Sunday, March 29, 2015

Poor information & costs leaves kids at risk from childhood diseases

Parents are understandably protective when it comes to their children but the issue of childhood vaccinations still raises concerns and worries.

But as well as concerns over safety, other factors such as cost and poor information are also having an impact on the introduction and take up of vaccinations.

Meningitis vaccine proposals

Recently there have been further delays in introducing a vaccine that protects against a deadly form of meningitis that campaigners say are putting the lives of children at risk.

In 2014 expert advisers for the government recommended the meningitis B vaccine be given to babies from two months old across the UK on the NHS. But an ongoing debate concerning a cost-effective price has held back the vaccination programme

There are about 1,870 cases of meningitis B each year in the UK with around one in 10 cases proving fatal whilst about a quarter suffering long-term problems, such as amputation, deafness, epilepsy and learning difficulties [BBC].

But while the Department of Health says it wants to see the vaccine introduced as soon as possible the list price of £75 for the Glaxosmithkline made Bexsero vaccine has been deemed too high.

This week the Meningitis B vaccine was finally approved [BBC]. But the NHS may still have difficulties in persuading all parents to take up the offer.

Restoring confidence

The MMR [Measles, Mumps, Rubella] scare some years back did nothing to boost confidence. And some parents are still wary about the jab despite all evidence showing the original claims that claimed a link to the vaccination and autism were "fraudulent".

Andrew Wakefield, the scientist behind the study, published his findings in 1998 but is was not until nearly a decade late that his research was found by the General Medical Council to have been "dishonest". The medical journal The Lancet fully retracted the original paper and the research was declared fraudulent in 2011 by the British Medical Journal [BMJ].

But the damage had already been done. Confidence amongst many parents had been severely compromised and many children were not immunised against potentially deadly viruses.

In fact in the UK alone take-up for the MMR vaccine dropped so significantly it became a serious medical concern. Before publication of Wakefield's report, the inoculation rate for MMR in the UK was 92%. However after publication, the rate dropped to below 80%. In 1998, there were 56 measles cases in the UK and by 2008, there were 1,348 cases, with 2 confirmed deaths.

Rise in measles

The situation in the US has worsened to such a degree that there was widespread publicity and an urgent advisory from the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention [CDC] that parents get their children inoculated.

In 2014, the US experienced a major outbreak of measles that totaled 383 cases. While relatively small there was the potential that such outbreaks could spread and become thousands.

In fact the situation only worsened. Between 1st January and 20th February 2015 more than 150 cases in 17 different states were reported to the CDC [Time].

But while two doses of the MMR vaccine is nearly 100% effective at preventing the disease, which is highly contagious, some parents are still leaving their children exposed to the risk.

This despite Wakefield's work having been debunked and several subsequent peer-reviewed studies which have failed to show any association between the vaccine and autism.

Playing chicken with Chickenpox vaccine

The MMR controversy has not only created issues with MMR uptake. The continued concerns have held back some countries from introducing a safe and reliable Chickenpox vaccination.

Some countries such as the UK have held back primarily due to the increased costs involved but there are claims that rolling out a vaccination scheme would increase cases of shingles in the older population.

The varicella vaccine is available privately, but the UK's immunisation body decided in 2009 against the universal vaccination of children fearing it could increase shingles, a reactivation of the virus, in older people. The theory is that by the virus remaining in circulation, older people would receive an occasional boost to their immune system.

Indeed the NHS freely state that "introducing chickenpox vaccinations for all children could increase the risk of chickenpox and shingles in older people."  

However, since the the US introduced the vaccination in the form of MMRV, the V standing for Varicella, there has been no significant increase in shingles in the adult population.

It is also perhaps questionable why sick children should be exploited as living vaccines for older people when there is a perfectly serviceable vaccination on the market. And one that has been proved to be safe [NHS].

Pros & Cons

In fact in there are more advantages than there are disadvantages to rolling out a Chickenpox vaccination scheme.

Should everyone receive the vaccine, then shingles itself would also be eradicated since it is merely a return of Chickenpox in a different form. Chickenpox, like all herpes viruses, such as the one that causes cold sores, never truly goes away. Instead it lies dormant in the nervous system until some future reactivation event, often decades in the future.

Those who have been vaccinated against Chickenpox would in all likelihood never have the risk of experiencing the debilitating condition.

Chicken Pox has often been considered a "right of passage". One of those diseases one has as a kid. For most children it an extremely uncomfortable couple of weeks off school. But there are risks.

