Preparing for the UK election with a packed bag: how it feels to be a British Jew.

Elections are always iSUITCASE1mportant but for this British election, it’s personal. On this occasion the outcome will decide whether the UK can continue to be my home.

For me as a liberal minded British Jew, this election is about the future for myself, my family and the Jewish community here as a whole. I know that if Jeremy Corbyn – or one of his allies – becomes Prime Minister then our future in the UK is untenable. I never thought I would revert to the mindset of my forebears who would talk about the necessity of keeping a bag packed – just in case. But that is where I – a formerly Labour- voting, third generation British-born Jew – find myself, as I contemplate the possibility of an institutionally anti-Semitic party leading the Government.

The events of the past year and more, with the litany of anti-Semitic insults and incidents emanating from the Labour Party have been shocking. But what has added salt to the wounds is the way in which many Labour MP’s and their supporters are willing to throw the Jewish community under the bus in pursuit of power under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

For me there is an irony in all this. I always saw the threat to the Jewish community as coming from the right (and on its extremities it still presents a very real danger). But the left was a part of my identity. I felt that belonging to the Labour Party meant being antiracist. I could never stand with a party that was compromised by institutional racism – against any group in society. I supported the Labour Party across decades as it strove to build a more equitable, just and outward-looking society.

Not very long ago I considered Labour supporters as my fellow ideological travelers; we shared the same political DNA. This no longer holds true. Those people who now cheer the Labour Party have betrayed me in exchange for a chance at power with bigots in charge. When it is your group that is being vilified and hung out to dry, the legitimacy of that party to rule no longer exists. Now every time I see a Labour poster I feel like I have been slapped across the face.

My local Labour MP, (Catherine West, Horney & Wood Green) has talked the talk on anti-Semitism, decrying anti-Jewish racism when it hasn’t cost her any political capital. But she has not expended anything in taking a real stand on behalf of the Jewish community and has run to defend Jeremy Corbyn’s position time and again. I see her out campaigning for a Party that if it becomes the government will have me and my community in its crosshairs.

We have seen how Corbyn and his allies in opposition treat us with contempt, and we know that it will only get worse if he wins power. We have watched how the Labour leader initially applauded and then pretended not to see anti-Semitic caricatures painted on walls that stare him in the face, and we have heard him declare that we ‘English Zionists’ fail to understand ‘English irony’.

We have watched how he and his cronies have turned their backs on Jewish MP’s and others who have faced mountains of abuse for pointing out the fact of anti-Semitism, and we have witnessed how they have vilified and bullied those within the Party who’ve sought to highlight anti-Jewish hatred.

The campaign to malign the Jewish community and anyone who complains about anti-Semitism is an almost daily feature of the Labour Party on the campaign trail.  John McDonnell, Corbyn’s right-hand man  has described a former Labour MP who left the party because of his rage at anti-Semitism as a Conservative stooge. In the past couple of days news has come to light of yet another Labour candidate having made an anti-Semitic slur by calling a Jewish council member ‘Shylock’. This is the true ugly face of Corbyn and Co’s politics, as the Labour Party has become a comfortable home for anti-Jewish bigotry.

To those who I used to consider my political bedfellows I have one message – you cannot do a deal with racism. If you stand with the Labour Party, you are standing with a party that is fueling anti-Semitism. And if you tolerate anti-Semitism it is only the start in a long line of hatred that will consume this country.

As a liberal-minded Jew I find myself caught between the extremism of both the Labour and Conservative Parties in their current incarnation.  Neither represent me or my values. I recently joined the Liberal Democrats as I see in them the only expression of true anti-racism and pro-Europeanism. But I am very nervous about what will happen once the votes have been counted on December 12th. Who will be in charge? Will my new party stick to its promise not to put Jeremy Corbyn (and indeed any of his allies) in power? The future feels fragile and uncertain.

I was born lucky, to parents and grandparents who contributed to this society through hard work and service. I was the beneficiary of their professional success, and of the greater openness of British society. I now wonder if that sense of belonging I inherited is illusory.

The coming election is crucial in answering these concerns about my future in the UK. The result will decide whether I need to get that packed bag out of the closet and prepare to use it.

The Benefits of Narrow-mindedness (in podcasting!)

Fotosearch_blindersPodcasts have gone mainstream – that is the inescapable conclusion as audiences for online audio grow exponentially.

‘S Town’ made by the producers of the earlier hit ‘Serial’, has become the latest star in the podcast firmament achieving 10 million downloads in just four days. The series – recorded over 3 years – revolves around the compelling story of John B McLemore, an exceptional and talented middle-aged man from a small town in rural Alabama.

S-Town and Serial have both proved – beyond doubt – that podcasts have mass appeal, and are challenging traditional radio broadcasters for the way in which people access audio programming.

