Category Archives: The Observer
From a snail-eating snake to a harp-shaped sponge… Quentin Wheeler on whittling down 18,000 new species to 10 favourites
On 23 May,the International Institute for Species Exploration announced the annual top 10 new species for the sixth time. A committee of taxon experts led by Dr Antonio Valdecasas of the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid made the final selections. The list is a kind of scientific shock-and-awe campaign, shocking us at what we did not know about our own planet and leaving us in awe over the diversity, complexity, wonder and beauty of the living world. From new species of black-staining fungi that threatened the Palaeolithic cave paintings at Lascaux, France to the first old-world monkey to be discovered in Africa in 28 years, a beautiful shrub from Madagascar’s disappearing littoral forests, a bioluminescent cockroach, and a violet from the high Andes that is barely 1cm tall, we are struck that the depth of Earth’s living diversity is matched only by our ignorance of it.
A new species of green lacewing is a sign of things to come, being discovered through social media in a collaboration among citizen and professional scientists. A new record was set for the smallest vertebrate animal by a Lilliputian frog with an average body length of only 7.7mm. As if to remind us of the constant change on our planet and unending struggle for survival, a fossil hanging fly was described from Jurassic deposits 165m years old in China that mimicked gingko leaves so well that the two were confused. Rounding out the top 10 were a beautiful, ringed, snail-eating snake and a harp-shaped predaceous sponge. Choosing just 10 species from the 18,000 or so new ones named last year was a seemingly impossible task, but merely a dress rehearsal for living through the biodiversity crisis of the 21st century. Some scientists believe that more than half of all species could disappear in the next 100 years, which would rank as only the sixth mass extinction event in Earth history. While we cannot save every species, or even all those we set out to save, we can have a significant impact on what biodiversity looks like in the future. If picking 10 favourites was tough, imagine making decisions that affect which and how many species survive.
We announce the top 10 on or about Carl Linnaeus’s birthday on 23 May as a homage to his incredible, inspiring vision of an inventory of Earth’s flora and fauna. When he conceived and set out on his inventory in the middle of the 18th century, it was a dream impossibly larger than he could have imagined. The 10,000 or so species known to him are outnumbered nearly two to one by the new species we name each year, and we have yet to become serious about completing this enterprise. Technological advances, particularly in cyberinfrastructure, have quietly chiselled away at all the constraints of access to travel, colleagues, collections, literature, and data that held back Linnaeus and the generations of taxonomists who have followed. With investments in natural history museums, taxonomic research infrastructure, and inspiring and educating the next generation of species explorers we can discover and describe most of the estimated 10m-12m “higher” plant and animal species in less than 50 years. Baseline data on what species exist and where will empower us to detect, monitor, and respond to changes in biodiversity and make effective public policies. If you liked the top 10, imagine announcing the top 10 million.
Quentin Wheeler is director of the International Institute for Species Exploration, Arizona State University
For decades its conspicuous excess dazzled the world, but film-makers are increasingly turning to television to show off their wares
When Carey Mulligan ditches the Tiffany spangles and Prada sequins of The Great Gatsby, in favour of a baggy jumper and the dingy folk music venues she favours in her role in the new Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, it could be seen as a comment on this year’s Cannes film festival.
Playing the unfussy singer Jean Berkey straight after her bejewelled portrayal of Daisy Buchanan, the actress appeared to have deliberately cast off the baubles and artifice that hang around the annual 12-day cinematic bonanza on the Côte D’Azur. And this year, the festival’s 66th outing on Boulevard de la Croisette, the glittery trappings have strained more than ever to deliver the glamour the waiting world expects.
Conspicuous excess is de rigueur at Cannes and visiting stars fail to dazzle at their peril. Not only are they draped with itemised haute couture and exorbitant trinkets, their fans are also later informed what de luxe food they were served at the gala dinners that follow a big premiere. (In the case of Mulligan and her Gatsby co-star Leonardo DiCaprio, it was pea and caviar with a white onion foam, followed by sea bream and an apple, cinnamon and green aniseed bouillon.)
So when news broke this weekend that thieves had made off with a large haul of Chopard gems from a Cannes hotel room, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that someone had decided enough was enough. It is, after all, Chopard that makes the crystal-encrusted Palme D’Or prize which is given to the winning film.
The burglary seemed to be an impromptu reprise of the theme of Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, a subversive response to the consumerism on show. Starring Emma Watson, Coppola’s film tells of a gang of no-hope wannabes who break into Paris Hilton’s Hollywood home to grab her designer shoes and bags. The festival’s obsession with fame will also be nicely undermined by a short French comedy, Merci Beaucoup Bradley Cooper, about an aspiring actress who uses a Cooper lookalike as an escort to fake her way into the VIP realm at Cannes.
Rather more serious challenges to Cannes are being mounted by rival international film festivals, such as Venice, Berlin and particularly Toronto. The French festival’s conventional weapons are its unabashed displays of high living coupled with potent doses of nostalgia. In an age of global austerity, in which France dipped back gently into recession last week, this nostalgia is being more readily deployed.
On the opening day of the festival, the mayor of Cannes struggled in the drizzle to unveil a vast poster on the side of a building in the old harbour. The white cover sheet, clingy with rainwater, refused to pull away until an official jumped up and down on a rope like a bell ringer. Then the face of Uma Thurman, a Cannes jury member two years ago, was finally revealed in beguiling monochrome.
Every May, the streets of this slightly shabby conference town are festooned with images of screen idols of the past: Marilyn, Sophia, Bridget, Faye and now Uma. Harking back to bygone eras is an essential part of the culture.
Critics frequently say that Cannes is not what it was; the films are too violent, the pavements too crowded, the partying that once started at 10am on the beach has disappeared. Some of this is certainly true. Since big sponsors such as Fuji and Kodak, the film stock companies, left town, promotional entertaining on a grand scale has gone and the yachts owned by post-production houses have largely weighed anchor, too. These days, it is hard for a tourist to get really excited by the sight of a red carpet since they lie in the doorways of most of the town’s gift shops, muddy and pocked with cigarette burns. Cannes has devalued its own currency and now only the past looks chic.
The greatest threat of all comes from television. TV has gained both power and critical kudos and is jeopardising cinema’s status as the pre-eminent way to tell popular stories. Lars Blomgren, the producer behind the triumphant Scandinavian crime series The Bridge, told an incredulous festival throng on Friday that he prefers television. “I have always worked in both and I think it is film that will have to change. A lot of creativity has moved over to TV.”
Blomgren, who has sold The Bridge to 60 countries, fearlessly added that he prefers Mipcom, the “impressive” annual TV festival in Cannes: “It is more focused and there is less b/s.”
Yet those who come in search of real glitz and style may not be disappointed. Helicopters still lift above the big yachts in the bay, bringing in the rich and famous. There may be a McDonald’s on the quay now, but there are still authentic old men playing boules in front of it.
