Friday. 22/11/2019

The Monocle Minute

Opinion / Robert Bound

A dismal case of identity fraud

In the UK, televised leadership debates have started ahead of the general election on 12 December. This week, prime minister Boris Johnson faced Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition and, while both men turned in dull performances in front of the home and studio audience, the programme was notable for a subplot that displayed social media’s pernicious teeth in all their rotten glory.

On Twitter, “factcheckUK” popped up as a handle criticising Corbyn and retweeting praise for Johnson. Hmm. Well, it sounds trustworthy but what exactly is Fact Check UK? An independent arbiter of the facts and figures quoted during the heat of rhetorical battle? Nope. OK, then – maybe a right-leaning think-tank spinning against Labour’s big-spending pledges? Try again. In fact, it was the official Twitter account for the press office of Johnson’s Conservative party, which had changed its name to FactCheck UK for the duration of the debate. Wow.

When questioned about this the next day on BBC TV, foreign secretary Dominic Raab said that “no one gives a toss about the social-media cut and thrust”, reframing the journalist’s question as if it concerned the minutiae of online debate rather than simple truth (also, though: wow). The facts are that this was in extremely bad faith and done extremely badly by the Conservative press office – the account is followed first and foremost by journalists running their own fact checks on its announcements and spin, so how could this possibly have ended well? More sadly and essentially, however, this is a scornful piece of future-shock jerrymandering that signals a political universe in which facts have become mere canon-fodder in a larger war of bullshit. We should all give a toss about this and other contemptuous breaches of public trust. Always read the label.

Elections / Hong Kong

Lay down your arms

For once there is something that unites Hong Kong’s warring parties: with local elections set for Sunday, pro-democracy candidates and pro-Beijing lawmakers alike are calling on protesters to keep their cool in order to prevent the poll’s cancellation. The mutual plea comes as both sides see this election round more as a referendum that could foreshadow how the ongoing unrest will end. Speaking to Monocle, pro-democracy lawmaker Fernando Cheung says he is hopeful that his camp will secure the most district council seats, which are usually majority occupied by pro-Beijingers. Cheung also expects the international community to up the pressure, after the US Senate passed a bill this week allowing the US to punish Chinese officials who undermine Hong Kong’s own laws. But much rests on whether average Hong Kongers really want the change that Cheung and the protesters are demanding; if it goes ahead, Sunday’s election should give the clearest indication yet either way.

Autonomy / Ethiopia

A land apart

A southern region of Ethiopia has been holding a referendum this week to determine whether it will take greater control of its own affairs and become the country’s 10th federal state. The Sidama ethnic group has long argued that autonomy would allow it to govern issues such as education, tax and security but it’s also put it on a potential collision course with Ethiopia’s prime minister – and newly anointed Nobel Peace prize winner – Abiy Ahmed.

Regional independence is written into the country’s constitution but there are concerns that the result could influence Ethiopia’s other ethnic groups to push for greater regional autonomy. Abiy would do well to respect the outcome of the plebiscite when the final result is released next week. A failure to do so risks harming his reputation as a reformist and a peace-broker who has already done so much to bring about positive change in his country.

Society / Japan

Far East feast

From designers in Finland to a police liaison officer in Australia, via sunny businesses in California, the Japanese diaspora has spread its influence across the far reaches of the globe. In issue 129 of Monocle (on newsstands now), we profile three well-established communities that have left their mark on the locals – and taken lessons back to Japan too. “The best example is the California roll,” says Alan Nishio, a civic activist in Los Angeles. “It was never known in Japan but it certainly is now.” We also reveal 10 things that Japan can teach the world, including the wonders of high-speed rail, the best disaster preparation and how to manage an ageing society. The country will have its hospitality moment with the Olympics next year – but that’s no reason to wait on heeding its lessons.

Cities / The US

Million-dollar question

Earlier this week, Atlanta city councillor Amir Farokhi launched “Downtown Decides”, a programme putting $1m (€900,000) in the hands of the city’s downtown residents to guide investment in future transport projects. Residents of Atlanta’s District 2 have until 15 January to submit their ideas on how to improve the region’s streets, parking spaces and cycling lanes using unspent funds from the Renew Atlanta infrastructure bond. The city will then launch a two-week voting period when residents can choose which projects they’d like to see implemented. It might sound like a gimmick when compared to the overall budget – mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms recently announced a two-year $5bn (€4.5bn) plan to improve street safety and urban mobility – but giving taxpayers a real say is an approach that other cities should keep a close eye on.

M24 / The Foreign Desk

Explainer 192: What have we learned from the Iran cables?

This week hundreds of Iranian intelligence reports were leaked to a US news website. These reports not only confirm the vast amount of influence Iran has in neighbouring Iraq but also include some intriguing insight into Tehran’s spy network. Andrew Mueller looks at what they tell us – and why they might have been leaked.

Monocle Films / Georgia

Tsinandali tunes

The first edition of a Georgian festival that’s bringing together musicians from the Caucasus to discuss their shared future.

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