Media Watch 12/2/15

By Rowan Williams

Breaking: Russian President Vladimir Putin has just announced that a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine will begin on 15 February.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has criticised Russia’s demands as “unacceptable” as peace talks for the conflict in Ukraine continue in Belarus. Leaders from Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany have been engaged in marathon overnight talks in an attempt to reach a lasting ceasefire for a conflict that has led to the deaths of thousands. With an agreement yet to be reached, President Poroshenko has been critical of the conditions sought by Russia in a deal. Current goals remain the establishment of a ceasefire and a demilitarised zone in eastern Ukraine, as well as the withdrawal of heavy weapons. The International Monetary Fund has also offered a £10.5 billion funding package to aid Ukraine’s struggling economy. Russia stands accused of supplying troops and arms to pro-Russian separatists in the country, a claim it denies. Separatist leaders have asked for the demilitarised zone to reflect their recent advances in eastern Ukraine. The atmosphere of the talks has been tense, though observers have noted that progress will hinge on Russia’s demands. The main priority, however, remains the reaching of a ceasefire.

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) is to widen its investigation into the Swiss accounts of HSBC customers over the continuing scandal of tax avoidance in HSBC’s Swiss arm. In parliament on Wednesday, Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband launched a harsh attack against Prime Minister David Cameron over the government’s handling of tax avoidance allegations. Cameron particularly came under fire for giving a trade ministerial position to former HSBC boss Lord Stephen Green in 2011, several months after the allegations of collusion in tax avoidance first came to light. Several Conservative Party donors have also been embroiled in the scandal for holding Swiss HSBC accounts. HMRC have announced they are to meet with the serious fraud office later this week, in what is being seen as a serious escalation in the investigation. HMRC had earlier been accused of failing to adequately deal with the issue.

Shares in Chinese search engine giant Baidu have dropped by nearly 10 percent, after newly released figures showed a lower than expected quarterly revenue. Revenue for the current quarter was also forecast to be lower than analysts’ expectations. The drop in revenue has been attributed to the switching of users from computer to mobile platforms, with less advertising space available on mobile devices. Search revenue from mobile devices surpassed that of computers for the first time in December, Baidu Chief Executive Robin Li announced on Wednesday. Increased monetisation of mobile searching is now anticipated in 2015. Competition between China’s technology giants remains stiff, with firms such as Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba engaging in a digital arms race for innovation and market advantage.

The Papers

Continuing developments in the HSBC tax avoidance scandal make the headlines in several papers today. The Guardian leads with the story for a fourth consecutive day, writing that in parliament on Wednesday the Prime Minister was asked four times “about tax evasion and the chief he made minister”, and “evaded the answer” in each case. Former HSBC boss Lord Stephen Green had been made a trade minister by the government in 2011. Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband clashed with the Prime Minister over the issue, with The Financial Times leading with news that Miliband is seeking “to entangle Tory donors” in the row. HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) is to look at “widening” its inquiry into HSBC, the paper reports. The Daily Telegraph leads with news of Miliband’s singling out of Conservative Party donor Lord Fink for his tax affairs, with Lord Fink replying that he would “sue over Miliband’s ‘dodgy’ slur” if Miliband were to repeat his comments outside of parliament. Comments made in the Commons are protected by law. The Independent reports that the head of HMRC is “unrepentant over evasion scandal” in its headline, and has defended the “lack of prosecutions relating to HSBC Swiss accounts”. One out of 150 serious cases of tax avoidance in the scandal led to a conviction in Britain, the paper reports, described by HMRC Chief Lin Homer as a ‘good job’. In other news, The Times reports that the Conservative Party is considering a “housing ‘giveaway’ for workers”, where low-paid workers who come off benefits would be rewarded with a council house by authorities. Those coming off benefits would be eligible after one year of work.

British Media on China

On President Xi’s planned visit to the United States: with President Xi Jinping’s visit to the US formally confirmed on Wednesday, The Guardian offered an analysis piece into what the visit might potentially entail. The paper’s Jonathan Kainan notes that the visit will be “’more symbolic than substantive’”, suggesting that the agenda for the talks is “too sprawling to accomplish much”. Such an agenda “suggests that neither side has settled on it priorities”.

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