A small number can develop encephalitis, a swelling of the brain, which can be fatal.  The biggest risk is to the unborn. In pregnancy, chickenpox can spell disaster for the unborn or neonatal infant. Chickenpox can, in extreme cases, lead to foetal deformities. Thus there are warnings in maternity wards for the infected to stay away. And even for otherwise healthy individuals the disease can be fatal with the BMJ saying that there are on average, around 25 deaths in the annually.


There is also an economic burden. Banned from childcare during the long course of the contagious window of chickenpox, a parent may have to take up to a week or more off work to look after their afflicted children at home.

Of course, such issues are not a direct cost to the state, but given the vast numbers of children - around 60,000 in Britain alone - suffering from chickenpox annually, the cost to the economy is significant.

Germany saw the advantages and a 2004 study concluded that paying for vaccination out of the public purse would be more than compensated by fewer sickness payments to absent parents in the longer term.

Japan and the US were among the first nations to introduce universal vaccination programmes back in the 1980s and 1990s. But citing costs and dubious medical reasons, other countries have shied away from the vaccination.

One reason may also be because a wary public might be unduly concerned about the extra letter V tagged onto the controversial MMR vaccine.

But the advantages of a chickenpox vaccine are clear, at least from observations of the US where it is now mandatory for school attendance. Before the vaccine was available, about 4 million people got chickenpox each year in the US with more than 10,000 hospitalizations. And about 100 to 150 of those infected died each year, according to the CDC.

Some parents, even in the US, have argued against the vaccine saying that the disease is not generally serious and that complications occur in only a minority of cases. However, a chickenpox vaccine in not just about the protection of a single child, but the population as a whole.

Indeed the vaccine helps protect others in the community, more particularly those who cannot get vaccinated, such as people with weakened immune systems or pregnant women.

Information war

The long shadow of Andrew Wakefield misinformation about the safety of MMR still looms large in the public consciousness. How can parents be convinced to subject their children to a fourth addition to MMR when some appear not to be interested in protecting their children against something deadly like measles?

It appears that the health authorities have simply thrown up their collective hands and proclaimed it to be too difficult.

Informed parents can of course go private and give their children the varicella jab from the age of 12 months. But there are a great many parents who either can't afford the £120 fee for the two required injections, or simply aren't aware that a vaccination even exists.

Most parents simply take what vaccinations are offered by health authorities, and may often be unaware of other vaccines available to better protect their children. Better information needs to be made available so that parents can make a choice.

Some NHS GPs seem unaware of the facts surrounding the risks of not vaccinating against chickenpox. One London GP said she had "never heard about it" when asked about the chickenpox vaccine. "Do you mean shingles?" she asked, adding confusion into the mix.

For an ill informed parent parent, many might walk away, perhaps feeling belittled for even raising the question. Other parents have opted to do their own research and approached private clinics in order to get their children protected.

More and more parents are now paying for their children to be vaccinated against chickenpox, although exact figures are not published. But there are huge numbers who might pay for it if only they even knew it existed [BBC / Guardian].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Germanwings flight 9525 co-pilot deliberately crashed plane

Security and preventative methods to ensure unauthorised persons cannot gain access to the cockpit of a plane in flight may have contributed to tragic end of Germanwings flight 9525 which crash into a mountain on 24th March 2015 killing all on board [BBCDaily Mail].

Crash was "deliberate"

Audio recordings retrieved from one of two black boxes showed that the pilot was locked out from the cockpit by the co-pilot who ignored his calls to be let in [NYT / BBC / Daily Mail]. The co-pilot, named as Andreas Lubitz then appeared to calmly and deliberately fly the aircraft into the ground.

The Marseilles prosecutor, speaking at a press conference on 26th March said there was no clear evidence of terrorism, but there will be much speculation given the circumstances.

The fact that the 28-year-old German national from Montabaur in Germany had "wanted to destroy the plane" raises one of two major possibilities. The first possibility is that the co-pilot had been suffering from a mental illness or depression and become suicidal. Just as unsettling is the possibility that the co-pilot having been operating under a terrorist agenda.

Game changer

The circumstances are a game changer which will likely prompt a rethink of security on aircraft.

Since the 9/11 terror attacks facilities were put in place that would allow the cockpit crew to lock the door and prevent any access and override any ability of emergency access.

However the irony is that these very security measures appears to have facilitated in the deliberate crashing of an airline.

Passengers' screams

According to prosecutors passengers were oblivious of their impending doom and screams were only heard in the last few seconds before the plane hit the ground.

The co-pilot, who was recruited in 2013 and had around 630 hours flight time, made a controlled descent towards the ground whilst ignoring calls from the pilot to be let in. A quiet knock by the pilot were followed by louder knocks and vain efforts to break down the door.

