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'Everything is in ruins'

The war with Russia last August has devastated Georgia: work and even food are now scarce. And Georg

A late autumn afternoon in Tbilisi. A group of middle-aged men, neatly dressed in yellowing shirts and fading suits, are playing backgammon under the trees in a square in the Armenian quarter. Several have well-groomed moustaches. The atmosphere is jovial: Alexander, a proud man in his late fifties, dominates the group with his loud laughter. Were it not for the derelict shells of buildings behind them, this could be any Mediterranean capital.

The war with Russia last August did not come near the capital, but this part of Tbilisi looks bombed out all the same. What happened? It's just decay, they say. Much worse than during the Soviet era. "Just look at the state of the buildings," says Alexander. "It was never like that before. No one has work." He used to run a factory that made mechanical parts, but is now one of the long-term unemployed. He is an educated man, proud of his flawless Russian (Georgian is his native language). In Soviet times he con sidered himself middle class. Now he feels poor and humiliated.

Meanwhile, his country has backed itself into a corner. On Tuesday the second round of international talks on security in the Caucasus opened in Geneva; discussions were described as "difficult" and the Tbilisi-Moscow relationship is as tense as ever. But a change of leader in Washington might make a difference: President Saa kashvili will soon have lost his chief ally in the west, George W Bush. A populist and opportunist, Saakashvili is dismissed by many Georgians as too hot-headed, and organised protests are planned against him.

After ousting Eduard Shevardnadze in November 2003, Mikhail Saakashvili, now 40, helped to attract millions in foreign funding. He was perceived as being a pro-western reformer and democrat. The Americans gave $22m during the war in August and promised another $1bn in September. That came on top of $1.6bn in outside investment in 2007, much of it from the US, a 40 per cent increase on the previous year. The foreigners are to blame for this whole mess, Alexander asserts, because they prop up dodgy regimes. "Our government is more corrupt than any other in the world. And the US and the UK support them in their corruption."

The American money has not benefited the likes of Alexander. To reach the capital's Armenian quarter from the international airport there is only one route: straight down President George W Bush Street, the only pothole-free highway in town, festooned with pictures of a waving Bush. But Alexander can't afford to travel abroad and doesn't expect to be able to find the money any time soon, so he has never driven along the route. Local officials have used the foreign money to buy up the best property and evict the poor, he says. His own house is at risk: it belonged to his great-great-grandmother and all his family were born there. Some people he knows survive by stealing, he says - a loaf here, some supermarket food there. He claims to have friends in prison who are desperate to stay because inside they don't go hungry.

“Our government is more corrupt than any other . . . and the US and the UK support them in their corruption”

Nana, 44, a biologist, is strolling through a nearby park opposite the parliament building with her four-year-old son. This is where Saa kashvili's supporters celebrated with fireworks when he forced Shevardnadze's resignation in 2003. "Things feel uncomfortable now," she says. "I'm not frightened at the moment but I feel as if we are not going in the right direction." She worries about her son's future. Eighty per cent of the intelligentsia have lost their jobs, she says, and no one needs scientists in the way they did in the Soviet era. "I am lucky - I still have a job. Most people I know are out of work. I don't think this problem with Russia will be resolved peacefully and I find that very upsetting. Saakashvili was wrong to use violence [against the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia]. It was not the right way to respond. I feel as if we are not being told the facts. This situation is benefiting someone, but you can't quite work out who. I do agree that we should fight to keep these territories because they are ours and not Russia's. But it should be a diplomatic fight, not a military one. Why kill people over something like this?"

The one hope, she says, is the popular female politician Nino Burjanadze, a 44-year-old pro-democracy campaigner who was briefly acting president before Saakashvili took office. Burjanadze has already aligned herself with the protests against Saakashvili's actions this summer and is calling for elections. The word is that "something" could happen as soon as the end of this month. "No one knows what, though," Nana says, stroking her son's head. The more she talks, the more upset she becomes. "Sorry - I am not articulating myself very well. It's because I'm afraid."

