BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Susan Watts

Archives for September 2009

A quiet bombshell on Copenhagen climate treaty?

Susan Watts | 10:05 UK time, Tuesday, 22 September 2009

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All eyes are on New York today, for the latest political moves ahead of the make-or-break conference in Copenhagen in December seeking a global climate deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

And last night it looked as if Danish prime minister and host of the talks, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, was about to drop a quiet bombshell.

He was expected to make clear that he is no longer looking to Copenhagen to deliver a "treaty", that is a document with legally enforceable emissions cuts, but only "a political declaration" - an altogether different outcome.

But overnight reaction from European countries has now put a question mark over that, suggesting that he may now defer his announcement.

Downgrading from a treaty to a political declaration would be a bitterly disappointing result for those pinning their hopes on Copenhagen, despite all the warning signs that a meaningful deal looks perilously close to impossible.

Yet, a political declaration may still be worth having, if the detail is right.

If it includes a line committing countries to agreeing emissions cuts say by the middle of next year, then it may still be effective.

If not, then the politicians risk going home thinking they have achieved a deal, but one that proves empty and undermines the carbon price.

Granted, everything is still "in the balance" as the Miliband brothers put it two weeks ago.

And there are positive signs. Later on Tuesday, Chinese president Hu Jintao is expected to say enough on China's emissions plans that it can stake a claim to be leading the world.

At least that is the way his speech was trailed last night by the UN's senior climate negotiator, Yvo de Boer.

After all, someone has to fill the leadership vacuum.

President Barack Obama is struggling with his climate bill at home. This is in second place to getting healthcare reforms passed. And even if health goes well, and earns Obama political capital from unexpected success, hopes of formulating a meaningful US offer in time for Copenhagen - with real figures on emissions cuts - will remain on a knife-edge.

The problem is that all this "high-level" political activity has a downside as well as an upside.

If prime ministers and presidents get involved, then they can at least negotiate with real authority - without having to constantly "phone home". But they also bring their own staff, with the risk that they edge to one side the climate negotiators with knowledge of the detail that is needed for a deal to have an impact in the real world.

Because it is the real world that sets a time limit on these talks - and marks them out from other global discussions.

Leaders of the world's largest economies have accepted scientific advice that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought to stay below 2C - defining this as the threshold into dangerous climate change.

So success or failure at Copenhagen has one simple test - is the deal enough to secure that 2C limit?

If the talks fail, it gets tougher to fix the problem later, because climate scientists are now confident that for a reasonable chance of keeping temperature rise below 2C, the concentration of greenhouse gases should not go beyond 450ppm of carbon dioxide equivalent.

And to do this, they say, global carbon emissions must peak within the period 2015-2020 and decline rapidly after that.

Hence the race against time, and the need for the detail to be right.

The return of swine flu is early, but not unexpected

Susan Watts | 18:48 UK time, Thursday, 17 September 2009

Don't put away the hand gel... swine flu has returned. It now looks as if we are at the start of the second wave of H1N1 pandemic flu in the UK, earlier than hoped.

The number of cases last week in England is estimated to be just over 5000, compared with around 3000 in the week before. And in Scotland the numbers have doubled in the last week, from around 3300 to just over 6000.

The Chief Medical Officer for England, Sir Liam Donaldson, described the rise as "one of a number of straws in the wind that suggest we might be seeing the start of an upturn".

These straws include a rise in people in hospital with swine flu in England to 143 from 132 in the previous week, a rise in reports to GPs and a handful of outbreaks in schools (two in South Yorkshire, one in Carlisle, one in the North East, and two in London).

This early rise, following the return to school in England two weeks ago, is not unexpected, but it is early.

"We would naturally have hoped for a bit more breathing space", Sir Liam told journalists at his weekly flu update this afternoon.

The early rise steps up the pressure on the national vaccine programme. Sir Liam said he is eager to get this started, to protect the small minority for whom the virus can prove very serious. Swine flu remains a mild disease in most people.

And the good news on the vaccine front is that trials suggest one dose is enough to offer protection. This makes sense of the government's announcement today that it's prepared to donate ten per cent of UK vaccine supply to the developing world. The White House made a similar pledge this afternoon.