In the 8 minute descent from 38 000 feet the co-pilot ignored all radio traffic and was said to be unpanicked since audio tapes showed him to be breathing calmly.


Lufthansa officials were said to be "speechless" at the revelations, with CEO Carston Spohr saying that he was "shocked and dismayed" at the new details [BBC / Sky News / CNN / France24Guardian / Telegraph].

Lufthansa have insisted that the pilot, named only as Patrick S., did nothing improper in leaving the co-pilot in charge, but would look at security procedures and profiling of pilots in the coming months. One particular procedure the airline said it may look at is a so-called "two person rule" where another member of the crew replaces the pilot or co-pilot should one or the other leave. This policy is standard amongst US airlines and can serve not only to prevent something as serious as occurred this week, but also help in dealing with any medical emergency that might affect the remaining pilot.

It won't only be Lufthansa that will be taking stock. Other airlines will surely be looking closely at their security measures given how easily a single person was able to take control of an aircraft and crash it into the ground.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Tag Heuer team with Google to build smartwatch

The high-end Swiss watchmaker Tag Heuer has announced it is to build an Android Wear-powered smartwatch, but it may do little to boost interest in smartwatches.

The firm, a part of the luxury goods-maker LVMH Group, is forming a partnership with Google and the chipmaker Intel to create the device.

Switzerland dominates the high-end watch sector but it remains to be seen whether it can reproduce the same interest so-called wearable tech.

Jean-Claude Biver, president of LVMH's watch division, claims that the move into making smartwatches made sense and that Tag Heuer's device would stand out from other smartwatches [BBC].

Limited market

However the take-up of wearable devices has been relatively slow.

Smartwatches main let-down is that they drain power too quickly and have to charged on a regular basis. The design of many devices has also been criticised. Indeed some have all the aesthetics of a brick, albeit a rather small brick.

Smartwatches have to be tethered to a smartphone by Bluetooth and enable a user to receive notifications without having to delve into their pocket.


But there are limitations to the devices. Given the size only a small amount of information can be shown and inputting information, even with voice commands is often fraught with problems.

Nonetheless Google and Apple have both invested millions of dollars in developing devices, although Apple's first smartwatch is not due to hit stores until April.

The Apple Watch will be available to pre-order on 10th April, and will go on sale on the 24th April. It will initially be available in nine countries, including the UK, Australia, China, Japan, Hong Kong, Germany and France.

But those wanting to own the much hyped device may need to dig deep into their pockets with the most expensive 18 karat gold model costing around $17,000 or £13,500. Most will likely opt for the cheapest model priced at about starts at $349  or £299.

Android wear

Google currently offer four devices in its Play Store. The Samsung Gear Live, the LG G watch, the Moto 360 and the Asus ZenWatch. Prices start at £169 and those buying directly from the Google Play store get a £50 credit to purchase films, music, books or apps.

Some devices even claim to be waterproof, and sport toughened glass. But without power, the ability to charge the device and without a decent data connection, smartwatches are less than useless.

Data issues

Take an international traveller for example. Standing at Heathrow waiting for a flight, the watch might prove to be invaluable as it alerts the user to the latest flight updates, emails, nearby deals and weather information at one's destination.

Having boarded the flight, there is the issue of whether the device would be considered an electronic flight risk and, like phones and laptops, be required to be switched off. Even if it were to comply with FAA rules, even with a Bluetooth link to one's phone, there would be little one could do other than perhaps control music playback. Furthermore, by the time the traveller arrived at their destination the watch would surely be flat.

But aside the power issues there is the problem concerning data usage. At home, it is unlikely to be a major issue. But data roaming is notoriously expensive, and without that all important data connection the electronic wizardry in the device is somewhat useless.

Traditional competition

Indeed it hard to envisage smartwatches pushing out traditional watches which may be self winding, solar powered or contain batteries that last for years. Tradition watches also come in a variety of form factors to fit many different needs. There are expensive Rolex watches that may simply tell the time, or the ever popular rugged Casio range of G-shock or Pro-Trek watches which may offer such things as temperature and barometric readings, an altimeter, a compass and lunar phases.

But it's early days yet. With a traditional watch maker such as Tag Heuer's moving towards smartwatch technology others may follow suit. Indeed a Casio G-shock or Pro-Trek smartwatch may well increase interest in what otherwise remain a niche market

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Fukushima still impacting four years on

Four years after a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated parts of northern Japan, the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is still decades from being decommissioned and environmental problems continue to mount.

As the anniversary passed, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government planned to reopen the country's nuclear plants despite widespread public opposition and ongoing safety concerns.