Down the road in an underpass leading to the main street, Rustaveli, four menacing-looking youths are hunched together around a cap thrown on the floor. Suddenly they open their mouths to sing, and a pure Georgian chant reverberates around the walls. Next to them a woman in a housecoat and slippers is selling curtains. Some old men are having a picnic of tomatoes and bread on an upturned cardboard box. Out on the street, stray cats and dogs are everywhere, picking their way through buildings abandoned halfway through reconstruction. You encounter well-dressed, middle-aged people who look as if they are sitting down waiting for someone or something. It is only when you see the outstretched, cupped hand and the expression of shame on each face that you realise they are begging. At a set of traffic lights one man is trying to sell balloons, weaving in and out of six lanes of traffic.

Before the war with Russia in August, Georgia’s economy was expanding rapidly: its reported growth rate for 2007 was 12.4 per cent, according to the New York-based analysts EurasiaNet. There are signs of stability: BP, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Pepsi, Coca-Cola and the legal firms Baker & McKenzie and DLA Piper all have offices here. There is a vigorous cafe culture: a chain of literary cafes has opened in recent months. For young people in their late teens and twenties, especially those who speak several languages (as many do), the outlook is not bad; new Marriott and Hyatt hotels have opened and the service industry is growing. Anyone who can get a job with a western company can hope for a salary of up to $2,000 a month. But this is an option for only a privileged minority. The salaries of state teachers and doctors are a tenth of this. And men like Alexander are completely washed up.

In Tbilisi's most affluent quarter, Shardeni, the mood is more combative. Besarion Darjani, an affable gallery owner in his fifties, says he supports the current regime: without American aid Georgia would be even worse off.

"It's all about money, the oil pipeline and Russia's pretensions to be an empire," he says. "Putin wants someone in some godforsaken Siberian town in the middle of nowhere to turn on his TV news, see the bombing, beat his chest and say, 'Hey, that's our territory!' Saakashvili was obliged to do what he did because he had to defend our territory against the Russians. He was provoked."

His gallery sells the work of 50 local artists, many of whom have up to ten dependants. It is largely foreigners who buy the artwork, he adds, so he is happy to see them and their money. In a courtyard near the gallery, a group of Americans are drinking a bottle of Georgian red wine. Last month the Georgian Chamber of Commerce welcomed a group of a dozen British tour ope rators for a week-long trip. But, with the crisis unresolved - and likely to flare up again at any moment - fewer foreigners have been coming.

If the situation with Russia is not resolved quickly, says Darjani, his business could dissolve: "Russia spits on the world and on any- one who gets in the way of their great empire. The current government has ruined years of friendship between Georgia and Russia. I don't blame ordinary Russians, though. I have a lot of friends living in Moscow and Leningrad. But the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are Georgians. Their nationalities have been artificially created by the Russians - they give them passports and money and promise them autonomy. So then of course they want to be Russian. But what about the fact that it is our territory and there are Georgians living there?"

Many of these South Ossetians and Abkha zians have sought refuge in Tbilisi, living in hospitals and schools. Their numbers are estimated at anything between 20,000 and 60,000. (According to the UN, another 20,000 have fled into Russia.) The capital's infrastructure can barely support them.

The authorities host regular entertainment and when several hundred Georgians turn up for a charity performance at the theatre on a Saturday night, they look as if they almost fit in but somehow don't. These are modern refugees: the children are impeccably dressed and taking pictures of each other on their mobile phones.

Some of the other theatregoers are local people. I meet a group of young women outside on the balcony. Dressed in satin blouses and leather trousers, they are not worried about Georgia's future. "You couldn't really notice any difference in Tbilisi in August," one of them says. "It is worrying, of course, but I think that whatever happens the EU and Nato will bail us out, especially if it gets really bad."

But those of the older generation know how conflicts have been resolved in the past. Many of the actors from the theatre died in the last war in the early 1990s in Abkhazia. “These were boys who did not even know how to hold a gun,” says the director Robert Sturua. “I told them, ‘If you go to war, don’t bother coming back, because I don’t want murderers in my theatre.’”

The theatre has a small government subsidy but survives largely through donations from an anonymous businessman, who pays the directors' and actors' salaries. They cannot hope for too much from the state, says Sturua. "We have a government that is making a lot of mistakes. That's normal, though. That's freedom. It's like Jefferson said, 'Freedom is a tree you must water with blood.' It sounds cruel but it's the truth. Georgia has suffered more than any other former Soviet republic. There is a generation of people who have completely lost hope."