But their broad success hides another potential draw of podcasts – to serve niche groups of listeners which radio stations have traditionally overlooked.

The beauty of podcasts is that they are ideally suited in catering to more select audiences and interest groups. They can narrowcast in contrast to the broad reach of terrestrial radio networks.

Niche podcasts can range far and wide serving a multitude of differing audiences; from those curious about the intricacies of international finance and how money makes the world go round, to others fascinated with astronomy and what makes up the whole universe turn.

Technology has democratized the airwaves (or at least the on-line audio pathways). Anyone with an internet connection, a microphone, a laptop and sound-editing software can theoretically put themselves on the same playing field as NPR, BBC and other established broadcasters.

Such access also means that the quality of the some of the offerings from DIY podcasters is of wildly variable quality. Just as the internet has put ‘fake news’ and respectable reporting on the same platform – so it also allows sub-par podcasts to bracket themselves alongside stellar productions.

If niche interest podcasts are to stand the test of time – as well as stand out amid an increasingly crowded field – they must serve up high quality, focused programming. As more and more podcasts are launched so producing a polished and appealing product becomes increasingly important.

My own experience in producing and editing the World Bank podcast series, ‘Between 2 Geeks’ is illustrative of this trend. Another example of similar programming is ‘Pocket Economics’ made by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Both podcasts are squarely aimed at a particular constituency – in this instance those interested in international development. Both have been made to a high standard – technically and editorially – so they that offer a stimulating, informative and convenient (i.e. not too long) listen.

Podcasts are an ideal medium for numerous other organizations which possess a specific field of expertize, to connect with a particular audience. Think-tanks, universities, even hobbyists, can use this tool to serve – and even reach beyond – existing constituencies, generating new interest and awareness in their areas of expertize.

Additionally audio has the ability to generate an intimate and personal connection with listeners, in a way that largely eludes print and television. Good stories and strong presentation generates loyal audiences. With the right pieces in place, podcasts can create communities and become a tool in joining together like-minded individuals.

But ultimately the loyalty of listeners will not be won with the subject matter alone. Amid the growing chatter of on-line programs, niche podcasters will succeed by ensuring that their content is compelling, conveniently packaged and above all interesting.

Either way, podcasts – both for broad and narrow audiences – are the destination of the future for great audio.

The on-going danger of the Muslim travel ban.

The feeling of victory following the decision by a Federal Appeals Court in upholding the restraining order on Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban is deceptive. The rejection of the now notorious Executive Order (EO) could prepare the ground for a future power grab by the autocratically inclined President.

My reasoning is as follows – it is tragically inevitable that at some stage in the coming weeks, months, or years there will be a terrorist attack somewhere in the US, by an individual claiming to act in the name of Islam. There will similarly be other attacks – in all likelihood more frequent – caused by people who aren’t Muslims but who are inspired by some other fanatical belief (such as neo-Nazi terrorist Dylan Roof) or simple insanity.

But the moment an attack happens at the hands of a Muslim assailant (such as occurred in San Bernardino, or the Pulse nightclub in Florida), Trump will cite the rejection of his Executive Order by ‘so called’ judges as to blame for the bloodshed.

It obviously won’t be important to Trump if such a terrorist is found to have been born in the US, or to have come from one of the countries not cited in the EO. All that will matter to Trump as he stokes the fires of bigotry and fear, is that it will have taken place and that it involved a Muslim.

As he has proven in the past, Donald Trump will appeal directly over the heads of Congress and the judiciary, straight to his core base as a way of intimidating those other branches of government to come to his heel. It is easy to imagine how facts, the Constitution and the law will be swept aside In the midst of such carefully choreographed hysteria.

I tend to dismiss conspiracy theories – and clearly the actions and intentions of Trump are difficult to discern at the best of times. But judging by his erratic and impulsive thought process, it is hard to believe that he alone is the architect of such a strategy – although he would benefit from its outcome.

To guess what lies behind the EO, look no further than its authors Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller. Bannon – ex-Breitbart chief now the White House ‘chief strategist’ has expressed his desire to ‘destroy all of today’s establishment’. Miller a senior White House advisor and alt-right disciple of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, said only days ago on TV, that ‘the powers of our President to protect our country will not be questioned’ (my emphasis). Miller’s interviews on this subject on the weekend political talk-shows, were a case book example of wannabe totalitarianism in action.

One can only conclude that the specter of the Muslim Ban is being weaponized by the White House to sweep away – when the moment presents itself – the checks and balances on the office of the President.

Knowing this is a possibility, what is the best way of dealing with it?

Firstly, we must acknowledge the terrible fact that a terrorist attack by Islamist extremists is likely to occur at some point and at some place in the United States, despite the best efforts of the security services to prevent such an incident. Recognizing this eventuality is not anti-Muslim or racist. Those ISIS inspired killers who have wielded weapons against innocents in Europe and elsewhere, no more represent Muslims than Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City bomber) represented white American Christians. It’s also important to remember that the overwhelming majority of victims of Islamist violence have been Muslims.

