No child should be afraid of growing up

It’s sometime easier to think about tragedy and wars in countries far away– much harder to think about the war on the next-door street. But for many Londoners these days, every radio news bulletin brings an ache in the gut and the question: is that my son they are talking about?

A week ago, I got a call early in the morning from my friend David Marriott, co-founder and lead coach of a major club in south London the Lambeth Tigers, at which I help out a bit. He told me the night before, he was coaching kids mostly eight years old, but with siblings as young as three watching the session. This was at a youth club in Brixton, the Marcus Lipton. He described how a young man was chased into the club and stabbed to death, right by where the children were training. David and two parents of the kids got directly involved trying to save the young man’s life – unfortunately unsuccessful.

David Marriott outside the Marcus Lipton centre

The coaches, parents and children were terribly traumatised. It’s been heart-breaking to hear how kids have reacted. To hear how eight-year-old boys are asking their mums: “When I grow old will I get stabbed?”. That should not be the worry  of anyone from any community growing up in London

No-one should be afraid of growing up.

We wondered who to turn to, and after all the stabbings that have occurred in London, we expected a slick response.

We spent all day trying to get a number for some counsellor, some psychologist who the parents and the coaches could speak to. We called it in as an emergency to Lambeth social services. The Tigers did get immediate help from the London Football Association and are grateful for that. But at the end of the day (Friday night) all we could offer parents was numbers for helplines like Victim Support. That isn’t a good enough – they wanted some real person to speak to.

After 5pm on Friday night everyone stopped even answering emails, by Sunday night, David was angered: “Not a single person from any authority has even called just to ask how the kids were doing.”

One of the mums, Sarah, said: “We felt completely abandoned. We feel like living victims.”

(You can hear more from Sarah in this BBC interview:  – go to 1.35.45 and it starts there )

The club, co-founded by David and Jamahl Jarrett, works in some of the toughest places in London and it has been very successful. Two thirds of their 200+ signed players live in neighbourhoods ranked in the top 20% for crime in Britain. The club makes a difference in many people’s lives. We wrote a letter to Sadiq Khan and Lambeth Council. The letter said: “Regardless of where children and young people live, we believe they have a right to a safe place to play and take part in sport.”

As David put it, “Whatever is happening on the street, these things can’t happen in front of my eight year olds”

David has seen a lot. His own brother was murdered in a gun crime in 2008, which motivated him and Jamahl to found the club. In 2012, a 15-year-old Lambeth Tiger player was murdered, the innocent victim of a stabbing, that took place right oppose the same Brixton youth club, the Marcus Lipton

When David returned to the crime scene on Thursday, flowers were still left over from that 2012 tragedy, still attached to the railing right opposite.

After David and Jamahl sent the letter, Lambeth organised some counselling, and Sadiq Khan’s people got in touch. It seems authorities are getting a response together. The club will meet with them next week to work out what next. But parents still don’t think it’s enough.

This is more than a small football club should have to deal with alone – and the teenagers and youth workers who were there too at the Youth Centre need massive support and help.
The Tigers tried not to make too much publicity because they didn’t want to impact on kids at the club. They don’t want anyone to fear sport – to associate sport with danger.

But everyone does feel there are some important things to say, lessons to learn – and these kids still need plenty more help.

Lambeth Tigers also learned who our friends are. Telling people about a stabbing makes most people so shocked, they can’t wait to put down the phone. And they find excuses not to help.

We also  learned we have massive friends at Nike – who showed us that being a ‘partner club’ was not just a slogan.

Going forward, the football club’s going to work hard not only to these support parents and kids but to find and support efforts for safe sports facilities for kids in south London for all.

If you want to help you can get in touch with Lambeth Tigers: – or pledge something to the fundraising page of the club’s registered charity, the Lambeth Tigers Foundation:

B-72: Chaos? Yes. But a fair, consensus Brexit deal is possible.

