Wednesday, March 11, 2015

EU on the brink, but the show goes on

As much as we distrust them, politicians are keeping us entertained and often on the edge of our seats. The main criticism is that some of the performances are just so bizarre you couldn’t make them up.
In Portugal, the current prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho and his predecessor José Sócrates have been indulging in a slanging match reminiscent of a Punch and Judy show.
For those who have missed recent episodes, Passos Coelho has been squirming his way out of criticisms that he failed to declare a series of tax debts.
“I’m not a perfect citizen, I have my imperfections,” the prime minister admitted amid cries for his resignation,
But hang on, others have imperfections too!
“I never used my position as prime minister to hide differential treatment from any citizens, or to enrich myself, make pay-offs or to live beyond my means,” Passos Coelho explained with a twinkle in his eye.
 Retaliating from his prison cell where he has been languishing while investigations continue into allegations of corruption, tax fraud and money laundering, Sócrates castigated Passos Coelho for making “a cowardly personal attack.” He accused the prime minister of “moral depravity.”
With men like this in charge, it is little wonder that critics at home and abroad have viewed Portugal’s economic performance in recent years as wonky if not farcical. 
On the bigger stage, European unity appears to be careering towards the abyss once again despite the interim agreement reached during last month’s Greek melodrama in Brussels.
As you will recall, the eurozone stepped back from the brink by reaching a compromise deal in which Greece was given a four-month extension to its bailout package. In return, Greece agreed to specify the economic reforms it will undertake, rather than copping out of austerity altogether as Tsipras had promised his electorate.
It is still open to question whether Tsipras was reneging on his pledge to Greek voters or trying to tactically outsmart the Troika. Perhaps to deftly deflect such questions domestically, he accused the governments of Portugal and Spain of conspiring to topple his radical regime because they feared the rise of anti-austerity parties in their own countries.
From Portugal’s standpoint, this sounded like Greek gobbledegook. Despite widespread public anger and street demonstrations over the severe austerity measures, there does not seem to be any real appetite in this country to go down the Greek route. A recent opinion poll shows that the centre-right Social Democrats and centre-left Socialists are running neck-in-neck, far ahead of all the smaller parties.
The most extraordinary outcome envisaged by the political pundits in Portugal is a hung parliament in the autumn election, resulting in a grand coalition between the big two. Even Passos Coelho is not ruling it out. “I’m not closing any doors, but I’m not going to draw scenarios,” he said.
Such a coalition would match what happened after last year’s election in Germany. Some commentators are forecasting a coalition between the Tories and Labour after May’s election in Britain. It could also happen this year in Spain.
The present Spanish government has more reason to ‘conspire’ because it faces a very real threat from the radical left in the shape of the anti-austerity Podemos party, which is enjoying a massive surge in popularity and currently leading the opinion polls in Spain.
The Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has not ruled out a grand coalition between his conservative party and the main opposition socialists, though, as in other coalition-prone countries, eyes are on Germany where serious cracks have started to appear.
As for Tsipras’ conspiracy theory, his insulting remarks sent the European Commission scurrying around in an effort to patch things up.
A Commission spokeswoman told reporters: “We are now in close contact with all actors involved [her words, not mine]... in order to ensure there is unity among EU member states and especially among the EU states of the eurozone.”
A spokesman for the German finance minister sounded very upper crust English when tut-tutting about Tsipras’ accusation. “By European standards, this was very unusual foul play. We don't do that in the eurogroup, that’s not appropriate,” he said.
To his many fans, Greece’s hairlessly handsome Yanis Varoufakis was the star of the first acrimonious instalment of the finance ministers’ melodrama in Brussels. Just before the second instalment got underway this week, a spokesman for Greece’s main opposition party shattered Varoufakis hopes of an Oscar by saying he should be replaced because “he doesn’t know what he is talking about..... every time he opens his mouth he creates problems for the negotiating position of the country.”
The poker-playing Varoufakis smiled and added to the ongoing intrigue by saying his two-month-old government was willing to hold a referendum or even early elections if eurogroup ministers reject Greece’s debt and growth plans.
The Dutch finance minister and current eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem said the plans were not good enough and that Greece must stop wasting time and start delivering.
“We have spent the last two weeks discussing who will meet who, where and in what configuration. It’s been a complete waste of time,” said Dijsselbloem following this Monday’s Brussels meeting, which broke up in disarray after little more than an hour.
Greek particpants insisted the meeting had been a success. And as if confirming that wonders never cease,Varoufakis revealed that representatives of the hated Troika would be welcome in Athens for technical discussions, even though his governement previously said it would no longer have anything to do with the Troika.
No harm in hoping all this eventually turns out to be a horror story with a happy ending. On the other hand, if Greece exits the EU, it will be much more than just a Greek tragedy.
Meanwhile, the show goes on.   

