Hard News by Russell Brown


So Helen Clark declined to appear on Holmes last night, and Don Brash wouldn't go on Havoc. I'm sure there's a gag in there somewhere. Clark, of course, was never going to allow herself to be summonsed onto television - between elections Prime Ministers virtually never agree to dignify their Opposition counterparts by directly debating them in the media. I might be missing something, but can't recall a New Zealand Prime Minister doing so.

Instead, Clark made much of Brash's absence from debate in the House yesterday, where he is reckoned to be weak. "Where is 'e?" she squawked in the background, while Gerry Brownlee and Nick Smith did their bit to shame her for declining to debate their leader on Holmes. She sounded like a somewhat peckish orc: "'E doesn't need 'is legses!"

It was all theatre, all round. They might be right about Brash's difficulty in thinking on his feet: he appeared to be in two minds on Holmes about whether we ought to have signed up for the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq, and didn't want to venture a view on the nuclear ships issue. It still probably did him good to appear. (Ironically, he probably did have more to lose by appearing irony-challenged on Havoc, although the letter from his staff saying he wouldn't do it seemed unduly sniffy.)

Regarding Iraq, this story from The Times is the most unnerving thing I've read about the region for a while:

The expanding networks led by foreign Islamic extremists are also using Iraq’s porous borders to smuggle drugs into Saudi Arabia, using the proceeds to finance their operations, according to police in Karbala, the city 60 miles south of Baghdad which has this month suffered a devastating wave of bombings.

A year after the US-led coalition invaded Iraq to stamp out its alleged links to terrorism, fundamentalists are freely crossing the vast Saudi border and looting weapons from arms caches left by the former regime. “It’s just God protecting the Saudi border,” Colonel Karim Sultan, Karbala’s police chief, told The Times. “The border is wide open. It’s like a business fair, you can come any time and do your shopping.”

The New Yorker's John Lee Anderson wrote brilliantly about the fall of Baghdad last year, and he's just been back.

Baghdad is a much more dangerous place than it was a year ago. A few days before the Mount Lebanon explosion, someone set off a bomb in front of a perfume shop in the same neighborhood—Al-Karrada, a predominantly Shiite section of the city. The target of the attack, who died, was the brother-in-law of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council. Jaafari’s brother-in-law was not involved in politics, but he was presumably easier to get to than Jaafari, and killing him may have been worth it just to get a message across.

The fall of Saddam has improved the lives of many Iraqis, especially professionals such as doctors, engineers, and teachers, whose salaries have significantly increased. And the streets are clogged with traffic, which wasn’t true before the war.

A great many Iraqis took advantage of the temporary suspension of import duties at the border with Jordan and bought cheap secondhand cars. The Internet, which was strictly controlled under Saddam, is available everywhere, as are a wide variety of computers, domestic appliances, and cell phones.

These life-style improvements notwithstanding, very few people venture out on the streets after dark, and almost no one I know dares drive after ten-thirty. This is because of the staggering increase in the number of rapes, murders, armed robberies, carjackings, and kidnappings.

Saddam emptied the country’s prisons a few months before the war, and perhaps a hundred thousand criminals returned to the streets. Young girls are now walked to and from school by their fathers or brothers, for fear they might be snatched. Women generally dress much more modestly than they did before, wearing either baggy black abayas or helmet-like hijab head scarves.

Of course, not everywhere is as scary as Baghdad, but Iraqis' determined optimism about their future seems like a testament to their great fortitude.

Salam Pax is the Guardian's weblog editor for the week and, among others things, points us to Kurdo, the first Kurdish blog to be written from within Iraq.

Hard News readers were hugely out of sympathy with the record companies over the format-shifting issue. The most interesting comment came from Peter Payne:

I seem to remember that with the belated introduction of FM radio to NZ in the early 1980s, local music industry types campaigned against it also. This was on the basis that people would tape the superior quality audio and no longer buy LPs ... yeah right!

Actually, I think he might be right there. I'd forgotten that. There was further hilarity over on the nzradio mailing list, where a little bird listed the RIANZ council members who own and operate those sexy little iPod things. There is, of course, currently no legal way to use an iPod until the law change they're opposing comes to pass. Surely there's some mistake here?

And shouldn't there be more of a panic over Keith Stewart's wine column this week?