For the thousands of tourists who arrive to check whether the stars they see on screen really exist, there is a chance of spotting Watson, Mulligan and her co-star Justin Timberlake, or even Nicole Kidman, who sits on Steven Spielberg’s jury panel and was paraded yesterday by producer Harvey Weinstein as the star of his film about the late Queen of the Riviera, Grace of Monaco.
There are intriguing oddities, too. Tomorrow, Keanu Reeves flies in to promote his new martial arts film Man of Tai Chi.
The charm of the festival resides in these strange contrasts. Even at the heart of the competition, Michael Douglas’s Liberace biopic will line up against a film from Chad about a disabled dancer, while on the jury alongside the stately Kidman sits the maverick British talent Lynne Ramsay.
Cannes also continues to offer a peerless platform for new projects of all sizes. On Friday, Weinstein swooped to buy up Stephen Frears new film Philomena for $6m. Starring Judi Dench as an Irishwoman looking for the son she was long ago forced to give up for adoption, it is based on a book by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith. It also stars Steve Coogan, who co-wrote the screenplay.
Cannes has also worked well for British director Clio Barnard who has won both plaudits and a distribution deal for The Selfish Giant, a retelling of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale to be released this autumn. And yesterday, the festival’s critics’ week screened one of the few British films to make it to the Croisette – For Those in Peril, by the Scottish first-time feature director Paul Wright. The 31-year old from Lower Largo in Fife is in no doubt about the value of Cannes. “I have had other short films shown at festivals, but your family have all heard of Cannes and are vastly excited,” he said.
Wright attended the premiere with his film’s star, George Mackay, and is grateful for the opportunity to draw international attention to his small-scale but haunting story about what happens in a fishing village when the fishing stops. “I was brought up on the coast, so stories from the ocean, both real and unreal, were part of my life,” he said.
As long as individual film-makers such as Wright have the chance to join the Hollywood machine at the festival, it will have more than just nostalgic worth. And if things start to look a little bit tacky and insubstantial when you get close up, well, that’s just showbusiness for you.
Campaigners demand urgent shake-up of court procedure after seven barristers cross-examined a girl every day for three weeks in child-grooming case
“I want to ask you once more why you are telling lies?” demands defence barrister Tayyab Khan. He is cross-examining a witness on her evidence relating to the multiple violent rapes she suffered at the instigation of a child-grooming gang operating in the West Midlands.
“No,” she says. “I’m not telling lies.” She breaks down, but the court transcript shows the barrister pressing the point. “You’re a compulsive liar,” he states. She’s shouting and crying now. “Was you there? Was you there?” she asks.
“You’re telling lies,” Khan insists again. “No, I’m not, shut up, shut up!” she shouts. She’s clearly distressed, but this seems not to bother him as he continues with his line of questioning regardless.
Khan’s client, Ahdel Ali, was convicted of crimes including the rape of a 13-year-old and multiple sexual offences with children as part of a three-year investigation called Operation Chalice – but not before the main victim in the trial, a girl called Abby, was aggressively cross-examined by seven barristers every day for three weeks. Each represented a different man charged with sexually exploiting her over two years, and all in turn had their go at testing not only her evidence relating to their client, but also calling into question her integrity, lifestyle and issues of consent. Seven men were eventually convicted as a result of Operation Chalice, one of the first cases dealing with grooming of the kind that last week saw the conviction of seven men in Oxford for preying on vulnerable girls.
Having watched their daughter crumble as she endured this concerted legal assault, Abby’s parents are appalled. “She’d already gone through a horrific experience, and then had another horrific experience in court,” says her mother. “For weeks they laid into her. You wouldn’t put a hardened criminal through that, let alone a child.”
Any rape victim facing a single defence barrister will find being cross-examined a painful experience. But the recent series of gang grooming trials has brought a disturbing problem into focus: when a group of abusers is charged together, each individual will have his own barrister. The Operation Chalice, or Telford, trial opened with 18.
The repeated attacks by each subsequent defence advocate on the victim’s character then becomes an excruciating echo of the abuse and loss of control that the child has already suffered, points out documentary-maker Anna Hall. Her forthcoming Dispatches: The Hunt for Britain’s Sex Gangs details the dilemmas facing detectives, who know that to prosecute such cases is to jeopardise seriously the future mental health of already vulnerable and damaged girls.
The notion that young victims who have been repeatedly gang-raped should be required to endure multiple aggressive interrogations in order to get justice is now being challenged by child sexual abuse campaigners.
Childline founder Esther Rantzen says there is an urgent need for change. “I believe that the overriding reason Jimmy Savile never had to face allegations in a court of law is that, even when somebody had the courage to go to the police, the Crown Prosecution Service thought it wouldn’t have a chance of getting a conviction because the child would be so horrified at being cross-examined like that, that they would either break down, or try to run away, or simply fail to convince the jury because they were so distressed,” she says. “And that is the terrible decision that the CPS has to make again and again.”
Rantzen suggests cross-examination of vulnerable complainants should be filmed before the trial and carried out by the judge, supplied with relevant questions by the defence. But what if more questions emerge later as a result of new information or additional arrests?
“The lord chief justice has gone on the record to say you just go back and ask further questions of the child,” she says.
The Ministry of Justice is considering commissioning pilot projects to try out different methods of testing evidence in cases of child sexual abuse, but no funding decisions have yet been made.
Under section 28 of the Youth and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, which has never been brought into force, defence barristers are already permitted to conduct pre-recorded cross-examinations, though not, as Rantzen would like to see, the trial judge. Whoever does the cross-examination in advance of the trial, there may be drawbacks for prosecutions of dangerous perpetrators in removing a victim entirely from the court process as it unfolds, suggests barrister Hugh Davies QC, an expert in criminal law relating to child exploitation and sexual abuse.
“A wholly pre-recorded approach can feel less immediate to the jury, with the risk that they will relate less personally to the victim – it can feel too much like watching television, rather than absorbing the reality of a victim’s account,” he says. “The ultimate objective is that a true account is believed by the jury.”
Defence counsel, Davies points out, are the only lawyers in a courtroom currently not obliged to be trained in crimes of child sexual abuse and how to conduct questioning. This, he believes, must not be allowed to continue, an opinion shared by the Advocacy Training Council in its 2011 report Raising the Bar, which recommends compulsory training and certification for barristers conducting cases involving vulnerable witnesses.
Ultimately, Davies believes, it is the legal culture itself that has to change. “The style and language that was apparently adopted by some defence counsel in the Telford trial appears difficult to justify,” he says. “In future, I would not expect to see a single vulnerable witness being questioned for weeks by a series of barristers, each with the right to question as to matters of general credibility.”
