Insight, wit and analysis as BBC correspondents, journalists and writers take a closer look at the stories behind the headlines. Presented by Kate Adie and Pascale Harter.
China's New Rules for Society
The Chinese government is, as ever, staying busy by devising new regulations. It's unleashed a raft of regulatory changes on everything from the limits on how much debt property developers are allowed to build up, to changes in the tax code and the breaking up of tech giants. But the Communist Party has also launched a series of rather paternalistic moves, reaching right into family homes, with measures designed to tackle perceived problems of laziness, or even what the state calls “spiritual pollution.” As Stephen McDonell reports from Beijing, it’s as if there is nowhere that the Party doesn’t know best - and no aspect of life where it’s not prepared to take charge.
The French government has expressed its fury after the decision by Australia to scrap a contract to buy French submarines. Canberra chose instead to enter a nuclear security pact for the Indo-Pacific with the US and the UK. “We’ve been stabbed in the back!” is how the French foreign minister put it – and off the record you can imagine that the comments were even stronger. Hugh Schofield has been following the events and says there is nothing confected about French outrage.
When it was part of the Soviet Union, Lithuania played host to stocks of nuclear missiles – huge ICBMs, which could have destroyed cities around the world. Back then, Lithuania’s geography gave it great strategic importance. When it became fully independent in 1991, it found itself a rather small nation, of about three and a half million people, and with of lesser international interest. And yet, Lithuania has been rather punching above its weight lately - particularly in recent disputes with China and Belarus. On a recent visit to a small Lithuanian village, Sadakat Kadri, found relics of the country’s past, with important lessons for the present.
When the Spanish conquistadors first landed in the Americas they brought new and terrifying beasts with them – from ships’ rats to warhorses – not to mention lethal human diseases. But there was one sort of creature the indigenous Americans DID recognise on the European ships: the dogs. Dogs had already been tamed and kept by humans all over the continent for thousands of years. And they’re still there – maybe not the original breeds, but thriving wherever there are people. In fact, in Chile, Jane Chambers has found them hard to avoid…
People who’d love a career in the arts end up doing other things to earn a living – just think of all those aspiring actors waiting tables in restaurants or would-be novelists working away in offices. But some do manage to break through against the odds – and it helps to have a globe-trotting life story as well as a deep well of inspiration at home to draw from. The painter Kojo Marfo has rocketed to fame after years spent working away from his home town in Ghana. Andy Jones has been exploring his career - and how he went from butcher's assistant to art world sensation.
From Our Own Correspondent with Kate Adie
Refugees have been fleeing Iran, as the economic situation there worsens, with food prices going up, and shortages of clean water and power. Meanwhile, there are fears among some people that the country is about to become more oppressive, with a new, hard-line president in charge. It is these conditions which have prompted many Iranians to escape. Iranian Kurds in particular have been seeking sanctuary in the Kurdish part of Iraq. But life there is not always easy. And among this community in exile are armed groups, determined to overthrow Iran’s Ayatollahs. Some of these groups have now come under aerial attack as Lizzie Porter explains:
Have they changed or not? That remains one of the crucial questions about The Taliban, as they secure their hold on Afghanistan. Last time they ran the country in the late 1990s, women were excluded from most public roles, and forced to cover up from head to toe. Music was banned along with most other forms of entertainment. With the Taliban now back in power, some detect a new tone: they give news conferences, they have said they want to work with the international community. But this week, the Taliban said that women would not be allowed to study alongside men, nor can they take part in sport. And there’ve been reports of revenge killings, carried out against those who worked for the previous government. For Sahar Zand, this has all brought back memories of the time she met a senior Taliban representative, one who did at least admit to having watched TV:
It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Last month, Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, called a snap election. Polling suggested he was popular among voters, with many crediting him for a relatively smooth handling of the Covid crisis. This, it seemed, might be the moment to go to the country and perhaps win a majority of seats, something which eluded him last time round. But the election takes place on Monday, with some predicting the Prime Minister will lose power altogether. One particular area where he’s having to defend his record is on the environment, which is proving to be an unusually important issue in this contest, as Jatinder Sidhu now reports, from Canada’s west coast:
There was a time when Papal visits were relatively simple affairs. The Pope showed up in a country, held a mass or two for some of his flock, and glad-handed all the right people, both religious and secular – perhaps expressing his admiration for whichever country he was in, and his best wishes for those who run it. But it’s not quite so simple with the current Pontiff. Pope Francis has a reputation for speaking his mind with unprecedented frankness, and that’s what happened this week when he travelled to Hungary. The Hungarian Prime Minister, Victor Orban, does also have quite a reputation for plain speaking, with hardline views on Islam and immigration in particular. So what happened when the two met? Nick Thorpe was in Budapest finding out.
