BBC 2024-07-03 12:06:02

‘Almost whole island homeless’ in Hurricane Beryl’s wake

By Will GrantBBC News, Mexico, Central America and Cuba Correspondent

Having survived the night as Hurricane Beryl tore across her idyllic home of Union Island with ferocious force, Katrina Coy was taken aback by the extent of the devastation which lay before her.

Virtually every building on the island, which lies off St Vincent and the Grenadines, has been razed or badly damaged, she said.

“Union Island is in a terrible state after Beryl passed. Literally, almost the whole island is homeless,” said Ms Coy in a video message.

“There are hardly any buildings left standing. Houses are flattened, roads are blocked, the electricity poles are down in the streets.”

Fisherman and fishing guide Sebastien Sailly agreed.

“Everything is lost. I have nowhere to live right now,” he said.

A resident of Union since 1985, he lived through Hurricane Ivan in 2004. But Hurricane Beryl, he said, was on another level.

“It’s like a tornado has passed through here. Ninety percent of the island – easily 90% – has been erased.”

The extent of the shock and fear is still evident in his voice.

“I was sheltering with my wife and daughter and, to tell you the truth, I wasn’t sure we would make it out at all.”

His cousin, Alizee, who runs a hotel with her family, described a horrific experience as Beryl passed over their town.

She said they had to push furniture against the doors and windows to keep the sustained winds and huge gusts from blowing them open.

“The pressure was so intense that you felt it in your ears. We could hear the roof coming apart and smashing into another building. Windows breaking, flooding.”

“No one knew it would be this bad, everyone is traumatised.”

An organic farmer and beekeeper as well as a fisherman, Sebastien’s two farms and his beehives have been completely destroyed as well.

Still, he said the community’s immediate priority is shelter. People have been trying to gather wood and plastic sheeting to make some kind of temporary accommodation for their families.

“And obviously, finding water and food is going to be tough,” he added.

Alizee Sailly said many other goods are also urgently needed on Union Island – from tinned foods and powdered milk to sanitary products, first-aid kits and tents.

Plus, of course, generators.

With power and communications still down, she has only managed to send out messages by connecting to the Starlink network launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

For its part, the government in St Vincent and the Grenadines says it recognises the scale of the problem.

In a morning address, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves summed up the sense of the shock across the Caribbean nation: “Hurricane Beryl – this dangerous and devastating hurricane – has come and gone and it’s left in its wake immense destruction. Pain and suffering across our nation.”

He also promised to react as quickly as possible to tackle the long list of post-hurricane priorities facing his administration.

On Union Island, however, there remains some scepticism that the government has the funds, resources and manpower to cope.

“I hope they can send us the military and the coastguard to help us. I have no idea if they’re able to rebuild the island but I don’t think so”, said Sebastien. “This is going to take billions, it will take a year or more and is going to need international help.”

Katrina Coy, the director of the Union Island Environmental Alliance, also implored members of the Caribbean diaspora to help in any way they could.

“We’re in dire need of help. Emergency kits, food, evacuation, all of that is needed in this moment.”

For years, Ms Coy has carried out crucial work for Union Island’s water security, a vital resource for small island communities in the Caribbean.

Heartbreakingly, her international colleagues say, that work has been lost to Hurricane Beryl.

Beryl hit land on Monday as a category four hurricane, with sustained winds of 150mph (240km/h).

Thousands of people are still without power and many are in temporary shelters in St Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada and St Lucia.

Yet despite the chaos and the homelessness across every inch of the island Sebastian Sailly said he was just thankful things weren’t even worse.

“The most important thing is that we are still alive, not the material losses.”

“After witnessing the power of what we went through, today I was just pleased to see my neighbours were still here.”

Biden blames jet lag and travel for poor debate performance

By Kayla EpsteinBBC News

President Joe Biden has blamed his poor debate performance last week on jet lag, telling reporters that he “wasn’t very smart” for “travelling around the world a couple of times” before the debate.

“I didn’t listen to my staff… and then I nearly fell asleep on stage,” he said.

Mr Biden, 81, last returned from travel on 15 June, nearly two weeks ahead of the 27 June debate.

Mr Biden’s remarks come amid intra-party panic ahead of November’s election over his mental fitness, and after a congressman from Texas became the first sitting Democratic lawmaker to call for him to step aside following his debate.

“I am hopeful that he will make the painful and difficult to decision to withdraw,” Rep Lloyd Doggett said in a statement on Tuesday.

President Biden appeared to struggle through some responses during a debate with former President Donald Trump last Thursday.

“It’s not an excuse but an explanation,” he said at a private fundraiser in Virginia on Tuesday evening, referring to his travel.

He also apologised for his performance and said it was “critical” that he win re-election, according to ABC News.

Mr Biden made two separate trips to Europe in the span of two weeks last month.