This follows barely disguised pleas from the World Health Organisation that well-off countries do more to help countries where access to vaccine could prove vital for millions of people who are already sick, have poor nutrition and limited access to basic health care.

Sir Liam drew attention to rising swine flu numbers elsewhere in the northern hemisphere - notably in Eastern Europe and the USA - which has seen a significant increase in the past few weeks

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Sir Liam said a colleague recently returned from the US visited one college campus with 2000 students sick with the virus. This is clearly ringing alarm bells here. The UK might reasonably be expected to follow the US pattern of disease - as it did in the first wave in the Spring. Though the expert view apparently remains that we may not see a second peak in UK cases before mid October.

Alan Turing: "We're sorry, you deserved so much better"

Susan Watts | 10:19 UK time, Friday, 11 September 2009

6:41 am Friday September 11th 2009

"A little bit stunned" was the phrase that computer scientist John Graham-Cumming used as he told me about his 'phone call from Prime Minister Gordon Brown last night.

He had been called at around 8.30pm, and told that Mr Brown would like to speak to him - about his petition on the Downing Street website asking for an apology for Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician and code breaker whose work on the German Enigma codes is credited with shortening the second World War.

The prime minister told John that the way Alan Turing had been treated was "an injustice that ought to have been undone long ago".

Turing was injected with female hormones as punishment for a conviction for gross indecency in 1952 - when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK. He committed suicide two years later.

The official apology appeared at around 9.30pm.

"The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely - in effect tried for being gay. "

The detailed response describes Turing's work at the Bletchley Park code breaking centre in Milton Keynes.

"It is no exaggeration to say that without his outstanding contribution, the history of WWII could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. "

The response is signed by Gordon Brown - and concludes: "So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better."

Alan Turing's three nieces were stunned as well, when I broke the news to them. The youngest, Shuna Hunt, said "that is incredible - gosh I feel I am in a dream".

Middle niece, Janet Robinson, said "That is really good news".

And the eldest, Inagh Payne, said that Alan's treatment had indeed been an injustice.

At last look there were approaching 30,000 signatories to the petition - all of whom will now get an email, apparently, with the Prime Ministers response. I think that for John Graham-Cumming, what he has achieved has yet to sink in. He will hope that as well as reaffirming the reputation of Alan Turing, this outcome will help to raise public awareness of the role of all of those whose work at Bletchley Park contributed not only to shortening WWII, but to the birth of computing too.

A stark message from the Milibands on climate change

Susan Watts | 19:26 UK time, Tuesday, 8 September 2009

It was a double act with a certain air of the hastily convened about it. The foreign secretary, David Miliband, and his brother, Climate Change Secretary Ed, together sounded the alarm this morning over the state of talks leading to the crunch Copenhagen meeting in December, which is aimed at agreeing a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

The pair stood together as a symbol, they said, not only of the importance of the issue, but because it must be tackled across government - stressing that climate change traverses not only environmental concerns, but is of economic, national security and foreign policy significance too.

Well that much is not new...

Their joint message today was however a stark one: "There is a real danger that the talks scheduled for December will not reach a positive outcome and there is an equal danger that in the run up to Copenhagen people don't wake up to the danger of failure until it's too late," David Miliband said.

The problem, he said, is not that the need is less urgent, or that the technology is not there with solutions, but that the issue is a hugely complex one, that the world faces other pressing global issues, and that there remains suspicion between the developed and developing world about each others' motivations and intentions.

Europe, he said, must now unite in a joint effort. He is due to hold talks with France, and Sweden, which holds the current EU presidency, to stress the point later this week.

And he used a curious phrase, saying that Europe has a potential not only to lead, but to be a "force multiplier" for the negotiations, by tapping into its political friendships. Well I think I know what he means...

So what of rumours of a special deal between the US and China that's supposed to rescue Copenhagen, as other countries coalesce around it?

It is surely not helped by the difficulties that US climate legislation is currently facing in Congress.

I asked to what extent the US problems had prompted today's call for Europe to take a lead. The foreign secretary said the plea "reflects the fact that we are worried".