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Understanding economics histrionics

For those of us not savvy when it comes to serious money matters – which includes many more people than you might think – these are bewildering times.
Journalists, along with estate agents, used to be the most disreputable creatures on the planet. Bankers, economists and politicians now hold this distinction.
The latest avalanche of bad economic news started with yet another international banking scandal, this time engulfing HSBC and tax avoidance shenanigans in Switzerland. Details of the scandal and the ensuring furious political row continue to be exposed by leading news organisations privy to thousands of pages of secret files made available via the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Feather in the cap.
Trouble is, news of greed and corruption among the rich and powerful has become  so commonplace as to be almost boring.
While some of us were still trying to digest the HSBC turpitude, football fans were treated to the news that Sky Sports dominated a deal for TV rights over the next three years in which the British Premier League will be paid the staggering sum of nearly €7 billion. That works out at €13.5 million per game. The total is 70% up on the last similar auction three years ago and is well over a quarter of Portugal’s bailout debt to the IMF.
The deal means that Premier League players will receive even bigger pay packets than the vast sums they are already receiving. Last year Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney was pocketing €404,000 a week. That’s more than president Barack Obama earns in a year.
Real Madrid has been paying Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo €18,200,000 per year. He makes in seven minutes as much as an average wage earner in Portugal makes in a week.
Someone on €1,000 a month would have to work for 1,376 years to earn Cristiano Ronaldo’s annual salary. Put another way, Ronald earned last year the same as an average wage earner in Portugal would have made if he had started working in the year 639AD. Those on the minimum wage of less than €600 a month would have had to start working in 278 BC.
If you don’t believe it, do the sums yourself. Or seek help from the BBC:
But all this is small change compared with the potential cost of things going badly wrong with the Greeks. Portugal, like the rest of the European Union, is waiting with trepidation as finance ministers grapple over Greek demands said to be threatening catastrophic consequences not only for the eurozone but the economy globally.
In contrast to the grumbling Greeks, Portugal has gained international brownie points by forging ahead and following Ireland with an early repayment of its IMF bailout loan.
Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem told a press conference in Brussels on Monday: “Like Ireland, which recently started its own early repayments to the IMF, Portugal is demonstrating how quickly a country can be back on its own two feet after a successful adjustment program.”
 Greece was the first of several EU countries to ask for financial help. It accepted two massive bailouts subject to certain conditions. Its radical new left-wing government says the conditions have impoverished the country and so it’s not going to abide by them. Other EU countries led by Germany say Greece must honour the deal.
“At the heart of the battle between Greece and its EU partners over its debt crisis are conceptions about morality over debt and economics, issues that have been debated for thousands of years,” according to The Economist.
With the EU perching on the edge of a financial precipice and questions of morality left dangling, Greece’s man-of-the-moment Yanis Varoufakis sat down with other finance ministers in Brussels to play poker. 
Writing in the Guardian as the game with extremely high stakes got underway, Anatole Kaletsky, chairman of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, commented: “Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s new finance minister, is a professor of mathematical economics who specialises in game theory. But his negotiating technique – unpredictable oscillations between aggressiveness and weakness – is the opposite of what game theory would dictate.
“Varoufakis’s idea of strategy is to hold a gun to his own head, then demand a ransom for not pulling the trigger.
“German and European Union policymakers are calling his bluff. As a result, the two sides have become stuck in a passive-aggressive standoff that has made serious negotiation impossible.”
The acrimonious game collapsed in disarray on Monday and again on Tuesday. Yet the Daily Telegraph for one was predicting some kind of “sweetheart” deal that would be “wrapped in obscure language most eurozone voters won’t grasp.”
If such a deal emerges, it remains to be seen if it bamboozles voters in Portugal who go to the polls in a general election this year amid rising anti-austerity anger in this country.
Could economists not have foreseen all this eurozone malarkey and thus avoided it? one might ask.
Criticism of the economics profession has intensified since the global financial crisis of 2007-2009 leading many to wonder if economists contribute anything significant to society.
So says none other than Robert J. Shiller, Professor of Economics at Yale University and a 2013 Nobel laureate in economics.  He notes that economists failed to forecast most of the major crises in the last century, including the severe 1920-21 slump, the 1980-82 back-to-back recessions, and the worst of them all, the Great Depression after the 1929 stock market crash.
But just in case anyone wants to totally write off economists, Shiller added: “Yes, most economists fail to predict financial crises – just as doctors fail to predict disease. But, like doctors, they have made life manifestly better for everyone.”
So that’s all clear them, isn’t it? Except, of course if you happen to be a Portuguese family on the breadline because of austerity. Meanwhile, the eventual outcome of the Greek mess is anyone’s guess.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

