How rape allegations have rocked Australian politics

By Frances Mao

BBC News, Sydney

image copyrightBRITTANY HIGGINS

image captionBrittany Higgins on the first day of her “dream job” working for a federal minister in Australia’s parliament

Just a fortnight ago, Australia was shocked by a former political adviser’s allegations that she had been raped in the nation’s Parliament House.

Brittany Higgins said she’d been attacked by a male colleague – also an adviser for the ruling Liberal Party – in a government minister’s office in 2019.

Her story has triggered a flood of other women to come forward with their own experiences of alleged sexual assault and harassment in Australian politics.

The most explosive of these – a 1988 rape allegation – now hangs over an unidentified cabinet minister. The minister denies rape, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday. He has declined to take further action.

A rape accusation against an opposition MP has also been referred to police.

As the allegations pile up, Mr Morrison’s government in particular is facing a public clamour for answers. Here’s how events have unfolded so far.

Brittany Higgins speaks out

Ms Higgins said she was 24 and weeks into a new “dream job” when she was taken to parliament by a senior colleague after a night out in March 2019.

Heavily drunk, she had fallen asleep in the minister’s office before waking, she said, to find the man sexually assaulting her.

The man was sacked in the days following, not for the alleged assault but for breaching office security with the late-night visit.

Meanwhile Ms Higgins told her boss – then Defence Industry Minister Linda Reynolds – that she had been sexually assaulted. The meeting occurred in the same room where Ms Higgins alleged the attack took place.

Ms Reynolds has said she offered support to her aide to go to the police. Ms Higgins said she felt pressure that doing so would lead to her losing her job.

image copyrightNETWORK TEN

image captionBrittany Higgins told her story to two local media outlets: and Network Ten’s The Project

Ms Higgins said she had since felt “silenced” by the Liberal Party, but decided to speak out after seeing a photo of Mr Morrison in January. It showed him celebrating the activism of a sexual assault survivor.

“He’s standing next to a woman who has campaigned [for survivors’ rights]… and yet in my mind his government was complicit in silencing me. It was a betrayal. It was a lie,” she told

PM criticised for response

A day after Ms Higgins came forward, Mr Morrison apologised for the way her complaint had been treated by the government two years ago. He also promised inquiries into parliament’s work culture and support for political staff.

However, he sparked a public backlash when he appeared to suggest that he’d understood Ms Higgins’ experience better after his wife urged him to think of his two daughters.

“She said to me: ‘You have to think about this as a father. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?'” he told reporters.

Women in particular condemned Mr Morrison’s framing of the issue. Did he need to think of Ms Higgins as someone’s daughter, they asked, before he could empathise or take her account seriously?

image copyrightABC

image captionMs Higgins, pictured here with Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a party fundraiser

Mr Morrison and his ministers were also accused of skirting questions about who within the government knew what and when, and why they didn’t do more.

It has since emerged that several people in Parliament House – including at least three cabinet ministers – knew about the alleged crime.

The prime minister maintains he learnt of the allegation at the same time as the rest of the nation.

But when he disputed a suggestion by Ms Higgins that one of his advisers had been “checking up” on her – doubting her recollection in that instance – she was quick in her reply.

Other women come forward

Since Ms Higgins’ spoke out, four other women have come forward to local media to accuse the same man of sexual assault or harassment.

One woman said she’d been raped by the man in 2020 after drinks and dinner with him. “If this had been properly dealt with by the government in 2019 this would not have happened to me,” she told The Australian.

Another woman, an election volunteer, said she was also raped by the man after a night out in 2016.

A third woman said the man had stroked her thigh during a group dinner with colleagues in 2017. She made a report to police after seeing Ms Higgins speak out, the ABC reported.

Last Wednesday, a fourth woman told she had felt pressured by the man to have sex in 2014.

Then late last week, amid suggestions that some lawmakers had been reticent to report Ms Higgins’ allegations earlier, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) issued a statement to lawmakers. It reminded them to report any criminal allegations they had come across.

Cabinet minister accused of rape

On Friday, two opposition senators – Labor’s Penny Wong and Greens’ Sarah Hanson-Young – referred a letter they had received to the AFP.

It alleged that a man who was now a cabinet minister had raped a 16-year-old girl in 1988.

The identity of the minister and the alleged victim have not been reported by Australian media. The woman took her own life last June, aged 49.

Earlier last year, the woman went to New South Wales Police, but an investigation was suspended after she died.

Last week, friends of the woman wrote a letter to the prime minister and other lawmakers, urging him to establish an independent investigation.

This was needed, the letter argued, because police would most likely not be able to launch an investigation. Criminal cases typically require testimony from a complainant and the woman had died.

“Failure to take parliamentary action because the New South Wales Police cannot take criminal action would feel like a wilful blindness,” the letter said.

But Mr Morrison on Monday declined to do so, insisting it was a case for police.

“The individual involved here has vigorously rejected these allegations,” he told reporters on Monday.

image copyrightEPA

image captionScott Morrison has initiated a review of parliament’s culture

“And so, it’s a matter for the police,” he said, adding that “there was nothing immediate considered that was necessary for me to take any action on”.

On Tuesday, police confirmed there was “insufficient admissible evidence to proceed” with a case.

“As such, NSW Police Force has determined the matter is now closed,” it said.

The government is yet to respond, but others say the matter is not over.

Mr Morrison’s predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, has called on the minister to identify himself and address the allegations.

He said the minister’s identity was so widely known in Canberra it was untenable for him to remain silent.

On Sunday, a government lawmaker referred a separate rape allegation against a Labor MP to police. No further information about that allegation is yet known.

Public pressure

The allegations of the past fortnight have reignited wider questions about Australian political culture, including long-held debates about sexism and misogyny.

One of the women who alleges she was raped by the political adviser said she had come forward, in part, to “help shine a light on this awful culture”.

Last week, Mr Morrison said: “I think we’ve got a problem in the parliament and the workplace culture that we have to work on.”

But calls for more action from the government continue to grow.

Critics argue, for instance, that a cabinet minister accused of a serious crime should be stood aside pending an investigation – a suggestion the government has rejected.