Worst of all, the war in the summer eclipsed some of Georgia's greatest cultural achievements this year, he says. The State Ballet of Georgia was acclaimed at this year's Edinburgh Festival, where the much-feted prima ballerina Nina Ananiashvili performed Giselle. Another Georgian dancer, David Makhateli, is a rising star with the Royal Ballet in London.

Sturua argues that life has returned to something approaching normality since the events of August: there is no military presence here at all and already the tourists are returning. Cultural and historical tourism is something many see as Georgia's potential salvation. Sturua is an optimist: he sees no reason to think Georgia won't thrive once the territorial disputes with Russia are resolved.

But this sort of talk will not pacify the likes of Alexander. He just wants a regime change, and doesn't care who becomes president so long as he or she stands on an anti-corruption ticket. "There is no such thing as normal life here," he says. "Everything is in ruins. Even if you work you don't always get paid." But how do people survive, then? "A very good question," he laughs. "Why don't you ask our government how people like me get by? They don't care."

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess

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The age of lies: how politicians hide behind statistics

Perhaps it is time to combine our Trump-era, heightened sensitivity to untruths with a new broadcasting technique or two.

The small slabs of crude election soundbites, with extra ornamentation in the form of half-true and meaningless headline statistics, clunk across the airwaves, and we grimace. The dead prose reaches us umpteen times a day – “an economy that works for all”, “the many and not the few”, “work is the way out of poverty”, “more being spent on our schools than ever before”, “the NHS is treating more patients than ever ­before”, “fastest growth rate in Europe”, “the national interest”, “the most ­important election in my lifetime” – and yes, let’s hear it for “strong and stable leadership”.

On 30 April, Andrew Marr tried a little witty and civilised pre-emptive mocking to stop Theresa May using soundbites in his interview with her, but it did not work because it could not work. Embarrassment about clichés and almost idiotic numbers is not what democratic politicians worry about at election time. Many of us may pine for the old American game-show device – where, for failing to amuse and divert the audience, contestants are removed from the fray by a man hammering a gong – but that is not on offer and, in election mode, the politicians will do as they have long learned to do. They will listen to the Lynton Crosbys and Seumas Milnes of this world and plough on – and on.

The soundbites are largely vacuous and we are more noisily sardonic about them than three decades ago (hooray for media literacy) but they aren’t worse than normal. There is no point expecting the debate to run on the lines of Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign 140 years ago, when he charged around Britain giving five-hour speeches – richly informed by Liberal philosophy – which did the trick for him and his party.

The clichés are, naturally, often interchangeable. Everybody running for high political office could quite contentedly utter any or all of the above phrases, though I concede it doesn’t require an inspired analyst of modern British politics to know what Theresa May is trying to do with her leadership riff – nor Jeremy Corbyn with his “rule for the many and not the few”, a phrase that has been used religiously since the adoption of universal suffrage. Only Jacob Rees-Mogg would put it to one side.

I spent almost 30 years at the BBC – working with a cadre of (mostly) hugely talented and impartial presenters and editors trying to find ways of injecting a bit more surprise or rigour into political interviews. (Surprise and rigour are often not the same thing.) I recall David Dimbleby reducing Alastair Campbell to semi-public fury in 1997 by excavating Tony Blair’s early political career and finding, neither surprisingly nor, in my view, particularly reprehensibly, that he had said Michael Foot-like things in a Michael Foot-like era. Oddly, nobody had thought to do this after he had been elected leader three years earlier, so Dimbleby’s approach to Blair had an element of ­surprise. And then there was John Humphrys’s relentless needling of Gordon Brown for his comic refusal after the 2008 financial crash to use the word “cuts” to describe what might have to happen to reduce the budget deficit, or even to agree with his own chancellor, Alistair Darling, that the global economic outlook was very bad. Brown had an on-air mega-curdle.

We know the score – the politicians find the rhetorical and statistical position that provides the best short-term defensive crouch, while the interviewer at least wants to make sure that the audience knows the question posed is relevant, fair and, if need be, that it has been dodged. Time presses on both participants – but the impact of the compression is unequal. The interviewee usually has the upper hand. In her early period Margaret Thatcher, who was a good deal more nervous than her subsequent reputation for clarity and authority would suggest, might well have been the all-time queen of interview delay tactics. However, most interviewees know that once they have found an answer to a question the first thing to do is to pad it out in case the next question is a little more difficult.