Democrat legislators from Chuck Schumer down, must be ready and willing to talk about the possibility of an attack by Islamist inspired terrorists.  But they must do so in the context of emphasizing the anti-democratic intentions of those in the administration who are looking to exploit such an event.

Secondly, responsible politicians and public figures must call out Trump’s manipulations and hypocrisy in ignoring other acts of violence while seeking to highlight attacks carried out by Muslims.  When a far right gunmen shot up a mosque in Quebec killing 6 and injuring 19 worshippers, Trump’s Twitter feed was silent. Yet when a machete-wielding attacker from Egypt injured a soldier in the Louvre in Paris, Trump immediately fired up his account to blame it upon a ‘radical Islamic terrorist’ and warned the US to ‘GET SMART’.

Reminders of Trump’s inconsistency serve to highlight his motivations and hopefully blunt his use of anti-Muslim sentiment as a spear with which to attack established political institutions.

Thirdly, while the immediate danger of a Muslim ban has for the moment receded, there can be no letup in vocal and highly public efforts to oppose it at every opportunity. The spontaneous demonstrations that sprung up at airports around the country, along with the calls by ordinary people to elected officials had a decisive impact in setting back the EO. Any absence of public noise is music to the ears of those seeking to undermine democracy, while legal protest and pressure are critical in repelling autocracy.

Amid all this, those who crave unrestricted power will not give up easily, and they will return, riding on the back of fomented mob rage or in some other form to try to get what they desire. So we must be ready for the next attack, the one after that, and all the others that will inevitably follow.

Living in La La Land

hollywoodFor the past couple of weeks I have been stuck in La La Land – the movie not the state of mind. I’ve already seen it twice, have the soundtrack blasting out from speakers at home, and keep replaying the scenes and tunes on a never ending loop in my head.

For those who have been living under a rock, the Golden Globe winning film, is an old-fashioned musical telling of love and broken hearts alongside the search for stardom.

It is set in present day Los Angeles, with its overabundance of sunshine, and hope.

Emma Stone plays a talented wannabe movie star, alongside Ryan Gosling as the moody Jazz pianist awaiting his big break. They sing, act and dance their way through brightly lit scenes filmed against a cloudless Californian backdrop. The whole movie harks back to another era from Hollywood’s past.

In La La Land the streets are clean, there is no racial disharmony or poverty, and even LA’s notorious traffic jams provide an opportunity for good song and dance.

It self-consciously plays up the motif of life as a stage, where people break out a tune while walking down the street or getting ready to go out to a party.

The movie’s escapism perfectly captures one aspect of the current moment in America. On the screen in La La Land there is optimism, innocence and gentleness. Sitting in a darkened cinema for two hours transports you to a happy place where ambitions can be fulfilled and dreams can become reality.

Apart from the wonderful cinematography, acting and choreography, the reason that La La is such a success is because it is the perfect counterpoint to what exists in the America beyond the silver screen.

In the land of real America no-one is dancing in the streets, or filled with melodies.

How can you be uplifted when the news is filled with X-rated allegations of prostitutes, ‘golden showers’ amid the presence of Donald Trump?

How can you believe the soon to be President will act in the interest of the country when he is more concerned about personally profiting from his business interests above all else?

How safe can you feel when he trashes the country’s own intelligence services, comparing them to Nazi Germany?

How can you also have faith that it will all be OK in the end when Congress (with its Republican majority) helps swing a wrecking ball into the checks and balances meant to prevent Presidential abuses?

Truth is certainly stranger than fiction when the Trump declares his respect for the autocratic election-hacker Vladimir Putin, while simultaneously portraying the free American press as public enemy number one.

The current reality feels like a plot line from an overly dramatic film noir movie – with cut out villains in sharp suits, and breathless plot twists following one after the other in rapid succession.

Maybe the best way of dealing with the hallucinatory goings-on is to treat them like La La Land; as a temporary break from reality. But the looming shadow of Donald Trump is all too real – resembling a horror story scarier than anything to be found at the cinema.

Heading home?

heading-home-foreigndaze-2017A new year and a new phase of life has opened up for the Miron household. Nine and a half years after we left London one overcast August day we’re now planning to return in summer 2017.

The reasons are ostensibly uncomplicated, involving a desire to be close to family and old friends. But coming to this conclusion has been accompanied by a rollercoaster of indecision, doubts, second-thoughts, and further prevarication.

Further postings will – among other things – chart the preparations, reality and long journey (in more ways than one) of going back to the UK – no doubt registering the daze of returning ‘home’ having been overseas. They will also reflect upon the time spent in the US and Israel, as well as relate the many experiences yet to be had.