In the meantime, a recent realisation by police and the CPS that human trafficking legislation can secure convictions in gang grooming trials may soon make one distressing aspect of defence interrogations redundant altogether – the thorny issue of consent.
Under trafficking legislation used for the first time in the Telford case, Anna Hall explains that a child under 16, given trafficked status, cannot be held to have consented to their own exploitation. She says: “That means there is no point in a barrister raising a victim’s sexual history to throw doubt on whether they consented to sexual activity which their client is charged on, and then the next barrister doing the same, and so on.”
There’s another advantage of this legislation being used to prosecute gang sexual abuse, points out trafficking expert Mike Hand. “In the case of the Chalice children, they were being moved around the police force area by the gang, and outside the area, in some cases , with the intention they would be sexually exploited. If you can show that, you can convict for trafficking. You don’t need forensic, you don’t need DNA. You don’t need disclosures from children. It’s a very simple piece of legislation.”
A radical change of approach in the treatment of child sexual abuse victims in court can’t come too soon for Abby’s father, now helping his traumatised daughter attempt to rebuild her life.
“What I can’t live with is destroying someone who’s innocent of any crime and is a total victim who’s had their childhood taken away from them, any decent start in life taken away from them,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s destroyed a family. It disgusts me. And the judicial system in that respect is wrong.”
Some names have been changed
The Hunt for Britain’s Sex Gangs will be screened on Thursday 23 May on Channel 4
• This article was amended on 19 May 2013. The original headline and standfirst incorrectly referred to the child sexual abuse ring in Oxford rather than Operation Chalice in Telford. This has been corrected.
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Polly Morland’s study of bravery is executed with energy, curiosity – and courage
You might think an inquiry into the nature of courage a trumped-up excuse for a book but Polly Morland loses no time in persuading you otherwise. She approaches her subject with energy, tenacious curiosity and, however much she may protest that she is lily-livered, courage. The Society of Timid Souls was based in New York in the 1940s and run by Bernard Gabriel, a professional concert pianist, who, in his Manhattan apartment, helped performers counter stage fright. During recitals, musicians were heckled and, through surviving this ordeal, would locate in themselves the stern stuff of which performers need to be made. I’d have thought an audience’s silence might be scarier still but evidently not.
Morland skips lightly where angels fear to tread. Her book has astonishing range. There is an especially wonderful encounter with Rafaelillo, a Murcian matador (involving a masterclass with a fake bull); an austere audience with David Alderson, uncannily brave bomb disposal expert; and a cheery chat with 50-something Sally Ann Sutton, mauled by a mad rottweiler in her determination to save a baby from his jaws. But this is only the tiniest sample of Morland’s interviewees. In every case, she proves the liveliest company: sane, merry and undeceived. But the intriguing thing is that the more she focuses on courage, the more elusive it becomes. Not many will admit to having the quality.
One of the most memorable passages describes the Iranian earthquake in Bam, 2003. It is remembered in nightmarish detail by Ruth Millington, a former high-flying lawyer, whose heroic efforts to dig people out of the wreckage saved lives. Yet when congratulated on her bravery, she is bemused: “I never even felt like it was a choice.” When non-timid souls are put on the spot, this is their most common rejoinder.
Morland scrutinises the question of choice and considers animal courage in this light. She interviews representatives of the PDSA who give animals awards for bravery. She quotes Byron’s fond tribute to his stout-hearted Newfoundland dog. But she remains unseduced. Instead, she wonders: can courage be courage when an animal has no choice? On a visit to St Christopher’s Hospice, there is no choice about what is ahead – but there may be a choice about how to face it. Morland movingly alludes to her father holding her hand, at the end of his life, as though to express “the extremity in which he now found himself, as one might hold on to a vital scrap of paper or a £50 note in a high wind.”
This is writing of unusual, sympathetic precision. And speaking of high winds, she also writes about people who throw caution to the winds, waves and to dizzying heights. She interviews star surfer Greg Long, eccentric French spiderman Alain Robert and superhuman Dean Potter whose flying feats are never inconvenienced by his lack of feathers. And what these encounters make one realise – the book’s most interesting implication – is that the death wish and life wish are so close as to be almost, yet never quite, interchangeable. GK Chesterton helps this idea along – he defined courage in 1908 as “a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die”.
What one wonders is: what does the courting of danger say about the value a person places on his life? At Wootton Bassett, Morland finds soldiers who, characteristically, prefer not to dwell on courage at all. However, Colonel Tim Collins, OBE and former SAS commander, hauntingly explains: “Every time you prepare to die, you die a bit and you never get that back.” And what emerges elsewhere is that pretending to have courage can be the same as having it. What, after all, is courage without fear?
It is also clear throughout this bracing, moving and uncommon book that performance nerves are not about to fade away. Morland seeks out orchestral players (an alarming number) calming their nerves with beta blockers. “I don’t know why I have such a sense of panic about it,” says viola player Ken Mirkin of the New York Philharmonic. It sounds as though the time may have come to reconvene the Society of Timid Souls.
There are strong echoes of Dickens in this vibrant portrait of ambition and struggle in Bangalore
Anand and Kamala are both dreaming big. He’s the hardworking boss of a car factory in Bangalore with his eye on a lucrative Japanese deal; she’s his domestic servant, who wants her bright 12-year-old son to get the kind of education that will haul the family out of poverty. They are each caught between the city’s ambitious energy and its layers of bureaucracy: things will be better soon, as long as relatives stop meddling, and rent stops increasing, and kickbacks are no longer required to get anything done.
We’re almost in Dickens territory. The novel’s characters are cartoonish, the plot arcs neatly, and one word is never used when five will do (why hand out drinks when you can “dutifully propitiate guests with alcoholic libation”?). But, like Oliver Twist, The Hope Factory succeeds best as a portrait of a city.
Bangalore is where the author grew up, before she trained as an investment banker in Pennsylvania, and the city is rendered in crisp, colourful 3D. It’s a place where people like Anand eat Italian olives, rather than Kerala nuts, in noisy mall bars.
Although Anand cannot compete with the low prices and zippy turnaround times of Chinese factory owners, when he looks at the west, with its trifling 35-hour working weeks, he sees “the stoic industry of their ancestors” dissolved into “whining, waffling plaint”. It is, he reflects, “the mirror image of his own existence”, and the book’s uncomplicated, upbeat message is that stoic industry pays off.
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Throughout history, economic upheaval has destroyed whole industries – and created new ones. But now, some fear automation may mean the death of mass employment
Suddenly a robotised, automated economic reality is moving off the science fiction pages and into daily life. The growing use of unmanned battlefield drones is encouraging the growth of pilotless commercial aircraft – the first ever flew in British airspace last month. Google’s driverless car is completing ever more trials ever more successfully: the world’s major car companies are all hot in pursuit, working on their own prototypes of their own versions. The automated checkouts at supermarkets are becoming as familiar as bank cash machines. From staff-free ticket offices to students who can learn online, it seems there is no corner of economic life in which people are not being replaced by machines.