Meanwhile, Ms Higgins has now filed a police complaint. She is “determined to drive significant reform” in how parliament handles cases such as hers.

“I believe that getting to the bottom of what happened to me and how the system failed me is critical to creating a new framework,” she said.

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media captionAustralia’s only female prime minister Julia Gillard on the sexist abuse she endured in office (2010-2013)

Covid-19 variants pose ‘real threat’ to vaccine progress, CDC warns

image copyrightReuters

image captionDr Rochelle Walensky said “recent declines in cases have levelled off at a very high number”

The spread of highly contagious coronavirus variants is threatening to fuel a “potential fourth surge of cases” in the US, a top health official has warned.

The head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said she was concerned by recent Covid-19 data.

She said about 70,000 new cases a day were recorded last week, “a very high number”.

There were nearly 2,000 deaths a day in the same period, she said.

“Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said on Monday. “These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress.”

There are many different versions, or variants, of Covid-19 circulating, but health experts are particularly concerned about a few.

These include variants first detected in UK, South Africa and Brazil that appear to be more contagious.

The CDC has predicted the highly contagious B.1.1.7 variant first found in the UK will become the dominant strain in the US this month.

image copyrightGetty Images

image captionThree vaccines against the coronavirus are being rolled out across the US

Given this, Dr Walensky said she was “really worried” about reports of US states “rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from Covid-19”.

“We have the ability to stop a potential fourth surge of cases in this country. Please stay strong in your conviction,” she said.

In total, the US has recorded more than 28 million infections and 500,000 deaths related to Covid-19, according to World Health Organization (WHO) data.

media caption‘Each one of these people mattered’

Are variants a serious problem in the US?

Daily infections and deaths fell steeply after a peak in January, when vaccinations against the disease started to be ramped up.

But the CDC says, until more people are vaccinated, variants could drive a spike in cases, threatening health systems already under strain.

More than 2,463 infections involving variants of concern have been reported, according to CDC data. Most of those cases – at least 2,400 – are of the UK variant.

The true number of people infected by variants in the US is thought to be higher.

There is no evidence that any of the variants causes much more serious illness for most people who become infected.

Scientists believe current vaccines do offer protection against variants as well.

How are vaccinations going in the US?

As of Monday, the US had administered more than 76 million doses of vaccine, CDC data showed.

Overall, the US has given the most doses of any country in the world. But when breaking the figures down by population, looking at doses administered per 100 people, the US ranked fourth behind the UK, the UAE and Israel, according to Our World in Data.

Among the vaccinated in the US are former President Donald Trump and former First Lady Melania Trump, according to reports. They were both vaccinated at the White House in January, an adviser told the New York Times and other US media outlets.

It was not clear which vaccine they received, but only jabs made by Pfizer and Moderna had been approved by regulators in January.

A third single-shot vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson was approved for use in the US on Saturday.

Jeff Zients, co-ordinator of the White House coronavirus response team, said the vaccine would start to be delivered “as early as tomorrow”.

About 3.9 million doses of the vaccine will be distributed across the country in the coming days, he said.


Budget 2021: Chancellor set to announce £400m for arts sector

image copyrightGetty Images

The chancellor is set to announce more than £400m of additional support for the badly-hit culture sector in Wednesday’s Budget.

Rishi Sunak is preparing to hand out £408m to help museums, theatres and galleries in England reopen once Covid restrictions start to ease.

He will also announce a £150m fund to help communities take over local pubs.

It comes as Tory grandee Lord Hague said taxes would have to go up as part of the UK’s recovery from the pandemic.

The chancellor will outline the state of the UK economy and its outlook for the future during his 3 March Commons statement and give details of the government’s plans for raising or lowering taxes.

In preparation for the Budget, the Treasury has revealed a series of funding packages targeting support at the beleaguered culture, sport and pub sectors.

All have seen profits and activity badly impacted since social distancing was introduced at the start of the Covid outbreak last year.

Mr Sunak is expected to put an extra £300m into the £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund, as part of the measures.

image copyrightReuters

image captionChancellor Rishi Sunak will outline the state of the UK economy and its outlook in his Budget

National museums and cultural bodies will also receive £90m to help keep them afloat until they can open their doors on 17 May at the earliest, with £18.8m provided for community cultural projects.

An additional £77m will be given to the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to provide their culture groups with similar backing.

Mr Sunak said: “This industry is a significant driver of economic activity, employing more than 700,000 people in jobs across the UK, and I am committed to ensuring the arts are equipped to captivate audiences in the months and years to come.”

The chancellor will also use his Budget speech to deliver a £150m Community Ownership Fund to allow pub-goers to bid for up to £250,000 to save their favourite local.

But former Conservative leader Lord Hague warned that after 12 months of heavy public borrowing to pay for furlough and other government support efforts, taxes would have to rise.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he said: “It pains me to say, after spending much of my life arguing for lower taxes, that we have reached the point where at least some business and personal taxes have to go up.”

As an MP, Lord Hague represented Richmond in the Yorkshire Dales. The splendour of Wensleydale, Swaledale and much else besides.

His successor in the seat, Rishi Sunak, was forced to grapple with the colossal economic consequences of a pandemic within weeks of becoming chancellor.

A year on, with early evidence the medical emergency is beginning to wane, the bleak economic prognosis hangs heavy.

Vast borrowing, giant amounts of debt and a huge political question: Should taxes go up to pay for it?

At the weekend, the former Conservative chancellor Lord Clarke said yes.

Now the former Tory leader Lord Hague has said yes as well.

Rishi Sunak has said he will “level with people about the challenges we face.”

On Wednesday we’ll find out what he means by that.

Some Conservative MPs – including former Brexit Secretary David Davis – have warned against tax rises.

Potential Tory rebels have been told they risk being kicked out of the parliamentary party if they vote against the Budget.

The chancellor is reportedly considering raising corporation tax to as much as 25% from 19%.

On Sunday, Mr Sunak said he said he wanted to “be honest” with the public about the pandemic’s impact on the economy and “clear about what our plan to address that is”.

Meanwhile, Labour’s shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, has suggested her party could support an increase to corporation tax in the “long term”.