When I established this blog I titled it ‘Foreigndaze’, reflecting the curiosity and periodic confusion of being outside my native country. In the course of the past decade away a lot has happened. My children have grown from infants to young girls – ingesting the languages, accents, customs and ways of the places we’ve lived. For them the UK is not home, it’s the place they go reconnect with grandparents, cousins, and Cadbury’s chocolate.

For me, the UK has also begun to feel foreign. When I go back it feels exotic. I have to remember to look the right way when stepping into the road to ensure I’m not run over, and have to force myself to alter my vocabulary as appropriate (trousers instead of pants).

This most recent extended jaunt away follows a further 7 years I spent outside the UK when I was younger. But returning on this occasion is different and somehow more significant. It feels as if the once familiar world we inhabited has become foreign.

There have been huge changes in the US and the UK in the course of the past ten years. When we left George Bush was on the way out of office having dug the US into a morass in Iraq and Afghanistan. His Presidency gave way to the stunning reality and hope of Barak Obama – the first man of colour in the White House, and a person who – unlike his predecessor – possessed ample intellect and caution.

Back in 2007, the UK was still governed by the Labour Party and wedded to the idea of the European Union. It ruled over a country that seemingly had no problem embracing notions such as gay marriage and understood that immigration was a symptom of a healthy economy and not a malignancy.

Now both the UK and US are unmoored. Two pronouns sum up all that feels unsettling and ominous: ‘Trump’ and ‘Brexit’. On top of that Israel, a country where I have spent eleven years of my life, also appears to be heading down a similar path where chauvinistic populism is laying siege to tolerance, consensus and basic democratic values.

But rather than just complain and bemoan the fact that the world appears to be going the wrong way down a one way street, I hope this blog will also chart the excitement and challenges of finishing one long adventure outside the UK, and the beginning another within it.

Venturing overseas has brought an array of experiences that my family would never have had if we’d stayed within the comfortable confines of North London. Some of the times have been good, a few truly terrible – but all invaluable.

Preparing to move, to find new jobs, sort out schools, manage finances and attend to all the matters big and small of our transition, are headaches. But along with all of that I plan to ensure that this final portion of time in the US isn’t wasted.

It is a privilege to be here even during these truly disturbing times. Alongside travelling to far corners of this amazing country, I will also take the opportunity to observe the goings-on close-by: at home, with friends and particularly from a certain Oval Office situated just a couple of hundred meters from where I’m writing this blog.

More than anything I hope my postings will serve as a record of a special time, and that they will provoke interest and reaction among those who come along for the literary ride.

People over Product – Ensuring that podcasts are heard.

World Bank bookmark‘A unique partnership to reduce poverty and support development’ – that is the briefest of descriptions of the World Bank’s mission.

A more lengthy explanation would fill an encyclopedia, detailing the kinds of projects the Bank is involved in, from improving sanitation to fighting corruption.

But much as this information is important in describing The World Bank, it also misses a vital and often over-looked component in explaining the institution and in communicating what it does.

That missing element is the ten thousand or so employees who are situated in over one hundred countries around the globe.

The stories of these people, what they do, how they came to work at the World Bank are endlessly fascinating. In my four years with the Bank, I have worked with a financial expert who was once a teacher in rural Ecuador, an anti-corruption specialist who served as a lawyer to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and an administrative assistant who studied medicine in Kosovo.

Those who have come to work at the World Bank arrive with often fascinating personal stories, which says a great deal about them and their talents but also something significant about the institution.

Communicating about The World Bank is normally concerned with explaining program objectives, projects, research, and accomplishments. But without diminishing the critically important work of the Bank in fighting poverty, it is often those working within it who possess an often overlooked and compelling narrative.

With this in mind, I decided to showcase a number of current and former World Bank personnel on subjects unrelated – but sometimes tangentially linked – to their day to day work. I wanted to demonstrate the multi-dimensional and multi-skilled characters who fill the Bank and illustrate that ‘something extra’ about them.

As a result, I sought out people who had authored books, both fact and faction. I interviewed a former administrative assistant who had composed a volume on Cambodian food, as a means of recovering parts of her country’s culture destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. I also spoke to a former World Bank Treasurer who along with his wife, penned a children’s book explaining global trade. Other interviewees included a communications officer writing on the life of women in Iran, a senior researcher’s fictional murder mystery involving Charles Dickens, as well as an action packed thriller set in Somalia, a children’s book involving a mischievous cheetah and a novel ranging across continents involving a cast of characters struggling to deal with poverty.

The edited interviews form individual weekly episodes in a podcast series called ‘Bookmark’the first of which goes out today on the World Bank’s Sound Cloud Channel.