This is the “Great Reset” – a cull of broadly middle-class jobs with middle-class incomes that is apparent across the west, but with little current sign of what industries and activities will replace them.
The world has lost millions of jobs before – on the land or in the old horse-powered economy – but they were soon replaced by jobs in the car industry or the new service industries. What worries many economists and computer scientists is that today’s technologies are going to remove people from economic activity completely. Some argue that a dystopian world is emerging in which good jobs and full-time employment will become the preserve of an educated, computer-literate elite. For example Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google are plainly riding the new wave, but they are not mass employers like Tesco, Ford or General Motors.
Moshe Vardi, a computer scientist at Rice University, asks if we are ready for a world in which half the adult population does not work. The Great Reset – the economy resetting itself, after a major technological shock, to deliver jobs for all – may never happen.
The omens are all around. The US economy has never generated so few jobs in an upturn since records began. In Britain, the Resolution Foundation charts the ongoing squeeze on low and middle incomes, and observes brutally that already Britain has the second highest proportion of low-paid jobs in the developed world. The formal unemployment numbers, now ominously rising five years since the crisis began, do not capture the full extent to which the economy is not delivering good work.
Plainly some of the explanation is that the economy is still reeling from the effect of the financial crisis and the accompanying vast overhang of private debt. But economies have an embedded resilience. Output will return to the levels of 2008, probably some time next year. There will be an economic “recovery”. But this raises the question: what happens afterwards?
Think through the implications of the driverless car. These will be vehicles whose complex sensors allow them to communicate with one another, so that they know one another’s intended route. One of the reasons Google is investing so much is that whoever owns the communications system for driverless cars will own the 21st century’s equivalent of the telephone network or money clearing system: this will be a licence to print money. The benefits are endless. Roads will both be able to carry more traffic and be safer. Personalised door-to-door transport will become hugely pleasurable: your car will deliver you to your home or place of work and then park itself without you. Road accidents will plummet. Energy efficiency will be transformed. Insurance rates, even the need for insurance, will plunge. Personalised transport, ordered by your mobile phone, will gradually replace mass transport networks.
But the implications for employment are awesome. Thomas Frey, senior futurologist at the DaVinci Institute, lists taxi-, bus- and truck-driving as soon-to-be-extinct occupations – along with traffic police, all forms of home delivery and waste disposal, jobs at petrol stations, car washes and parking lots. The cars themselves will be made by robots in automated car factories. The only new jobs will be in the design and marketing of the cars, and in writing the computer software that will allow them to navigate their journeys, along with the apps for our mobile phones that will help us to use them better.
Professor Larry Summers, former US treasury secretary, thinks that the challenge of the decades ahead is not debt or competition from China but the dramatic transformations that technology is bringing about. Summers believes that the transition to the automated economy that robotisation implies has only just begun. The invention of 3D printing, in which every home or office will be equipped with an in-house printer that can spew out the goods we want – from shoes to pills – anticipates a world of what Summers calls automated “doers”. They will do everything for us, eliminating the need for much work. The only jobs will be in writing the software and building the “doers”, creating a bifurcation of the labour market that is already discernible.
At least Summers sees some underlying economic dynamism. For techno-pessimists such as economist Professor Tyler Cowen the future is even darker. It is not only that automation and robotisation are coming, but that there are no new worthwhile transformational technologies for them to automate. All the obvious human needs – to move, to have power, to communicate – have been solved through cars, planes, mobile phones and computers. According to Cowen, we have come to the end of the great “general purpose technologies” (technologies that transform an entire economy, such as the steam engine, electricity, the car and so on) that changed the world. There are no new transformative technologies to carry us forward, while the old activities are being robotised and automated. This is the “Great Stagnation”.
That is a very lopsided view of the future with little recognition of the opportunities. The growth of transformative technologies is not tailing off: as scientific knowledge explodes and crosses new boundaries, they will accelerate. The 21st century will witness more technological and scientific advance than in the last 500 years. The pace of change is certainly accelerating – business models today already become obsolescent in less than 20 years, and that figure is going to fall further. But human demands are infinite. Notwithstanding robotisation and automation, I identify four broad areas in which there will be vast job opportunities.
The first is in micro-production. There is going to be a huge growth in micro-brewers, micro-bakers, micro-film-makers, micro-energy producers, micro-tailors, micro-software houses and so on who will deploy the internet and micro-production techniques to produce goods at prices as if they were mass-produced, but customised for individual tastes.
The second is in human wellbeing. There will be vast growth in advising, coaching, caring, mentoring, doctoring, nursing, teaching and generally enhancing capabilities. Medical provision will explode, with replacement organs, skin and limbs opening up new specialisms and industries. Taste, sight and hearing will be vastly enhanced. Ageing will be deferred, with old-age advisers offering advice on how to live well in one’s hundreds. Geneticists will open up a live-well economy. Instantaneous language translation will break down language barriers.
The third is in addressing the globe’s “wicked issues” . There will be new forms of nutrition and carbon-efficient energy, along with economising with water, to meet the demands of a world population of 9 billion in 2050. Space exploration will become crucial to find new minerals and energy sources. New forms of mining will allow exploration of the Earth’s crust. The oceans will be farmed.
And fourthly, digital and big data management will foster whole new industries – personalised journalism, social media, cyber-security, information selection, software, computer science and digital clutter removal.
Doubtless the futurologists can come up with more: the truth is, nobody knows. What we do know is that two-thirds of what we consume today was not invented 25 years ago. It will be the same again in a generation’s time. What is different is the pace of change, obsolescence and renewal – and new dangers of extraordinary inequality not just in wages, but in working possibilities. Firms and individuals will be on their mettle to open up, innovate and constantly reinvent themselves. If there is to be a successful Great Reset, Britain will need the open innovation structures, financing mechanisms and social support institutions to capitalise on the opportunities quickly, rather than be overwhelmed by the risks.
This is what threatens our future, our living standards, and this is what we should be arguing about – not the European Union, despite the efforts of Ukip and the Conservative party. Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.
UK growers adopt specialist computer forecasting system to help improve yields of crops whatever the weather
As Britain steels itself for the prospect of yet another washout summer, strawberry growers are finding themselves forced to come up with increasingly sophisticated ways of assessing the threat posed to their livelihoods by inclement weather.
For fruit growers, predicting the weather is vital. It causes fruit yields to vary by as much as 70%, making for an erratic growing season if poor conditions are not anticipated.
The last few years has seen a glut of strawberries arrive during rainy periods, when demand was limited. Conversely, this has meant a shortage of the fruit in some parts of the country at peak times – for example outside London when Wimbledon fortnight started last year.