Ms Dodds used a speech on Monday to argue that now is “not the time” for tax rises but signalled she could support an increase in corporation tax in the future.

Labour had previously said it would oppose a rise in corporation tax in the Budget.


Tourism hotspots hit hard by Covid-19 jobs crisis

Parts of the UK reliant on tourism have been most affected by the Covid-19 jobs crisis, analysis suggests.

In some areas, around three out of five people who began claiming Universal Credit at the outset of the pandemic were still doing so six months later.

Experts said areas with seasonal employment were more likely to see furloughed workers, those in low-wage jobs or on zero-hours contracts.

The government said it was boosting welfare support by “billions” to help.

Ahead of Wednesday’s Budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has promised more support for the economy as Covid lockdown rules are eased.

The BBC Shared Data Unit analysed official data from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

  • Around 2.4 million fresh UC claims began last April and May during the first lockdown – a seven-fold increase on the number made in the same two months in 2019
  • At least three in every five of those claims – around 1.4 million – remained open six months later
  • Areas with the highest proportion of claims open six months later include London, north and west Wales, north-east Yorkshire, Scotland and parts of Cumbria
  • In Northern Ireland, the number of UC claimants rose from 86,000 in March 2020 to 132,000 in August, according to separate data from its Department for Communities. At its peak, the number of fresh claims reached around 30,000 last April.

“The general consistent pattern is places that rely on people travelling to them have been the hardest hit,” Nye Cominetti, senior economist at the Resolution Foundation think-tank, said.

Economist Emma Congreve, from the Fraser of Allander Institute at the University of Strathclyde, said: “The pandemic has exposed a number of underlying inequalities in the labour market.”

The Welsh county ‘over-dependent’ on tourism

image copyrightRixipix

image captionSnowdonia National Park attracts millions of visitors every year

Some 7.8 million people a year choose to visit the mountains, woodlands and rivers of Gwynedd in north Wales and explore Snowdonia National Park.

The tourism industry employs 18,000 people and contributes £1.3bn to the local economy every year.

But the pandemic has exposed an over-dependence on tourism, a report to the local council warns, with a 60% drop in the value of tourism in 2020.

Council leader Councillor Dyfrig Siencyn told a meeting such “unsustainable tourism” could not continue to be accommodated.

He said: “Setting a new direction is vital and I believe that the industry itself sees the need to be more reflective of our society generally

“The pandemic has perhaps shown we’re almost wholly reliant on tourism in rural areas such as Gwynedd and have very little choice, which drives us to create a much more varied economy rather than all our eggs being in one basket.

“We’re told that £1.3bn is generated from tourism yet still have some of the lowest income levels in the country, how do you reconcile that?

London tourism ‘decimated’

image copyrightReuters

image captionCentral London including the South Bank has seen a huge drop in visitor numbers

The tourism industry accounts for one in seven jobs in the capital and contributes almost 12% of London’s GDP.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has called for the tourism sector in the capital to be given more support, with tourism spending in London set to fall by £10.9bn.

Richard Burge, chief executive of London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said businesses in the capital had “suffered the perfect storm of losing revenue usually provided by international and domestic visitors, commuters, and business travellers”.

‘It’s the first time I’ve been out of work’

Father-of-four Brahim Rabi, 50, from Barnet in north London, was made redundant from his job as a driver for a kitchen design company in May last year.

As he is looking after his four young children on his own, he can only take on a part-time job. But despite sending out close to 30 applications each week, he has not been able to find employment and has been claiming Universal Credit for nearly six months.

Brahim’s rent went up by £100 last year, meaning he now pays £1,300 a month. His benefits do not cover his rent each month and he has been borrowing money from friends and family to see his family through the crisis after his savings ran out.

“It has been very very hard, especially with the kids off school.

“I am at home 24 hours with them, thinking about whether I will have money the next day, wondering what will happen to me.

“It’s the first time in my life I have been out of work. I have always had enough, I have always looked after my family. It makes me so sad, every time my children need something I don’t know how to explain to them I don’t have the money, it has been really hard for me.

“If I apply for 100 jobs you may hear back from one or two that reply just to say “sorry”. The rest, you never get any reply from them. During the last year, it has been very difficult to get a job unless you know someone – all business has closed because of Covid-19.”

How many claimants are in work?

From February last year to October, the proportion of people claiming UC whilst in employment rose on average by four percentage points.

In four areas, more than half of all claimants were in employment: the Isles of Scilly, South Lakeland in Cumbria, Richmondshire in North Yorkshire, and Boston in Lincolnshire.

Richmondshire’s district council said it was “a reflection of its low wage economy, with a lot of people working in seasonal tourist-related employment”.

Peter Matejic, from anti-poverty charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said the government would need to look “geographically at which areas were bouncing back quicker and which sectors” and “think about how it can unwind the furlough scheme without bringing about a big spike in unemployment”.

How many first time claimants?

Minesh Patel, of Citizens Advice UK, said seven in every 10 people approaching the charity had not needed to apply for benefits before.

Covid-19 meant “overnight, loads of people lost their job or saw a drop in their hours,” Mr Patel said.

“Our advisors are telling us a lot of the people coming to us are on the furlough scheme and need Universal Credit to top up. There has also been a rise in people in insecure work during this pandemic.”

image copyrightGetty Images

image captionEarlier last year Citizens Advice said it saw a spike in visits to its website after government broadcasts

What is Universal Credit?

It is a means-tested benefit for people of a working age on low income. It is claimed by more than 5.5 million households. It replaced:

It can be claimed when you are in, or out, of work.

The standard allowance varies from around £340 to just under £600 a month, depending on your age or whether you are single.

Government support

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said UC had “been a lifeline for millions affected by the pandemic” and would play a “vital role” in the recovery of the jobs market.

The DWP said some UC claims were deliberately being left open for longer during the pandemic rather than closed to avoid having to restart the claims process for people who needed urgent support suddenly.

It said spending on working-age welfare in 2020 was – at over £100bn – set to be at its highest level on record, in real terms and as a percentage of national income and that was combined with other measures to safeguard jobs such as furlough and help for “the lowest-paid families” including the £170m Covid Winter Grant Scheme.