Opinion polls have consistently shown that the majority of people do not want the plants to be reactivated.

Japan's 48 nuclear plants have been offline since September 2013. The plants were shut down following the partial meltdowns at the Fukushima plant. Reactors 3 and 4 at Kansai Electric Power Company's Ōi plant in Fukui Prefecture, were restarted in July 2012, before being closed again the following year [WSWS].

There has been more than radioactive fallout culminating from the Fukushima disaster. Whilst some 6,000 employees have returned to the Fukushima Daiichi power plant to work there daily, its ruins still pose a significant threat.

Nuclear radiation remains dangerous in and around the destroyed reactors. Villages in its proximity remain a no-go zone for inhabitants, and may be uninhabitable for some time to come.

The nuclear power plant itself is far from being secure. Its owner TEPCO has so far been unable to remove hundreds of fuel rods stored nearby because the 2011 earthquake destabilized or destroyed large parts of the buildings. Meanwhile radiation continues to contaminate underground water.

But despite the contamination of large swaths of land, agricultural products and water resources, as well as growing opposition to nuclear power, Japan's government remains convinced that nuclear energy will be an inevitable energy source for the country in the future [Washington Post].

According to some surveys, 70% of Japan's population oppose a reliance on nuclear energy. Given the long term effects of the disaster it is perhaps understandable.

Japan has been particularly affected by the negative impacts of atomic energy. It is the only country, thus far, to have had the misfortune of having been bombed with nuclear weapons. It is this history that recently prompted the daughter of two Hiroshima victims to speak out and call for an end to the use of both atomic weapons and nuclear power.

"Humans cannot control nuclear energy," declared Mari Tamba, whose father was horribly burned in the Hiroshima bombing. "Atomic bombs and nuclear power plants must be abolished." [Japan Times]

The anti nuclear message has spread beyond Japan. Germany has already made a commitment to end its reliance on nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster.

Meanwhile, the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo has marked the anniversary with its own take of the risks of nuclear power. In the March 19th edition a cartoon shows two people in protective NBC suits talking about this year's first swallow while looking at footprints of a giant bird whilst a nuclear power plant spews out smoke in the background. The suggestion is of course that the first swallow had mutated into a gigantic monster due to the radioactive leaks.

Not everyone has headed the warnings however. Pakistan for instance is going ahead with its plan to construct a nuclear power plant in an area vulnerable to tsunamis near Karachi. This despite an outcry from the city's nearly 20 million inhabitants [Washington Post].

Many have for years feared that terrorists might attempt to steal one of Pakistan's nuclear bombs and detonate it in a foreign country. But the building of a nuclear power station in such a high risk area may area may well bring disaster far closer to home.

Unfortunately it is only when disaster strikes close to home that attitudes change. But by then it may be too late.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Mud slinging, smears & lies as election campaign hots up

Mud slinging, smears & lies have already become the order of the day as the election campaign hots up. Most of the parties have been accused of underhand tactics with each accusing the other of disseminating lies or of refusing to debate the serius issues of the day

Blatant lies

Labour has slammed Tory claims that Ed Miliband wants an alliance with Sinn Féin if there were a hung Parliament saying it amounted to blatant "lies".

Sinn Féin has also dismissed reports that the party was in negotiations with British Labour MPs over a deal to prop up an Ed Miliband government following the general election [Guardian].

Yet the claims have been repeated and become part of an election smear campaign.

Pamphlets distributed by Hornchurch & Upminster Conservative MP Angela Watkinson prominently warn voters that Labour proposed to seek an alliance with the Republican Party.

The election flyer distributed to homes across Havering in East London talks of a "nightmare" pointing out that the SNP have said they'd help Ed Miliband into the next election", a deal that the Conservatives say "would mean more spending, more borrowing, more taxes - and chaos for Britain."

"And even worse, reports say Labour are also trying to secure the support of Sinn Féin to prop up Miliband as Prime Minister" the leaflet claims.

Whatever the deals demanded for propping up Ed Miliband, the election publication insists that "hardworking taxpayers would pay the price."

The claims that Labour was seeking to make a deal with Sinn Féin were first published in The Sun newspaper back in January. However, most papers have since dismissed the reports as fanciful.


Sinn Féin has rubbished the reports, with MP Conor Murphy saying the party had never held talks with any party on the issue. "Sinn Féin's position on Westminster is very well known. We work hard in delivering a good service to our voters but we do not take our seats in Westminster," he told the Daily Mirror.

"None of these parties have ever asked us over the course of these meetings to support them on the other side of an election," he said.

