an example of how that can be done, specially when you make it fun, specially for young people, who have a natural sense of inquisitiveness, to learn. Learning about dance, acting and movement, I think, gives confidence in helping people to interact rather than being defensive. From personal experience of 51 years in the UK, (being defensive) was a characteristic of the 60s, 70s and 80s onwards. With the openness that we have through high speed technology, visual and otherwise, this makes exposure to different cultures instant and real, and I think much easier to embrace. The net result of initiatives like this, films like this and if you take recently, the excellent portrayal in Slumdog Millionaire, helps to create a lot more openness and a positive approach to what is happening in the world.'

What is interesting is that both Michael Cairns and Ash Verma confirmed that this is just the beginning of an exercise; that there are plans for a national roll-out as well as for an extension of age ranges.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Sri Lanka Crisis

Australia's ABC News discusses Unicef reports that up to a quarter of a million civilians, many of them children, are trapped in the East of Sri Lanka as Sinhalese Government troops continue to close in on the Tamil Tigers. In all my years of reporting on Sri Lanka, when it comes to the conflict now in it's third decade, I find it is mainly civilians who are the innocent victims. As it is, conditions in the war-torn North and Eastern villages mainly inhabited by Tamils are dire, with continuous power cuts, a paucity of medicines, and unsafe conditions.

But with no journalists allowed into areas of unrest, and even those in Colombo, the capital, under threat, the only news that comes out from this beautiful island tends to be via the State Government.

The rhetoric is the same as in any war zone. When impotent aid agency and foreign government spokesmen talk about 'a humanitarian crisis' the response comes that civilians are being used as human shields. While some Tamils feel motivated enough to join the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam it is hard to believe that all civilians caught up in the conflict are connected to the Tamil Tigers, as they are commonly known, or are being used as human shields.

Despite the push to the East of the island, the Tiger leader,Velupillai Prabhakaran remains at large. Elusive and not prone to giving access to the media, he is credited with building the Tigers into a highly effective fighting force capable of surgical precision and known for pioneering suicide attacks. Tigers typically wear cyanide capsules around their necks.

But the Sinhalese army has made gains in recent times with the capture of strategic areas. In this latest assault it boasts of capturing submarines and a camouflaged underground bunker it describes as a command centre. The inference is that it was Prabhakaran's.

So what happens next is important now that the Government has been able to capture vital land and port areas. The Tigers may transmute into a guerrilla army but one thing is certain; the marginalisation and the grievances felt by the Tamil population as a whole, will not have been solved by this latest conflict.