George Saunders’ ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ wins 2017 Man Booker prize

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LONDON (Reuters) – American author George Saunders has won the 2017 Man Booker Prize, a high-profile literary award, for his first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” – a fictional account of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln burying his young son.

In his acceptance speech, Saunders, 58, noted that “we live in a strange time,” adding he saw the key question of the era being whether society responded to events with “exclusion and negative projection and violence,” or “with love/.”

Saunders was the second consecutive American writer to win the prize, after the rules were changed in 2014 to allow authors of any book written in English and published in the U.K. to compete.

His novel, set in 1862, a year into the American Civil war, is a blend of historical accounts and imaginative fiction, which sees Lincoln’s son Willie, who died in the White House at age 11, in “Bardo” – a Tibetan form of purgatory.

George Saunders, author of ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’, poses for photographers after winning the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2017 in London, Britain, October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Mary Turner

The judging panel, led by author and member of Britain’s House of Lords Lola Young, praised the “deeply moving” book, saying it was “utterly original”.

Saunders was presented with his award by the Duchess of Cambridge, the wife of Britain’s Prince William.

Slideshow (5 Images)

Last year, American Paul Beatty became the first American to win the award, for his novel “The Sellout,” a biting satire on race relations in the United States.

Other previous winners have included this year’s Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Iris Murdoch and Canadian writer Margaret Atwood.

The award was previously open only to writers from Britain, Ireland, Zimbabwe or countries in the British Commonwealth. The winner receives a 50,000 pound ($65,000) cash prize.

Reporting by Mark Hanrahan in London; Additional reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Peter Cooney

Man Booker Prize: George Saunders wins for Lincoln in the Bardo

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George Saunders has won the Man Booker prize for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo – becoming the second US author to take home the £50,000 fiction award.

The book tells the story of Abraham Lincoln’s grief after the death of his young son, and his visits to his tomb.

It is the first full-length novel from Saunders, previously best known for his short stories, and is set in a graveyard, over a single night.

Judges praised the “utterly original” work and said it was “deeply moving”.

Saunders, 58, was one of six authors shortlisted for the prestigious award, alongside British writers Ali Smith and Fiona Mozley, fellow Americans Paul Auster and Emily Fridlund, and British-Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid.

Speaking after his name was announced, Saunders said: “Thank you for this great honour which I hope to live up to with the rest of my work, for the rest of my life.”

The Texas-born author, who lives in New York, has previously won the Folio Prize and Story Prize for his short story collection Tenth of December. Lincoln in the Bardo is his ninth book, and had been the favourite to win the Booker.

The Duchess of Cornwall presented his trophy at London’s Guildhall.

He based the story on a real moment in 1862 when the body of the US president’s 11-year-old son Willie was taken to a cemetery in Washington DC.

Saunders revealed after writing the first third of the book he “got a bit freaked out” and wasn’t sure “if any other human being could read it”.

His wife Paula then read it and wrote on a post-it note “something so generous it will stay a secret forever” and that gave him the confidence to continue.

During a post-ceremony press conference, he said: “It sounds a little pathetic but for an artist I think validation is really helpful. Maybe you shouldn’t need it but I definitely do.

“So when someone that I respect approves my work or when I get grouped with a bunch of writers like these wonderful talents, my opinion of myself improves a little bit and the next book has a little more courage in it.”

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Saunders said the novel had been in his heart for 20 years before he wrote it.

Asked why it took him so long to commit it to the page, he told the BBC: “My stories are a little dark and cynical and sci-fi, and I just couldn’t see any way to approach this serious material.

“I tried a couple of times and it didn’t work, and I just thought: ‘Either don’t do it, or wait until you’ve enough life to do it justice’.”

‘Deeply moving’

Baroness Lola Young, chair of the 2017 judging panel, said the form of the novel – which includes voices of 166 souls in the graveyard – “reveals a witty, intelligent and deeply moving narrative”.

It took five hours of deliberations before the panel, also including novelist Sarah Hall, artist Tom Phillips, literary critic Lila Azam Zanganeh and the travel writer Colin Thubron, made their unanimous decision.

Baroness Young described the responsibility of choosing a winner as “draining”, saying: “We had actually some tears – but that was as much due to the kind of relief of having gotten to the decision, it wasn’t about anger or sadness or whatever.”

She added: “This really stood out because of its innovation – its very different styling and the way in which it paradoxically brought to life these not-quite-dead souls in this other world.

“There was this juxtaposition of the very personal tragedy of Abraham Lincoln with his public life, as the person who’d really instigated the American Civil War.”