On 15 June, he appeared at a fundraiser alongside former President Barack Obama after an overnight trip from Italy. He returned to Washington DC the following day.

White House officials have previously said Mr Biden’s was battling a cold on the day of the debate.

The president did not mention any illness in his remarks on Tuesday. A spokeswoman for the White House said earlier in the day that he was not taking any cold medication during the debate.

Mr Biden also spent six days at Camp David, the presidential retreat outside Washington DC, preparing for his debate against Mr Trump.

The New York Times, citing an unnamed source familiar with Mr Biden’s schedule, reported on Tuesday that his days began at 11:00 each morning and that he was given time each day to nap.

The newspaper also reported that he was so exhausted from his travel that his debate preparations were cut short by two days to give him time to rest at his beach house in Delaware.

Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Mr Biden, said the president began “working well before” 11:00, after his exercise routine, during his time at Camp David.

His age has been a long-simmering issue this election, with voters in multiple polls saying they think he is too old to be effective.

Mr Biden is currently the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for the White House.

He has vowed to stay in the race despite the debate performance.

In his Tuesday statement, Rep Doggett, 77, said the debate solidified his decision to urge Mr Biden to step aside.

“Instead of reassuring voters, the President failed to effectively defend his many accomplishments and expose Trump’s many lies,” said Rep Doggett, who was sworn in in 1995 and is running for reelection.

He said too much is at stake to risk the president losing to Trump over fears about his age.

“While much of his work has been transformational, he pledged to be transitional,” the congressman said of Mr Biden.

“He has the opportunity to encourage a new generation of leaders from whom a nominee can be chosen to unite our country through an open, democratic process.”

“My decision to make these strong reservations public is not done lightly nor does it in any way diminish my respect for all that President Biden has achieved,” Rep Doggett said.

Watch what Biden and Trump said after their high-stakes debate

Mr Biden will give a primetime interview to ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos on Friday, his first since the debate.

Some prominent Democratic lawmakers voiced their concerns about Mr Biden’s age and stamina this week, but none until Rep Doggett has called for him to move aside as a candidate.

Other top Democrats have acknowledged fears about Mr Biden’s ability to win but emphasised that the choice to leave the race is the president’s alone.

Several have flocked to liberal-leaning network MSNBC to defend him.

“It’s going to be up to Joe Biden” to do what he thinks is best, former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told MSNBC on Tuesday.

One of President Biden’s most important backers, Congressman Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, said he would support Vice-President Kamala Harris as the party’s nominee if Mr Biden stepped down.

But he told the network: “I want this ticket to continue to be Biden-Harris.”

Congressman Jamie Raskin, a Democrat from Maryland, told MSNBC this weekend that the debate created a “difficult situation”.

He acknowledged that there were “very honest and serious and rigorous conversations taking place at every level of our party.”

But he added: “Regardless of what President Biden decides, our party is going to be unified and our party also needs him at the very centre of our deliberations in our campaign.”

Ex-officials say Gaza policy has put US at risk

By Tom BatemanState department correspondent

Twelve former Biden administration officials who resigned over policy on Israel and the Gaza war say the government’s actions have endangered US national security.

The policies have further destabilised the region and “put a target on America’s back”, they say in a joint statement.

One of the 12 resigned only on Tuesday from the US Department of the Interior.

The US Department of State has previously denied such claims, pointing to its criticism of civilian casualties in Gaza and its efforts to boost humanitarian aid.

The joint statement by the former officials says: “America’s diplomatic cover for, and continuous flow of arms to Israel has ensured our undeniable complicity in the killings and forced starvation of a besieged Palestinian population in Gaza.”

This is not the first such statement from former officials but it comes alongside the latest resignation from the administration of Maryam Hassanein, a special assistant at the US Department of Interior. She also signed the statement.

The former officials accuse the US government of clinging to a “failed policy” that has not only been devastating for the Palestinian people but has endangered Israelis, stifled free speech and undermined US credibility over its commitment to a rules-based international order.

The joint statement says ongoing weapons transfers to Israel despite its actions in Gaza have further destabilised the Middle East and “put a target on America’s back”.

“Our nation’s political and economic interests across the region have also been significantly harmed, while US credibility has been deeply undermined worldwide at a time we need it most, when the world is characterised by a new era of strategic competition,” the statement says.

Among the other signatories is Josh Paul, who oversaw Congressional relations on weapons transfers. He quit in October.

A former White House official, two former air force department personnel and a former army officer in the Defence Intelligence Agency also signed the statement.

The state department has been approached for comment. It has previously said it encouraged different views on policy and staff could make them known through “appropriate channels”.

The US had “been clear at the highest levels publicly and privately with Israel that it must abide by international humanitarian law”, a state department spokesperson said in April.