But as the year’s first crop of British field-grown strawberries goes on sale this weekend, growers have a new hi-tech weapon in their armoury. The biggest growers are using a state-of-the-art forecasting system that allows them to predict the yields in individual fields.
The specialist technology compares historical yield curves, the recorded effect weather has on the crop and the planting date of the strawberries in their respective locations. The information is then fed into a computer along with long-term weather forecasts, specific growing data for some of the 600 varieties of strawberry produced in the UK, and growth charts for each field.
The new system is helping the UK’s biggest growers, who are responsible for producing around 20,000 tonnes of strawberries – a third of the annual UK crop. It involves field visits up to three times a week, when light levels and plant growth are recorded. The collated information has helped growers accurately determine when to plant their crops to ensure yields mature throughout the season, “smoothing out” the supply of strawberries to the supermarkets.
Although the vast majority of British strawberries are grown under polytunnels, their yields are heavily influenced by dank, cold conditions.
“For the last couple of years a glut of strawberries arrived during a rainy spell when demand wasn’t so high,” said Paul Jones, a strawberry buyer for Tesco.
“As a result we got together with some of the UK’s biggest strawberry growers and suppliers to discuss bringing in technology that could help them plan their planting programmes more accurately. Now, with the aid of computer technology and leading weather prediction data, we will be able to process and analyse forecasted strawberry volumes down to individual field level.”
The hi-tech approach is a new way of harvesting one of the most venerated, historic fruits. In medieval times strawberries were regarded as an aphrodisiac and a soup made of strawberries, borage and soured cream was served to newlyweds at their wedding breakfast.
An initial trial of the new system involving a small number of growers last year was found to be around 95% accurate, enough to convince large-scale producers of the need to use the new technology. Growers hope it will spell an end to the problems they experienced last season when a very wet spring and poor light levels were followed by the wettest summer for more than a century.
Securing a steady supply is likely to pay dividends for retailers. Demand for strawberries – which were first cultivated by the Romans in 200 BC – continues to increase every year, according to industry figures. The industry predicts an 8% rise in tonnage this summer compared with 2012 and estimates that between 60,000 and 65,000 tonnes will be produced by British growers.
But the prospect of a glorious summer in which to enjoy strawberries looks a forlorn hope. Early indications, such as last week’s snow flutters in Shropshire and Devon, suggest that we may be in for a similar summer to last year.
In an exclusive interview with Chris McGreal in Kigali, Rwanda’s president denies backing an accused Congolese war criminal and says challenge to senior US official proves his innocence
Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, has rejected accusations from Washington that he was supporting a rebel leader and accused war criminal in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by challenging a senior US official to send a drone to kill the wanted man.
In an interview with the Observer Magazine, Kagame said that on a visit to Washington in March he came under pressure from the US assistant secretary of state for Africa, Johnnie Carson, to arrest Bosco Ntaganda, leader of the M23 rebels, who was wanted by the international criminal court (ICC). The US administration was increasing pressure on Kagame following a UN report claiming to have uncovered evidence showing that the Rwandan military provided weapons and other support to Ntaganda, whose forces briefly seized control of the region’s main city, Goma.
“I told him: ‘Assistant secretary of state, you support [the UN peacekeeping force] in the Congo. Such a big force, so much money. Have you failed to use that force to arrest whoever you want to arrest in Congo? Now you are turning to me, you are turning to Rwanda?’” he said. “I said that, since you are used to sending drones and gunning people down, why don’t you send a drone and get rid of him and stop this nonsense? And he just laughed. I told him: ‘I’m serious’.”
Kagame said that, after he returned to Rwanda, Carson kept up the pressure with a letter demanding that he act against Ntaganda. Days later, the M23 leader appeared at the US embassy in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, saying that he wanted to surrender to the ICC. He was transferred to The Hague. The Rwandan leadership denies any prior knowledge of Ntaganda’s decision to hand himself over. It suggests he was facing a rebellion within M23 and feared for his safety.
But Kagame’s confrontation with Carson reflects how much relationships with even close allies have deteriorated over allegations that Rwanda continues to play a part in the bloodletting in Congo. The US and Britain, Rwanda’s largest bilateral aid donors, withheld financial assistance, as did the EU, prompting accusations of betrayal by Rwandan officials. The political impact added impetus to a government campaign to condition the population to become more self-reliant.
Kagame is angered by the moves and criticisms of his human rights record in Rwanda, including allegations that he blocks opponents by misusing laws banning hate speech to accuse them of promoting genocide and suppresses press criticism. The Rwandan president is also embittered that countries, led by the US and UK, that blocked intervention to stop the 1994 genocide, and France which sided with the Hutu extremist regime that led the killings, are now judging him on human rights.
“We don’t live our lives or we don’t deal with our affairs more from the dictates from outside than from the dictates of our own situation and conditions,” Kagame said. “The outside viewpoint, sometimes you don’t know what it is. It keeps changing. They tell you they want you to respect this or fight this and you are doing it and they say you’re not doing it the right way. They keep shifting goalposts and interpreting things about us or what we are doing to suit the moment.”
He is agitated about what he sees as Rwanda being held responsible for all the ills of Congo, when Kigali’s military intervention began in 1996 to clear out Hutu extremists using UN-funded refugee camps for raids to murder Tutsis. Kagame said that Rwanda was not responsible for the situation after decades of western colonisation and backing for the Mobutu dictatorship.
The Rwandan leader denies supporting M23 and said he has been falsely accused because Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila, needs someone to blame because his army cannot fight. “To defeat these fellows doesn’t take bravery because they don’t go to fight. They just hear bullets and are on the loose running anywhere, looting, raping and doing anything. That’s what happened,” he said.
“President Kabila and the government had made statements about how this issue is going to be contained. They had to look for an explanation for how they were being defeated. They said we are not fighting [Ntaganda], we’re actually fighting Rwanda.”
In the second part of his special report, Chris McGreal meets President Paul Kagame in Kigali – and finds him angry
Paul Kagame is angrier than I’ve ever seen him. Rwanda’s president is famously direct with his critics. His contempt for governments he’s crossed swords with, led by the French, is only marginally less vitriolic than his view of human-rights groups daring to lecture him, the rebel leader whose army put a stop to the 1994 genocide of 800,0000 Tutsis. But now even friends are regarded with suspicion to the point of hostility. Take London and Washington accusing Rwanda of perpetuating the interminable and bloody conflict across the border in Congo and flagging up concerns that Kagame is constructing a de-facto one-party state.
They are hypocrites, blind to their own histories, says Rwanda’s president. “Who are these gods who police others for their rights?” he says in an interview with the Observer at the presidential office in Kigali. “One of the things I live for is to challenge that. I grew up in a refugee camp. Thirty years. This so-called human-rights world didn’t ask me what was happening for me to be there 30 years.”
