Leading Two Unions

As chancellor of the eurozone’s leading economy, Angela Merkel has taken on the role of de facto European leader, arguably even more so now than ever since Francois Hollande replaced her close ally Sarkozy as France’s president, and an increasing number of eurozone countries seem to be on the brink of bailout territory. As the German election approaches, conflicts are arising between national and European interests.

The recent Cypriot bailout provided a crucial moment for Merkel, as the deal saw money coming out of the pockets of big savers on the island – the first deal of its kind with conditions demanding contributions from bank deposits, described at the time as an unique case. It had recently been announced that Germany’s economy had shrunk more in the fourth quarter of 2012 than at any time since the peak of the financial crisis in 2009. Awaiting the bailout agreement, Cypriots marched though Nicosia waving Nazi flags and carrying anti-German posters. During the discussions leading to the final rescue package decision, the media debated the implications of the possible outcomes: would Germany finally tire of rescuing the euro?

Elections

With the German federal election scheduled to take place in September, it is clear that the leadership has been trying to focus on German issues. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union Party (CDU) had already showed signs of concern for its election prospects, having begun to make concessions last year by altering its prior stance on the introduction of a minimum wage in Germany, which has long been a key priority of the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD).

However, a Forsa poll in early April showed that support for the CDU and FDP coalition was at its highest level since January 2010. The unpopularity of SPD candidate Peer Steinbrück, who caused a stir earlier this year by calling Italian comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi “clowns”, has been cited as a great advantage for the CDU. With Steinbrück as an alternative, “people have the feeling that they’re in good hands” with Merkel, Forsa chief Manfred Guellner told Stern magazine.

A continuation of the current coalition is by no means guaranteed, however. The newly-formed Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany’) Party has limped into the race, with a German exit from the euro as their only tangible policy thus far. “Because of the euro, people in southern Europe don’t hesitate to express their disgust toward Germany, using old Nazi comparisons,” said Bernd Lucke, an economics professor and leader of the new party, which advocates national referendums that would give citizens a voice in matters such as economic rescue packages.

Although Alternative for Germany would not seem to pose a great threat to established parties, if its popularity grows, it may manage to succeed in poaching a small number of votes from the FDP, the CDU’s coalition partner which is currently just managing to poll above the five per cent hurdle. In a questionnaire for the German tabloid, Bild , which asked how votes would be cast if the election took place now, ‘Alternative for Germany‘ achieved the five per cent.

Fiscal Union

In turn, the German public have not failed to notice the anti-German sentiment which has been growing in austerity-package nations. Protests in the bailout countries showing citizens carrying anti-German banners emblazoned with swastikas and moustachio’ed caricatures have dredged up old wounds – it has been speculated that it could potentially serve to turn voters against the euro if Germany is required to foot the bill for another bailout, particularly if they are thanked with swastikas.

Germany is, despite the poor statistics for the final quarter of 2012, one of few European countries which has managed to retain its AAA rating. In fact, some economists point out that Germany’s immense economic strength during the recession while other European countries continue to fall is partially thanks to the introduction of the single-currency union.

This stems from the fact that in adopting the euro, Germany replaced its Deutschmark with a much weaker currency, or rather a currency much weaker than the Deutschmark theoretically would have been. This reduced the price of German exports, providing a huge economic boost. This is not to say that Germany owes all of its prosperity to the euro at the expense of the weaker eurozone economies. Deep-seated economic practices, in addition to the financial downturn, account for the respective successes and failures of eurozone countries. But this does mean that an exit from the euro would be costly for Germany as a country which relies heavily on exports.

Länderfinanzausgleich

Supporting financially weaker areas internally is deeply ingrained into the German system, but is nonetheless not met with an all-embracing enthusiasm. The policy of Länderfinanzausgleich is a programme of fiscal adjustment which sees richer German states (Länder) contribute to a fund which is distributed to poorer states. The system was established in 1950 and has been most famously employed from 1995 to integrate the former East German economy into the new united republic. The ‘new states’ of Berlin and Sachsen, formerly part of the German Democratic Republic, are among those currently receiving funding.

Two of the wealthiest states, Hesse and Bavaria, have recently spoken out against the policy. Bavarian governor Horst Seehofer complained last month that his state is forced to pay money to poorer states like Berlin, who use it for things which Bavaria itself cannot afford, a statement echoing the resentment of some Germans for supporting countries like Greece, which has a retirement age of 50, while Germans work until the age of 65. Bavaria and Berlin have a relationship which reflects some of the stereotypes dredged up between Southern and Northern Europe – Berlin is typically seen as a young, creative and frivolous city, whereas Bavarians are viewed as traditional, conservative and quite stuffy.