Why experimental novel won the Booker

Analysis by BBC arts correspondent Rebecca Jones

This is initially a rather off-putting book – it’s got a rather strange title and when you read the first few pages, you don’t really know what’s going on.

It’s the most experimental of the shortlisted novels, told in a multiplicity of voices. It’s almost like a verbal collage.

It can be quite a disconnecting experience, but stick with it because it is not only very moving, but it’s also very funny.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a very interesting exploration of one of America’s great presidents. It’s examining his private rather than public role.

Because it’s dealing with his dead son, it could risk becoming sentimental, but George Saunders manages to avoid that.

One thing I can promise you is that you’ve never read a book like it. It is completely original.

The shortlist was whittled down from a longlist of 13 novels that was announced in July.

The award has been open to US writers since 2014 and was awarded to its first American winner, Paul Beatty, last year.

Lincoln in the Bardo is published by Bloomsbury, making this the third consecutive year an independent publisher has won the award.

The bardo in the book’s title refers to the transitional state between death and your next birth, according to Tibetan Buddhism.

Man Booker prize – Who’s won it before?

  • 2016: Paul Beatty, The Sellout
  • 2015: Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings
  • 2014: Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
  • 2013: Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries
  • 2012: Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies
  • 2011: Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
  • 2010: Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question
  • 2009: Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
  • 2008: Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger
  • 2007: Anne Enright, The Gathering

As well as the winner’s cheque, Saunders receives a rather unique honour – Royal Mail will apply a congratulatory postmark bearing his name to millions of items of stamped mail on Wednesday and Friday.

It will read: “Congratulations to George Saunders, winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize.”

He can also expect a spike in sales. In the week after Beatty won last year, sales of The Sellout increased by 658%.

Saunders teaches at Syracuse University and was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2013.

2017 Man Booker prize shortlist

Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1

In a nutshell: A young man growing up in New Jersey in the 1950s and 60s leads four parallel lives.

Judges’ comment: “An ambitious, complex, epic narrative… that is essentially both human and humane.”

Emily Fridlund, History of Wolves

In a nutshell: A 14-year-old girl living on a commune in the US Midwest befriends some new arrivals.

Judges’ comment: “A novel of silver prose and disquieting power that asks very difficult questions.”

Mohsin Hamid, Exit West

In a nutshell: A boy and girl fall in love, move in together and consider leaving their unnamed country.

Judges’ comment: “A subtle, compact piece of writing about a relationship, its blossoming and digressions.”

Fiona Mozley, Elmet

In a nutshell: A boy remembers his life in a house his father built with his bare hands in an isolated wood.

Judges’ comment: “Timeless in its epic mixture of violence and love, it is also timely… with no punches pulled.”

George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo

In a nutshell: President Abraham Lincoln goes to a Georgetown cemetery to grieve following his young son’s death.

Judges’ comment: “Daring and accomplished, this is a novel with a rare capriciousness of mind and heart.”

Ali Smith, Autumn

In a nutshell: A dying 101-year-old man is watched over by his closest and only friend.

Judges’ comment: “An elegy for lost time, squandered beauty but also for the loss of connections.”

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China’s Communist Party congress begins in Beijing

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China’s biggest political event, the Communist Party congress, has begun in Beijing under tight security.

Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed more than 2,000 delegates in the capital for more than three hours.

The closed-door summit, which takes place once every five years, determines who rules China and the country’s direction for the next term.

Mr Xi, who became the leader in 2012, has been consolidating power and is expected to remain as party chief.

The congress, which also decides on a roadmap for China for the next five years, is expected to finish next week.

Shortly after the congress ends, the party is expected to unveil the new members of China’s top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, who will steer the country.

In his speech, Mr Xi listed China’s recent achievements, saying that “socialism with Chinese characteristics in this new era” meant China had “become a great power in the world”, and added that the country should not copy foreign political systems.

He also:

  • Briefly described a two-stage plan for China’s “socialist modernisation”, to be achieved by 2050
  • Warned against separatism – in an apparent reference to movements in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong – and reiterated the government’s principle that Taiwan is part of China
  • Said China “would not close its doors to the world” and promised further economic reform, including lowering barriers for foreign investors

‘Surging ideological confidence’

Analysis by Carrie Gracie, BBC China editor

Xi Jinping is a much more assertive leader than his predecessors. In a long and confident speech, he looked back on his first five years in office, saying the party had achieved miracles and China’s international standing had grown.

But the most striking thing in his mission statement was ideological confidence. Recently Party media have talked of crisis and chaos in western democracies compared to strength and unity in China.

Today Xi Jinping said he would not copy foreign political systems and that the communist party must oppose anything that would undermine its leadership of China.