Nearly two decades after the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) emerged from the hills to overthrow the extremist Hutu regime trying to exterminate the Tutsi population, Kagame is still a combative and divisive figure. To some he is the Lincoln of Africa for rising above his country’s old divisions – and his own suffering after narrowly escaping as a child across the border to Uganda during an earlier bout of Tutsi killing – to preach forgiveness, reconciliation and hard work as he forges a new Rwanda out of the ashes of genocide.
To others, Kagame has exploited his country’s tragic history, and the west’s guilt over its inaction during the slaughter, to construct a new Tutsi-dominated authoritarian regime using the legacy of genocide to suppress opposition and cover up for the crimes of his own side. In doing so, critics warn, he is laying the groundwork for another bout of bloodletting down the road.
For years, the heroic view of Kagame prevailed, not least in Britain and the US which, between them, provided about half the money to fund the Rwandan government’s budget. But, in recent months, there’s been a very public shift. Once-unquestioning support from Washington, where Bill Clinton called Kagame “one of the greatest leaders of our time”, has given way to cuts in military aid and warnings from the US war crimes chief that Rwanda’s leadership could find itself under investigation from the international criminal court over its backing for rebels in eastern Congo.
Britain, too, has stepped back from support so unequivocal that Clare Short, then Labour’s international development secretary, called Kagame “a sweetie” and Tony Blair established a foundation to help the man he calls a “visionary leader” to govern. Britain’s Conservative party has been no less enthusiastic. It set up a social-action project in Rwanda to bring hundreds of volunteers over recent years, including Tory MPs, to assist with construction of schools and community centres. Now the relationship is cooler as Congo’s own tragedy, and Rwanda’s part in it, can no longer be ignored.
A trail of imprisoned opponents, exiled former allies and assassinations pinned on Kagame by critics has also eaten away at his claims to be an enlightened, modernising leader who embraces new technology and is an enthusiastic blogger and tweeter. Among those locked up was Kagame’s predecessor as president, Pasteur Bizimungu, while former allies from the RPF’s days as a rebel army have fled abroad. They include Kagame’s former chief aide, Theogene Rudasingwa, who formed a new political party with other exiles including former army chief of staff, General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, who was wounded in an apparent assassination attempt in South Africa.
Another former ally, ex-interior minister Seth Sendashonga, who posed a serious political challenge after breaking with Kagame, was assassinated in Kenya 15 years ago. Rwanda’s president has repeatedly denied any hand in the murder and several other apparently politically motivated killings since. But as a pattern of jailings, disappearances and deaths has developed there’s no shortage of people ready to believe the worst.
Kagame increasingly takes a “with us or against us” view of even sympathetic criticism. The sharpness of his reaction suggests he was caught unawares by those he regarded as loyal friends deciding to keep a distance. He denies this. “Nothing would catch me off guard because I understand the world I live in. I understand it very well. And the world I live in is not necessarily a fair or just world. I have dealt with these injustices for the bigger part of my life,” he says.
Part of what infuriates Kagame is what he sees as the age-old duplicity of neo-colonial powers. On the one hand politicians in western capitals are critical over democratic shortcomings in Rwanda. On the other, their diplomatic missions in Kigali praise Kagame for his single-minded, some say authoritarian, leadership in reconstructing his country and are wary of the day he leaves power.
Certainly, Rwanda is a better place than could have been imagined in the aftermath of the genocide. When Kagame’s RPF rebels overthrew the Hutu extremist regime and seized power in 1994 they inherited a country dotted with mass graves and stripped of people. A sizeable proportion of the Hutu population fled across the borders to Zaire and Tanzania driven by fear, and a defeated Hutu leadership determined that Kagame should take over a “country without a people”.
The Hutu army and its allied extremist militia, the interahamwe, were watered and fed in United Nations refugee camps even as they kept up the ethnic killings through cross-border raids. Kagame had few resources to draw on internally with many traditional institutions, such as the Catholic church, compromised by their part in the killings, including the involvement of priests and nuns in murder. Kagame’s challenge was to reconstruct a country in which Tutsis could live without fear and the Hutu majority would accept him as its legitimate president.
A decade ago, one RPF regional military governor, Deo Nkusi, put it to me this way: “Changing people here is like bending steel. The people were bent into one shape over 40 years and they have to be bent back. If we do it too fast we will just break them. We have to exert pressure gradually.”
Kagame was austere and demanding. He lambasted Rwandans as lazy and urged discipline. That appeared to reflect a view that the moral degeneracy underpinning the genocide was in part a product of a population insufficiently dedicated to hard work. The president urged Rwandans to confront the past and then put it behind them. Faced with 150,000 alleged killers packed into jails, his government spurned colonial-era courts in favour of a traditional form of justice that provided a forum for confessions and pleas for forgiveness by the killers, and laid the ground for a degree of reconciliation.
But Kagame takes nothing for granted. He says the path to a new Rwanda is through economic and social development that produces politics without hate. “The political, the economic, the social are tied together like the strands of a rope. The social and economic, if they are firm, tend to strengthen the other. In a state of poverty, illiteracy, people just remain exposed to all kinds of manipulation. That’s what we have lived. It’s easier to tell a poor person: you know what, you are poor, you’re hungry because the other one has taken away your rights.”
More than a million Rwandans have been lifted out of poverty since 2006. Access to healthcare and education is expanding. A construction boom has transformed the Kigali skyline. Kagame is also counting on time to solidify the gains. Two-thirds of Rwandans are under the age of 25 and open to a new way of thinking shaped by schools and learning the lessons of the past. But Kagame says he recognises that ridding Rwanda of the virus of hate and anger is not so simple.
“The reality of it is that things don’t just disappear,” he says. He points to the children that grew up without families. “It means they think about what created this situation where they have no families. So it’s not just that they’re growing up in a new situation and they have no bearing to the tragic past. Depending on how the situation continues to be managed, then the healing process – or the process of overcoming our past – becomes easier or more difficult.” It is this achievement that has won Kagame previously unflinching support in many western capitals, even if it may be another generation before Rwandans can feel confident that, like Germany, they really have purged their past from their social fabric.
So it is all the more baffling and frustrating to Paul Kagame that he finds himself being called to account for a situation he says is not of Rwanda’s making and is really the responsibility of the very people pointing the finger at him.
Rwanda’s involvement in Congo has been undeniable since its 1996 invasion to clear the UN refugee camps used by Hutu extremists. The invasion evolved into a perpetual de-facto occupation in alliance with Congolese groups and the plunder of the region’s considerable mineral resources by Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. Security was an issue, but there was also money to be made.
Understanding for Rwanda’s position eroded as eastern Congo fell under the control of warlords, and the people endured mass rape, massacres and starvation. Then, last year, a report by UN-appointed experts gave what it said was detailed evidence of the Rwandan military arming a mostly Tutsi rebel group in eastern Congo, M23, then led by a wanted war criminal, Bosco Ntaganda (who has since surrendered to the ICC).