More about this story

The Shared Data Unit makes data journalism available to news organisations across the media industry, as part of a partnership between the BBC and the News Media Association.

For more information on methodology, click here. For the full dataset, click here. Read more about the Local News Partnerships here.

Reporting team: Paul Bradshaw, Paul Lynch, Peter Sherlock and Alex Homer, and Gareth Williams, from the Local Democracy Reporting Service


Fortnite: From piano player to pro gamer – aged just eight

By Joe Tidy

Cyber reporter

image copyrightTeam 33

image captionEight-year-old Joseph Deen from California is the youngest-ever professional Fortnite player

The highlight of most children’s eighth birthday is blowing out the candles on their cake.

However, for Joseph Deen, it was blowing the ink dry on his freshly-signed contract to be a professional gamer.

Joseph is the youngest-ever paid Fortnite player, after signing with Team 33 in December last year.

The Californian esports team invited him to their headquarters to give him a $33,000 (£23,600) signing-on bonus, and high-speed computer system.

Fortnite is a first-person-style shooting and building game played online by hundreds of millions of gamers around the world.

“I felt amazing when I got offered the contract,” Joseph told the BBC. “I’ve thought about being a professional gamer a lot, but no-one took me seriously until Team 33 came along.”

Joseph, who’s also from California, has been playing Fortnite since he was four years old and was first noticed by the fledgling esports team 18 months ago.

“One of my scouts got in touch and said ‘I’ve got to know this kid called Joseph and he is insanely good’,” explained Tyler Gallagher, Team 33’s chief executive and co-founder.

“So they started playing one v one matches as much as they could every day. After a while my scout said ‘you’ve got to sign this kid. If we don’t, someone else will!’.”

image copyrightEpic Games

image captionFortnite has become one of the most lucrative game franchises in the world by selling character “skins”

According to the website, only two of the top 10 highest-earning Fortnite players are over 18.

The first, and so far only, Fortnite World Cup was won by then 16-year-old Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf, who walked away with $3m (£2.2m) in 2019.

For fellow American Joseph, who was just getting into the game at the time, it was a moment of inspiration.

“My dream is to be like Bugha and play like him. I look up to him because no-one took him seriously until he won the World Cup and I feel the same, as no-one took me seriously until I was signed by Team 33.”

image copyrightEpic Games

image captionJoseph wants to follow in the footsteps of Fortnite World Cup Winner Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf

But, according to the world’s major age certification bodies, Joseph is too young to play Fortnite.

The game first came out in 2017 and is rated PEGI 12 or ESRB “teen” certification for frequent mild violence.

Joseph’s mum Gigi says this isn’t something which worries her, and she lets him play Fortnite for two or three hours a day after school, and more at weekends.

“I’ve looked at the game and I don’t think we’re doing anything wrong. He’s a balanced child and comes from a good family and he’s not affected by it,” she said.

image copyrightTeam 33

image captionThe eight-year-old asks his mum “every day” for permission to start game streaming

“You can have these nagging mums that say this and that like ‘he shouldn’t be playing’. Then at 13 their kids start playing and they go nuts. I know parents who have said all this and then their kids have turned into rebels. I don’t see that there’s an issue.”

As well as gaming, Gigi says Joseph enjoys playing the piano, which both he and his team also say could be a secret to his success.

“Playing piano helped me a lot with the keyboard and mouse. As soon as I started playing on PC I was already really good at Fortnite,” said Joseph.

“I’m good at everything in the game but I’m really good at building and editing my builds and I love doing trick shots. I’m pretty dope at them.”

Gigi says her son’s signing-on bonus has been put into a savings account for him when he’s older.

media caption13-year-old Kyle ‘Mongraal’ Jackson was one of the youngest professional Fornite players in 2018

His ambition to be a gaming superstar is also something for which he will have to wait.

Fornite’s cash cup competitions aren’t open to anyone under 13 years old, so he can only enter tournaments which have no prize money attached.

Joseph is also desperate to start streaming his matches online and asks Gigi “every day”, but she is still considering the move saying, “he’s only little”.

Even if his mum does give Joseph the green light, his age prohibits him from streaming on Twitch – the largest games streaming platform.

Breaking the rules could be costly both for Joseph and for his new team.

In 2019, an 11-year-old professional player for FaZe Clan called Patrick ‘H1ghsky1’ Bragaru was banned from streaming on Twitch after his real age was discovered.

image captionJoseph and his team think that his early piano lessons helped him become good at gaming

When Joseph’s signing was first announced, questions were also asked about the type of employment contract he was signing.

Both parties say it doesn’t stipulate any minimum number of hours that the eight-year-old is required to play or train.

“The contract is to protect him really. He can pull out whenever he wants and it’s totally flexible. It’s on his terms and my terms. It’s like a child actor really – they would do more work than he’s doing,” Gigi says.

Team 33 seems relaxed about its long-term investment in Joseph.

“We made the signing announcement so the world knows Joseph’s age, and we don’t make a mistake like FaZe did with H1ghsky1,” said Tyler.

“We can groom him to be a top-level player at a young age and enter him in major cups immediately when he turns the appropriate age, just like the $3m cup Bugha won.

“Joseph is legally allowed to be in tournaments with no cup. We also plan to build up his online presence through YouTube which is also legal. With his online presence we plan to build merchandise for him and sell that as well.

“So in our view if we can make $33,000 out of all that we do over the next few years we win, and that is what we are shooting for.”

image copyrightGuiness World Records

image captionVictor De Leon III is the youngest-ever professional gamer

As far as public records show, Joseph is the second-youngest pro gamer ever.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the American Victor De Leon III , known online as “Lil Poison”, became the youngest signed professional video gamer at the age of seven in 2005.


Documenting emperor penguins in Antarctica

German photographer and film-maker Stefan Christmann spent two winters alongside a 10,000-strong colony of emperor penguins in Atka Bay, Antarctica.

image copyrightStefan Christmann

Christmann was a camera assistant and expedition photographer for an episode of the BBC series Dynasties, narrated by Sir David Attenborough.

He has also produced imagery for publications including National Geographic, with his work winning the Natural History Museum Wildlife Photographer of the Year Portfolio Award in 2019.