Mr Xi also mentioned his wide-reaching corruption crackdown within the Party that has punished more than a million officials, report BBC correspondents in Beijing.

Beijing is decked out in welcome banners and festive displays for the congress.

However, the capital is also on high alert. Long lines were seen earlier this week at railway stations due to additional checks at transport hubs.

The congress has also affected businesses, with some restaurants, gyms, nightclubs and karaoke bars reportedly shutting down due to tightened security rules.

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An austerity drive, instituted by Mr Xi, has meant a more pared down congress, with Chinese reports this week of delegates’ hotels cutting back on frills such as decorations, free fruit in rooms and lavish meals.

Meanwhile, state media have said the Party is expected to rewrite its constitution to include Mr Xi’s “work report” or political thoughts, which would elevate him to the status of previous Party giants Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

Some see Mr Xi as accruing more power than any leader since Mao, and the congress will be watched closely for clues on how much control now rests in the hands of just one man, says the BBC’s John Sudworth.

Since becoming president, Mr Xi has tightened control within the Party and also in Chinese society, with increasing censorship and arrests of lawyers and activists.

Under Mr Xi, China’s modernisation and reform has also accelerated, as has its assertiveness on the world stage.

He continues to enjoy widespread support among ordinary citizens in China.

Kenya election official resigns, saying poll ‘not credible’

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A senior member of Kenya’s electoral commission (IEBC) has resigned, saying the country is unable to hold credible elections next week.

Roselyn Akombe said the IEBC was under political “siege”, unable to reach consensus or take any decisions.

Now in the US, she told the BBC she had feared for her safety while in Kenya after receiving numerous threats.

Last week, opposition leader Raila Odinga pulled out of the 26 October presidential run-off.

The Supreme Court annulled the result of the original 8 August poll, which saw current President Uhuru Kenyatta declared winner, after finding irregularities.

In a statement, Ms Akombe said she had “agonised over the decision to leave the IEBC (Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission).

“My decision to leave the IEBC will disappoint some of you, but it is not for lack of trying.

“I have tried the best I could do given the circumstances. Sometimes, you walk away, especially when potentially lives are at stake. The commission has become a party to the current crisis. The commission is under siege.

“The commission in its current state can surely not guarantee a credible election on 26 October 2017.”

And in an interview with the BBC’s Newsday programme, she said: “Would it be a credible election? Absolutely not.

“There is a very high likelihood that the mistakes that some of the presiding officers made during the last election will be repeated.”

Speaking from New York, she said IEBC members had been voting along partisan lines, without discussing different issues on merit.

Commissioners and other IEBC personnel were facing intimidation by political actors and protesters, Ms Akombe said.

She also revealed that she herself had received a number of anonymous threats, and had been put under pressure to resign.

“I have never felt the kind of fear that I felt in my own country.”

She said she did not “feel safe enough to be able to go home” in the foreseeable future.

The IEBC has so far made no public comments on the issue.

Election positions

Mr Odinga, who leads the opposition – the National Super Alliance (Nasa) – said last week: “We have come to the conclusion that there is no intention on the part of the IEBC to undertake any changes to its operations and personnel.

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“All indications are that the election scheduled for 26 October will be worse than the previous one.”

Mr Odinga has organised a series of protests against the IEBC in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, Mr Kenyatta says he is ready to proceed with the new vote as planned.

“We have no problem going back to elections. We are sure we will get more votes than the last time.”

“We are also telling him it is the people’s right to choose their leader. It is their sovereign right to choose their leader of choice,” Mr Kenyatta said.

The country’s electoral commission said Mr Kenyatta had won the August vote by a margin of 1.4 million votes – or 54% of the total, compared to Mr Odinga’s 45%.

Trump’s latest travel ban order blocked

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US President Donald Trump’s latest bid to impose travel restrictions on citizens from eight countries entering the US has suffered a court defeat.

A federal judge slapped a temporary restraining order on the open-ended ban before it could take effect this week.

The policy targets Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad and North Korea, as well as some Venezuelan officials.

Previous iterations of the ban targeted six Muslim-majority countries, but were checked by the Supreme Court.

The state of Hawaii sued in Honolulu to block Mr Trump’s third travel ban, which was set to go into effect early on Wednesday.

It argued the president did not have the powers under federal immigration law to impose such restrictions.

US District Judge Derrick Watson, who blocked Mr Trump’s last travel ban in March, issued the new restraining order.

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Judge Watson wrote that the new policy “suffers from precisely the same maladies as its predecessor”.

He said “it lacks sufficient findings that the entry of more than 150 million nationals from six specified countries would be ‘detrimental to the interests of the United States'”.

