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King Obama? The media are going overboard, says Mehdi Hasan

The press coverage of the US president's state visit to Britain is bordering on the ridiculous.

I blogged in the weekend about Andrew Marr's soft interview with Barack Obama in the White House ahead of his state visit to the UK. There were plenty of journalists willing to take potshots at Marr's giddiness and obvious excitement at being in the presence of "The One".

But newspaper journalists, commentators, pundits, broadcasters and bloggers alike have been fawning in their coverage of the US president since his arrival on our shores on Monday night.

It's a point that hasn't been lost on the more Obama-sceptic press corps back home in the United States. From USA Today:

President Obama traded a cozy pub for a spacious palace Tuesday, but the reception was the same: he was treated like royalty.


After basking amid one of the most affectionate audiences of his presidency Monday in Ireland, Obama arrived here to be feted by a queen and three generations of princes.

He and first lady Michelle Obama were welcomed at Buckingham Palace, where they were given a six-room suite last occupied by Prince William and his bride, Kate Middleton, on their wedding night.

They were fawned over at Westminster Abbey, greeted warmly at No 10 Downing Street and, finally, lauded at the first state dinner thrown here for a US president in eight years.

I never thought I'd find myself in agreement with the City AM editor, Allister Heath, who tweeted:

Why is the UK media treating Barack Obama's visit with such deference? Feels like being in some 1950s BBC newsreel on trip by royal family

Forget Afghanistan or Libya, climate change or Middle East peace -- the real issues have been table tennis and the Downing Street barbecue. Take the BBC, the voice of the establishment, which, on its live blog, notes:

Now the news you've all been waiting for. After the grandeur of last night's state banquet at Buckingham Palace, we are told the Downing Street barbecue is a little more down to earth. Guests are apparently tucking into British sausages, beefburgers, Kentish lamb chops, corn on the cob, Jersey Royal potatoes, with tomato, mozarella and basil salad, then summer berries and ice cream to top it off. Sounds tasty.

Doesn't the "leader of the free world", the president of the globe's only remaining superpower, the commander-in-chief of the mightiest armed forces on earth, deserve proper scrutiny? Rigorous and serious coverage? Yes, he is a great speaker and a cool dude. Yes, he isn't George W Bush. But he is a foreign president who has done some pretty dodgy things (from helping undermine Copenhagen to doubling the number of drone strikes inside Pakistan). Or are all these issues off-limits?

As I type this blog post, I'm watching Obama and Cameron on television, in shirt sleeves and ties, grilling sausages in the No 10 garden. This is what geopolitics has been reduced to; this is what the "special relationship" is all about. Gimme a break . . .

The cult of Obama, especially in the British media, is deeply dispiriting. Having said all this, I'm now off to Westminster Hall to see the US president address both Houses of Parliament on issues unrelated to ping-pong and barbecues and I'm sure I won't be able to stop myself from going all weak-at-the-knees when he starts speaking. Agh!

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times