In his new book Penguin: A Story of Survival, he shares some of his favourite images from Antarctica.

image copyrightStefan Christmann

Christmann’s first winter in Antarctica was in 2012, when he worked as a geophysicist for the Alfred Wegener Institute.

He spent nearly 15 uninterrupted months working at the Neumayer-Station III, close to Atka Bay, where 10,000 emperor penguins gather each year.

“Staying a winter in Antarctica is an all-or-nothing decision,” Christmann told the BBC.

“During winter time it becomes highly risky to fly people in and out of Antarctica,” he added.

image copyrightStefan Christmann

“The huddle is the emperor penguins’ secret weapon against the cold and their ultimate survival strategy.

“Working as a giant incubator, the birds will stand close to each other with their heads tucked between the shoulders of the birds in front of them.

“Sharing their dissipated body heat, the temperature can reach up to 37°C in the centre of the huddle.

image copyrightStefan Christmann

“Emperor penguins are designed for many things, but when it comes to mating it becomes quite obvious that balancing is not their strong suit.

“When the male steps onto the back of the female just before copulation, he struggles to find a safe stance – resembling someone taking their very first surfing lesson.”

The photographer describes his expeditions in Antarctica as “extremely exciting and dull at the same time.”

“The base itself is very big and modern and there is nothing you would miss for essential living.

“In the beginning this is all new and exciting, but later on you will start missing your family and friends, and your routines from home.

“The worst things are storms, which can last for weeks at a time, when the station shakes and even the plates in the dining room rattle.

“These days can feel a bit like being imprisoned. But it is also a part of station life and of course one can only appreciate the great days if you also know how the bad ones feel.”

In 2016, Christmann returned to Antarctica with two colleagues as part of the BBC Natural History Unit, to film emperor penguins in Neumayer for the series Dynasties.

image copyrightStefan Christmann

“Emperor penguins don’t build any nests and hence must carefully balance the fragile egg on the backs of their feet.

“Finally, they will put their brood pouch over it, in order to keep it warm and shielded from the elements.

“With every step they take, they rotate the egg on their feet a tiny bit, to evenly warm it from all sides.

image copyrightStefan Christmann

“After the female has laid her egg and successfully passed it on to the male, it is time for her to leave the colony.

“She desperately needs to feed, and refuel her depleted energy reserves.

“During the early stages of egg-laying, many females will start their long hike to the ocean all by themselves.”

Christmann and his team didn’t wear camouflaged clothes, opting for red overalls instead so that they could be easily spotted if they got lost in a snowstorm.

“Many of the emperor penguins are used to seeing the ‘red guys in overalls’ around their colony.

“There is no instinct in them telling them to run away, they simply do not know any land-based predators.

“Their only enemies come from above (like skuas and giant petrels) and below (like leopard seals and orcas).

image copyrightStefan Christmann

“Even when the penguins are huddling and conserving their energy on a cold Antarctic winter day, there is always the odd one out who is already warm enough.

“Many times, these individuals broke away from the colony and welcomed us as we carefully approached from afar.

“We always considered them to be our welcoming committee.”

Christmann describes the sound made by 10,000 penguins as “absolutely amazing”.

“They have a very characteristic trumpet-like call … many people would describe it as ‘ugly’ and a ‘cacophony’, but to me that could not be further from the truth.

“It’s the call of life at the end of the world in a place that is not inviting to life, and so to me this is a glorious symphony.

“Even though their calls all sound the same to us humans, each call has an individual melody and beat which is essential for the identification of individuals.

“Emperor penguin couples will find each other in the midst of these thousands of lookalikes by the unique sound of their voice and the qualities of their movement patterns.

image copyrightStefan Christmann

“One behaviour of emperor penguins which is not fully understood up to this day are ‘playdates’ for the chicks, which are arranged by the parents.

“Usually two adults, with chicks on their feet, will stand right in front of each other and constantly lift their brood pouches.

“The chicks usually start interacting with each other, calling and reaching for their peers on the other side.

“The parents will sometimes stand so close to each other that their chests touch and they can rest against each other.

image copyrightStefan Christmann

“The strategy of huddling is a behaviour that has to be learned by the young penguin chicks early on in their lives.

“It is one of the cutest things I have ever seen.

“Despite their parents being extremely calm and organised while huddling, the young ones try to take shortcuts into the warm centre by crowd-surfing over their peers.

“Sooner or later, however, they will understand that everybody gets to be in the warm centre.”

image copyrightStefan Christmann

In the midst of the beauty, Christmann has a warning.

“Over the past decades, slowly warming ocean currents have affected sea ice stability in many ways.

“Emperor penguins normally breed on the sea ice, but its increasing destabilisation often forces them to finish their annual moult.

“When it is time for them to return to the ocean, they must take risky leaps from steep ice cliffs.

“While this looks spectacular, in reality it is a behaviour that should not exist.

“Sadly, human choices, and our impact on the environment, even affect far away ecosystems in which no significant populations of humans are present.”

A Story of Survival by Stefan Christmann, is published by teNeues.


UK cruise ships scrapped in India’s ‘ship graveyard’

By Kate West & Margot Gibbs

BBC News

image copyrightViramdevsinh Gohil

image captionThe Marco Polo was built in the 1960s and was one of the world’s last surviving ocean cruise liners

Two UK cruise ships have been scrapped on an Indian beach despite assurances they would continue to be operated.

Ships at the end of their lives are considered hazardous waste and it is illegal to send them to developing countries from the UK.

But months after being sold at auction to buyers outside the UK they were then sold on as scrap for double the price.

As they were set to be used for further trading when they left UK waters, their arrival in India does not break UK law.

An investigation by the BBC’s File on 4 programme found at least 13 other ships, mostly cargo ships, linked to the UK had arrived at the scrapping beaches of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh since the start of 2020.

‘The world’s largest ship graveyard’

The Marco Polo and the Magellan were sold at auction in November after their owners Cruise and Maritime Voyages went into administration.

The Marco Polo was built in the 1960s and was one of the world’s last surviving ocean cruise liners. It was scheduled to take UK passengers to the Amazon and Norway this year, but its final voyage was to Alang in India.