Judge Watson added that it ignores an earlier federal appeals court ruling that found the president’s previous ban exceeds the scope of his authority.

The White House had contended the latest ban, announced in September, was based on a worldwide review of security protocols and information sharing.

But Hawaii argued in court documents that the revised policy was fulfilling Mr Trump’s campaign promise for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, despite the addition of North Korea and Venezuela.

The latest order temporarily blocks the ban on all targeted countries except with respect to North Korea and Venezuela.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups are also challenging the new travel restrictions in Maryland.

Meanwhile, Washington state, Massachusetts, California, Oregon, New York and Maryland are also seeking to block the new ban in Seattle.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement the latest order was “dangerously flawed” and “undercuts” efforts to keep Americans safe.

“These restrictions are vital to ensuring that foreign nations comply with the minimum security standards required for the integrity of our immigration system and the security of our Nation,” her statement read.

“We are therefore confident that the Judiciary will ultimately uphold the President’s lawful and necessary action and swiftly restore its vital protections for the safety of the American people.”

The president’s original ban in March was highly controversial, as it affected six majority-Muslim countries, and was widely labelled a “Muslim ban”.

It was subject to a range of legal challenges and several large-scale protests.

The ban was due to be considered by the US Supreme Court on 10 October after it was partly reinstated in July.

But last month the Supreme Court postponed the October oral arguments and called upon all parties challenging the White House to resubmit briefs to the court on whether the case should be dismissed.

Raqqa: IS ‘capital’ falls to US-backed Syrian forces

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A US-backed alliance of Syrian fighters says it has taken full control of Raqqa, ending three years of rule in the city by so-called Islamic State.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) spokesman Talal Sello said the fighting was over after a four-month assault.

Clearing operations were now under way to uncover any jihadist sleeper cells and remove landmines, he added.

However, a US military spokesman later said he could only confirm that about 90% of the city had been cleared.

Islamic State (IS) made Raqqa the headquarters of its self-styled “caliphate” in early 2014, implementing an extreme interpretation of Islamic law and using beheadings, crucifixions and torture to terrorise residents who opposed its rule.

The city also became home to thousands of jihadists from around the world who heeded a call to migrate there by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

How did the Raqqa offensive unfold?

The SDF was formed by the Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG) militia two years ago along with a number of smaller, Arab factions. It says it is not aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or the rebels seeking to overthrow him.

With the help of US-led coalition air strikes, weapons and special forces, SDF fighters have driven IS out of more than 8,000 sq km (3,100 sq miles) of territory.

Last November, they began a major operation to capture Raqqa. They slowly encircled the city before breaking through IS defences on the outskirts in June.

On Tuesday morning, the SDF cleared the last two major IS positions in Raqqa – the municipal stadium and the National Hospital.

Reuters news agency reported that fighters raised the YPG flag inside the stadium, celebrated in the streets and chanted slogans from their vehicles.

Dozens of foreign militants were believed to have made their last stand in the stadium, while 22 were reportedly killed in the final attack on the hospital.

Up to 300 militants were thought to be holding out on Sunday, after Syrian jihadists and their families were evacuated along with 3,500 civilians under a deal negotiated by the Raqqa Civil Council and local Arab tribal elders.

“Everything is finished in Raqqa, our forces have taken full control of Raqqa,” Mr Sello told AFP news agency on Tuesday afternoon.

“The military operations in Raqqa have finished, but there are clearing operations now under way to uncover any sleeper cells there might be and remove mines.”

Mr Sello said an official statement declaring victory in the city would be made soon.

However, the coalition would only say that the battle was “near its end”, with spokesman Col Ryan Dillon estimating that about 100 militants were left in Raqqa.

What has been the human cost?

There has been a “staggering loss of civilian life” in Raqqa, according to UN war crimes investigators.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, reported on Tuesday that at least 3,250 people had been killed in the past five months, among them 1,130 civilians. Hundreds more were missing and might be buried under destroyed buildings, it said.

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The anti-IS activist group, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, said more than 1,873 civilians had been killed.

Activists said many of the civilian casualties were the result of the intense US-led air strikes that helped the SDF advance, though the coalition said it had adhered to strict targeting processes and procedures aimed to minimise risks to civilians.

IS militants also used civilians as human shields and shot those trying to flee.

The UN said last week that about 8,000 people were still trapped in Raqqa, and that almost 270,000 civilians had been displaced since April.

Air strikes, shelling and clashes on the ground have also destroyed Raqqa’s civilian infrastructure and homes. A local councillor recently estimated that at least half of the city was destroyed.

Save the Children warned that while the battle was now over the humanitarian crisis was continuing, with the displaced in critical need of aid and camps “bursting at the seams”.