To some extent this internal conflict can be seen as a microcosm of Germany’s relationship with weaker eurozone countries – particularly in terms of German attitudes to continuing bailouts. Seehofer’s concerns about the effect of pay-outs on his state’s own economy mirror German concerns about the euro; “How can it be that in Germany a debt limit is agreed, but states which are rich themselves are forced into debt in order to afford to pay for fiscal adjustment.”

However, it is interesting to note that Bavaria itself received support through the fiscal adjustment plan until 1993, when it suddenly experienced an agricultural boom.

Merkel’s foothold currently seems steady, but re-election is no certainty. The euro will play a key role in determining Merkel’s popularity, and in turn the threat of further dissatisfaction from her citizens could push Merkel to call for harsher decisions on future bailouts. Continuing resentment towards Germany and more euro rescue missions could nudge German voters towards an anti-euro party. However, Germany remains economically strong and many Germans are pro-European Union, acknowledging that Germany has a role to contribute to supporting weaker member states which it committed to with the introduction of the single currency. Even tabloid newspaper Bild, a publication which does not hesitate to call southern Europeans lazy and condemn the cost of eurozone bailouts to Germany, criticised Alternative for Germany for its lack of an actual euro exit strategy or any alternative vision for Europe’s future.

What is clear is that Merkel will either need to find a way to reconcile the needs of her two unions, or, if the CDU and the demands of German citizens conflict with the developments in the European Union, she may have to make a choice between them.…

Shot Down: Gun Control in America

On 17th April, President Obama’s push for gun control was dealt a major blow as the Senate defeated a gun-buyer background check bill put together by Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA). Recently, President Obama announced a set of proposals that are intended to tighten gun controls and reduce gun violence following the shooting of 20 children and 7 women by Adam Lanza in Newton, Connecticut, in December 2012.

There have been a large number of mass shootings in the US in recent years years, and yet the estimated number of guns held by civilians remains at 310,000,000 and the National Rifle Association (NRA) still exercises significant control over policy-makers. Approximately 9,960 people were murdered with a firearm in the USA in 2010, a rate of 3.2 per 100,000 people. A ban on handguns and other firearms will be difficult to pass, but Obama had considered background checks to be the most likely gun restriction to be approved. Polls had shown that 90% of the public were in favour of the measure after the events in Newtown.

The bill would require criminal background checks for all gun sales and limit ammunition magazines to 10 rounds. This is a measure to try and reduce the number of large-scale gun attacks. There will also be financing programs to train more police officers, and $4 billion spent in order to help keep 15,000 police officers on the street. Obama’s administration also proposed providing an additional $20 million to help expand the system that tracks violent deaths across the nation and provides $30 million in grants to states in order to help schools develop emergency response plans. There was also a focus on financing the expansion of mental health programs for young people. The Manchin-Toomey background checks amendment allowed exemptions for private sales and gifts between family and friends.

However, despite public support for proposals, many Senate Republicans and pro-gun lobby groups made their opposition for the proposals vocally. President Obama put the blame for the defeat of his proposals squarely on the NRA. He accused them of spreading lies that the legislation would lead to a national gun registry. Pro-gun lawmakers vowed to try and delay any Senate debate on tightening the US’s gun laws, as they are afraid of stricter ownership laws. These untruths meant that common-sense gun reforms were blocked, and Obama called it a “pretty shameful day for Washington,” when important legislation doesn’t pass because 90% of Republicans voted against an idea that had been put forward through scaremongering.

The NRA has given $800,000 to 40 senators who voted against any amendments to gun control laws since 1990, and much of this was given in the run-up to the last election. In the months following Newtown, the NRA saw a surge in donations, registering $2.7 million in cash, and these donations are likely to be given to politicians in the House of Representatives. The NRA has have also been seen to give Ted Cruz cash donations, and he is one of the leaders of Republican opposition to the amendment.

It is inevitable that, where there are high political stakes, there are hardball tactics and strategies employed by those who have an interest in the situation. The NRA also keeps a scorecard of how legislators vote on gun-related issues and use this to direct its campaign contributions to those who will help support their cause. The NRA has linked its campaign against these proposals by claiming it would intrude on Second Amendment Rights.

Joe Biden expressed his shock that the NRA has resorted to using these tactics to block the proposals. He was supported in his outrage by Gabrielle Giffords, a former US representative who was severely wounded in a 2011 shooting in Arizona, who made a statement that the Senate had ‘ignored the will of the American people’. She vowed to campaign to make sure the constituents of those Senators who voted against the legislation would know how they had been ignored by their representatives and put their own political agenda before the safety of communities who have been victims of the tragedies of gun violence.

The collapse of this bill represented a huge disappointment for gun-control advocates, who believed that the political climate on guns was changing. While the Senate blocked or defeated proposals that would ban certain military-style assault rifles and limit the size of ammunition magazine, the biggest setback was the defeat of a measure to expand background checks to the majority of gun sales. This was considered to be the most politically palatable of the proposals, but Obama has pledged to do everything he can to take further action.