May’s plan has been defeated; politics is all at sea. But a solution stares us in the face, if both Conservatives and liberals re-think their approach.

The right Brexit plan stares us in the face. The only question is: will the Government and the Labour Leader put the interest of the country above the unity of their parties?

Yesterday, I watched the debate in the British parliament carefully and went also to Westminster and chatted to several MPs. Based on those observations, it seems  obvious to me there is a clear consensus in parliament and the country on the best form of Brexit. If Brexit must go ahead, a clear majority would accept a customs union.

A customs union will allow, just as in Switzerland, some key business regulations to be set in Brussels (without a UK say or vote) but most key areas of national policy to be set at Westminster.

A customs union avoids the need for a hard border in Northern Ireland, thus cancels the ‘backstop’ problem. It trades a loss of sovereignty on a few matters with a wider return of sovereignty over much else.

May has wrongly prioritised Party unity by spending two years preventing parliament from agreeing and ratifying a vision for what relationship Britain wants with the EU. Even now, the so-called ‘agreement’ is still to a large extent a ‘blind Brexit’ where key decisions are – dangerously – delayed until after we have left.

May has also wrongly prioritised Party unity with her ‘red line’ that rejects the European Court of Justice competence over policing the single market. Parliament could live with ECJ competence.

If May and parliament choose the customs union approach, some Tory rebels may quit the whip and she will lose her majority. At this point, she (or her successor) should attempt a government of national unity to exist only to agree the Brexit deal; if that fails, an election will be needed. As I observed, there is a clear Labour + Soft Tory majority for a soft Brexit; but perhaps not a majority within Tory ranks.

Liberals in Labour and Conservative and LibDem ranks meanwhile – hellbent on stopping Brexit — have been wrong to obfuscate and delay the creation of consensus plan for Brexit. (I count myself guilty on that score).

Liberals are right to campaign for a second referendum but their approach has been disingenuous and poorly calculated. Their approach needs to be reframed so that ardent Brexiteers themselves are begging for a second plebiscite. I’ll explain how and explain how it could be timed.

The public expect leaders to do their job and come up with a workable plan. People don’t want some ‘dogs dinner’ failed plan thrown back to them in a cynical ploy to cancel Brexit.

So if there is a second referendum (and there should be), it should put to the people the best possible plan for Brexit that already has consensus in parliament, namely a customs union.

Referenda work in democracies, for example in California and Switzerland, where they present clear fully-formulated propositions. The mistake of the first Brexit referendum was to offer Brexit without defining what it should mean.

The reason a second referendum is justified and necessary is that we simply do not know if a majority exists in the country for any Brexit solution; or if a majority would prefer the status quo (continued EU membership) over any particular Brexit plan.

So that nobody feels cheated, the correct referendum could ask two questions:

  1. Should Britain continue to exit the European Union? YES/NO
  2. If Brexit continues, do you approve of the plan approved by Parliament to leave the EU and remain in a Customs Union? YES / NO

On this basis, hard Brexiteers can campaign for a YES-NO, on the basis that if Parliament’s deal is rejected, Britain will opt for their clean break solution; soft Brexiteers can campaign for a YES-YES; and Remainers can campaign for a NO-YES, confident that even they lose on the existential Brexit question, a soft landing can occur.

Having wasted so much time without building a consensus in Parliament, it will be hard to make a deal before March. However, the Brexit ‘agreement’ is little more than a transition agreement that kicks the can of fundamental issues down the road. And most people can only really judge the merits of Brexit once those fundamentals are agreed.

On the timing, here I’d welcome the advice of technical experts but the correct approach maybe to go ahead with Brexit on the basis of two changes: 1) hardening the political agreement to build a clearer vision on the basis of eliminating the backstop on the basis of customs union; 2) establishing a ‘cooling off’ principle, that could allow Britain to think again on Brexit within the transition period.