The scaremongering may have little basis in fact but the suggestion that the SNP and Sinn Fein might prop up Ed Miliband has been used in mock election posters posted on Twitter and in an official YouTube video [BBC].

Chickens running scared

However it's not just the Tories running a smear campaign. Labour themselves have mocked the Conservatives, and Prime Minister David Cameron in particular, for their apparent unwillingness to take part in pre-election TV debates [YouTube].

Cameron has been accused of "running scared" and of being "chicken" for his refusal to take part in a head to head with David Miliband. The PM said he would only take part in a single debate and one that must include the Green Party. After weeks of debate a deal was finally struck with a single 7-way debate which will air on ITV and be shared amongst the other broadcasters [Telegraph].

TV debates

Cameron has rejected a head to head debate. Instead there is now a proposal for two separate interviews of Cameron and Miliband hosted by Jeremy Paxman and then questioned by a studio audience in a Sky/Channel 4 special on 26th March.

After the dissolution of parliament at the end of March, Cameron would appear in a debate featuring the leaders of seven parties on ITV on the 2nd April.

Later the BBC are planning "a challengers' special" involving the SNP, UKIP, Plaid Cymru the Greens and the DUP. The programme scheduled for 16th April will likely anger UKIP leader Nigel Farage who wants the party to be seen as a major player.

There are also plans for separate half-hour segments in a Question Time-style event hosted by David Dimbleby with the main party leaders David Cameron, Ed Miliband and the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg taking part. That would be broadcast on the BBC on 30th April, just a week before Britain goes to the polls.

UKIP smears

One party that has been smeared more than any other is UKIP. Hardly a day goes by without the party being taken to task over its policies, especially of those concerning race and immigration. Channel Four's "The First 100 Days" drew hundreds of complaints for its speculative look at Britain after the general election should UKIP win.

The spoof drama-documentary prompted more than 6,500 complaints, many from the right wing group Britain First [Independent] .

The programme portrayed a fictional Asian woman UKIP MP who suffers a crisis of conscience when she witnesses the divisive impact of the party's policies on immigration in action and Britain's pull out from the EU having an impact on jobs.

Farage described the programme as "liberal-left poppycock" [Independent]. Meanwhile some members of the public branded the show a "hatchet job" as a number voiced their criticisms on Twitter, including comedian Jason Manford who raised concerns about bias.

One viewer said, "This is so biased from a mainstream media [organisation], it makes me furious - and I don´t even support UKIP." [Daily Mail]

Clowns & racists

Another programme also drew ire from party supporters. Broadcast on the BBC, the fly on the wall documentary Meet the Ukippers exposed the prejudiced views of some party activists and was watched by 1.4m viewers.

Described as "riveting" by some reviewers the programme exposed many of UKIP's shortcomings [Telegraph]

The programme even led to the party expelling councillor Rozanne Duncan for racist comments she made during the making of the show. During the programme she was filmed saying she had a "problem" with "negroes".

"A friend of mine said, 'What would you do if I invited you to dinner and put you next to one?' I said, 'I wouldn't be there, simple as that."

The revelations shown in the documentary were described as "jaw dropping by the Kent Messenger, a local paper which covers Thanet where the programme was filmed.

Some media coverage was more sardonic. The Telegraph viewed the party with mirth pointing out some of the "terrifying things" the documentary revealed out UKIP.

"They really, really love clowns" the paper said, referring to the slightly obsessive UKIP member who had a rather large collection of ceramic clowns. There were some more serious observations such as the chairman of UKIP's South Thanet branch, Martyn Heale, who was once a member of the National Front but seemed not to understand why it bothered people.

And of course there was a deep focus on Rozanne Duncan and her discomfort with people displaying "negroid features" but who insisted she was "absolutely not racist" [Telegraph]. The documentary can be watched on BBC iPlayer until 24th March.

Minor parties criticised

Even the minor parties have not escaped the criticism of being involved in a smear campaign. The latest to come under the spotlight is George Gallaway and his Respect Party with accusations that Labour opponents were receiving telephone threats, though there's no evidence thus far to show actual party members are involved [Guardian].

With around 48 days to go until the polls open the smear campaigns, lies and criticisms are likely to heat up. Indeed the mud slinging appears to just be starting.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

China's Asian Investment Bank a tool to spread soft power

The International Monetary Fund, the Asian Development Bank, and World Bank may lose their influence and place in the Far East as China's Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank [AIIB] gains backers and draws in support from European countries.


The establishment of the AIIB was first discussed in 2013 with the Chinese government expressing its frustration with what it regarded as the slow pace of reforms and governance, and wanted greater input in global established institutions like the IMF, World Bank and Asian Development Bank which it claimed were dominated by American, European and Japanese interests [Economist].

