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Thank you -- but not goodbye ...

Robin Lustig | 12:23 UK time, Friday, 14 December 2012

Last night, I presented my last edition of The World Tonight. (My last Newshour will be next Tuesday.) That means this is the last of these blogposts/newsletters in their current form, although if you would like to continue to hear from me, there are details at the end of this post.

I wrote my first World Tonight newsletter on 8 July 2005, more than seven years ago, a day after the London bomb attacks that killed more than 50 people, and two days after we'd learnt that London had been chosen to host the 2012 Olympic Games. There was plenty to write about that day, and there's been plenty to write about pretty much every week since then.

History, someone once said, is just one damn thing after another. News is the same. Another day, another batch of headlines: a never-ending cacophony of crises, conflicts, and disasters.

What we try to do on The World Tonight -- what I've tried to do in the 40-plus years I've been a journalist -- is make sense of it, or at least some of it.

As a rookie reporter, you're taught to ask the five basic "W" questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? To me, it's the fifth -- Why? -- which is always the most interesting, even if, too often, the only honest answer is "Don't know."

The great joy of the job I've been doing for the past 23 years is that -- as I said on the programme last night -- I've learnt something new every day. Does it mean I understand more? Probably not, or at least not much more ... but it's still been well worth trying.

When I started back in 1989, the Cold War was coming to an end. The Berlin wall came down, Germany was reunified, and soon the Soviet Union collapsed. Night after night, we asked what it meant -- was George Bush (the first one) right to talk of the dawning of a New World Order?

Then Yugoslavia imploded, exploded into violence. Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo -- nasty, brutal wars in which thousands died, in a conflict on a continent which thought it had said goodbye to war in 1945. (Among the casualties, our much-missed colleague John Schofield, killed at the age of 29 in Croatia while covering the war for The World Tonight.)

Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and an international military force kicked him out again, but left him in power in Baghdad. Somalia disintegrated into anarchy, and Rwanda drowned in the blood of the 800,000 people killed in the genocide of 1994.

Nelson Mandela was freed from jail, and apartheid made way for democracy in South Africa. In 1998 came the Good Friday agreement and the end (almost) of the violence in Northern Ireland and the IRA's bombing campaign.

As the nineties turned into the noughties, we talked endlessly of liberal interventionism, the Blair doctrine, the responsibility to protect -- fine-sounding phrases to describe a desperate, perhaps forlorn, hope that somehow the combined might of international powers could save civilians from the horrors of war and oppression.

Then came 9/11, followed by the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. A decade of bomb attacks, blamed on jihadis inspired by al Qaeda: among them Bali in 2002 (more than 200 dead); Madrid 2004 (nearly 200 dead); the London bombings in 2005; Mumbai 2008 (160 dead).

China and India became major economic powers; climate change became a major source of international concern; the internet, mobile phones, Facebook and Twitter revolutionised the way we communicate with each other, do business with each other, and defame each other.

You get the picture: over the past two decades, the world has changed in countless fundamental ways. And of course, it is still changing. Governments are still struggling to control a globalised economy; the international financial system struggles to recover from the near melt-down caused by reckless lending and casino banking. Britain still hasn't decided what it wants its relationship to be with the rest of the EU; nor has the US decided what kind of relationship it wants with China.

In many ways -- although it's easy to forget this amid the babble of the headlines -- the world is a far, far better place than it was 23 years ago.

Fewer women die in childbirth; fewer children die before the age of five. In 1990, roughly half the global population lived on less than a dollar a day; by 2007, the proportion had shrunk to 28 per cent. Economic growth has been faster in the poorest regions like sub-Saharan Africa than across the world as a whole.

We're also winning the global battle against infectious diseases. Between 1999 and 2005, thanks to the spread of vaccinations, the number of children who died annually from measles dropped by 60 per cent. The proportion of the world's infants vaccinated against diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus climbed from less than half to more than 80 per cent between 1985 and 2008.

I shall continue to watch, and read, and think -- and write. So if you'd like to go on hearing from me -- and I very much hope you will -- add my personal blog to your RSS feed or send me an email to robin.lustig@me.com with the word "newsletter" in the subject line. I'll take it from there.

The World Tonight newsletters will continue in a different form -- and they'll go on arriving in your inbox just as they do now.

So I won't say goodbye, but I will say thank you. Thank you for listening to the programme, and thank you for reading this blog. Let's stay in touch.

Leveson: you, the jury ...

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Robin Lustig | 13:50 UK time, Friday, 30 November 2012

Members of the jury:

You have heard what the learned judge, Lord Justice Leveson, has said in his extensive, 2,000-page summing up, having heard the evidence in the case of The People v The Press.

It is now your task to consider your verdict, not, as you would usually do, on the defendant in the dock, but on m'learned friend himself, His Honour Lord Justice Leveson.

Allow me to assist you, before you retire to the jury room to consider what you have heard. For this is a complex, and in some ways, a puzzling case, unlike any which has come before a jury in this court room before.