“Conditions in the camps are miserable, and families do not have enough food, water or medicine. But it is not yet safe for them to go back, and many of their homes are now turned to rubble,” said the charity’s Syria director, Sonia Khush.

What is left of IS in Syria?

The jihadist group still has a number of footholds, the largest of which runs along the Euphrates river valley in the south-eastern province of Deir al-Zour.

However, the SDF and Syrian government forces – which are backed by Russian air strikes and fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement – have launched separate offensives in the province with the aim of taking control of a key crossing on the border with Iraq.

IS has also suffered a series of defeats in recent months to Iraqi government forces, who are advancing along the Euphrates on the other side of the border.

The US-led coalition said on Tuesday that forces it supported had reclaimed 93,790 sq km of Iraqi and Syrian territory seized by IS in 2014 and freed 6.6 million people from jihadist control.

Weinstein scandal: Game of Thrones actress ‘felt powerless’

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Game of Thrones actress Lena Headey, who plays Cersei Lannister on the popular HBO show, has accused producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment.

The Hollywood mogul was “furious” after she resisted his sexual advances, she details in a series of Twitter posts.

The British actress joins a list of over 40 women who have accused the producer of misconduct.

Also on Tuesday, Weinstein resigned from the board of directors of his eponymous film production company.

He has been accused of rape, sexual assault and harassment, but has “unequivocally denied” any allegations of non-consensual relationships.

Despite being fired as chairman of The Weinstein Company studio on 8 October he had continued until Tuesday to hold a position on the company’s board.

Weinstein, who has been expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that present the Oscar awards, still owns 22% of his company’s stock, according to Variety magazine.

Amid the fallout over the Weinstein accusations, Roy Price, the head of Amazon Studios, also resigned on Tuesday over allegations of sexual harassment, according to US media.

Mr Price took a “leave of absence” last Thursday after Isa Hackett, a producer on the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle, told the Hollywood Reporter he allegedly sexually harassed her in 2015.

In her Twitter posts, Headey described sharing a lift with Weinstein after he had invited her to his room to show her a script.

“The lift was going up and I said to Harvey, ‘I’m not interested in anything other than work, please don’t think I got in here with you for any other reason, nothing is going to happen,'” she recalled.

“I don’t know what possessed me to speak out at that moment, only that I had such a strong sense of don’t come near me.

“He was silent after I spoke, furious.

“He walked me back to the lift by grabbing and holding tightly to the back of my arm,” she said, adding that she felt “completely powerless”.

After he allegedly “whispered” that she should not tell anyone about the encounter, she writes: “I got into my car and cried.”

Headey’s story comes as other Hollywood actresses shared their stories of sexual harassment and impropriety in show business.

On Monday, Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon said she had been harassed by an unnamed film director when she was 16 years old, during a speech to the Elle Women in Hollywood event.

Jennifer Lawrence, who has won a Best Actress Oscar, spoke at the same event and described a casting call where she was made to stand nude in front of producers who criticised her weight.

“After that degrading and humiliating line-up, the female producer told me I should use the naked photos of myself as inspiration for my diet,” the star of Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle told the Los Angeles audience.

Hollywood continues to speak out

DreamWorks film studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg meanwhile told a Wall Street Journal conference of Weinstein: “Make no mistake about it: he is a monster.”

He added Weinstein had been protected by other men around him, who he described as “a pack of wolves”.

Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg also got involved by writing a Facebook post about his early days at Miramax Films.

He wrote the movies Beautiful Girls and Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead at the time Weinstein’s profile was rising in the film industry.

In his post, he said that while he never heard any rape allegations, he was aware of Weinstein’s “dreadful” behaviour – and said “everybody” else knew, too.

‘I kept my mouth shut’

“I was there. And I saw you. And I talked about it with you,” he wrote. “You, the big producers; you, the big directors; you, the big agents; you, the big financiers.

“And you, the big rival studio chiefs; you, the big actors; you, the big actresses; you, the big models.

“You, the big journalists; you, the big screenwriters; you, the big rock stars; you, the big restaurateurs; you, the big politicians.”

He said others chose to ignore what was going on because they were enjoying themselves and because women were told it would ruin their careers if they said anything.

At the end of the piece, Rosenberg apologised for not doing anything.

“I reaped the rewards and I kept my mouth shut,” he said. “And for that, once again, I am sorry.”

Beautiful Girls actress Lauren Holly has also come forward, sharing her story of harassment, describing an encounter she had with Weinstein.

The pair arranged a meeting in a hotel, which she didn’t find “abnormal at all” because she had routinely met producers, writers and directors in their suites.