But is this gloomy prognosis really justified? Perhaps this is some kind of reverse bluff.

Only yesterday, the new Japanese government tripled its emissions reduction commitment, to 25% on 1990 levels by 2020 - a move which David Miliband himself described this morning as "very significant indeed".

On the other hand, as we heard form commentators on Newsnight earlier this month it is now recognised that a "political surge" is needed to re-energise the talks.

So if this morning's briefing was the UK's attempt at that, it'll be interesting to see who else might now follow.

More interviews with Turing's relatives

Susan Watts | 17:13 UK time, Monday, 7 September 2009


... and here, as promised in my last entry, are some excerpts from those interviews about Alan Turing, with surviving family members Janet Robinson and Inagh Payne (daughters of his brother John - with first wife Joan) and Dermot Turing (son of his brother John - with second wife, Beryl).

First, Janet Robinson - the youngest of Alan's three nieces. She made me laugh when I asked if any of her family had followed in his footsteps:

"Absolutely not - on my side of the family the brains definitely skipped our generation. My eldest daughter Lisa studied computational maths at university, but then decided she had a vocation with children, and went on to be a primary school teacher ."

Earlier she had mentioned that Lisa's maths teacher apparently sometimes had to go home and work out how she had got the right answer, often by a route that was different to the rest of her class.

Janet was 7-years-old when Alan Turing died, and she recalled the day of his funeral :

"I remember my father in his dressing room getting ready. Obviously it was a very important occasion, every fleck of dust and everything was brushed away. I found this to be an exciting experience. It was like getting ready for a party. I sort of danced around. I had some inkling that it was a sad occasion, but being a particularly thick child I didn't respond quite as one would expect. "

She would like to see wider recognition of his contribution: "A lot of people haven't heard of him."

So, I asked, is this a timely moment to reflect on the man, and his work at Bletchley Park?

"This generation is obviously moving on and the next generation, they need to know what happened in the war, and how all these people at Bletchley brought things together and how the computer came about. Quite a lot of time has gone by and if any more time slips away the people who were around at that time won't be here to remember him."

I asked what she thinks lies at the root of this lack of recognition - the need to keep secret the work at Bletchley Park, or official attitudes at the time to his homosexuality?

"I think it was more the need to keep the work of Bletchley Park secret, because basically during those thirty post-war years we had not any inkling. We knew he did war work, but that was it, we didn't know anything else."

Alan Turing's nephew, Dermot Turing, told Newsnight producer Sam McAlister how he felt about his family connections, and the latest calls for public recognition of his legacy:

"We're always very proud to have been related to Alan Turing. It's part of the family folklore, and you can't get away from it. In a strange sort of way I think we're touched and honoured by it. It's not our personal achievements, but it's still very nice to be associated with it in some way."

He supports the aims of the petition.

"Yes I do, though to an extent I've got slightly mixed feelings about it. Certainly I think what was done to Alan Turing was absolutely disgraceful, but I'm measuring that against early 21st Century values - and I think that at the time it may not have seemed so extraordinary.

"But I think that things move on, and for example we've seen some apologies given for treatment of soldiers in the First World War and if you put it in that kind of context I think a re-evaluation is appropriate and therefore I'd support it."

"I can't see why the UK government would not wish to treat Alan Turing as one of the citizens that they are willing to laud and see as a true representative of Britain... certainly a patriotic individual who did his best for the country and was prosecuted for something that frankly doesn't seem to have any modern relevance, and I think it would be good, in a modern world, to reflect that."

Dermot did not meet Alan Turing himself, but talked about the family stories.

"Well there are plenty of stories about how eccentric he was and I think sometimes that gets a bit blown out of proportion. I mean obviously he was a very unusual person. But talking to people who met him and worked with him you get a feeling of a very human person as well somebody who really wasn't anything as eccentric or difficult to get along with as perhaps some of the stories might imply.

"Therefore I think to see him as a family member, as a human being, is probably a bit easier for us than maybe it is for people who read the books or see the films or who have come across him, for example as mathematicians or computer scientists do in the classroom... he can possibly seem a bit remote and a bit strange if that's your only encounter."