McCanns vs Amaral verdict nearing

The verdict in Kate and Gerry McCann’s civil action against the former lead detective Gonçalo Amaral may come sooner than expected because of a recent behind-the-scenes development in the long-drawn-out case.
The question of whether or not Kate and Gerry McCann are legally entitled to represent their daughter Madeleine in their claim for damages has taken a significant step closer to being resolved, according to a source close to the process.
Madeleine was made a ward of court in the UK in April 2008. In January last year, Amaral argued in Lisbon’s Palace of Justice that because Madeleine was still a ward of court the McCanns did not have the legal right to represent her in their Lisbon lawsuit against him and three other parties.
The Lisbon judge, Emília Melo e Castro, gave Madeleine’s parents the opportunity to obtain appropriate documentation about the ward of court matter from the British High Court.
The McCanns had a 30-day set period in which to present this. They did so without delay and much earlier than expected. The documentation was presented to the Lisbon court through the couple’s lawyers on 23 January. None of the defence lawyers has or is expected to raise any objections.
So it is now up to the Lisbon judge to decide the relatively straightforward matter of whether the documentation attests to the McCanns’ right to represent Madeleine. When this is settled, the trial is expected to move towards its last formal exchanges and then, finally, sooner than most people had anticipated, perhaps next month, a verdict.
The McCanns are seeking €1.2 million in damages for the severe distress they say has been caused to them by Amaral’s book, A Verdade da Mentira (‘The Truth of the Lie’), and a subsequent documentary.
The judge’s recent summary of the main points in the case that had been proved or not proved left Amaral and his supporters optimistic about the eventual outcome.
Amaral said this week that he was hoping for an acquittal and the lifting of financial difficulties that have burdened him since the McCanns decided to sue five years ago. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Fugitive author C.A.R. Hills back in jail

Charles Hills, who was convicted of plotting to have the lover of his Portuguese mother killed, is back behind bars having lived openly for several years in the eastern Algarve as a fugitive from UK justice.
Originally sentenced at the Old Bailey in London to seven years imprisonment but released after serving only two and a half, the British writer broke the terms of his parole licence and absconded.
He moved into the three-bedroomed house in the Algarve village of Altura that had been at the root of his decision to have his mother’s lover killed. She owned the house and while well into her seventies lived there with Flávio Rosa, a Portuguese gardener and odd-job man 30 years her junior. Married with four children, Rosa resisted eviction following her death in 2003.
After years in the Algarve interspersed with trips to others parts of mainland Europe, Hills returned to England for a six-week visit in December 2013. He arrived via an overnight ferry from the Hook of Holland to Harwich in Essex.
“I thought I might be arrested on landing, so I had a slap-up three-course meal on the boat, costing almost forty pounds, one of the most expensive and one of the best meals of my life,” he wrote in his blog.
“Then I was up for a walk on deck, a leaf through the free copies of the Spectator, and an excellent night's sleep. At half-past-six in the morning I approached the mean and sleepy-looking male customs official at Harwich.
“How long have you been out of England?”
“Oh, a little while.”
“And how long is a little while in your world?”
“Oh, just a month or two.”
“Go on, sir.”
It was an example not only of Hills’ way with words, but his audacity and wry sense of humour.
Entering the UK undetected didn’t work the second time around.
Friends, including the British author Geoffrey Elborn, were expecting Hills to arrive back about the 21st of last November. Only just before Christmas did they discover that police had boarded his plane and arrested him on arrival at Gatwick Airport.
“He was taken to Lewes Prison, where I wrote and had a cheerful letter from him saying he was quite happy there,” said Elborn.
Hills has since been transferred from Lewes in East Sussex to Rochester Prison in Kent. Elborn says he and other friends have not been able to arrange any visits because slots in the visiting rooms have been fully booked.
Apart from tightly controlled personal visits, the contact rules allow prisoners to make but not receive phone calls, and to receive but not send emails.  
“Charles is more or less resigned to being inside until 2016 and I think that he was advised not to appeal,” said Elborn who had a phone call from Hills about two weeks ago.  
“If he did appeal, there would be a chance that his sentence would be increased and, if reduced, he would be given conditions which would probably deprive him of any chance to go abroad and he would be forced to remain in the UK until any new parole term expired. As he has nowhere to live in the UK, he might as well see it through in prison.”
Hills, 59, was born in London where his mother, Maria José dos Reis, a young, post-war émigré  from a peasant community near Mafra, worked for many years, first as a maid and eventually as a silver-service waitress. She  returned to Portugal in 1983 at the age of 60.
After her death in 2002, Charles, her utterly devoted only child, became convinced that Flávio Rosa had exploited confusion caused by Alzheimer’s and persuaded her to alter her will so he could continue to occupy the Altura house.
A legal battle ensued. Eventually the Portuguese courts overturned the will and Rosa was required to move out, but not before Hills’ bungled efforts to hire hitmen.
The only person hurt in his attempts to arrange a murder and disposal of the body was Hills himself. On admitting guilt at the Old Bailey he told the court he was “not a natural born killer.”
Indeed not. Charles was a much respected literary figure. Under the name C.A.R. Hills he had written books, edited the journal PEN News and contributed to other British publications including Prospect magazine, the Guardian and the New Statesman.
When asked a few years ago in the Algarve if he worried about being re-arrested for absconding, he said that although not dogmatic, he held basic Christian principles and so, “It’s in the hands of Jesus.”

