19 January 2006
In his diary this week, BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell discusses moves to ban the burqa in Belgium and the Netherlands, offers a new definition of journalistic objectivity, and pays tribute to a British MEP.
The diary is published every Thursday.
WOMEN IN BLACK
Should the state dictate what you wear?
I've been looking at proposals to ban the Islamic veil. It's already a reality in some towns in Belgium. The mayor of Maaseik tells me that he decided on the ban because, when women appeared in the town covered from head to foot in black, with not even their eyes visible, it frightened old people and children burst into tears.
Rather flippantly, I told him my little son cried when he saw Father Christmas but I hoped they weren't going to ban St Nick. He told me, quite seriously, that his council has made an exception for Santa Claus: he can cover his face so only his eyes are visible. I'm not sure Black Peter is allowed such leeway.
Despite this, there are reports of 200 Moroccan Muslims moving from the Netherlands to Belgium last year because the atmosphere is better here.
In the Netherlands, there are plans to impose a niqab and burqa ban all over the country. We meet a very thoughtful Muslim lawyer, who argues it is not necessary in Islam to cover up but defends the right of women to do so. As we leave her office in The Hague, she makes a throwaway remark.
"When I came here I was called the little Turkish girl, now I'm seen as a Muslim woman." Devout herself, she feels the West's hostility towards Islam is pushing some to become more religious, and predicts that if a ban is imposed some women will wear the niqab or burqa as a political statement.
THE SATURDAY MORNING TEST
Whenever people talk about journalistic objectivity, they nearly always mean whether or not we allow personal political beliefs to sway editorial judgements.
I think a better test of real objectivity is that Saturday morning phone call: is your judgement of the worth of a story different when you are in the office eager to get on the bulletins from when you are at home looking forward to a day with the family?
HAVE YOUR SAY
No government or man should be allowed to dictate what a woman can and cannot wear
At least the Muslim women in Europe are free to practise thieir religion - I am not
Moira Johnstone, Hail, Saudi Arabia
I'm upset that our current government seems to be willing to jump on this populist bandwagon
Saskia, Leiden, Netherlands
For those who pretend that people wearing the veil frighten children and old people, I say: your tanks and missiles frighten animals and humans
If people want to live in a European country they should respect the way of life of that country
Sadly many people have the jaundiced 'gravy train' view of MEPs and don't see the good work of people such as Phillip Whitehead
In this case there wasn't much doubt. There was a case of suspected bird flu in Belgium: it could be the big one. I hurriedly multi-tasked, filing a radio piece on the highly functional bit of kit that looks like it's from a wartime film about secret agents sending wireless messages, while scrambling into a suit and tie and persuading the children to get out of their pyjamas so I could get a lift to the metro.
The Belgian officials sounded sombre. We all went off to a news conference at the hospital, where seats were laid out for half a dozen specialists and politicians. The announcement came: "This is not a case of avian flu."
"What drama!" shouted out one journalist. But the Belgians were keen to show that their emergency procedure had swung smoothly into action and top marks to them for planning a news conference whatever the result. And I got my Saturday back.
Tributes will be paid in the European Parliament to Phillip Whitehead, the Labour MEP who died over the holidays. I wish I had known him better; in a time when politicians are often denigrated as self-serving and self-obsessed, he seemed to me the very model of a representative who saw himself fulfilling a public duty by his service.
Phillip Whitehead: A model politician
He was modest too, not wanting to make a big announcement when a he was presented with a Solidarity medal by Lech Walesa in November. According to his colleagues, he was much more interested in discussing issues like bird flu than his own achievements.