I am not outraged by any of this; nor do I believe these encounters should be dismissed as sterile, or that we should be contemptuous of the skills involved on either side of the exchange. The sort of one-sided triumph enjoyed by LBC’s Nick Ferrari with Diane Abbott is rare, and her numerical amnesia over policing made a whole argument go kerplunk – but even in more orthodox interviews you can often detect at the very least a broad weakness in a broad argument.

To my ear Corbyn sounds perpetually unsteady on defence policy (see his Marr interview in the first week of the campaign) and public finances, and neither May nor David Cameron before her manages much fluency on the impact of cuts on the working poor once they have uttered that threadbare soundbite about work being the route out of poverty. Would that it were so simple.

Our willingness to dismiss as boring these interviews, the staple of daily current affairs programmes, is overdone. And we have been a little graceless about the extent to which senior UK politicians do – or did – engage in at least some forms of public debate. Anyone who follows the US media will know how rare it has always been for senior members of the administration and White House staff to expose themselves to the sort of scrutiny still supplied by the Sunday political shows, Radio 4 current affairs programmes, Newsnight or Channel 4 News.

For decades, senior politicians in the UK turned up in the studios – often with scarcely concealed irritation – but they went through with it. In part because it was expected and in part out of self-interest. Good interview performances could lead to rapid promotion. Iain Duncan Smith was (you may be surprised by this) particularly effective in his early years at advocating his causes, and his party’s, in front of a microphone. But the studios did for him when he became Tory leader. As it turned out, his failings were more obvious when confronted by a skilled interviewer than in the House of Commons. His nervous coughing finally caught up with him one morning on the Today programme, and that was that.

Duncan Smith and Abbott are far from alone in seeing their currency plummet as a result of losing the plot in an interview. Harriet Harman, normally a highly fluent and agile politician, was sacked as social security secretary in 1998 after a grim outing, at least for her, with John Humphrys – caused not by his abrasiveness nor by any Abbott-like forgetfulness, but by her almost tangible unhappiness with a New Labour policy she was defending.

Even now, on BBC Question Time, some heavyweights will turn up only to be mauled by the voters on topics a long way away from the heart of their portfolio. Yes, they get copious notes from party researchers and have endless rehearsals to minimise the chance of saying anything too intellectually lively: but they should nevertheless get credit for risking it in the first place.

However, outside election time this tradition of broadcasting interrogation and debate, not much more than 50 years old, is under stealthy attack. The presenting team on Today is seriously good, but it is hard not to notice that the heavy hitters turn up less often for their ten minutes of duelling; similarly with Newsnight and Channel 4 News.

The Prime Minister’s Olympian approach to this sort of public engagement aggravates what was already a problem. The broadcasters may be losing ground. In this election there will be no head-to-head leaders’ debates featuring Labour and the Conservatives, and there is no great uproar about it. As it happens, I don’t believe that their absence is a disaster – not least because the format of individual leaders confronting an engaged Question Time audience one at a time (a “tradition” that began in 1997) provides far more substance and revelation than the 2010 or 2015 leaders’ debates did.

In the meantime, what can be done to the interview to improve the quality of public debate? Forcing out the clichés is not a realistic goal. Yet perhaps it is time to combine our Trump-era, heightened sensitivity to untruths with a new broadcasting technique or two. The BBC Trust (which I was part of for two years until it ceased to exist in April) commissioned its final independent editorial report on the BBC’s use of statistics from a panel of experts chaired by the former UK chief statistician Jil Matheson.

It is a superb piece of work. Above all it pleads with the BBC to do more to put statistics in context. The work was largely complete before the EU referendum so it did not pass judgement about either the veracity of the Brexiteers’ “extra £350m for the NHS” claim or the BBC’s coverage of that claim. I listened and watched a lot and, contrary to the views of many leading members of the Remain campaign, the BBC seemed to me to have consistently signalled to the audience the risible nature of the figure, if not as rudely as many would have liked.