The decision to put them out on-line in an audio format rather than as blogs is deliberate and reflects what I believe is the both the best medium for these interviews and an increasingly important tool for communications.

In previous postings I have written about the growing importance of on-line audio as well as its commercial potential (‘the podcast gold rush’). I have sought to show the mushrooming creativity and huge potential of this medium.

As a communications professional I believe it is vital for large international institutions – like the World Bank – which have a global mission and message, to fully participate in the rapidly expanding realm of on-line audio. But in doing so, the podcasts must be inventive, well produced and most importantly – a good listen.

Communications in the digital age is composed of a seemingly endless range of easily accessible media products. Only by competing with the multitude of other on-line offerings on the quality of the audio rather than worthiness of the institution will it be possible to successfully describe what it is and why it matters.

In the case of the World Bank it is the distinctive experiences (and voices) of the staff that make it stand out – and through them it is possible to more fully tell its story.

In that vein I urge you to listen to ‘Bookmark’, and consider how the people rather than the product can amplify what you do.

To hear the first episode: ‘A Cheetah’s Tale for Children – An Ecologist’s Story from the Plains of Africa’ go to:

You can also find further episodes on Twitter via the hashtag #Bookmarkpodcast

Richard Miron is a Senior Communications Officer for The Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative, and formerly worked for a number of years as  a reporter for the BBC.


An everyday American tragedy

malcom winfellMalcom Winfell was an everyday hero. The 44 year old father of two was a guy who tried to do the right thing in the wrong place and ended up paying for his actions with his life.

Two weeks ago during lunchtime in the parking lot of a shopping mall in Bethesda, Maryland, he and a friend ran to help a woman who’d been shot in an apparent car-jacking. Winfell ended up getting shot himself and dying.

A short time after, a 65 year old woman who was sitting in her car in a nearby supermarket was attacked and killed by the same gunman. He had also murdered his ex-wife outside a high school the previous day.

I was reminded of Malcom Winfell’s death yesterday while running, as I glimpsed the makeshift memorial of flowers and stuffed toys, which marks the spot where he was gunned down. It’s about a thirty minute slow jog from there to my home.

These kind of violent incidents are a part of daily life in the US, and their frequency has an anesthetizing effect. Maybe Malcom Winfell’s death would have passed me by without notice, had it not brushed close to my little corner of the world.

After the gunman had shot Malcom Winfell and was en-route to his next killing, the schools in the vicinity – including the one my daughters attend – imposed a ‘shelter in place’ order. That meant the building was locked down with no comings or goings, until the all clear had been given.

Apart from relief when the incident had passed, I felt – and continue to feel- angry that such a thing could happen. I was infuriated and that my children along with others were forced to shelter because of the madness that allows anyone to get guns with as much ease as library books. This reality means that my daughters have to undergo routine drills which include hiding in closets or getting under their desks and remaining silent, in case of a rampaging armed lunatic.

For me the ultimate culprits of this situation in which thousands die and millions live in fear are the gun lobby, and the spineless politicians in Washington who do its bidding.

I find myself comparing the situation in the US, with Israel where we used to live, and which also has an over-abundance of weapons along with a heightened awareness of security. At the school my daughters attended, there were also security drills, which included them heading down to an underground concrete shelter when an alarm sounded.

This was in case of missile attack from Gaza, Lebanon or further afield. As a parent it was a terrible scenario to contemplate. The first time my wife saw my elder daughter – then aged 3 – wandering hand in hand with her classmates into the shelter, she was reduced to anxious tears.

But I rationalized this reality, and the presence of guns, seeing it as based upon the intractable conflict between Israel and its neighbors.

By contrast, in the US the security situation exists because of the domestic gun industry’s appetite for profit and its selective interpretation of a line from the Constitution. I know of many, many people here who vehemently oppose the proliferation of weapons but who have become fatalistic and impotent in the face of the National Rifle’s Association’s bullying power.

The gun lobby is cynical in exploiting and fueling people’s anxieties about safety. Every time there is yet another massacre of innocents even more weapons are sold. To the lobbyists even more deadly weapons are the answer the scourge of killings wrought by those same guns. Some are now calling for armed guards at all schools, and for teachers to be able to have weapons.

There is a madness to this which I can’t understand and to which too many in the US remain oblivious. People here are no more intrinsically homicidal than others elsewhere. Yet, thanks to the ready availability of guns, the USA has the highest murder rate in the advanced industrialized world.

Last year, I got into a discussion with a gun owner in Vermont, who insisted that such figures were lies, and those who were dying were mostly criminals. For this man, keeping his armory of weapons was a right to be defended at the barrel of a gun.

I grew up in a country – the UK – where most policemen are unarmed, and almost every gun death induces a newspaper headline. That should be the norm everywhere, not a situation in which guns are sanctified.

