The new Murdoch, getting personal with Andrew Marr, and foodies in the East End

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

Many youngish journalists in the newspaper industry, wondering if their job will still be there next year, may rejoice that Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has taken over the Washington Post, where operating profits have more than halved in the past seven years. But the news alarms me.
 
Amazon is a threat to every form of retail life on the planet. It avoids taxes. It provides cloud services to the CIA. It allegedly treats warehouse workers with the severity of Victorian mill-owners and does all it can to discourage unionisation. Bezos has bought the Post personally rather than through Amazon but it surely isn’t, as some commentators have suggested, an act of philanthropy. There is nothing to prevent him from using Amazon’s platforms to promote and sell the Post and its digital offerings, potentially giving him almost as big a stranglehold over news as his company now has over book retailing.
 
As the Post’s Lydia DePillis suggests, he could put a print copy of the newspaper in every Amazon package, offering the paper’s advertisers a new audience of millions. He could make the Post the default app on every Kindle. He could feature Post videos on the Amazon Prime welcome screen. He could use the prestige from owning the Post brand to persuade politicians writing their memoirs to publish digitally with Amazon.
 
We worry about Rupert Murdoch acquiring too much control of media outlets. We should worry as much – probably more – about Bezos.
 

Reality bites

 
By the time you read this, the most awful slaughter may have occurred in Yemen or elsewhere in the Middle East. So I know that I am risking a large and messy quantity of egg over my face. Yet, so far, the only sources for the belief that an al-Qaeda attack is imminent –which has led to the closure of US embassies and advice to US nationals to leave Yemen – are the US National Security Agency and the Yemeni intelligence services.
 
Both have a clear vested interest in talking up threats. Perhaps it is very cynical of me (and, again, I know I may look foolish in a day or two) but I don’t think it is a coincidence that news of this “threat” has emerged so soon after Edward Snowden’s disclosures about NSA surveillance.
 
When intelligence services are criticised, they can defend themselves, to borrow the words of a George W Bush aide, by creating their own reality.
 

Road rage

 
One of the things that I like least about Conservative ministers is how they never miss an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with whingeing motorists who believe that the world should be organised so they can park 3,000 pounds of steel wherever and whenever they wish. (I write, of course, as a non-driver.)
 
Local councils, ministers insist, should not treat motorists as “cash cows”. The revenue from parking charges should be used for road maintenance and similar benefits for motorists, not other local services. Why? Should tobacco duty be used exclusively for the treatment of smokers’ ill-health?
 
Space to park cars without danger or inconvenience to others is a scarce resource. It should be priced according to what the market dictates. If people can’t or won’t pay, they should walk or take buses, with benefits to their health and everybody else’s.
 

Beat happening

 
Contemporary culture requires celebrities to discuss in public matters that they would once have hesitated to discuss with their closest friends. So Andrew Marr, in an interview with the Observer’s Robert McCrum, goes over the details not only of his stroke and its aftermath but also of his family life.
 
With Marr’s spouse, Jackie Ashley, on hand, McCrum finds “the moment to introduce a vexed question from the past”: an extramarital affair that Marr wrongly thought had resulted in him fathering a child. Mc- Crum reports the response thus: “ ‘If we need to go back over that stuff,’ says Ashley, resolute and phlegmatic, ‘our problems were from ten years ago. We have moved on anyway.’ A beat. ‘I suppose.’”
 
I like McCrum’s theatrical touch but for full dramatic effect, shouldn’t “a beat” have been accompanied by Marr illustrating the progress of his physio regime by delivering a firm boot to McCrum’s groin area?
 

Eastern promises

 
You wouldn’t expect to find a Michelinstarred restaurant in the historically workingclass district of Bethnal Green in east London, even though the area has been somewhat yuppified by its proximity to the City.
 
To celebrate our wedding anniversary, my wife and I decided to give Viajante (which means “traveller” in Portuguese), housed in the former town hall, a try. The restaurant serves a “blind-tasting menu”, which comprises a series of tiny portions, the only choice being between a menu of six, nine or 12 courses. The names and ingredients of each dish are disclosed when they are brought to your table.
 
The food turned out to be stunning and the waiters’ performance, over a meal lasting three hours, as absorbing as a ballet. Despite the eye-watering prices, the place was packed. This, I suppose, represents the future. While our staple diet comprises hamburgers, massproduced from stem cells, we occasionally escape to sample small, handcrafted dishes, presented with a flourish.
Jeff Bezos, who recently bought the Washington Post for $250million. Is he the new Murdoch? Photograph: Getty Images.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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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