Yet there is a different perspective on that cause célèbre. Only very rarely did the BBC on air (or anyone else, for that matter) compare the sums involved with total UK public expenditure: a net annual payment to the EU of about £8.5bn, compared to public expenditure of about £785bn. This £8.5bn is not a trivial sum – and it is likely to sound gargantuan to an unskilled worker on low wages in Hartlepool – but it hardly threatens the nation’s existence. We will have to think about that number all over again when the EU divorce bill gets paid.

In the past few years there has been a welcome growth online of fact-checking websites that get to grips with some of the half-sense or nonsense uttered – sometimes deliberately – in public debate. Among the broadcasters, Channel 4 News got in first with “FactCheck” and deserves great credit for having done so. The BBC has Reality Check; there are also the non-aligned Full Fact and others. And the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) sits as a mega-authority when it pronounces on individual economic statistics. (It was a particularly dispiriting episode when the IFS took a pounding during the EU campaign.)

The good newspapers and the broadcasters have correspondents who can – and do – understand the context in which statistical argument takes place. They know the difference between a big number and a not-so-big number, the difference between an aggregate spending figure and spending per head of population, the difference in importance between a one-month figure and a trend – and a trend that does not change much over time.

This is all good, and better than it used to be. But perhaps more of this rigour can be woven into what is still the dominant form of political accountability in broadcasting: the interview.

So let us try a thought experiment. Imagine (though we don’t really have to imagine) that the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, comes into a studio to say, surprise, surprise, that more is being spent in real terms on the NHS than ever before. Imagine that he is told there will be no questions on anything else until he can answer, let’s say, two obvious supplementary questions: in the course of the past 60 years how often has his assertion not been true? (Answer, says the IFS: four times, one of which was 2011/12.) And what has been the growth in per capita NHS spend, in real terms, since 2009/10, compared to the previous 15 years or so? (Answer: 0.6 per cent, as opposed to 5.4 per cent.) Answering these would show that his boast is one that almost all of his predecessors could have made, and also that the Conservative-led coalition was less generous to the health service than the preceding Labour government. It would be absolutely fair for Jeremy Hunt to respond vigorously about the need to cut the deficit or even to make points about who was in government when the crash happened – but he could not be allowed to get away with statistical near-rubbish.

Similarly, the mantra on English education (“Our schools are getting more money than ever before”) is a waste of air. It’s not that the cuts are “vicious” – just that the assertion when put in context is gibberish. The economy is growing and the school population is growing, fast. So if we were not spending more in total, and in real terms, then the cuts would be vicious. And yet, per head, there will be less in real terms for pupils. Period.

The front-line interviewers I know best are very skilled journalists and they often do try to get a jab in when the numerical nonsense gets going – but they have to move on, whether to other urgent matters or to seek a news headline from the interview, and there is not enough jeopardy for the press officer or spin doctor who wrote the politician’s brief to desist from writing the same stuff next time around.

There may be other ways of levelling up matters. The interview could proceed as normal; but at the end of it up could pop, say, Tim Harford (of the brilliant statistics programme More or Less on Radio 4) to put in the necessary corrections. It would have to be done within a few minutes or else the impact would dissipate. From time to time, Harford or his equivalent does appear after a political interviewee has spouted statistically illiterate twaddle – but not often enough, and usually this happens long after the attempted mugging of intelligent debate. Too little, too late.

It would be obligatory to ensure that this type of treatment, particularly at election time, was meted out to all the parties – but outside the election it is the government of the day and its news departments that are going to have to face most of the music. Fair enough.

My suggestion is not put forward because I am advocating a particular party’s reading of the state of the nation (or nations). There is no monopoly on vice. We should not forget Labour’s “triple counting” of health service spending after 1997 even if Blair/Brown subsequently, in benign economic circumstances, did indeed put their foot on the health-spending accelerator.

Rather, when the election dust settles and the media seminar post-mortems crank up yet again – about the level of turnout, political ennui, the particular disengagement of the young, the coverage of the leaders, the role of opinion polls and other staples – we need to keep working on how to improve the quality of public debate. It is not all awful, and a stylised contempt for what is good is itself corrupting of democracy. But the numbers nonsense needs fixing. 

Mark Damazer is Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford, and was the controller of BBC Radio 4 from 2004 to 2010

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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