First, I would suggest, you will want to consider what His Honour said in regard to the general behaviour of some elements of the Press: "There has been a recklessness in prioritising sensational stories, almost irrespective of the harm that the stories may cause and the rights of those who would be affected ..." (Executive Summary, para. 32)

You will recall also, members of the jury, that the learned judge remarked that "when the story is just too big and the public appetite too great, there has been significant and reckless disregard for accuracy ... a cultural tendency within parts of the press vigorously to resist or dismiss complainants almost as a matter of course." (para. 38/9)

I am sure I do not need to remind you what His Honour suggested as a remedy for these disgraceful lapses: an entirely new system of what he called "independent self-regulation", underpinned by new legislation. And you cannot fail to remember his insistence that "this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press." (para 73)

Members of the jury, there are two charges brought against the learned judge. First, that in proposing a legislative under-pinning for his new system of independent self-regulation, he is, in the words of the prime minister, Mr Cameron, "crossing a Rubicon", by which I take it he means moving too far from the hitherto hallowed principle that the Press must remain unfetttered and free from improper political pressure.

The second charge is that the learned judge has failed to take sufficient account of the role of the police in considering the truly appalling events surrounding the illegal hacking of voicemail messages, especially of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

In his consideration of the relationship between certain officers and the News of the World newspaper, he concludes: "I have seen no basis for challenging at any stage the integrity of the police, or that of the senior police officers concerned." He adds, however, that there was, in relation to the investigation of the allegations of phone-hacking, "a series of poor decisions, poorly executed." (para 78)

On the issue of corruption, Lord Justice Leveson says: "The Inquiry has not unearthed extensive evidence of police corruption nor is there evidence ... that significant numbers of police officers lack integrity ... The notion, as a matter of established fact, that this may be a widespread problem is not borne out. The scale of the problem needs to be kept in proportion." (para 91)

Members of the jury, I now have to ask you to consider your verdict. On Count One, do you find His Honour Lord Justice Leveson guilty or not guilty of seeking to embark on a dangerous path towards State control of the Press?

On Count Two, do you find him guilty or not guilty of underplaying the role of the police in the events that led to the setting up of his Inquiry?

Finally, so that there may be no possible misunderstanding, I should emphasise that I make no allegations myself. I merely present them to you in the spirit of encouraging an informed and dispassionate discussion of the issues involved.

Is Spain on the brink of break-up?

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Robin Lustig | 13:18 UK time, Friday, 23 November 2012

It's just possible that this weekend, one of Europe's most important nations will start to break apart.

The people of Catalonia, the richest region of Spain, will be voting on Sunday in an election which may - and I repeat, may - set them on a path to independence.

Just like Scotland, you may think. Well, no, not really. First because the central government in Madrid is most unlikely to give its approval for the holding of a referendum on Catalan independence, and second because, if the opinion polls are right, there is in Catalonia, unlike in Scotland, a pro-independence majority.

And that's something new. Last September, on Catalonia's national day, huge crowds took to the streets of Barcelona - some estimates put the number as high as two million - to call for independence in an unprecedented demonstration of fury at what is seen here as Madrid's contemptuous, even insulting, attitude towards the people of this immensely proud nation.

In part, this nationalist fervour is a by-product of the European economic crisis. Catalans contribute substantially more to Madrid's coffers than they get back, and, they claim, are being asked to make far bigger financial sacrifices than the central government to meet the demands of Spain's creditors.

Last night, I stood in a magnificent square in the heart of old Barcelona, gazing up at an eternal flame flickering at the top of a soaring metal sculpture. It's a memorial to the Catalan fighters who died fighting to defend the city in 1714, against the besieging Spanish and French armies. Catalan nationalists will tell you that today, nearly 300 years later, they're still fighting for the same cause.

Like their Scottish nationalist equivalents, Catalan independence campaigners insist that their new nation would remain a member of the EU and would be a good neighbour to the country from which it had broken away.

One businessman here told me the relationship between Madrid and Barcelona is like a marriage that has irretrievably failed. But when I asked him if divorce is really the only answer, he replied that unfortunately one of the parties to the marriage is refusing to consider one. Madrid, he said, is simply unable to accept the reality of a partnership that has broken down.

The reason all this matters far beyond Spain's borders is that the Catalans are not the only Europeans itching to form their own independent state. Quite apart from those Scots who favour independence, what about the Corsicans of France, or the Padanians of northern Italy? They will all be watching closely on Sunday.

It's not as if the EU isn't facing enough troubles as it is. There's the new budget to be agreed, and of course there's still a very real prospect of more financial turbulence over Greece's debts and, yes, Spain's too.

The last thing the Spanish government wants is to be thrown into a major constitutional crisis following this weekend's election. Catalan leaders insist they're not spoiling for a fight, but they are insisting on being heard.

If the election results in a clear majority in the regional parliament for parties that favour either full independence or substantially enhanced autonomy - and that's what the opinion polls are suggesting - the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, will be faced with a stark choice.
Either he starts negotiating with the Catalans to see how many of their demands he can meet, or he faces them down and dares them to do their worst.

Right across Europe, many of his fellow EU leaders will be watching anxiously to see which way he jumps.

I'll be on air tonight, Friday, from Barcelona, with an extended report looking ahead to the election and analysing the likely repercussions for the rest of the EU. I hope you'll be able to tune in, or catch up later via iPlayer.

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