I understand that weapons occupy a particular place in American society and culture. But that must not mean gun violence becomes a normal part of everyday life.

I can only hope that greater sanity and sense come to bear on this issue to stem the seemingly endless bloodshed.

Tragically, I doubt that will happen any time soon – if ever, but if it does, it will have come far too late for hundreds of thousands of people – including the family of Malcom Winffel.

A fund has been set up to pay for Malcom Winffel’s funeral expenses and to contribute towards his children’s education. For further details go to:

A cold wind blowing through New Hampshire

What could be better for a politics nerd than spending a few days in the cold and snow of New Hampshire following wannabe Presidents of the United States?

That is how I passed the last few days in the run up to the Democratic and Republican Party primaries which are taking place tomorrow.

There’s a saying that while, ‘the people of Iowa pick corn, the people of New Hampshire pick presidents’.  For a small state (45th out of 50 in the US) it has a big role to play in influencing which candidate will represent their party in the electoral contest for the White House.

New Hampshire holds the first primary vote (as opposed to caucus, which takes place in Iowa a week earlier) – and as such is known as a major testing ground for the candidates.

It is therefore a great place to view American politics up close. All the candidates – Democrat and Republican – rush around the state pressing the flesh, kissing babies and trying desperately to ooze empathy and understanding in a monumental effort to impress upon locals that they are the best man or woman for the job.

In my forty eight hours in New Hampshire I got the full immersive experience seeing three Republican candidates (John Kasich, Ted Cruz and Chris Christie) at small town hall meetings, and also attending a major Democratic gathering which hosted speeches by both Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

At this time, New Hampshire is crammed – seemingly at every corner – with campaign posters, activists, journalists, and political obsessives like myself who have come to witness the action.

For me, the experience was telling in what it said about both about American democracy , American society, and the candidates themselves.

In no particular order these are my observations:

    • A carnival of American democracy.

Those aspiring for the office of leader of the most powerful nation on earth have to face the voters in small and intimate settings and make their case to be the candidate. I saw John Kasich – Governor of Ohio in a draughty barn take questions for almost an hour on issues ranging from funding for schools, to internet access in rural areas, as well as American involvement in Syria. People had turned up (no invitations necessary) despite the falling snow from throughout New Hampshire as well as neighbouring states, to ask their questions and get a measure of the candidate. This speaks to a facet of American society that is sometimes missed from overseas. America is a society founded on what was in the 18th century the revolutionary idea that leaders are there to serve the people, not the other way around. This streak of accountability still runs deep, and the primaries are a powerful demonstration that this mindset is alive and well. It is uplifting to see this democratic spirit in meeting rooms and community centers of 21st century small town New Hampshire, and is a testament to one of the great strengths of the USA.

  • The meekness of the media

That spirit of holding potential leaders accountable may be observed by ordinary people but it does not seem to extend to the media. Despite the wall to wall attention on TV, there was an almost deferential regard for the candidates. Watching Jake Tapper – one of CNN’s main heavyweight hosts – interviewing Donald Trump was akin to witnessing someone being beaten with a feather. Tapper asked Trump gently about a statement he’d made calling for a return to waterboarding and methods ‘a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding’ for suspected Islamist militants – despite such actions being war crimes under US law. The mogul responded with a potted answer about changing the law once he was President, while confirming that he was ‘fine’ with ‘beyond waterboarding’. That answer seemingly satisfied Tapper who then moved to more urgent matters such as the mathematics of the forthcoming electoral battle in New Hampshire. There was no follow up, rather Trump was allowed to run rhetorically riot unchallenged. Tapper’s flaccid interviewing is par for the course with the mainstream cable and network news outlets. They seem more concerned with losing access to the ‘stars’ like Trump than the pursuit of journalistic inquiry (as happened to Fox after Megan Kelly had the temerity to question Trump’s offensive comments about women).

  •  The Republican divide – between right and hard right 

The USA is deeply split not only between left and right, but also within those respective camps, reflecting a deep sense that something has gone wrong with the political system and the society it is meant to serve. On the Republican side, there is a battle between the hard right insurgents and those of the more moderate ‘establishment’. I attended a rally for Ted Cruz – the banner holder for the evangelical and ‘tea party’ wings of the party. In the packed gym of an elementary school, he spent just as much time railing against the Republican establishment as he did against President Obama.  The mood of the audience was angry, booing mentions of Washington DC and calling for Democratic Party opponents to be, ‘put in jail’. There was a sense from these people – overwhelmingly white, less well-off and from outside the main cities – that the America they knew had been taken from them by sell-out politicians from the left and right, and that they had to fight (electorally) to get it back.