She described the early stages of the meeting as normal, but said things turned sour when Weinstein walked into the hotel suite “wearing a hotel bathrobe”.

‘I pushed him and ran’

“He said, ‘OK, let’s get to it, this is what we’ve got going on at my company, these are the scripts we have in the pipeline, this is what I think might be right for you,’ and he gestured for me to follow him.”

Holly recounted that she followed him into the bedroom part of the suite as he continued talking.

Weinstein then showered and, when he emerged, was naked and started to approach her.

Holly said she started to run away, but that Weinstein began to threaten her, saying she needed to “keep him as [her] ally” and that it would be a “bad decision” if she left the room.

At that point, Holly said, she “pushed him and ran”.


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Indonesia massacres: Declassified US files shed new light

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The US knew people were being “delivered for slaughter” during a political purge in Indonesia during the 1960s, declassified documents reveal.

At least 500,000 people were killed between 1965 and 1966, after the army and local Muslim militia went on a rampage following an attempted coup.

It was one of the worst massacres of the 20th Century, but, at the time, Washington remained silent.

But these newly released memos reveal they had detailed knowledge of events.

The documents show US staff describing them in telegrams as “slaughter” and at times “indiscriminate killings”, exposing an intimate knowledge of the Indonesian army’s operations to “completely clean up” the Communist Party and leftist groups.

It is thought as many as three million could have lost their lives within a year.

The violence – which was a taboo topic in Indonesia for almost 50 years and remains extremely sensitive even today – was unleashed after communists were accused of killing six generals at the end of September 1965.

It was the peak of the Cold War, and the struggle for power between the Communists, the military and Islamist groups was in full swing.

‘Delivered for slaughter’

Five decades later, the contents of the US telegrams are chilling.

According to one from US embassy staff in East Java, dated 28 December 1965, “victims are taken out of populous areas before being killed and bodies are buried rather than thrown in river” as they had been previously.

The telegram says prisoners suspected of being communists are also “being delivered to civilians for slaughter”.

Another document compiled by the US embassy’s first secretary, dated 17 December 1965, was a detailed list of the communist leaders across the country and whether they had been arrested or killed.

But the documents also make for uncomfortable reading for Indonesia’s biggest and most powerful Muslim organisations.

A December 1965 cable from the US consulate in Medan in Sumatra said that Muhammadiyah preachers were telling people it was a religious obligation to “kill suspected communists”. They were the lowest order of infidel, “the shedding of whose blood is comparable to killing chicken”, the report said.

The US cable said this was being interpreted as a “wide licence for killing”.

Another telegram notes that people with no connection to the Communist Party were being killed by the youth arm of Nahdlatul Ulama because of “personal feuds”.

Breaking the silence

Brad Simpson, founder and director of the Indonesia and East Timor documentation project, pushed for the files’ release

“These documents show in great detail just how aware US officials were of how many people were being killed,” said Mr Simpson, noting “the US stance at the time was silence”.

Human Rights Watch researcher Andreas Harsono also says his extensive research has found no public comments from the US government at the time about the killings.

Mr Simpson said there was growing public interest in Indonesia to know the truth after years of state anti-communism propaganda.

“Indonesians can now read for themselves and learn about these important events in Indonesian history as part of a larger struggle for justice and accountability,” he said.

The 39 formerly classified documents come from a collection of files, daily records and memos from the US embassy in Jakarta during the period 1964-1968.

They have been released by the National Declassification Centre, a division of the US government’s National Archives and Records Administration. More documents, including CIA files, are set to be released later this year.

Revisiting the violence

Lieutenant General Agus Widjojo’s father was one of the Indonesian generals killed in the alleged communist coup.

When the BBC showed Gen Widjojo the documents released on Tuesday, he said: “I cannot say anything to justify or reject what is explained in these documents, but basically the tragedy of 1965 was a struggle for power between the Communist Party and the army.”

He denied knowledge of reports in the US memos about ethnic Chinese being killed in the violence and their businesses being burnt down.

“I have no knowledge that the violence went as far as that, the intensity of the violence and the atrocities I have no first-hand witness or information,” he said.

But he believes the country needs to go through a truth-telling process.

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“We should bring all parties concerned together to share their experiences but there must be one condition – the victims, they have to be at peace, they have to move on and see in reflection the tragedy of 1965 from the point of view of Indonesia in 2017.”

He says Indonesian society, including his own institution, the military, is not ready to openly discuss the killings. Attempts at holding seminars to mark the anniversary of the killings last month were shut down by violent demonstrations from right-wing groups.

A 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary, The Act of Killing, is among a list of films about the killings banned in Indonesia.