The spokesperson’s comments came shortly after seven current and former US officials told the BBC that President Biden’s pressure on Israel after a deadly attack on aid workers did not go far enough and would fail to stem the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

The Israeli military launched a campaign to destroy the Hamas group which runs Gaza in response to an unprecedented attack on southern Israel on 7 October 2023, during which about 1,200 people were killed and 251 others taken hostage.

More than 37,900 people have been killed in Gaza since then, according to the territory’s Hamas-run health ministry.

Talks with the Taliban – no women allowed

By Caroline Davies

Two days of talks between the international community and the Afghan Taliban have been productive, diplomats say.

The meetings in Doha were the first to include the Taliban – whose government no country recognises – since they seized power three years ago.

At the Taliban government’s insistence, no civil society representatives were in the room with the Taliban officials, meaning no women from Afghanistan were included, prompting criticism from rights groups and activists.

UN officials met Afghan civil society groups separately on Tuesday.

  • Five key moments in the crushing of Afghan women’s rights

As the diplomats and media vacate the vast air-conditioned ballrooms of the Qatari capital, has anything changed for Afghanistan in the last few days?

There were no grand announcements, no massive breakthroughs, no solutions – but then none were expected – from the organisers or participants. Instead, the Taliban officials and diplomats seemed quietly and tentatively positive.

The tone was “respectful”, “engaged”, “frank”, according to different diplomats the BBC spoke to. The most repeated phrase was “this is a process”.

There were no concessions gained, nor pledges won from the Taliban delegation, led by spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid. I asked him what the Taliban government would be willing to offer.

“When we go ahead we will see what they [the international community] want and what we can do based on Sharia law,” he told us. “ Whatever is against Sharia law we will not discuss it. Whatever is in the framework of Sharia we will solve it. It is a process and it will continue; we will see where it will take us and how much we will improve.”

The topics on the agenda were counter-narcotics and the private sector, easier topics to cover than issues like human rights or the role of women.

On the latter, the Taliban remained immovable on their view that this is an internal matter.

“We don’t want to discuss these sorts of issues between other countries. We will find a solution for it back home,” said Zabihullah Mujahid.

When the BBC pointed out to him there had been no solutions for nearly three years, and asked why that was, he said: “We are not ignoring it, we are working on it. We are finding a solution for it based on Sharia law.”

The UN itself referred to the situation in Afghanistan as “gender apartheid” where women and girls are not able to attend secondary school, visit parks or gyms and hold certain jobs among an increasing list of restrictions.

“It is not just an internal issue and we have made that clear to them,” said Rosemary DiCarlo, the UN’s lead in these talks.

She cited the different treaties signed by Afghanistan prior to the Taliban authorities’ takeover in August 2021 that agree to human rights.

“It doesn’t matter if the government changes, they are still party to those.”

“I think they are ready to talk about some of these things [women’s rights], but they are not ready to move,” Tomas Niklasson, special envoy of the European Union for Afghanistan, told the BBC.

“I am hopeful that things will change on women’s rights, but I’m not sure about the time perspective.”

What made him hopeful?

“I’m surprised to see the way in which Afghans still manage through resilience to push back,” he said, adding after a pause. “Hope is not always a rational thing.”

The UN did arrange for a separate meeting to take place on Tuesday with civil society activists, although several chose to boycott it and none of those who attended wanted to speak to the media.

According to the list of attendees provided by the UN, several countries including China and Russia chose not to attend the session. The UN told us that several delegations not in attendance had travel arrangements.

There is no set date for the next meeting of this kind, although many of the countries that attended already meet the Taliban bilaterally and told the BBC that that would continue. All officials we spoke to thought that the few days had laid groundwork for more engagement and conversation.

After nearly three years of the Taliban authorities in control, the general mindset of the diplomats we met was that little would improve in Afghanistan if there was not an attempt to engage, at least on the areas of some overlap.

“We felt we had to start somewhere,” Ms DiCarlo said in Tuesday’s closing press conference.

The question still is where might these talks lead.

More than 100 killed in crush at India religious event

By Sharanya HrishikeshBBC News
Dozens killed in India crowd crush

At least 116 people have been killed in a crush at a religious gathering in northern India, police inspector Gen Shalabh Mathur has said.

The incident took place at a satsang (a Hindu religious event) in Hathras district in Uttar Pradesh state.

The victims, including a large number of women and some children, are still being identified.

Survivors have described how the disaster unfolded as they tried to leave the event in Mughalgarhi village.

It is not yet clear what led to the crush. Witnesses said the exit was too narrow and when people were leaving, a fierce dust storm led to confusion and panic, causing many people to become trampled.

An eyewitness, who asked to remain anonymous, told the BBC everything was “going fine”, until “all of a sudden I heard screams and before I knew it, people were falling on each other”.

“Many were crushed and I couldn’t do much. I am just lucky to have survived.”

“When the sermon finished, everyone started running out,” a woman named only as Shakuntala told the Press Trust of India news agency.