However, it is unlikely that the NRA will step back to allow any new proposals to pass, and so it seems it will become a battle between Obama’s desire to stop gun crime, and the NRA’s efforts to block Obama’s proposals. It is still very unclear who will be victorious. But it will certainly not be the victims of gun crime in the near future.…

Why Do You Want to Be a Journalist?

The media industry is a bit of an anomaly when it comes to ambition. Jobs in the media are highly coveted. It isn’t too difficult to see why: journalism and other media jobs can provide opportunities to travel, to meet fascinating people, to do some social good or to write about what interests you.

It is very competitive. There are so many budding writers and journalists in the UK who have to take on placement after placement of unpaid work experience and do countless internships before landing their first job. They are often required to do expensive postgraduate courses and pass expensive industry-accredited exams before they are taken seriously.

They must write blogs, keep up with current affairs, write well , fast and accurately, interview well, read voraciously, develop contacts, learn multimedia and design skills, develop a social media presence, work long hours and get on well with all kinds of people. Cultivating that kind of a skill set requires serious hard work, and serious ambition.

But many people view ambition as the desire and act of striving towards success – be that riches, fame or achievement. And this is where many jobs in the media, and particularly in journalism, become a little less desirable. For one thing, it is quite possibly one of the hardest industries to break into that pays so little.

According to the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), the average starting salary for a job in reporting is about £15,000. This can drop as low as £12,000 for jobs on local or regional newspapers. The UK is incredibly London-centric and a majority of the country’s national newspapers, magazines and TV outlets are based in the capital, which happens to be one of the most expensive places to live, particularly on a trainee journalist’s salary. And particularly when faced with debts from both undergraduate and postgraduate education.

A job in the media is also far from secure. Just take a look at some of the headlines on the Guardian’s ‘media downturn’ webpage “Trinity Mirror to cut up to 74 jobs at national titles”; “150 jobs to go at IPC media”; “3,000 jobs go at Thomas Reuters”; “Reader’s Digest parent seeks bankruptcy protection”. It’s pretty harrowing stuff. The Guardian’s interactive map of job cuts in the media industry demonstrates that few media outlets across the country have managed to ride out the recession unscathed.

As many people will have picked up on, economic troubles are hitting newspapers hardest of all the media outlets. The advent of the internet has made newspapers largely redundant as a primary source of news (though I would argue they could still have a significant role to play). Circulation has been falling year on year for almost every national paper.

The Independent lost a massive 46% of its sales between 2011 and 2012 (though perhaps that is mainly due to the success of its cheaper, snappier sister paper ‘i’). Sales figures for the Financial Times dropped by 16% over the same period, and for the Guardian by 15%.

In fact, the Press Gazette’s analysis of newspaper sales is as follows: “Looking at the sales averages for 2012 as a whole, the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror were among the best-performing titles in relative terms, keeping their print sales declines to 6 per cent and 6.6 per cent respectively.” It seems to me a little depressing to measure performance by the standard of who is the best loser.

So for the most part riches are off the cards for those entering the journalism profession, especially in newspapers. And fame? By its very nature the media industry feeds off fame, it gives fame a platform but it rarely produces fame from within its own staff. In fact few journalists receive due respect from the public, let alone stardom. Since the phone hacking saga erupted and Lord Justice Leveson levelled criticisms at UK newspapers, eventually deciding they needed a state-backed regulator, public trust in the media has plummeted. And then there was the BBC and Jimmy Savile.

A Yougov poll conducted in 2011 found that 58% of people lost trust in the newspaper industry after the phone hacking scandal broke, while 51% were more mistrustful of the entire UK media. Three quarters of the population think that UK media outlets lie to their audiences and 55% think content in the UK media has been dumbed down in recent years. Journalism as a profession is down there with estate agents, bankers and politicians in terms of public disdain.

So an ambition to break into the media industry often entails hard work, instability, a lack of respect, a lot of stress, long hours and low pay. Why have such an ambition? David Randall, foreign editor of the Independent on Sunday, provides a long list of reasons in his book ‘The Universal Journalist’ (p.3). They include:

  • To “provide a voice for those who cannot normally be heard in public”.
  • To “hold up a mirror to society, reflecting its virtues and vices and also debunking its cherished myths”.
  • To “ensure that justice is done, is seen to be done and investigations carried out where this is not so”.
  • To “promote the free exchange of ideas, especially by providing a platform for those with philosophies alternative to the prevailing ones.”

He adds: “If you can read that list without the hairs on the back of your neck beginning to stand up, then maybe journalism is not for you.” Few people do media for the money. The media industry has many vices, but it is extremely valuable to society. If there were fewer people willing to accept low pay and long hours for little tangible reward our media would suffer even more, and so would democracy.…