* More background on Charles Hills

Charles in the garden of his Algarve home in 2011.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Amaral supporters optimistic about judge’s rulings in McCanns’ libel case

Kate and Gerry McCann seemed to suffer a setback on Wednesday in suing former detective Gonçalo Amaral over his controversial book about the disappearance of their daughter Madeleine.
In Lisbon’s Palace of Justice, Judge Maria Emília Melo e Castro handed lawyers in the civil action a written statement evaluating as proven or not a list of 37 points on which she intends to base her verdict. Neither the McCanns nor Amaral were present.
Amaral supporters said afterwards that the statement made them feel cautiously optimistic.
The McCanns are seeking €1.2 million in damages for the severe distress they say has been caused to them by the book, A Verdade da Mentira (‘The Truth of the Lie’), and a subsequent documentary.
The judge ruled that while statements in the book may have psychologically affected the McCanns, the anguish suffered by the couple over their missing daughter preceded the book’s publication rather than being a consequence of it.
She pointed out that the book was very largely based on facts in police files. While Amaral put forward the theory that the McCanns had hidden Madeleine’s body and fabricated a story about her abduction, he did not say they had killed their daughter, the judge said.
In personal statements to the court last July, both Kate and Gerry McCann spoke not only of the great harm they believed had been caused to their family by allegations in the book, but that the allegations had hampered the search for Madeleine.
The judge said Wednesday it had not been proved that the Polícia Judiciária stopped collecting information and investigating the disappearance because of the book’s contents.
Amaral insisted last year that the lawfulness of his book was “indisputable” because of a decision of the Appellate Court in Lisbon that overturned an earlier ruling banning it.
The McCanns now have time to seek and present authorisation from the British High Court to formally represent their daughter in this case. Madeleine was made a ward of court at the instigation of her parents in April 2008. This could have a bearing on the amount of any compensation eventually awarded.
This long-running case in Lisbon has been suspended several times over the past five years, including in January 2013 when the court allowed the two sides to try to reach a private settlement. No agreement was reached.
No date has been set for a verdict but it is thought to be more than two months away. Even when it comes, the verdict will probably not be the end of the matter. An appeal is likely.
Also, Amaral has let it be known that he is considering instigating a counter defamation lawsuit against the McCanns to seek compensation for the enormous damages on different levels he claims they have caused him.  