  • The Democrats – a battle between the head and the heart

That sense of disillusionment is also alive among Democrats, although not as deeply or angrily felt among Republicans. At a major Democratic Party event held in the city of Manchester, Hillary and Bernie Sander’s supporters sat on opposite sides of an indoor stadium chanting and waving banners for their respective champions. Sander’s followers – overwhelmingly youthful – spoke of him in breathless terms normally reserved by teenagers boy bands. For them Bernie was the real deal, who spoke in simple, uncompromising terms about what was needed to make the country right in the face of growing economic inequality, foreign adventurism and more. No matter that he’s unelectable as President, for them, he is authentic particularly in comparison to Hilary.  When asked what they would do if she became candidate , a group of college students said they would probably choose not to vote. There is no doubt that seeing Hilary in action is also to witness her vulnerability. Her speech hit all the right buttons, but even its apparent passion seem manufactured and market tested. With her experience, polish and power she should have swatted Bernie to one side by now, but instead she is in the trenches of a hard fought political battle – and this is even before she has to face the real opposition of the Republican candidate for President.

  •  The only sure thing is uncertainty

There is a sense in talking to people who have witnessed many Presidential contests that this one is somewhat different. There is a real battle underway about the future of the country – not just about policy but also about its very essence. Moving between Republican and Democratic supporters is to enter different cultural universes, where attitudes – on homosexuality, guns, religion and a host of other issues – sit in direct opposition to each other. Political commentators have been predicating the fall of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders since they first appeared as candidates – and yet these two opposites continue to flourish. The opinion polls which once could be depended upon to provide some guide to what will happen have been confounded by the unpredictability of the voters.

Witnessing the fight for New Hampshire primary is an education in the both the positives and negatives of American electoral contests. It is also an eye-opener on the raw divisions in American society. And while every election is important, this one is highly significant given the uncertainty about the state of the country and where it is heading. So in anticipation of the vote tomorrow and of the others to come, I am fastening my seat belt for the rough and eventful ride in the coming year

The Podcast Gold Rush

golden-microphoneFool’s gold or a golden age? These are the two divergent views on podcasts that are being voiced as on-line audio garners more and more attention.

As explained in a previous blog I sit firmly with the ‘golden age’ viewpoint. Podcasts represent the greatest opportunity for accessible high quality audio since BBC Radio began broadcasting from a makeshift studio in central London ninety five years ago.

That may be a slight exaggeration, but the development of smartphones, growing access to the internet, and the innovations of digital recording technology are unleashing a new bonanza of audio production.

But firstly to address the detractors. Jessi Hempel from Wired sees the podcast phenomenon as overblown with an uncertain future. ‘Like those blogs of yesteryear,’ she writes, ‘the promise feels huge. But as that brief era also taught us, the golden age doesn’t last.’

She cites an estimate of 180,000 active podcasts, suggesting that many of them are like the prospectors of the Wild West who ended up with handfuls of gravel as opposed to the riches of their dreams. She also contends that most people still haven’t figured out ‘how to listen to them yet’, and that podcasts are hard to share given the lack of user-friendly platforms that would make on-line audio simple to produce and be heard. As a result Hempel says, ‘only 17% (my italics) of Americans have ever listened to a podcast’.

Only 17%! That amounts to 55 million people – a figure that would make most radio executives weep with joy. In addition that number which dates from last year is an increase of 16 million or 5% from 2014 – a rate of growth that is the stuff of fantasy for those same executives.

This phenomenal expansion is being driven by a combination of new technology and innovative content.

Podcasts cater to a wide variety of listeners’ interests as well as allowing access cut to the convenience of the consumer. Content can be disseminated in whole programs or alternatively smaller bite size segments (The Moth). They can be heard in weekly episodes or binged upon marathon sessions (Serial).

Digital technology also means that there is a far more ‘democratic’ environment for program makers to produce and broadcast their wares. Where once studios, a radio frequency and sound technicians were required, now there is only need for a computer, an internet connection and a basic understanding of user-friendly software.

New technology also means that listeners need only a mobile phone or computer to hear the podcasts.

And where America is currently leading in popularizing on-line audio the rest of the world is likely to follow. According to recent research global access to smartphone technology is exploding with 7.1 billion in 2014, compared to approximately 7.5 billion a year later. Most of those new phones are being taken up by people in the developing world with the greatest growth in the Asia/Pacific Region and Africa.

All of this goes to highlight the vast untapped riches of podcasts, not only in the US and other developed countries but around the world.

Savvy investors, broadcasters and media networks are waking up to the possibilities – commercial and otherwise – of this new audio landscape.

Just this week The Economist reported that ‘an industry to support podcasting is developing’.  It cited a number of examples of new media companies devoted to hosting and monetizing on-line audio.

But the podcasting ‘industry’ is in its infant stages and as such it is destined for big shake-ups.  Writing in Nieman Lab two months ago, Joshua Benton laid out his assessment for the future of this newly popular medium which he summed up as, ‘exciting, evolving, and trouble for incumbents’.