The United Kingdom signed up to be a founding member of the bank ahead of a deadline at the end of March 2015 [WSJ]. France, Germany and Italy have followed Britain's lead but the US has a move that has rattled the US [Guardian / FT].

Originally unveiled in October 2013 by China's President Xi, the proposal was to harness some of China's vast financial resources and the expertise acquired in its modernisation in order to improve situations elsewhere in the region. However, as well as becoming a potential rival to the Washington-based World Bank, there are fears that Beijing will use the bank to extend its soft power in the region.

Geopolitics & economics

Martin Wolf, widely considered to be one of the world's most influential writers on economics, and an associate editor and chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, has dismissed such concerns. Whilst he acknowledges the AIIB may well precipitate geopolitical and economic rivalry, he says the general idea "makes sense" [FT].

It might make sense on one level, after all China arguably has a better understanding of its neighbours' needs and wants. Some of its neighbours such as Laos and Myanmar, for example, lack the resources themselves to invest heavily in infrastructure. Indeed estimates of the cost of a railway from Kunming in south-western China to Vientiane, the Lao capital, for example, start at $6 billion, almost as much as Laos's entire GDP.

"Soft power"

For China to step in and build and finance it on its own might look like colonialism. But since the bank would enhance both China's direct influence over what gets built and its indirect "soft power" the effect would essentially be the same.

In fact it may prove more beneficial to China since local sentiments would be less strained as direct Chinese investment in neighbouring countries has often been seen as interfering.

The US has been particularly outspoken about the potential influence the AIIB may have in the region. With talk of western European countries joining one unnamed official expressed concerns saying, "We are wary about a trend toward constant accommodation of China, which is not the best way to engage a rising power." [FT / Washington Post]

Changing the rules

The Obama administration has expressed the opinion that should the G7 group of leading economies and others rush to join institutions such as the AIIB, it could end up becoming an instrument of Chinese foreign policy.

But Britain's chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, has been unrepentant, arguing that Britain should be in at the start of the new bank, ensuring that it operates in a transparent way. Furthermore Osborne believes it fills an important gap in providing finance for infrastructure for Asia.

It remains unclear whether the Chinese-led AIIB initiative will complement or compete with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank to meet Asia's capital investment needs. What is clear, however, is China's willingness to challenge America's long-established strategy of institutionalising power in a rules-based order [lowyinterpreter].

When China negotiated its becoming a member of the World Trade Organisation in 2001, it hinted that its long term intention was one of reshaping the organization it wanted to join. Indeed at one particularly contentious point in its negotiations to enter the WTO, the Chinese ambassador reportedly thundered, "We know we have to play the game your way now, but in ten years we will set the rules!" [IIE].

In the 15 years since, not only has China's economy grown significantly, but so too has its confidence. This confidence is repeatedly manifesting itself in greater assertiveness with China pushing the bar higher and higher as it demands things be conducted according to its vision of the future.

There are some that argue the US join the party and attempt to effect change from the inside [Forbes]. However by doing so the US would lose face.

Of course it could simply drop the issue and let the AIIB rise or fall on its own merits. But this option simply leaves the US sitting on the fence, watching as China increases its influence in Asia.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Saturday, March 14, 2015

BBC website down due to "technical problems"

The BBC website went down on Saturday afternoon with reports that the site could not be accessed from many locations around the globe.

The reason for the outage was not immediately clear but came as surprise to many people who took to Twitter to express their opinion with some describing it as "amazing". Speculation mounted as to the reason for the outage with many people believing hackers were responsible according to a poll on the Daily Mirror website. Indeed only 3 days earlier the hacking group Anonymous threatened to bring down the website if Jeremy Clarkson wasn't reinstated following his suspension from the programme Top Gear after a 'fracas' with a producer [Daily Mirror].

The site showed the once familiar testcard image  showing a clown and an "Error 500" alongside a statement that the site might be down because  of "abnormal traffic" to the network or that "the service or servers it is on is not currently available".

The BBC would only say they were experiencing technical difficulties. "Apologies, as we are experiencing technical problems on the BBC News website. We are working hard to resolve the issues," the organisation tweeted. However some Internet users also noted that other BBC web services were unavailable including the BBC iPlayer which could not be resolved on Android devices.

The website went down shortly after 13:00 GMT but some services returned to normal for some users with the hour.