Rwanda worked hard to discredit the report, but it triggered surprising reaction from those who had previously covered for Kagame. Washington said it found the UN research credible. The British also felt they could no longer turn a blind eye.
Kagame outright denies continuing Rwandan involvement in Congo and spends close to half an hour in a detailed explanation of why sending Rwandan troops there was a good thing, how the UN report was the stitching together of rumour, speculation and lies, and why it is decades of Belgian, French and American involvement in that blighted country that is the real cause of its problems. “I’m telling people look at themselves in the mirror. They are the ones responsible for problems in Congo, not me,” he says.
“All the responsibilities that lie with the rest of the world, historically and in the present, have come to this: it is Rwanda responsible for all the problems. The Congolese themselves? No, not responsible for anything. Even the wasting of resources between Congo and the international community is something that has to be masked and packaged until Rwanda is made the problem.
“You have a [UN peacekeeping] mission in Congo spending $1.5bn every year for the past 12 years. Nobody ever asks: what do we get out of this? From the best arithmetic, I would say: why don’t you give half of this to the Congolese to build schools, to build roads, to give them water and pay these soldiers who rape people every day? I’d even pay them not to rape.”
Kagame goes on the attack over claims by the US and UK at diplomatic meetings to have additional evidence of Rwandan assistance to M23. “Up to this moment they’ve never given anybody a bit of what they’re talking about – evidence,” he says. The US froze military aid. Britain suspended some financial support and then put in place new controls. Kagame regards Rwanda as the victim of a diplomatic lynch mob and accuses the British government of laying the groundwork by sending the BBC and Channel 4 News to file reports critical of Rwanda. “It’s just a circus. You start wondering about the people you’re dealing with,” he says.
The situation came to a head at a meeting between Kagame and ambassadors from the major foreign donors, including the UK and the US. I tell him I heard that diplomats had rarely seen him so furious. “Yes. Probably I was not angry enough. You can’t have these people…” He trails off. “When you tell them the truth they think you are angry.”
Part of what he says disturbs him is foreign governments cutting aid to the projects they have declared a success. What, he wonders, does that have to do with Congo? “How does affecting aid help deal with those things they are complaining about? It’s simple logic. It doesn’t make sense,” he says.
But then he decides it does make sense because the aid freeze was not about Congo at all. “One thing that will never be said openly, but is a fact, aid is also a tool of control. It’s not completely altruistic,” he says. “If a country’s giving us aid it doesn’t give them the right to control us. I mean it. I can say thank you, you are really helpful. But you don’t own me.”
Kagame’s anger rises again at what he says is western donors’ insistence on talking about an issue he regards as having nothing to do with aid. “They say: these Rwandans think they are free, but actually they are not free. Sometimes it becomes a laughable matter, honestly.” As with almost everything else in Rwanda, issues of freedom are bound up with the legacy of genocide. Kagame’s critics say he is using laws intended to prevent the propagation of the kind of hate speech that contributed to the killings to suppress criticism of, and opposition to, the government. For some, the cause célèbre concerns Victoire Ingabire, leader of the Unified Democratic Forces, a coalition mostly of exiles, who attempted to challenge Kagame in the 2010 presidential election. She was arrested before the vote and subsequently sentenced to eight years in prison for inciting revolt, genocide ideology and forming an armed group.
Her supporters dismiss the charges as trumped up and hail her as a Rwandan version of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader. Foreign human rights groups have raised concerns about freedom of speech and the conduct of the trial after the principal witnesses against Ingabire were held incommunicado and possibly tortured into providing testimony.
But Ingabire’s case also reflects the complexities of talking about the past in a country living with the legacy of genocide. On returning from 15 years’ living in the Netherlands, Ingabire gave a speech at Kigali’s genocide memorial, where thousands of victims are buried, equating the deaths of Hutus in the civil war with the murder of 800,000 Tutsis during the extermination campaign: “If we look at this memorial, it only refers to the people who died during the genocide against the Tutsis. There is another untold story with regard to the crimes against humanity committed against the Hutus. The Hutus who lost their loved ones are also suffering; they think about the loved ones who perished and are wondering, ‘When will our dead ones also be remembered?’”
Tutsi survivors were outraged not only by the implication in her statements of a “double genocide”, which they saw as intended to diminish the organised killings, but the choice of location at which to make the comments.
Ingabire’s history casts doubt on her claim to have merely raised a legitimate issue for discussion. She is president of the Republican Rally for Democracy in Rwanda, a group born in the Hutu refugee camps in the mid-1990s with the backing of the politicians and army officers who carried out the genocide and who have spent the years since attempting to rewrite history.
Kagame points to the bans on Holocaust denial in France and Germany as evidence that foreign criticism over Ingabire’s case is western hypocrisy. “The same people who have those laws (banning Holocaust denial) are saying we shouldn’t have them. We’re not blind to this,” he says.
However, Ingabire’s case does point up the limits on discussing what many Rwandans think are legitimate issues. Gonzaga Muganwa, a journalist and presenter of a radio phone-in, watched Ingabire’s speech at the memorial. “We were so shocked. Nobody has heard such words spoken on Rwandan soil since the genocide,” he says. “I myself wrote a piece saying Ingabire should be prosecuted. It’s like saying Churchill bombing Dresden was the same as the Holocaust. The Tutsi genocide was an attempt to exterminate them.” But Muganwa does have problems with restrictions on freedom of speech. He shakes his head over the case of two journalists jailed for genocide denial, divisionism and insulting Kagame. Rwanda’s supreme court overturned the genocide-related convictions, but upheld those for defaming the president and public disorder. “Defaming the president should not be a criminal offence,” says Muganwa.
He also confirms what other Rwandan journalists say: that they self-censor. Muganwa decided to look at the facts behind an issue widely if quietly discussed – a belief that a younger generation of Rwandans appointed to senior administrative positions in the government are mostly Tutsis who grew up in exile in neighbouring English-speaking Uganda, the same as many in the RPF leadership. It’s a sensitive issue not only because it feeds into old Hutu extremist accusations of “Tutsi domination” but because of unhappiness at Tutsi exiles prospering while the genocide survivors still struggle in poverty.
“When I did my research I found that most of those people tended to speak English and some had family connections,” says Muganwa. “I stopped because I know I would have been accused of creating divisions. I would have been open to prosecution. It’s a no-go area. People discuss it in bars all the time, but you can’t print it.”
Muganwa goes on to raise the case of Frank Habineza and his Democratic Green Party of Rwanda. “I ask myself why the government refuses to register the Green party,” he says.
As a former member of the RPF who broke with Kagame, no one could accuse Habineza of promoting genocide ideology. In 2010 he attempted to register the Greens for the presidential election, but fled the country after his party’s vice president was found with his head cut off. Now he’s back fighting what he believes is a deliberate government strategy to prevent him organising.