Benton foresees many of the current podcasts falling by the wayside leaving a more modest number of polished productions, along with a few commercial ‘platforms’ upon which the audio can be made and uploaded.

Amid all the uncertainty of this nascent medium, one of the few certainties seems to be that as it develops, many podcasts that exist today will face into obscurity.

Those quality podcasts that remain and stand out, then have a chance of hitting the rich seam of large audiences. They will also create usher a new era of inventiveness and creativity for audio. That will prove equally true of commercial and public service productions for listeners from Los Angeles to Lagos.

So for any doubters – the gold age is for real and there are riches to be won for those pioneers who venture into this new and exciting territory.

Trying to remember the departed not the disease

Over a decade after my mother’s death I consider the lingering effects of the illness that plagued her life


My Mum’s handbag normally contained a few perennial items: balloons, sunglasses and wine gums (candies). She kept the balloons to give out to her grandchildren, great-nephews and nieces along with other kids she encountered; the sunglasses were an accessory she never did without even in the depths of winter, and the wine gums were the occasional treat she allowed herself.

Mum was idiosyncratic, and vaguely eccentric. She possessed the cut glass accent of an English Duchess – the result of childhood elocution lessons, and favoured long flowing skirts (particularly in summer) accompanied with beaded necklaces and glittering rings.

She died at the age of 62, fourteen years after my father who she always adored. The memories of her from childhood and adulthood are crystal clear, and yet at the same time they are clouded. They are blurred by the illness that she suffered for most of her life, and which also cast a long shadow over all our family.

In 1977 Mum was hurt in a house fire, which inflicted serious burns on her body and also wounded her deep within. In the wake of the accident she developed depression and then manic depression – latterly renamed bipolar disorder.

My childhood was punctuated by her periods of dark depression when she would retreat into her bedroom, emerging only occasionally as a teary-eyed and wisp-like presence. By contrast during her manic times, she was a tornado of activity, mowing the lawn at dawn, cleaning the house from top to bottom, and speaking at lightning speed as her mouth attempted to keep pace with her overactive mind.

For my Dad, my brother, sister and myself, it was generally disorientating, sometimes frightening and occasionally funny – such as the manic phase when she went on a shopping spree for Edwardian carriage clocks, which we then had to return to local antique shops.

My Mum’s illness was also our family secret. We didn’t discuss it outside the house, lending it the air of something dark and shameful.

There came a time when my Mum began to talk about it, and we took our cue from her. But mental illness is hard to discuss not only because it is painful and a social stigma persists, but also because it is so hard to explain. For those who have not experienced it at first hand, it is impossible to convey how confusing it is, not just for the sufferer but also for those caught in the immediate vicinity. The boundaries of normality become twisted and distorted, in behavior, routine and family dynamics.

For me, it was like an incendiary device going off in the heart of our family. My mother bore the brunt of the blast from her illness, but its effects spread like a destructive shock wave through us all. Family life was always held hostage by the whims of the disease. One day for no apparent reason she could be transformed from a happy smiling and dependable parent, into a mass of anxiety, fatigue and tears needing gentle care.

From my long years of observation I can only liken mental illness to cancer of the soul. That mutant force fought a relentless battle with my Mum for her essence and character. She battled the illness, trying not to let it win, and dictate how she should act, and who she would be. There were times of peace when it was kept at bay thanks to a delicate balance of medications and good fortune. But there were other long periods when the illness overcame her, wreaking its chaos upon us all.

In recalling my Mum, almost eleven years to the day since her death, I find the memories of her illness intruding upon my thoughts about the person she was, and the times we had together. We argued and bickered as a mother and child do. But there were many good times, when I got to fully enjoy her lively and loving presence.

I remember wandering through Regents Park, with her and my then girlfriend – now wife – drinking tea and gossiping as she took photos of the musicians playing on the bandstand. I recall the gentle hugs she gave and her affectionate reprimand to me not to hug her back ‘like a sack of potatoes’, and I remember her inexhaustible energy for walking in all weather and all places including through central London and the Egyptian desert.

But the problem is that I have to fight hard to get to those good memories, navigating a path between the pain, confusion and fear that the disease brought. It was like an ingrained stain that spread beyond her and that is still very hard to remove.

Bi-polar was her nemesis – and ours – to the very end, over a decade ago. She became physically unwell with a difficult to diagnose condition. But she was also in the midst of a severe manic phase, when her mind moved seamlessly between real and imagined thoughts. The doctors missed what was there, and she died. Such tragic occurrences aren’t uncommon in people with mental illnesses.

Today like every day I remember my Mum with love, but I also continue to hate her illness with a vengeance for what it robbed from her and our all family.

To know more and/or to donate go to:

Bipolar UK

The Depression & Bipolar Support Alliance (USA)