The ship-breaking yards of Alang dominate a stretch of muddy beach just up the coast from Mumbai in north-west India, referred to as the world’s largest ship graveyard.

The ship was bought at auction for around £2m by offshore company Highseas Ltd. After the sale, it was released from UK waters on the condition it would be used for ‘further trading’.

HighSeas Ltd said the cruise ship would be used as a floating hotel in Dubai.

But two months after taking ownership of the Marco Polo, it was sold as scrap for around £4m.

HighSeas Ltd director Rishi Arggawal said it was always their intention the Marco Polo would be sold to new owners “but regrettably, the intended buyers in Dubai refused to take delivery”.

Mr Arggawal said they tried to find new work for the Marco Polo as a cruise ship or a hotel without success, before selling to “Indian interests”.

It is a similar story for the Magellan, which was meant to be used as a floating hotel in Liverpool for the 2021 Grand National.

It was bought at the auction by a Greek ship owner. Brokers say it was sold on for scrap after no new buyer was found.

The cruise ship industry do send old ships to be scrapped safely at EU-approved yards, but when sold at auction, which often happens when a company goes into administration, this decision is taken out of the previous owner’s hands.

Asbestos bomb

There are serious concerns about the environmental impact and working conditions in the ship-breaking industry across south Asia.

Each year around 800 ships come to the end of their lives and need to be broken apart and recycled.

Although this work can be carried out in the UK and other EU-approved ship-breaking yards, around 70% of the world’s ships end up on the beaches of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as these yards offer much higher prices for scrap steel.

The organisation Ship-breaking Platform has documented the deaths of more than 400 workers on these beaches since 2009.

It has recorded fatal accidents in the yards from workers falling from height and being killed in gas explosions, as well as longer-term sickness from exposure to toxic materials such as asbestos.

image copyrightReuters

image captionThere are serious concerns about the environmental impact of the ship-breaking industry across south Asia

Ship-breaking Platform’s director, Ingvild Jenssen, said despite laws in place making it illegal for developed countries like the UK to send hazardous waste such as old ships to developing countries, they continue to arrive

“There is a lot of value in these vessels because they contain large amounts of steel,” she said. “But they also contain large amounts of hazardous materials: asbestos; heavy metals; lead, and many materials you need to take large precautions when you’re dealing with them.”

Ship recycling consultant Merijn Hougee from Sea2Cradle says asbestos is not treated as a hazardous material in India.

“If you have a vessel built in the 60s, it is likely there are larger amounts of asbestos on board. There’s a ban on asbestos in Europe, but in India, it’s freely being traded and sold and used as second-hand building materials.”

A ship-breaking worker in India who spoke to the BBC said they “pump waste, like oil and petrol, into the sea when clearing out a ship, or we use it to burn other materials on the shore”.

He said he has been badly burned on two occasions and did not receive sick pay while recovering.

Once he had to be driven an hour away to hospital as the one near the yards did not have the facilities to deal with serious injuries.

UK shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard believes tighter, global regulation is needed to ensure that British-owned ships end up being recycled by approved ship-breaking yards.

“I don’t think the public want to see ships that were owned by British companies polluting beaches all around the world. I think they want to see them properly disposed of, properly recycled.”

The UK government said: “The illegal export of waste is a significant threat to the global environment, and those convicted could face two years in prison or an unlimited fine.”

Shipping’s Dirty Secret is on BBC Radio 4 at 20:00 GMT and later on BBC Sounds

Additional reporting by Chris Foote and Jim Booth


Syria war: ‘This is the price we had to pay for freedom’

By Marwa Nasser

BBC Arabic

Ten years of war in Syria has devastated the country, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives and uprooting millions more. Here, some of those affected – displaced from their homes or driven abroad – describe the impact the conflict has had on them.

‘I lost so many friends’

image copyrightGhayath Abou Ahmed

Ghayath Abou Ahmed, 30, freelance journalist

I was a student when protests broke out in my hometown Darayya. I watched from a distance with my camera, taking pictures of scenes I never imagined would have taken place in Syria. We were inspired by protests in Tunisia and Egypt, but never thought we would dare raise our voices too.

Sadly, our dream was short-lived when hundreds in Darayya were killed in August 2012. I lost so many of my friends and neighbours in just two days. That was the most difficult time for me in the whole of the last 10 years. That was the moment, fear had a full grip on all of the young people in Darayya. Nobody could go out of town again to protest.

For four years, we lived in isolation under siege. I felt bitter every time I looked at the horizons to see how Damascus was all lit brightly while we lived in complete darkness. My heart ached at how they moved freely while we couldn’t even get food or medicine.

I was completely lost when I was forcibly evacuated from Darayya to Idlib in 2016; I felt like a fish taken out of water.

My parents were detained for a while and my brother was killed. This is the price we had to pay for freedom. I never regretted participating in the revolution. If I went back in time, I would do it all over again. I never blamed the revolution for my loss, I only blame the Syrian regime which committed unforgivable crimes.

It is true that the revolution has not succeeded yet, but we have achieved some freedom that we had never enjoyed before. There was always one voice that nobody dared contradict. Now I’m a freelance journalist, I write my thoughts and share them with the world, something I could have never done if it wasn’t for the revolution.

‘I have no dreams for the future’

image copyrightGetty Images

image captionShelling and air strikes has damaged much of Idlib (file photo)

Nour al-Sham, 28, humanitarian worker

I used to live in a house with my family, but now I live in a tent in northern Idlib.

We lived in southern Idlib in a house where we had everything we needed except for our freedom. Now I suffer in a primitive tent in a barren land with hundreds of other tents which in winter turns into a big mud puddle and in summer is infested with insects and covered in dust.

I have no dreams for the future or for my son’s future. I try my best to distract him from life in the camp. I tell him nothing about the war so he doesn’t get burdened at such a young age. My husband had to leave us to work in Turkey and I don’t get to see him anymore.

I had a dream to finish school, but it’s impossible now. I was a student in Aleppo University when I took part in the protests there. I had to leave the university few months after that because of threats by security forces.