For the BBC website to go down is relatively rare. The last time the site went down for any significant period of time was in July 2012 [Telegraph].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

RSF move to Amazon Web Services runs risk to business

It was reported this week that Reporters Without Borders, also known as Reporters Sans Frontiers, had facilitated the unblocking of several banned websites in countries like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia by setting up mirror websites on Amazon's cloud web service.

However, the exercise, while highlighting an important issue concerning censorship may prove futile and damage legitimate businesses who work out of China.

Calculated risk 

The use of Amazon Web Services calls China's bluff under the pretext that the authorities will be discouraged from trying to block these new links at their source for fear of disrupting traffic to other websites.

"The countries concerned could block these services but almost certainly will not," explained a Reporters Without Borders spokesperson. "Blocking Amazon, Microsoft or any major cloud computing service provider would cripple the thousands of tech companies that use them every day."

"The economic and political cost of blocking the mirror sites would therefore be too high."

Amazon Web Services is encrypted, and so to block sites using it the Chinese government would need to block the entire AWS domain, a step that some believe it would be hesitant to do since it would also hinder e-commerce by the country's businesses. In a 2013 press release Amazon said thousands of Chinese customers, including major corporations, depended on AWS for database management and other cloud-computing applications.

Wholesale blocking 

However, China has a long history of disregarding WHO rules, and risking a loss of business in playing a protectionist card as well as cutting off Internet traffic at the risk of affecting legitimate business sites.

In November 2014 Edgecast, which also provides web services like Amazon, was blocked in a clear stepping up of Internet censorship. Sites affected included Sony Mobile and The Atlantic magazine [Bloomberg].

Recently tvnewswatch learned that Internet users in Chengdu, in Sichuan province, were unable to access the Chinese version of the Mothercare website and were thus unable to make online purchases. This apparent block was itself hard to explain given the IP address is registered with China's Internet body.

Recent rules concerning banks and govt. departments and their use of technology also shows no regard for foreign competition . Symantec, Kaspersky and other foreign antivirus software is also effectively banned in official departments [tvnewswatch: China tightens policies over use of foreign tech]. Windows 8 is also banned from govt computers following Microsoft's ending support for XP. And now all software companies supplying banks and other companies must supply source code and comply to stringent vetting by authorities [tvnewswatch: China: business challenges & tightening grip on net].


So to believe that China won't cut off Amazon Web Services in order to block unwanted content could be considered rather naive.

Professor Alan Woodward, a cybersecurity expert at the University of Surrey, was not convinced that the mirror sites would remain effective over the several months that Reporters Without Borders intends to run the initiative.

Speaking to the BBC he said that once the authorities had found the mirrored webpages they could simply block the relevant URLs, or web addresses. "It is an interesting principle because it shows people are aware of censorship and want to do something about it," Professor Woodward said. Changing the URLs frequently might counter such efforts, but the professor question how often Reporters Without Borders were willing to change them.

Even if URLs were changed on a frequent basis, and AWS remained accessible, Internet users in such counties might have difficulty finding the mirrored websites.

Collateral damage

Nonetheless, Reporters Without Border remain clear in their determination to publicise the phenomena of Internet censorship and disseminate information banned in certain regions.

"The censoring country would be unlikely to block one of these servers because the collateral disruption and damage would outweigh the benefits to be gained from restoring censorship," the organisation said [Betanews]. It is not the first time AWS has been used to circumvent censorship. In 2014 a banned report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists concerning an exposé of the use of offshore tax havens by Chinese politicians and business moguls was made accessible using the service[ChinaFile].

Activists believe that Chinese censors won't block sites like AWS and GitHub, a cloud-hosting service many Chinese computer programmers use for storing data and sharing code.

Operation Collateral Freedom, as it has been dubbed, may open one door, but the irony is that there may well be collateral damage as other doors are shut.

King-wa Fu, an Assistant Professor and censorship researcher at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, says that the Chinese government will eventually play hard ball.

If the mirror sites attract a tipping-point level of Chinese visitors, Fu fears "that the Chinese government would block Amazon or ask Amazon to take down the contents."

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Election debate may join YouTube generation

The debate surrounding TV election debates has descended into farce and become ever more heated with little over 50 days to the General Election. Broadcasters have been accused of breaking impartiality rules. The PM has been labelled a chicken.

The election debates have run the risk of being shelved altogether. But with a  proposal of a Digital Debate, the election debates may be saved.

Chickens and empty chairs

As proposals for election debates began in January the current Prime Minister David Cameron said that he would take part in TV political debates that included the Green Party. This sparked allegations that the PM was chicken and was trying to duck out of the debates altogether.