I asked him how the family feels now about the attitude of the establishment at the time.

"I think we have just sort of accepted it as what happened, rather than trying to be too judgemental about it. I think it's easier for me personally to say that because I didn't have to go through all the trauma of it when it was going on. My father and Alan's mother were obviously very upset about the whole business - I'm not sure that she ever really understood it properly.

"It's been something that has always been there in the background. We've never really talked about it very deeply because it's the sort of thing that would have upset the people who were personally involved at the time."

Alan Turing's eldest niece, Inagh Payne, was 18-years-old when he died and has clear memories of him :

"I can remember Uncle Alan as very, very kind, very generous, untidy, rather unkempt. He had a stammer. He had a very high-pitched voice with a sort of whinnying type laugh, but he was always very generous and used to give us lovely presents.

"I remember once when I was about eight he gave me this parcel and it was an iron. When I opened it I burst out laughing, and I felt so remorseful after that because I think I must have hurt his feelings. But it was very unusual. I was very undomesticated at any rate. But to be given an iron at that age. "

One of the lesser known aspects of his life was Alan Turing's fondness for running - narrowly missing out on representing his country at the Olympics because of a knee injury, Janet told me. Inagh recalls an outing by way of compensation:

"He took my sister Shuna and myself to the Olympic games when we were very little, and we watched all these runners and everything... but the highlight for me, and for Shuna I think as well, was going out to have mushrooms on toast afterwards. That was great."

So what does she think of the petition?

"I think definitely that he should be given all the recognition for what he did during the war. It's so sad that he was persecuted and hounded at the end of his life. I'm sure it must have absolutely ruined his life. It was absolutely miserable. They injected him with hormones and goodness knows what."

I asked her if the family thought that this experience had contributed to his untimely death.

"Well we don't really talk about it, though I'm sure most of the family would think that yes it did, though my grandmother always maintained that it wasn't suicide - that it was a complete accident."

I asked Janet what it was about Alan Turing that future generations should remember, and why?

"Alan had the most amazing brain. There are wonderful stories about things he did as a child which were totally off the wall and unusual, and this brain was used to the greater good. But also he was a very deserving person. He was very, very kind, very truthful and quiet and unassuming. I think he was somebody special."

Turing relatives recall 'Uncle Alan'

Susan Watts | 15:23 UK time, Friday, 4 September 2009

Thursday seemed like a good day to pick up on the story of the growing petition aimed at securing a posthumous apology for computing pioneer and code-breaker Alan Turing.

And it proved to be a real treat.

A potential problem for the petition's organiser, John Graham-Cumming, was working out who the government might apologise to.

Then yesterday, Newsnight interviewed three of Turing's surviving relatives - and found that they all support the computer scientist's attempt to raise Turing's profile.

It turns out that Alan Turing's brother, John, had four children - three daughters, Inagh, Shuna and Janet with his first wife Joan, and a son, Dermot, with his second wife Beryl.

You can hear a little from Inagh, Janet and Dermot in our film from last night, which you can watch here.

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And I am digging out the tapes now so that I can reproduce more of those interviews on this blog later.

In the meantime, I thought you might like to hear from Shuna Hunt, the middle daughter, who also spoke to me yesterday, though too late to appear in last night's programme.

She has vivid memories of "Uncle Alan".

"He was a very kind, gentle person and had a terrible stammer. It's sad to think that if he had lived now, he would have been celebrated as a hero... but he had to hide everything. And it was all terribly shameful. "

"It's also sad that at one time I would talk about him and people were interested... but the younger generation look blank...

"During the war, because of his inside information, he became convinced that we were about to be invaded... so he buried the family silver near Bletchley Park and it's still there, because he forgot where he'd buried it... He was the stereotypical boffin. He used to chain his mug to the radiator at Bletchley Park so that no one ran off with it."

Shuna told me that she still has a Teddy Bear of his:

"It was called Porgy. He bought it for himself when he was an adult, and it used to sit in the chair when he was at Cambridge. He used to practice his lectures in front of Porgy."

"... It's still amazing to think that the family didn't even know what he did in the war until it came out in the 1970s."

More from Inagh, Janet and Dermot to follow...

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