The cooling off approach may seem novel, but since Britain will be fully compliant with EU rules during the transition period (and EU countries fully compliant for trading with Britain) a Brexit reversal would not come at a huge cost; most EU countries would also support the notion of the British people being given a chance to think again. Within the cooling off period, it seems to me would then allow a second vote to be put to be put to the people after a new trade deal / customs union had been negotiated, so that people could finally judge on what Brexit means.

One alternative approach – again seeking a vision that does not cheat people — is to delay Brexit in order to negotiate a much more fully-formed agreement, incorporating the customs union and thus removing the need for a Northern Ireland backstop, but, at the same time, shorten the transition so that full exit from the EU, if it goes ahead, is not shortened again.

Either way, there is an approach to go ahead that cheats nobody, slows down nothing, but still gives the people a final say.

B-DAY-80. Democracy is never over

There are fears our country may be rather divided. Many suggest it is time to ‘heal the wounds’, and to reconcile.

That’s piffle.

There is a battle in progress – a legitimate struggle to decide the UK’s future – and until the issue is decided, until Britain leaves the European Union irrevocably or cancels its exit, any priest, doom-monger or heckler that tries to block your participation in that debate is denying your right to have a say in your future.

Democracy is never over. Voters don’t dispatch their decisions to the political elite like ‘fire and forget missiles’ to be interpreted and re-interpreted ad infinitum by its leaders. Legitimacy is subject to constant refresh, directly through regular elections or plebiscites, and indirectly through the judgement of elected representatives.

Only in a dictatorship does one vote settle all.

When the Labour Party scored less than 5% of the vote in the 1906 election, it wasn’t some signal to abandon it struggle – no less than defeat at Dunkirk meant it was time to quit fighting Hitler.

Should a referendum result on an important constitutional question be binding? That’s indeed a debatable question. Don’t believe anyone who thinks there is clear answer, because Britain has no fixed constitution to consult.

But it is fair to say  that in many democracies, making a major decision, such as – to name one minor example — the Brexit plan to strip European citizenship from millions of people without their agreement, would typically involve jumping through several more hoops than just a single vote. An amendment to the US Constitution, for example, requires the support of two-thirds of both houses of Congress and two-thirds of all states before it can proceed.

If anything is divisive, it is to base a really import change to a country on one single narrow vote, and to rip up one key arrangement (EU membership) without securing any agreement (in any forum, whether in the cabinet, parliament, or the country) of what should replace it.

I just handed in my notice, to myself

Well, it looks like after years and years of working as an independent freelance, I’m off to join Reuters as a special correspondent, which is a roving role within Europe and the Middle East as part of a wider global enterprise team. It’s an exciting time to join the organisation as they’ve decided to give a real boost to long-form explanatory and investigative work. Serious journlism, in other words, of the sort that is often in short supply. Details announced today in Press Gazette. I’ll start there in December.

Man’s conquest of Space

As the Space Shuttle carries out it’s final mission, here is a look at the result of decades of space flight – the debris of missions and the clutter of so many satellites.
This view – from 8700km – is a visualisation in Google Earth with data from the Union of Concerned Scientists satellite database and the US Space Track record catalog, pulled together here.  (Click on the picture to enlarge)

Peace talks need a strategy

On another moonlit runway every month these days, another bearded man is hustled aboard a military jet. He is an ‘intermediary’ from the Taliban and  is about to be flown many hours before sitting down for another chance to talk about ending this war.

As Spiegel reported this week, Germany is one country that his hosting very preliminary “peace talks” in a hope of ending a war in Afghanistan that has cost so many lives. It’s not the only show in town. According to intelligence officials and senior diplomats I’ve interviewed, various “representatives” of the Taliban movement have also been flown to Norway and to Turkey in parallel tracks.

Fresh impetus to this process has been given by President Obama. As terrorism analyst Peter Bergen reports, a little-noticed shift of US policy has all but abandoned pre-conditions for talks to start.