“We are not looking for a situation to reopen the wounds, we are looking for a situation to heal the wounds and to move on,” he said., “We would like to focus on what went wrong as a society that we were able to conduct such violence and such killings in such large numbers in such a short time.”

Reporting by the BBC’s Rebecca Henschke in Jakarta.

Catalonia: Protests after Spain detains separatists

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Tens of thousands have gathered in Barcelona for a candlelit protest after two leaders of the Catalan separatist movement were jailed.

Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart are being held without bail while they are under investigation for sedition.

The men were leading figures in the disputed 1 October independence vote, which Madrid has branded illegal.

Spain’s Constitutional Court appeared to back central government’s position on Tuesday, ruling the vote void.

It had initially suspended the law used by Catalan authorities to call the referendum.

However, Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull suggested neither the court decision nor the imprisonment of Mr Sánchez and Mr Cuixart was going to stop the drive for independence, telling reporters “surrender is not something this government is considering”.

The air of defiance carried into Tuesday evening, when separatists carrying candles and chanting “We’re all Jordis” gathered in Barcelona’s Plaza Constitució protesting Mr Sánchez and Mr Cuixart’s imprisonment – a move which many on the pro-independence side see as politically motivated.

The city’s municipal police estimated the number of people in Barcelona to be around 200,000, while protests also took place in other Catalan cities, including Girona and Reus.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has already signed a declaration of independence, but halted its implementation to allow negotiations as he called for talks to take place over the next two months.

The position still stands, Mr Turull said.

But the Spanish government has warned that Catalonia must revoke the declaration or face direct rule from Madrid.

Mr Puigdemont has also angered Madrid by refusing to clarify whether or not he declared independence last week. He has until Thursday to clarify his position.


Catalan independence: A waiting game

By James Reynolds, BBC News, Barcelona

“I don’t know what will happen,” one pro-independence campaigner told me during a small demonstration at midday.

“Perhaps Spain will send in tanks,” he said, only half-jokingly.

No-one here seriously expects that to happen. But many are unsure as to what comes next.

Pro-independence groups have been angered by the Spanish High Court’s decision to remand into custody two prominent campaigners, Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart.

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“They are our first political prisoners,” one man told me.

In the centre of Barcelona, normal life continues. Outside the Catalan regional government headquarters, groups of tourists find themselves sidestepping camera crews. Many residents in the city still display independence flags from their balconies.

All await Thursday morning’s deadline.


The imprisonment of Mr Sánchez, who heads the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), a pro-independence organisation, and Mr Cuixart, leader of Omnium Cultural, had already sparked one protest on Tuesday.

The smaller march saw thousands blocking the streets, chanting “repression is not the solution”.

The men are being investigated over a protest on 20 September in which a crowd blocked Civil Guard officers inside a building in Barcelona, Catalonia’s regional capital.

Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau – who does not support the current bid for Catalan independence – said they were being held as “political prisoners”.

Mr Puigdemont had also said the jailing of the men, known fondly as “the two Jordis”, was like having “political prisoners again”, a nod to the days when Catalan culture was systematically suppressed under Francisco Franco.

Spanish Justice Minister Rafael Catala dismissed the allegations, however, saying it was purely a judicial decision.

“These are not political prisoners because yesterday’s prison ruling was due to a [suspected] crime,” he said.

Hospital targets missed en masse as performance slumps

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The performance of hospitals across the UK has slumped with targets for cancer, A&E and planned operations now being missed en masse, BBC research shows.

Nationally England, Wales and Northern Ireland have not hit one of their three key targets for 18 months.

Only Scotland has had any success in the past 12 months – hitting its A&E target three times.

Ministers accepted growing demand had left the NHS struggling to keep up as doctors warned patients were suffering.

The findings are being revealed as the BBC launches its online NHS Tracker project, which allows people to see how their local service is performing on three key waiting time targets:

  • Four-hour A&E waits
  • 62-day cancer care
  • Planned operations and treatment

If you can’t see the NHS Tracker, click or tap here.

The BBC has looked at performance nationally as well as locally across the 135 hospital trusts in England and 26 health boards in the rest of the UK.

Locally there is just one service in the whole of the UK – run by Luton and Dunstable NHS Trust – which has managed to hit all three targets each time over the past 12 months.

Hospital staff the BBC has talked to have described how shortages of doctors and nurses, a lack of money and inadequate room in A&E departments in particular was making it difficult to see patients quickly enough.

While overall the vast majority of patients are still being seen in time, the BBC investigation shows how declining performance is affecting patients.

For example, the chances of not being seen in four hours in A&E has actually more than doubled in the past four years, with one in nine patients now waiting longer than that.