September may sound too early to be thinking about Christmas, but for some people, September is precisely the month when it’s most on their minds. These are the pine seed pickers of Georgia – every year at this time, they climb their country’s giant fir trees, to get hold of the pine cones which grow on them. Inside, are seeds which are then planted to make Christmas trees. In fact, most of the Christmas trees in Europe are grown from seeds that come from Georgia – it’s a huge business. And yet as Amelia Stewart found out, the work of those who do the actual seed-picking is often poorly paid, and can also be very dangerous.
Lebanon's Medicines Emergency
Lebanon was once the embodiment of glamour: its capital, Beirut, was nicknamed the “Paris of the Middle East” and enjoyed as an international playground. Today those glory years seem long gone. A political crisis has left the country without a properly functioning government – and its economy has imploded. The currency has lost more than 90% of its value and poverty has skyrocketed. There are shortages of fuel, water and food - and as Leila Molana-Allen explains, even essential medicines are getting harder and harder to find:
It’s a scenario found in so many places around the world: the war is over, no more shots are being fired, no bombs dropped, and yet people are still dying. And why? Because of all the landmines which have been laid during the conflict – which don’t recognise ceasefires or treaties, and can still maim or kill anyone who treads on one. During last year’s fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the Nagorno Karabakh region, thousands of mines were buried in its hillsides. Efforts to defuse and remove them have already begun – but it’s slow, painstaking, and above all, terribly dangerous work. Colin Freeman has been hearing from some of the men trying to clear up the mess.
As the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on America approaches, it’s a particularly difficult time for those who lost friends and family. Almost three thousand people were killed when Al Qaeda hijackers flew planes into the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. One of the dead was David Berry, who was killed in the south tower of the World Trade Center. He was 43 years old and had young children. His widow, Paula Grant Berry, has been talking to Laura Trevelyan.
Travelling through Italy you're bound to run into Mazzini, Garibaldi and Cavour – the key historic figures in the country's unification. From the Alps to Sicily, there are endless roads, piazzas and monuments named in their honour. But new roads call for new ideas - and the choices made about who to commemorate can be surprising. In Ozzano dell'Emilia – a village of 14,000 people near the northern city of Bologna - they've decided to dedicated a new road to a rather unexpected – and flamboyant – personality. Dany Mitzman's been to walk the freshly-rolled tarmac of Via Freddy Mercury.
They say that in big cities like London or New York you’re never more than a few metres away from a rat. Hugh Schofield now has proof positive that it’s true - and has an alarming tale of a most unwelcome visitor to his home in the French capital.
Producer: Polly Hope
Forever wars – and how they can end
The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has serious implications for global security. Western governments are concerned about the prospect of more attacks on their own turf. But there’s also particular worry that jihadist movements in Africa and Asia could gain ground. Might the news from Kabul attract new recruits to their ranks – especially in those places where international forces have been deeply involved in fighting them back? The various armed groups allied with Al Qaida and the Islamic State across the Sahel and east Africa have been wreaking havoc for more than a decade now. Andrew Harding has reported on many of those wars, and recent events have brought back vivid memories… and hard questions…
In Afghanistan itself, some among the Taliban now in charge of the country again have grievances of their own, after losing relatives and comrades killed in airstrikes and night raids over the past twenty years. So how will they rule, and treat their old enemies? Kate Clark was the BBC correspondent in Kabul in the final years of the last Taliban regime, where she witnessed the fall of the city in 2001 – and she has done so again in 2021. She’s seen rulers come and go – and how after each change of regime, cycles of revenge have been fed, prolonging the conflict. After a week of chaos, she considers a longer view of four decades of war.
Reporting from Israel often inevitably revolves around the politics of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even the basic, day-to-day issues – town planning, health care, education – are complicated by this central problem. So imagine the challenge of policing in such a divided setting. For some time, Palestinian citizens of Israel have reported rising violence within their communities – not politically motivated, but driven by organised crime. The mobsters’ trade in drugs and weapons, and their vendettas, have blighted many areas – and left many families bereaved. Yolande Knell has spoken to several families trying to cope with the aftermath.
In Spain, paying the rent is often a political issue – and there’s a long history of squatting. After the property crash of 2008, many families fought to stay on in homes that did not belong to them, because they couldn’t afford their mortgages any more. In cities like Barcelona, while prices slumped, speculators moved in and bought up buildings at knock-down prices. Thousands of flats are still standing empty. Some have been illegally occupied by people who just can’t afford a market rent and needed a roof over their heads. But not all squatters actually live in the homes they take over. Criminals have spotted an opportunity: why not just move into a property and demand a ‘ransom’ of thousands of Euros from the owner before they will leave? Linda Pressly recently met a man who claimed to be a professional extortionist in Barcelona…
And Patrick Muirhead takes a gruelling hike in the Seychelles, on the trail of its fabled Jellyfish Tree. It’s not just rare, but a botanical mystery: no-one yet understands how it manages to reproduce. In the teeth of climate change and rapid development for the islands' tourism industry, there are fears the species may not last much longer. If a proposed dam is built to supply water for the growing population of Mahé island, it could engulf one of the last remaining outcrops of the plant.