Bergen is sceptical the Taliban is ready for talks – or, citing Pakistani truces with the Talban in its tribal areas, he argues they cannot be trusted anyway.

But while I judge the Taliban is becoming ever more extreme (despite attempts to argue the opposite by former Taliban ambassador Mullah Zaeef and indeed by Mullah Omar himself), if the White House is serious about a peace process, as I believe it is, then the critical question is what path could be chosen that could firstly make the Taliban less extreme and therefore an acceptable partner in a future accord and secondly make the peace process acceptable to the Taliban itself. Continue reading Peace talks need a strategy

Winners of the 2010 Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism

I’ve just been informed of this very great and thoroughly undeserved honour. Thanks to all involved – and most particularly to all those who are assisting me with my reporting, often at huge personal risk to themselves:

Winners of the 2010 Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism

Adrian Mogos (Romania) – Local journalist category

Stephen Grey (UK) – Freelance category

London, 19 October 2010

This year’s jury selected two outstanding candidates whose fearlessness and journalistic excellence represent the overall mission of the Kurt Schork Awards for International Journalism.

Kurt Schork Memorial Fund The 2010 Kurt Schork Awards for International Journalism will honour freelancer Stephen Grey (UK), and local reporter Adrian Mogos (Romania). The awards ceremony at Thomson Reuters headquarters, Canary Wharf on Wednesday 3rd November, will be followed by a reception and panel discussion.

This year’s Schork jury included Jeremy Bowen of the BBC, John Burns of The New York Times, Sir Harold Evans, author and former editor of The Times and The Sunday Times, Rana Husseini, author and human rights activist, and Michela Wrong, freelance journalist and author.

The jury was particularly impressed with the quality of Stephen Grey’s articles on Afghanistan, saying that they represented some of the best coverage anywhere, combining maturity with excellent analytical skills, and making a complex war more understandable.

The jury said Adrian Mogos provided an excellent in-depth investigation into issues of compelling importance. They felt that he showed great initiative, persistence and ingenuity, backed up with excellent research to expose human rights violations.

About the Winners

Adrian Mogos – 2010 Winner, Local journalist category




Adrian Mogos was born in the town of Cluj – Napoca on 1974. He graduated from the Faculty of Journalism at the West University of Timisoara, following up with postgraduate studies in European Studies in Slovakia. Since 2004, Adrian has worked for the Bucharest-based daily newspaper Jurnalul National. At the same time, he was accepted as a member of the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism. In 2009, Adrian was made a fellow of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, and this summer he was awarded the CEI – SEEMO award for outstanding merits in investigative journalism. Adrian is often invited to share his experience with young journalists in Romania and Moldova.

Winning Stories

Stephen Gray – 2010 Winner, Freelance journalist category




Stephen Grey is a freelance writer and reporter based in London, covering security issues for both newspapers and television and radio. A former foreign correspondent and Insight Editor of the Sunday Times, he has continued to work for the paper as a freelance, covering most recently the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but has also written regularly for publications including the New York Times, Guardian, Prospect magazine and Le Monde Diplomatique. He is best known for his work on reporting the CIA’s rendition program, which resulted in his first book, Ghost Plane. Since 2007, he has been reporting on the war in Afghanistan, particularly in Helmand and Kandahar, where he reported in the spring and early summer of this year. His account of the battle for Musa Qala – Operation Snakebite- was published last year by Penguin. He has made several films for Channel 4 Dispatches, BBC Newsnight, Radio 4’s File on Four, and is currently working on assignment for the PBS documentary series Frontline. Stephen is married with two children.

Winning Stories

IN THE VIPER’S NEST published in the United States

Zenith Press have just released the USA edition of my book on the battle for Musa Qala and the war in Helmand, Afghanistan. THis is an updated version of Operation Snakebite, published in the UK, and includes new material on operations by the 82nd Airborne Division in Helmand.

It can be purchased on Amazon here