The NHS on the slide

The BBC research has found:

  • Wales has consistently failed to hit its targets. In 2012-13 it did not hit any of its monthly key hospital targets and in 2016-17 it was the same. The last time a target was achieved nationally was 2010.
  • England has seen the biggest deterioration. In 2012-13 it hit its key hospital targets 86% of the time, but in the last year it has missed every monthly target.
  • Scotland is the only part of the UK to hit its targets during the last 12 months, but has only managed to hit do that three times over the summer in A&E when pressures tend to be at their lowest.
  • Northern Ireland is failing to hit its targets despite making it easier to hit the goal for planned operations and care. Since March 2015 it has gradually reduced the target from 80% to 55% but has still not hit it.
  • The north-east is the top performing region in England. Services have hit their key hospital targets 71% of the time in the past year.
  • Twelve out of 135 English hospital trusts, four out of five Northern Irish health trusts and five out of seven Welsh trusts have failed to hit any target in the past 12 months.

‘We don’t have enough doctors’

Prof Srinivasan Madhusudan, head of cancer at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, which has not hit the cancer target since April 2014, suggested there was simply not enough staff to cope.

“When I get to work I want to treat my patients as soon as I can. So do my colleagues.”

But he added there was a limit to what could be done, pointing out there are 5,000 new cases a year at his hospital trust.

“There are only so many patients that you can treat.

“We have a team of 22 fantastic oncologists who are working very hard to do the best they can under what is quite a stressful situation.”

Meanwhile, Ali Refson, an A&E consultant at London’s Northwick Park hospital, said demand was “incredibly high” which meant it was sometimes impossible to hit the four-hour target.

“We sometimes feel we can’t give the best care. We are working the hardest we can, but we are only human.”

What does this mean for patients?

Ministers across the UK have been quick to point out that most people are still being seen in time.

But the numbers waiting longer for care have been rising.

In A&E patients are now twice as likely to wait more than four hours than they were four years ago – 11% compared to 5%.

The proportion of people waiting over 62 days for cancer treatment has risen by a third in the past four years. Nearly one in five patients now wait longer.

The chances of delays before you have a planned operation or treatment, such as a hip replacement, has increased by nearly three-quarters in four years. Currently 12% of patients wait longer than they should.

It means there are now over 500,000 people on hospital waiting lists in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that have waited too long. That compares to nearly 230,000 four years ago.

British Medical Association chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said the situation highlighted by the BBC was “unacceptable”.

He said while for some patients the delays were simply an “inconvenience”, for many more they would have a “real impact on their treatment and outcome”.

Time for ‘honest debate’

Scottish Health Secretary Shona Robison said record levels of investment were being put into the health service in Scotland.

She said efforts were being made to “shift the balance of care away from hospitals” and into the community that should make it easier to hit the targets.

And she added a ministerial working group had been established to improve cancer care.

A spokesman for the Department of Health in England said more money was being spent on services, and said despite the longer waiting times the majority of hospitals were still providing good or outstanding care, according to inspectors.

And he pointed out that because of the ageing population “health systems worldwide face similar pressures”.

A Welsh government spokesman acknowledged some people were waiting “too long”, but pointed to the rising demand being faced.

The number of A&E visits made each year across the UK has risen by a fifth in four years to top 30 million, while the number of cancer cases has risen by more than a quarter to top 170,000.

Nonetheless, Labour’s shadow health secretary in England, John Ashworth, called the decline in performance “staggering”.

Saffron Cordery, of NHS Providers, which represents hospital bosses, said it was time to consider whether these targets were still achievable unless more money was provided.

“It’s time for an honest debate about what we can realistically expect the health service to deliver in such difficult circumstances.”


The services where targets have been missed for whole year

England:

  • Basildon and Thurrock NHS Trust
  • Colchester Hospital University NHS Trust
  • Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust
  • University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust
  • The Royal Wolverhampton Hospitals NHS Trust
  • Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust
  • Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Trust
  • East Kent Hospitals University NHS Trust
  • Hull & East Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust
  • United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust
  • Maidstone & Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust
  • Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust

Wales:

  • Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board
  • Hywel Dda University Health Board
  • Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board
  • Cwm Taf University Health Board
  • Aneurin Bevan University Health Board

Northern Ireland:

  • Belfast Health Trust
  • South Eastern Health Trust
  • Southern Health Trust
  • Western Health Trust

Based on performance against the monthly or quarterly targets for A&E, 62-day cancer care and planned operations for the most recent 12 months for which there is data. The way the targets work is different across the UK so the BBC has simply looked at whether the key targets are being me in each nation.


Research by the BBC’s data journalism unit