Broadcasters squabbled over what they might air initially rejecting the suggestion that the Green Party might be involved and with some threatening to 'empty chair' the Prime Minister.
There were then proposals that as well as the Green Party, leaders from other parties be involved including those from Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Ultimatums and temper tantrums

Then came a declaration from Downing Street saying that David Cameron would only take part in a single debate and that the broadcasters should argue it out amongst themselves as to how they might organise the event [BBC].

In Wednesday's PMQs the debate became particularly heated with the opposition leader Ed Miliband accusing the PM of "chickening out" while Cameron himself labelled Miliband as being "despicable" for only wanting to discuss a TV programme rather than political policies [BBC / Daily Mail].

Digital debate

As the main broadcasters, Sky, the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV, discussed their proposals, two national papers put forward a new suggestion [Telegraph].

The Telegraph Media Group, which publishes The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and Google, which owns the YouTube video website, invited the leaders to a five way "digital debate" on 26th or 27th of March.

The proposal would fulfil Cameron's insistence that the debate be held before the end of March as well as his call for the Green Party to be involved.

In their letter executives from the consortium wrote, "We note that the prime minister has said he is willing to take part in a debate in the week beginning 23rd March and that the leader of the opposition is prepared to debate 'any time, any place, anywhere'."

"We also note that the impasse in negotiations with the broadcasters means that meaningful television debates now look unlikely to take place."

Joining the YouTube generation

The consortium have said that the debate would be available live, and after the event, for any and all TV networks to broadcast in addition to being on YouTube platforms [Guardian].

Speaking shortly after Prime Minister's Questions, sources close to David Cameron and Ed Miliband said they were considering the proposal for the digital debate. Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps told the BBC's Daily Politics a digital debate seemed a "plausible" way forward. Lib Dem general election co-ordinator Lord Ashdown said the party remained committed to election debates and would consider the digital debate proposal.

Meanwhile UKIP leader Nigel Farage said he will take part in the digital debate [Telegraph]. "Scrutiny is an important part of democracy, and for this reason I am delighted to accept the Telegraph/Guardian/YouTube invitation to this debate - so that I can make the case to the British electorate on why they should vote UKIP," Farage was quoted as saying.

Media circus

The so-called digital debate may prove to be the best option. It would certainly bring an end to the media circus that has surrounded the TV debates.

There have already been accusations from both sides of the house that the broadcasters have held a gun to the Prime Minister's head with the threat of empty chairing the Conservative leader.

Answering questions at the Retail Week Live conference in London, former Labour strategist Lord Mandelson said broadcasters were not entitled to "empty-chair" leaders who refuse to take part in debates.

The former business secretary said, "I think voters feel entitled to have that sort of debate and comparison directly in front of them."

"I think that David Cameron, though, is entitled not to do that debate in the particular way the broadcasters have prescribed and the Labour Party is entitled to make him look and appear completely 'frit' and chicken and force him to take a hit for not doing the debates," Mandelson said. "What I don't think is that the broadcasters then are entitled to impose what they want on the political parties and empty-chair party leaders." [Daily Mail]

Conservative Peer Lord Grade has also stepped in saying  the broadcasters were breaching impartiality rules and "playing politics" in the row over election debates.

The ex-BBC, ITV and Channel 4 boss said it was "not acceptable for unelected journalists" to replace David Cameron with an "empty chair" if he refused to take part in any televised debates. "There was no divine right to have election debates" [BBC / Telegraph].

Taking stock

The digital debate may well take place given it fulfills Cameron's main demands, But the broadcasters meanwhile continue to discuss the possibility of going ahead with their own debates whether or not the PM takes part.

However, it should be considered by all media outlets that TV debates - or even those conducted on a digital platform - are not a cornerstone of the electoral process.

Britain has been conducting general election campaigns under universal suffrage for over 200 years. Only once, in 2010, have TV debates played a part. There is no great issue of constitutional precedence at play here. Indeed in Britain, debates are an electoral curiosity, not an electoral necessity and could be considered to be an American import.

Debates are not, of themselves, politically neutral events. They provide an inbuilt advantage to the challenger, or challengers, at the expense of the incumbent. By demanding the debates take place, something the broadcasters are doing now, demanding and threatening, rather than negotiating, they are siding with one political party, or parties, against another. This, as Lord Grade has pointed out, goes against impartiality rules.

Should the broadcasters go ahead and empty chair David Cameron a week before polling day, as they currently seem to be proposing, they may turn the election debates into a farcical spectacle especially if the only person taking part is the opposition leader Ed Miliband.

The digital platform may not appease the broadcasters whose ratings would surely suffer. But at least according to one poll, 79% of participants thought the Internet was the best medium for the election debates [Telegraph].

tvnewswatch, London, UK