I started helping out people and joined the humanitarian relief effort. In 2019 I escaped the shelling on our neighbourhood with my husband and our child and ended up in a refugee camp in the northern Idlib countryside.

I lost two of my cousins when their homes were bombarded. My brother was arrested in 2012, and we don’t know where he is until now. But I never regretted that we had a revolution. We hoped we’d get rid of the oppressive regime.

‘The world was watching and did nothing’

image copyrightFadi Mosilli

Fadi Mosilli, 40, Red Cross employee

By the end of 2012, I realised I couldn’t stay in Syria anymore. I felt threatened after my close friends were arrested. I was afraid for the safety of my children. I was afraid I’d be just another man killed and forgotten like the prisoners of Caesar prison.

I found my way to Turkey then to Germany.

Probably being abroad helped make our voices heard. I’ve always participated in protests in Germany to call for the rights of Syrians and defend Syrian refugees. I even joined a political party. I dream of a similar democracy and free elections in Syria.

We took to the streets to call for freedom only for the regime to retaliate with bullets. People were brutally beaten and killed in front of my eyes.

The last 10 years of destruction took their painful toll on me, but I still have hope that one day we’ll enjoy freedom and put those accountable behind bars. Seeing Syrians getting killed and displaced every day is heart-wrenching for me. The whole world was watching and did nothing to stop the killing.

I live as a body without a soul. I miss my life in Syria, I miss my family and my friends, the trees and the street where I lived. I look at pictures of Damascus where we used to live and I cry. It breaks my heart that I couldn’t even visit my mom’s grave after she passed away a couple of years ago.

‘The past 10 years left me shattered’

image copyrightGetty Images

image captionSyrian opposition fighters damage a portrait of Assad (file photo)

When the protests erupted, I was too scared to leave my house [in Damascus]. I didn’t understand what was going on and what this could lead to. The protests were spontaneous, but people really needed to be organised and seek a leader. I was very worried because while some people did call for freedom, others raised signs with sectarian demands stirring hard feelings among Syrians of different faiths.

We have always lived together, all sects of Muslims and Christians, and before the crisis we never felt different. But a few months on, I lost some of my university friends who started questioning people around them about their sect and their towns.

As the years went by, shells continued to fall on us and we didn’t even know who was firing. My sister was killed in 2016 in the Damascus countryside when she was in a restaurant. I don’t blame the simple protesters for her death. I know they were calling for their basic rights, but others became fanatics and terrorised us.

Dozens of small armed groups were scattered killing people based on their identities. Government employees were being killed just because they worked with the government. That made me terrified for my mother’s safety because she works in one of the government’s ministries. Her bus was once targeted by shells on her way from work but she made it back home.

The past 10 years left me shattered. My heart races and my whole body shakes when I hear loud sounds. I’ve become obsessed with one idea every time I get in a taxi on my way home – that an explosion will take place this very minute.

It might be safer now, but the economic situation is unbearable. I hope that with this new American administration, the sanctions on Syria could be lifted. It’s the ordinary people who suffer the most, not the people working in the government. It’s always us who pay the price.

‘We have won after all’

image copyrightHarun al-Aswad

Harun al-Aswad, 33, journalist

On June 24, in 2012, I was watching on television how Egyptians achieved victory by announcing Mohammed Morsi a president for their country. I was inspired by the Egyptian revolution, dreaming of a happy ending to our struggle. On that day, I left my house [in Damascus] to participate in a protest, but my hopes were soon crushed when I got arrested.

For a year, I was tortured brutally. I was deprived of food and water and using the bathroom. I was beaten daily and mocked for the jailers’ entertainment.

Sometimes I wished I could just die; and I think if I lost hope, I would have been dead.

I’ve always had a passion for telling stories, something my father warned me about. He said journalism in this country will get you in trouble one day. There were times when I thought about his words while fleeing one place after the other to avoid getting arrested.

I live in Turkey now close to the Syrian borders where I continue to do more journalism and tell the world about the atrocities committed against the Syrian people. I still have hope that Bashar al-Assad and his regime will be held accountable for his crimes against the Syrian people.

Our revolution was not Islamic. The rallies moved to mosques just because they were places of gathering for us on Friday. Moving in crowds gave us strength and eliminated our fear. We never called for sectarian demands, we only called for freedom, justice, and an end to the emergency state.

We have won after all, because it was us versus powerful countries and we still managed to overcome our fear and break the deafening silence of decades of oppression exposing unspeakable atrocities.

‘I have no hope of seeing my family again’

image copyrightAFP

image captionChildren play among debris in Eastern Ghouta (file photo)

I escaped from Homs with my husband and our four children one year after the revolution began. We have always thought we would be back once the regime stopped its attack. But we couldn’t come back.

We were moving in a pick-up truck amid heavy fire from one town to another heading to safety in the north. Whenever we imagined we were finally safe, the sound of shelling would bring us back to reality. Death was close but it was better than being arrested.

The most difficult time for us was living under siege in Eastern Ghouta. The regime was hitting us with everything, airstrikes, artillery, mortars, cluster bombs. They denied us medicine and basic food supplies. The only thing we could find to eat was cabbage leaves. I was dying inside when my youngest son woke up hungry in the middle of the night asking for food and I couldn’t get him anything. Many terrible things happened to me that I wish could be erased from my memory.

My husband and three of my sons were tortured by Turkish security for being journalists when we tried to escape from Idlib to Turkey. I was screaming at the officer “leave them alone”. I don’t know how I got all this strength. I used to be terrified of any officer. I probably exploded after all the injustice and humility we’d seen.

The Turkish authorities apologised to us later, saying it was an individual mistake.

We were allowed in Turkey, stayed for few months then moved to France.

I have no hope of seeing my family again. My father died and I couldn’t see him one last time. But I still believe that the revolution was something that was meant to happen. We were silent for so long. People were even scared to talk inside their homes. But enough was enough.

‘Like a leaf that fell from a tree’

image copyrightYounes al-Karim

Younes al-Karim, 40, economist

Before the revolution, I was an economic advisor to notable Syrian businessmen. Now living in France, even though I have a master’s degree, I have to earn my living by working as a cleaner in a restaurant.