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The pen is still mightier than the AK47

The support for freedom of expression that was coupled with the denunciation of terrorism during last weekend’s rally in Paris was phenomenal, but how resilient is it going to be in the face of various forms of intimidation?
Holding pencils and pens skyward in a show of solidarity was one thing, but what now? Freedom of expression remains a tangled and contentious issue with no uniformity of opinion on just how free the freedom should be.
On top of a unanimous condemnation of the Paris attacks, politicians of all parties in the Portuguese parliament united in a resolution strongly backing freedom of expression in the press, which is already enshrined in the constitution.
A few days earlier, however, an expression of a more subtle and slightly ominous kind was daubed on the main door and a wall of the central mosque in Lisbon. It was simply the number 1143 scrawled the night after the imam of the mosque had described the Charlie Hebdo attack an “act of barbarity” and pointed out that “it has nothing to do with Islam.”
The number 1143  refers to the year Portugal became an independent kingdom while parts of the country were still occupied by the Muslim Moors. It is believed to have been adopted as a symbol of a small neo-Nazi group in  Portugal of whom little is heard compared to the outspoken far-right organisations in France and elsewhere in Europe.
The imam told the newspaper Público that the graffiti was “provocative… but we don’t feel threatened.”
Still, it was deliberately offensive and that is when freedom of expression of any kind starts to become questionable, both morally and legally.
Freedom of expression is a Western value, not an absolute right. Although political leaders pay lip service to it, they do not always fully endorse it. France bans Muslim women from wearing the hijab. The utterance of a few insulting words by a well-known person in Britain can cause national outrage. The wrong kind of Twitter message can get you locked up. Write what you consider to be an accurate, honest and truthful book about a criminal investigation and you could face years of court action and a crippling bill at the end of it.
Freedom of expression has little relevance in countries such as China and none at all in North Korea. Nor does it mean anything to extremist Muslims.
USA Today published an open letter from the radical cleric Anjem Choudary saying, “Contrary to popular misconception, Islam does not mean peace but rather means submission to the commands of Allah alone. Therefore, Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people’s desires.”
The assassins who massacred 13 people in Paris were apparently happy to die as martyrs in avenging the publication of cartoons of the prophet Mohammad, but their efforts to curtail freedom of expression could not have been more counter productive. Their savagery only brought the cartoons to the attention of a vastly greater audience than the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo could otherwise have dreamt of.
When the emotions of last week’s events in Paris have settled, hopefully the pen will still be regarded as mightier than the AK47, but even the fiercest advocates of zero censorship will be faced with limits to their freedom of expression.
Not all who strongly support freedom of expression in principle agree that it should be limitless. Nor is there agreement where the boundaries should be drawn. It will always be contentious – and that’s fine.
Charlie Hebdo was openly anti-religious and it did not confine its ridicule to the Muslim religion. But because Christians are less likely to be offended by mockery of Jesus Christ, does that mean Muslims should feel the same way about fun poked at Mohammad?  
Looked at from another angle, if censorship starts with Mohammad, where does it stop?
If freedom of expression cannot be absolute, surely it demands moral responsibility. Not everyone is a Je Suis Charlie admirer and most professional journalists agree that even without being cowed by the threat of violent retribution, some form of self-regulation and legal restraint is appropriate.
Offence is in the eye of the beholder. Like it or not, the media is going to remain offensive to some, one way or another. A good example is the anger expressed last August by admirers of Sir Cliff Richard while he was relaxing in his holiday home in the Algarve.
The fans were shocked by the BBC’s live coverage from a hovering helicopter of the police raid on the singer’s Berkshire home. The unannounced raid was in connection with an allegation of sexual abuse of a boy under the age of 16.  
Hundreds of viewers complained to the BBC that its coverage made Sir Cliff look guilty even before he had been questioned by police about accusations he subsequently dismissed as “completely false.”
The Daily Mail, itself no stranger to plying offensive stories about celebrities, last week described the BBC as “shameless” in submitting its raid coverage for the ‘scoop of the year’ prize at next month’s Royal Television Society journalism awards.
The point here is that the BBC still faces the threat of legal action because, according to Sir Cliff’s lawyer, the coverage  caused “immeasurable harm to our client and was both premature and disproportionate.”
Whatever the rights or wrongs of this particular case, news organisations in Portugal and in the rest of the democratic world can be counted on to resist any attempts, especially by the powerful, rich or famous, to curb what they regard as honest reporting in the public interest.
Defending freedom of expression will be the focus of a timely two-day conference that will bring together journalists and lawyers in Lisbon at the beginning of next week.
The conference ends the day before a resumption of the protracted trial in which Kate and Gerry McCann are seeking damages of more than €1 million from the author and former detective Gonçalo Amaral because he decided to publish a theory they wholeheartedly disagreed with.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Bye-bye hopes of a happy new year

