Thursday. 4/3/2021

The Monocle Minute

Opinion / Chiara Rimella

Face the music

After a year like few others there’s something endlessly reassuring about the fact that certain traditions remain unshaken. The 71st annual edition of Sanremo, Italy’s grand singing competition, is taking place throughout this week, with the finale on Saturday. The festival enjoys a prime-time slot on national broadcaster RAI and always draws a remarkable audience – this year’s opening night attracted 46 per cent of all TV viewers and that’s not even record-breaking.

No matter how much it might be mocked as antiquated or naff, the festival still commands the cultural conversation in Italy, sparking all manner of controversies, ranging from celebrity tiffs to a genuine redressing of gender politics. And while certain things might have changed over the years – the line-up in the “Big” category for established singers feels a lot more modern these days – many things remain the same. There are cringeworthy gags by old-school presenters Fiorello and Amadeus, lots of forgettable pop and a programme that goes on until ridiculously late at night (on Tuesday it clocked off at 01.30). There’s a reason that this festival is said to have inspired the format for Eurovision, another famously drawn-out but beloved TV occasion.

One year ago, Sanremo felt like the last big talking point in Italian newspapers before the coronavirus took over life and headlines. This year, the show is taking place on the customary stage of the Ariston theatre in the festival’s namesake seaside town – but to an empty auditorium. Its return to the airwaves marks a sombre reminder of the year that was but it’s also one of the first occasions for national cohesion since the pandemic. So bring on the camp outfits, the emotional ballads and the gaffes – they taste particularly bittersweet today.

Diplomacy / UN

Head to head

The United Nations in New York faces a conundrum this week: who to accept as Myanmar’s ambassador? Kyaw Moe Tun (pictured), Myanmar’s UN envoy, has insisted in a letter to the organisation that he remains the rightful occupant despite the military coup. But, in a rival letter, the Myanmar foreign ministry announced that deputy ambassador Tin Maung Naing would take control of the seat instead. The two men already have rightful access to the building and although the US’s new UN ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, appeared to side with Kyaw Moe Tun on Monday, the decision to end the game of musical chairs will be up to the UN’s credentials committee, which is made up of nine member states. The committee will be flicking through legal protocols, which include considering Kyaw Moe Tun’s use of his ministry’s official letterhead, as well as reviewing precedents (Libya was the last state with competing claims in 2011) before making its recommendation to the UN General Assembly.

Religion / Iraq

Leap of faith

Pope Francis travels to Iraq for the first time tomorrow, in his first overseas trip for 15 months. He plans to visit historic sites including Ur, the birthplace of the prophet Abraham, and meet Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, marking a historic effort to reach out to Muslims as well as show solidarity with Iraq’s beleaguered Christian community. But for many observers the visit comes at an unfortunate time as the pandemic risks overwhelming Iraq’s fragile healthcare system.

Renad Mansour, project director of Chatham House’s Iraq Initiative, warns that the trip could become a distraction. “Iraq is facing serious challenges: economic collapse, corruption within the government, protestors being killed almost every day,” he tells The Monocle Minute. “This visit runs the risk of painting a particularly rosy picture of the country.” The question, then, is what kind of tone Pope Francis plans to take – will he paper over Iraq’s problems or issue an urgent call for the world to re-engage with the nation?

F&B / Taiwan

Forbidden fruit

A spiky argument has cropped up in the fruit stands of the South China Sea. After Beijing banned imports of pineapple last Friday (purportedly detecting “harmful creatures” in shipments), Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen (pictured) issued a defiant call to arms. Speaking in front of an array of south-Taiwanese pineapple products, Tsai said that the country could save its farmers by swelling demand elsewhere, as she launched a “pineapple challenge” on social media to get people to buy more of the product. The de facto US and Canadian ambassadors in Taipei also posted pictures of themselves with the spiky fruit. China previously accounted for 90 per cent of Taiwan’s pineapple exports but since the ban was announced on Friday, orders for more than 41,000 tonnes of pineapple have come in from elsewhere, almost matching the total amount that the country shipped in 2020. “In the face of each challenge Taiwan will not be defeated but will become even stronger,” said Tsai, no doubt celebrating the sweet taste of success.

Media / Switzerland

Press forward

Switzerland’s parliament has agreed to provide an additional CHF120m (€108m) in financial aid to media companies amid a raft of other support measures in recognition of the value of a thriving media scene to Swiss society. “Media diversity is one of the most important things in a democratic country and is a measure of its democracy,” says Matthias Aebischer, a member of the National Council (the lower house of parliament). Newspapers will receive delivery discounts to maintain distribution, while journalism schools and in-house media training programmes will benefit from support as well. Financial aid will also go to news agencies, free newspapers and, for the first time, online outlets. Websites will be supported relative to their subscriber base, a distinction that benefits smaller outlets over big players that rely on high click-rates. Overall it’s a sign of the importance that Switzerland places on a diverse and independent media in the aftermath of the pandemic – other nations should take note.

M24 / Monocle on Design

Back to school

A look at some of the most innovative design-education projects around the globe. We hear about a collaboration between Birkenstock and Central Saint Martins in London; The School of Architecture in Arizona; and a leading glass and ceramics programme on a tranquil island in Denmark. Plus: the latest design news from Berlin.

Monocle Films / Global

Retail special: gin distilleries

Just like craft breweries, small local distilleries are reinventing drinks that have fallen out of fashion. Monocle Films visits three entrepreneurs who have uncorked the potential of the old spirit in London, Hamburg and the Finnish countryside.

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