Producer: Polly Hope
Afghanistan: Questions, Doubts and Fears
It’s been a week of searing and surreal images from Afghanistan after the Taliban’s lighting takeover of Kabul. The spectacle of an official Taliban news conference, televised live from the capital on Tuesday, was proof of how just how fast events have moved. The Taliban leadership may have promised forgiveness, reconciliation and protection of women’s rights. But the mood is fearful and there are still thousands of Afghans desperate to get out of the country by any means possible. Lyse Doucet has been hearing from many of them.
As the West’s twenty-year mission to Afghanistan comes to an end, there are questions around the world about how the international intervention, and the new political structures set up after 2001, went so desperately wrong, so fast. Paul Adams has also been covering events and searching his own memories of time spent with foreign forces in the country for clues.
The latest earthquake in Haiti has inflicted more losses on a nation that’s endured plenty of them. The shocks and aftershocks last Saturday caused at least 2,200 deaths, injured more than 12,000 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes. After the far more devastating quake back in 2010, more than 200,000 Haitians ended up living in squalid encampments in the capital, Port au Prince. This time around, the plan is to encourage survivors to stay put and rebuild, rather than run to already overburdened cities. James Clayton has been to some of the worst-affected areas in the southwest of the country.
Imagine that one ordinary day you find out that - although you feel perfectly normal - you’re officially dead. That’s the experience of a surprising number of people across India. Thousands of men and women who are very much alive are being registered as dead, often by their own relatives who are angling to inherit their property. Covid restrictions prevented Chloe Hadjimatheou from going to India to investigate in person - but she’s been on the trail of these extraordinary stories. Finding out how easily this could happen to anyone brought home to her the extraordinary power which bureaucrats can have...
The cultural history of Paris has a vivid streak of lowlife as well as high art. From Edith Piaf, the “little sparrow” belting out songs on street corners, to Gavroche, the plucky but doomed urchin of Les Miserables – there’s often a deep affection for those characters who must live by their wits on the streets. But the city’s wiles and its tricksters have caused many an unsuspecting visitor to come unstuck. Some come away with more vivid memories of time spent in police stations, embassies and travel agents, trying to untangle their misadventures, than of great meals or cultural highlights. Christine Finn’s been keeping an eye out and her wits about her ...
Producer: Polly Hope
A Summer of Fires in Greece
Greece has been ravaged by almost six hundred wildfires in recent weeks. Thousands of firefighters have struggled to contain the raging flames which have destroyed hundreds of thousands of hectares of land; more than 60,000 people so far have had to flee their homes to safety. The Greek government has promised compensation payments for those affected and a massive drive to reforest the burnt areas “We saved lives, but we lost forests and property”, the Prime Minister admitted this week, calling it ‘an ecological catastrophe’. Bethany Bell reports from Athens, the island of Evia and the Peloponnese.
Across Afghanistan, the country’s national army and security forces have been losing ground to the Taliban. The insurgents’ fighters have pushed forward and major provincial capitals including Herat, Kunduz and Zaranj have now been taken over. The Taliban also announced they were in control of the town of Ghazni, only 93 miles from Kabul. Before they moved into the centre of Kandahar, in the south, Shelly Kittleson had managed to get into the city.
Since a rare outbreak of street protests in Cuba a month ago, its government has been arresting and jailing many of those who dared take part. Cubans are also still suffering the triple impact of a Covid surge, a serious economic crunch and frosty relations with the Biden administration in the USA. Power cuts and shortages only add to the discontent. Will Grant recently returned to the island after a while away, and sensed a definite change in the atmosphere.
Amid Libya’s civil wars, rival governments and militia groups, there are also foreign players: backers, influencers and fighters. One particular group of Russian mercenaries, operating in the east, has been accused of war crimes against civilians. Allegations that the group has links to the Russian government have been strongly denied by President Vladimir Putin himself. Nader Ibrahim has been investigating connections between Russia and Libya for a long time and recently heard a fascinating story one night in Tripoli.
Would you rent out a holiday hut which was built for a leading Nazi collaborator? Perhaps surprisingly, it’s something you can do in Norway. During the Second World War, the Germans installed a local sympathiser as the country’s leader: Vidkun Quisling. His surname itself has become a synonym for a lackey, traitor or bootlicker. The Scottish writer and novelist Ben McPherson has lived in Norway for many years, and he was surprised to learn Quisling’s summer cabin in the fjords was available for bookings …
Producer: Polly Hope
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