No sooner had families and friends around the world exchanged best wishes for a healthy, happy and prosperous 2015 than the news broke about Her Majesty’s second son.
A woman alleged that a billionaire American investment banker used her as an under-age ‘sex slave’ and forced her to have repeated sexual relations in London, New York and on a private Caribbean island with rich and famous friends, including Prince Andrew.
This came on top of reported evidence that 22 Westminster politicians abused children, or were involved in child abuse cover-ups, and that the number of paedophile victims all across the UK could runs to tens of thousands.
In abuse of another kind, a Florida man has been charged with first-degree murder for decapitating his mother on New Year’s Eve. Christian Gomez, 23, had allegedly plotted his mother’s murder because she had asked him to do domestic chores.
In a shopping centre up in Idaho, a two-year-old baby boy shot and killed his mother with a pistol he found by unzipping a special purse she had been given as a Christmas present.Why the young mother felt the need to carry a gun while out shopping remained unclear, at least to Europeans, especially as she was described as “a motivated academic and a successful nuclear research scientist.”
With considerable military efficiency, hooded gunmen killed and injured many people on January 7 in another attack on the Paris offices of a satirical magazine renowned for poking fun at extreme Islamists. The magazine had been the target of a fire-bombing in 2011 after publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.
Nothing quite so odious has occurred since the start of the year in Portugal, but the headline news has been no less bewildering.
“There is no justice in Portugal,” wrote Mário Soares in an article in the Jornal de Notícias. Many of his fellow citizens might loosely agree. Even so, it was an amazing statement coming from a former President of the Republic, former prime minister and one of the heroes of the 1974 revolution that replaced dictatorship with democracy.
Soares was referring to the treatment of another former socialist prime minister, and a good friend, José Sócrates, who has been languishing in jail while an inquiry is conducted into his suspected involvement in corruption, tax fraud and money laundering.
In written answers to questions from the national television station TV1, Sócrates insisted in no uncertain terms that the allegations against him were false and defamatory, that he was the victim of a criminal violation of justice and that his imprisonment was a “cowardly act of aggression.”   
Meanwhile the current President of the Republic Aníbal Cavaco Silva ignored Soares’ challenge to intervene and have Sócrates freed. Instead he used his traditional New Year’s message to assert that the economy is growing, competitiveness is improving, unemployment is diminishing and investment is starting out on a path of recovery.
Unfortunately, the head of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi used a New Year interview to declare that Europe faced a “long period of weakness” with the “growing risk of price instability.” The euro promptly dropped to a nine-year low against the US dollar.
Despite Cavaco Silva’s pep talk, the government’s new ‘green tax came into force on New Year’s Day, hiking fuel prices in Portugal while they continue to plummet in the rest of Europe.
One driver in particular was rather less concerned about the price of petrol than the cost of his failure to pay a €1.60 motorway toll. With fines and charges added, he received a bill for €72,000. 
In addition to the stories short on news of either happiness or prosperity, most of the papers in Portugal ran one that questioned our chances of good health in the year ahead. It revealed that this year’s batch of flu vaccine will give no more than 50-50 protection against the latest aggressive strain of the flu virus, which may reach epidemic proportions as it is the same virus that sparked a pandemic in 1968.
Perhaps the most perplexing news was contained in the science section of Tuesday’s Diário de Noticías. A Portuguese university team has won a competition organised by a Dutch foundation with a project that aims to supply seeds for germinating on Mars during an unmanned mission there in 2018. Full marks to the winning team, but does the Red Planet really need any human input?
       For plain silliness, though, it was hard to beat the story about a planeload of Lisbon passengers disembarking at London’s Stanstead Airport. The crew of the Ryanair flight said they directed the passengers to an assigned arrivals gate. Instead, the passengers walked through an exit door ‘left open in error’ and ended up in the departures area. The shambles that ensued caused long security-check queues and take-off delays.
Any good news at the start of the new year? Well, it didn’t make it into the headlines but House Martins, which are largely immune to human lunacy, are gearing up for their epic journey back to Portugal and the rest of Europe from their winter sojourn in sub-Saharan Africa. And one of Portugal and southern Europe’s most attractive and delightfully well-organised resident birds, the Hoopoe, has already started nesting.