I was arrested for few months in Syria in 2014 for trying to form a political party. When I was released, I knew my life was in danger and we had to flee.

My wife too has a master’s degree and worked with the Central Bank but now she cooks meals for a living. The most depressing question anyone could ask me is “what do you do?”

I don’t know how to answer this. Do I say I’m an economist and I used to teach economics in a university, or do I say I work in a kitchen of a restaurant?

Sometimes I ask myself: What do I do here? I feel I’m like a leaf that fell from a tree onto hostile ground that will never accept me. A French man once screamed at us to go back to where we came from and called us terrorists. Nobody stopped him. Nobody intervened to protect us.

Names of some of the interviewees have been changed to protect their identities.


Dozens of arts freelancers lose out on Covid support over tax ‘error’

By Ian Youngs

Entertainment & arts reporter

image copyrightITV/Shutterstock

image captionKya Garwood (right) appeared in 2013 TV drama Lucan

During more than a decade as an actress, Kya Garwood has had parts in films like Paddington 2 and Mamma Mia Here We Go Again, as well as being a stand-in and double for leading ladies like Meryl Streep, Michelle Pfeiffer and Lily James.

When the pandemic hit, she should have been eligible for the government’s self-employment grants.

But there was a problem. She was self-employed, but many of the production companies she had worked for had not classed her as such when paying her. So when she came to apply for coronavirus support for the self-employed, she was turned down.

She estimates she has lost out on more than £20,000. Despite appeals to government tax authorities, her MP and even Chancellor Rishi Sunak directly, she hasn’t been able to overturn the decision.

“I’m very angry,” she says. “I’ve paid my taxes. If it wasn’t for the savings I had from the previous productions that I’d built up, I dread to think where I’d be.”

‘A very worrying time’

Garwood is one of 50 actors and backstage arts workers who have found themselves without coronavirus self-employment support because their pay status was “misallocated”, according to the Equity union, which is now lobbying “very hard” for their cases to be re-examined.

Garwood says she raised the problem with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) even before the pandemic when film companies told her they were following official guidance by effectively paying her as an employee rather than as a self-employed worker.

“It’s not the productions’ fault,” she says. “They’ve been following the HMRC guidelines, which were out of date.”

Garwood is getting some furlough money from a part-time travel job that she slotted in between her acting. “And obviously you go through all your credit cards, because the furlough I was getting doesn’t cover your mortgage. And then you’ve got the rest of your bills to pay.”

image copyrightSarah Cash

image captionStage manager Sarah Cash with Only Fools and Horses actor Paul Whitehouse

Sarah Cash, meanwhile, was working as a freelance deputy stage manager in the West End on the Only Fools and Horses stage show when lockdown hit.

Because she was given a P60, the annual tax form for Pay As You Earn (PAYE) employees, she listed her wages as PAYE earnings on her 2018/19 tax return instead of self-employment earnings.

“I knew I’m self-employed, but because I got this P60 I assumed I should put it in the PAYE bit,” she says. “I didn’t realise I’d made a mistake, and it was only when I applied for the grant they said, ‘You’re not eligible.'”

That was after the cut-off date to amend her tax return, however. She says she “literally went from earning a really good wage to zero overnight”. She believes she should have qualified for grants worth £7,500, which she hasn’t been able to claim.

Her husband has continued working, but it has still been “a very worrying time”, she says. “I felt very anxious about it. I’d wake up in the night thinking, oh my gosh, you’ve gone from having a secure job to nothing.”

She adds: “I felt really cross with myself for making that error and having put myself in that position, and then I felt really cross with the system that there was no flexibility at all.

“It just needed somebody sensible to look at it and say, ‘OK, she’s made an error, it wasn’t with any malice. So let’s use our common sense and pay her the grant that she actually is entitled to.’ It just seems really harsh and unfair.”

image copyrightRoy Campell-Moore

image captionFaith Prendergast had the vast majority of her work cancelled in 2020

Dancer Faith Prendergast discovered she too had listed her earnings incorrectly on her tax return, meaning she missed out on £8,000-£10,000 in grants.

“In the grand scheme of things it’s not that much money, but it would actually help me a lot to just stay above the water,” she says.

She has also not been able to persuade HMRC to reconsider, though. “It just feels impersonal and like I’ve fallen through the cracks,” she continues.

“I’m lucky, I have a little bit of savings. But it’s not like I have a lot of savings for someone my age. I’m 28. It’s that time in life where you are planning for the future. And when you have to live off your savings, it kind of really messes that up.”

Equity is calling on HMRC to use its “discretionary powers” to re-examine cases like these.

“I’m aware of about 50 cases. I would guess there are probably more out there. A lot of these are younger members who are trying to keep going,” says the union’s tax and welfare rights officer Alan Lean.

‘Struggling to keep going’

“For purely technical reasons, they have put their income down in the year 2018-19 on the wrong part of the [tax] return.

“Part of the reason has been because the production companies have been wrongly reporting that income to HMRC when they don’t need to. And also part of the problem has stemmed from HMRC’s out-of-date payroll guidance for the entertainment sector.

“This has caused some members to lose out in excess of £20,000 at a time when they are struggling to keep going and we are concerned that many of them are going to leave the profession.”

The government’s coronavirus Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) has paid three rounds of grants worth a total of £18.5bn so far.

An HMRC spokesperson said it could not let anyone amend their 2018/19 tax returns to change their pay status after the scheme was announced on 26 March. That is because the organisation “would not be able to distinguish genuine amendments from fake amendments by fraudulent operators seeking to exploit the SEISS”.

The spokesperson added: “If the government were to rely on amendments to 2018/19 returns made after 26 March for the SEISS, there would be significant risks for the public purse.”


Palestinian ‘Techno Queen’ Sama’ Abdulhadi faces court over shrine event

A Palestinian DJ is facing a court hearing in the coming weeks, after being accused of breaking rules around performing near a holy shrine in the West Bank last year.

Sama’ Abdulhadi, sometimes know as the ‘Queen of Techno’, was jailed for eight days over the event. Her arrest by Palestinian police has been criticised by human rights groups. She spoke to the BBC.

Reporter: Tom Bateman