“It has not been easy. This government is lacking in recognition of political rights,” he says. “You will not find anything divisive in what we’ve done, what we’ve said. The only thing we want is democracy, that people are consulted. We have a tendency here where the authorities just make a decision and hand it down to the people. Kagame is more interested in maintaining power and he will do anything to stay in power no matter what type of problems he leaves us with.”
Kagame’s response is to suggest that the concerns are all foreign inspired. “We really need to decide for ourselves, not what people on the outside decide for us,” he says. “In terms of our internal political context, we manage it as our affairs. And the outsiders keep bringing in all kinds of poisons; we deal with that as well. But we have to deal with our lives as we deal with them, and keep managing those that come from outside as best we can to deal with it. And even tell them what they don’t like to hear – that they bring prejudice and double standards in our own situation.”
this raises the question of 2017. Rwanda’s constitution requires Kagame to step down in four years, but already there are rumblings about changing it to allow him to stay on as president. Some of this is generated by the sycophancy expected of underlings wishing to remain in their leader’s good graces, but there are other, unusual, forces at work as well.
A fair number of genocide survivors fear the day Kagame relinquishes power, believing his strong hand is all that keeps another bout of ethnic bloodletting at bay. There are also Hutus wary of political change because they see Rwanda’s president as keeping a lid on violent Tutsi retaliation for the genocide. Others, including Kagame’s own justice minister, believe it is essential for Kagame to step down in 2017 in order to maintain the primacy of the rule of law.
Kagame has been equivocal in the past, but greets the news of his justice minister’s views with belligerence. “Why don’t you tell him to step down himself? All those years he’s been there, he’s not the only one who can be the justice minister,” he says. “In the end we should come to a view that serves us all. But in the first place I wonder why it becomes the subject of heated debate.”
One of the reasons is that Rwandans are not alone in wondering if the final decision will really be the product of political consensus or, like so much else, ultimately decided by Kagame himself. Foreign governments have one eye on what they now regard as the salutary experience of dealing with Yoweri Museveni, president of neighbouring Uganda.
Two decades ago Museveni was hailed as one of a “new breed” of African leaders who broke with the plundering “presidents for life” and promised an era of good governance and freedoms. Museveni delivered to some extent, but there’s no more talk of the new breed as Uganda’s president heads toward his 30th year in power with little sign of political opponents being allowed to challenge him. When I tell Kagame there is a suspicion in some foreign capitals that he is treading in the footsteps of Museveni – a man regarded by some in the west as having betrayed his commitment to democracy – Rwanda’s president returns to his favoured theme.
“Who are they, first of all, to feel betrayed? They are not gods. They don’t create people. They don’t own people. This whole thing of saying betrayed – betrayed by what?” he says.
Kagame wonders whether anybody ever accuses the Liberal Democratic party of Japan, which has ruled almost continuously since 1955, of clinging on to power. “I’m sure if the RPF went on for 40 years it would be a crime, but for the Liberal party in Japan it’s not a crime. This is what disturbs me. Sometimes you feel like doing things just to challenge that – that somebody is entitled to do something, but says when you do it you are wrong. I find it bizarre,” he says. “If it happens elsewhere and people think it’s OK, why do people say it’s not OK when it happens in Rwanda? I just don’t accept this sort of thing. We have many struggles to keep fighting. Some of the things are like racism: ‘These are Africans, we must herd them like cows.’ No! Just refuse it.”
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Anger as the price of seats for the sold-out Doctor Who concerts go through the roof
The Proms have been described by Czech conductor Jiri Belohlavek as the world’s largest and most democratic music festival. Running over eight weeks in the summer with a daily programme of orchestral concerts held mainly in the Royal Albert Hall, it is a firm fixture in classical music lovers’ diaries.
Yet this year it appears that access to the events is not as democratic as it might be. The Observer has found that large numbers of tickets are being offered on “resale sites” for hundreds of pounds – many times their face value – much to the dismay of the BBC and the Royal Albert Hall, the only official seller.
One unofficial online site is offering seats for the Doctor Who-themed Prom on 14 July for £500, compared with the official flat-rate price of £12. A ticket for the first night on 12 July is offered for £400, against an original value of £38.
It is not just fans of the Proms who will be disappointed this summer. Many events in the coming months have already sold out – including the Rolling Stones’ Hyde Park concert – with the only tickets available on websites fetching way above face value. Now campaigners are calling for the government to crack down on the touts.
Labour MP Sharon Hodgson, shadow minister for children and families, wants ticket-touting to be made illegal. “Families and music lovers are missing out on a British institution just so that a few individuals can make a fortune. The government needs to use the upcoming consumer rights bill to take action on touting and put the fans first.”
Last weekend the BBC announced that a record 114,000 Proms tickets had sold since booking opened last week, a 17% rise on 2012. The two Doctor Who-themed Proms were the first to be announced as sold out, with special appearances by actor Matt Smith for the programme’s 50th anniversary fuelling demand. But Fred Gilroy, a nurse practitioner in Sunderland, was so disappointed over his experience of trying to buy a ticket that he contacted the RAH and his local MP “to advise you of something I found to be quite … unethical”.
He said: “At 9am [last Saturday] morning, the BBC Proms tickets went on sale. Two weeks ago I completed my Proms Planner online in order that when the tickets came on sale you [could] merely complete the purchase and pay for the tickets. After 10 minutes online, I was ‘number 5,892′ in the queue and before very long the tickets I wanted, the Doctor Who Proms, had sold out. My two kids, who are six and four, were both disappointed.”
He tried online ticket-brokers and came across one offering a row of four seats for those Proms: “However, the price was £212.76 per ticket. The tickets have a face value of £12. That means someone can book their tickets and sell them at a highly inflated price. I feel, if this is not illegal, it is unethical and should be looked at, possibly capping the amount that someone can profit from further selling event tickets.”
He said that this goes against what the Proms stand for and why they were started in the first place – to give music to all at affordable prices.
The RAH told him to try turning up to buy tickets which are made available on the day, but he cannot risk paying to travel from the north-east and staying overnight in London on the off-chance.
The BBC said that it does not use other ticket agents and it is “very difficult to manage unofficial selling”.
A spokesman said: “This is an industry-wide, serious problem and we work closely with the RAH to do what we can to prevent it.”
The RAH declined to comment, but ticket prices are a sensitive subject. It faced claims last year that two of its trustees profited from selling their debenture-seat tickets at hugely inflated prices. Debenture seats are owned on 999-year leases.
One resale company is Viagogo, which takes 15% of the ticket price from buyers and 10% from sellers.
Steve Roest, its head of European Business Development, said his company provides “a secure platform” where people buy and sell tickets: “We allow anyone to sell on Viagogo, so long as the ticket is valid.”