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Hi, this is Gerry, and this is my News Digest for Friday 20th October, 2017. On today’s show I’m going to talk about prisons, about British press coverage  of Catalonia and Sir Bobby Charlton.
Do you know how big the prison population of Switzerland is? The usual statistical measurement of prison population is expressed as a relative figure , that’s to say: for every 100,000 people in a country how many are in prison? Using this measure there are about 82 people in prison for every 100,000 in the general population of Switzerland – that’s the most recent figure I could find. This compares with only 77 in Germany, but in England and Wales we have double that number: 148. What do these figures tell us? Crime rates  in all these countries have been falling, statistics tell us. So does a big prison population cause a reduction in crime? International comparisons and academic studies tell us “no”. How do our prisoners compare? Two noticeable features  of Swiss prisoners are firstly the number who are in prison awaiting trial : it’s about 40% compared with only about 10% in England; and secondly, about 70% of Swiss prisoners are not Swiss: they’re foreign, while, again, only about 10% of English prisoners are foreign. From that we can see perhaps that our legal systems are different, and that our nationality laws are different, too.
In England everybody is saying that we have a prison crisis. Perhaps you have in Switzerland, too. I don’t know, but I’d like to tell you about the crisis here. Our prison population has been rising rapidly since the 1990s. It’s nearly doubled in less than 20 years. It’s always difficult to find clear causes for social trends like this but there was a political move at the beginning of the 1990s to get tough on crime . “Prison works ” was a slogan of the time. Then Mr Blair’s government from 1997 onwards continued this trend. His government passed laws  that defined hundreds and hundreds of new crimes – so more opportunities to send people to prison. A lot of the pressure to be “tough on crime” comes from the press. Every time a rapist  or a murderer comes out of prison and commits a new crime, it’s a big news story and there are protests, even if this sort of repeat crime happens very rarely. As a response to stories like this, Mr Blair’s government also introduced the idea of an indeterminate  sentence . In other words, whereas  before a life sentence meant something like twelve years, judges were now encouraged to make a life sentence mean something more like a life-long sentence. A prisoner serving an indeterminate sentence can only be released  if he, or more rarely she, can convince  a probation  committee that it’s safe to do so.
Then, on top of more people going to prison for longer, the next government from 2010 onwards started cutting public spending, which meant a pay freeze  for prison officers, no new prisons, restrictions on hiring new prison staff, etc. So we now have huge overcrowding  in prisons which are understaffed and under-resourced. An English prison today is really not a nice place to be a prisoner in or to work in. There’ve been prison riots , more and more violence between prisoners and against prison staff. There are around 100 suicides a year in prisons. Etc. etc. A final feature of the English prison system is that we also have private prisons – prisons run by private companies. The idea is to save money, of course, but the reality is that these private companies have not been, shall we say , as successful as hoped in running safe and secure prisons. I hope the situation is better in Switzerland. And we shouldn’t forget that the United States has a prison population of nearly 700 per 100,000. That compares, remember, with just 82 in Switzerland.
I’ve been following the news from Spain these last few weeks, as I’m sure you have. And as I prepare this podcast I have no idea how the present stand-off  between the Catalan regional government and the Spanish national government is going to be resolved. But as I follow the news and observe how it’s reported by the British press, I’m reminded a bit of the Northern Ireland crisis of the 1970s and 80s. At that time I had a lot of contacts with people from other countries, and I noticed how these people often interpreted what was going on in different ways. There was a tendency outside the UK to sympathise, in an understandable way, with the Irish Nationalist cause, with the minority Catholics in other words against the majority Protestants. It was more difficult for outsiders  to appreciate the Unionist, Protestant concerns. Similarly, I feel, the British media today are shocked at the sight of police in helmets covering their faces dragging people forcibly  away from a democratic vote, even if illegal. It was also disturbing to see the same police, the Spanish National Police, coming out onto the balcony of their headquarters in Barcelona to salute a cheering crowd demonstrating in favour of Spanish unity. It’s generally not a good thing to see police taking sides  in political disputes, but as foreign observers the British should probably also be a bit cautious  about making judgements in what is certainly a complex dispute. However, our recent experience with referendums here might lead us to advise caution in their use.
Finally today, Sir Bobby Charlton has just celebrated his 80th birthday. I wonder how many of you know this name. For older people at least, it is a name known around the world. He was one of the greatest footballers of his time. He came from the small coal mining town of Ashington near Newcastle in the north-east of England. He had five uncles on his mother’s side of the family who played professional football, including one who played for England. His brother, Jack, was a professional footballer, too, and they played together in the side that won the World Cup in 1966. That makes him and his brother famous enough, but Bobbie Charlton’s life was even more remarkable. In the winter of 1958 he was a player in a young, brilliant Manchester United side – the first English side to compete for the European Cup. On the way home from a match in Belgrade the plane stopped in Munich. It then crashed when trying to take off  again in snowy conditions. A lot of the young footballers were killed, and their famous manager, Matt Busby, was seriously injured. Bobby survived, although he says he’s never forgotten that night. He then stayed with Manchester United for the rest of his career and won everything with that club. He’s still a director there, and goes to every game that he can. People love him not only because he was such a great player but he’s also always been such a quiet and modest man – dedicated to his sport. He never earned the money that today’s players get. He talks about going shopping near Wembley on World Cup Final day because he thought he should have a suit to wear. A footballer without any smart clothes to wear – you can’t imagine it today, can you?
If you have any comments on my stories today, you can write via the PodClub website (podclub.ch) or on Twitter under the address @Gerrypod. Don’t forget that the PodClub app not only allows you to listen to our podcasts but also provides you with some help to extend your vocabulary. I’ll be back with my next News Digest on November 17th. Till then thanks for listening, and take care!