“People fell in a drain by the road. They started falling one on top of the other and got crushed to death.”

Umesh Kumar Tripathi, chief medical officer from the neighbouring district of Etah, told reporters the “stampede” had left at least three children dead.

A spokesperson for a senior police officer in Uttar Pradesh told the BBC it would “take hours to release the final tally”.

Distressing images from the site are being circulated online. Some videos showed the injured being taken to hospitals in pick-up trucks, tuk tuks and even motorbikes.

A clip seen by the BBC showed several bodies left at the entrance of a local hospital as relatives screamed for help.

“Such a huge accident has happened but not a single senior officer is present here,” a relative in another video said. “Where is the administration?”

Mr Kumar said the venue had been overcrowded, adding that a high-level committee had been formed to investigate the incident.

“The primary focus of the administration is to provide all possible help to the injured and kin of the deceased,” he said.

A video shared by news agency PTI showed the wounded being brought to a hospital for treatment.

“Procedure of post-mortem is under way and the matter is being investigated,” official Satya Prakash in the neighbouring district of Etah said.

In Hathras, the screams of distraught family members can be heard in the local hospital.

Many people are trying to find their loved ones, many bodies are unclaimed.

There is a shortage of ambulances – each one is bringing two to three bodies. Hathras is filled with despair and pain.

Accidents are routinely reported at religious events in India, as huge crowds gather in tight spaces with little adherence to safety measures.

In 2018, around 60 people were killed after a train rammed into a crowd watching celebrations for Dusshera, a Hindu festival.

In 2013, a crush at a Hindu festival in the central state of Madhya Pradesh had killed 115 people.

Doctors dismissed these women as hysterical. Now they’re fighting back

By Hannah RitchieBBC News, Sydney

There’s a memory, or more specifically a moment, that came to define Heidi Metcalf’s second birth.

It wasn’t saying goodbye to her husband and newborn before being wheeled into an operating theatre, or the heart attack she thought she was having as she lay there on the table.

It was when a male obstetrician “ripped the placenta” out of her body, without word or warning.

A nurse, Ms Metcalf knows the intervention – while immensely painful – was necessary. She couldn’t push it out naturally, which was causing potentially fatal bleeding.

But she hadn’t “seen or met this man before”, and she can’t get past the fact that her consent, during one of the most traumatic experiences of her life, “meant so little”.

“It felt like a violation – I needed to feel involved in what was happening to my body, and not just like a bystander.”

Ms Metcalf is one of thousands of Australian women who have come forward to tell their stories, after the federal government assembled a team of experts to tackle what it calls “medical misogyny”.

So far, they have uncovered that a staggering two-thirds of females nationwide have encountered gender bias or discrimination in healthcare.

And many say it is taking place when they’re at their most vulnerable, such as during intimate examinations, or like Ms Metcalf, while in labour. Others report having their pain dismissed or dangerously misdiagnosed.

The BBC spoke to six women for this piece. They shared experiences of being called “anxious”, “pushy” or even “hysterical” while seeking treatment for a range of debilitating symptoms.

They also said they felt that the men in their lives seemed to consistently have their pain taken more seriously.

‘I just don’t feel safe’

Nadiah Akbar was once told by a doctor in Singapore that the extreme fatigue she was experiencing was due to the “stress” of being a busy mother. Tests would later show it was thyroid cancer.

Years later, in remission and having migrated to Australia, staff at a Melbourne hospital failed to diagnose a cartilage tear in her hip socket and a slip disk in her back.

Instead, they suggested the crippling pain could be linked to “depression” or being “overtired”. It led to Ms Akbar paying for two costly MRI scans out of pocket to be taken seriously.

“‘Oh, it’s nothing.’ I’ve heard that statement so many times… It’s really disheartening as a human being to keep hearing that,” she says.

“It takes a lot of energy for you to keep advocating for yourself, and that’s the part that’s worrying – a lot of people just stop.”

Laura – who asked to have her name changed – is close to that point, after years of having symtoms of what would eventually be confirmed as a traumatic brain injury dismissed.

“I don’t get healthcare without my partner with me, that’s a blanket rule,” she says, explaining that she feels her concerns are taken “more seriously” when voiced by a man.

“I just don’t feel safe, engaging with the system, because when you’re young and you’re told over and over that something is all in your head, it’s easy to believe it.”

Like so many others across the country, both women say they’re coming forward to share their experiences to seize on this moment of promised change.

Assistant health minister Ged Kearney – who chairs the national council tasked with examining these issues – says that their stories, along with those of countless others facing additional disadvantage in First Nations, LGBTQ+, and migrant communities will guide its work.

Her team’s remit is vast and broad areas of focus have already emerged.

But untangling gender inequity in medicine is no small task, and Australia’s attempts could have far-reaching implications as other nations eye reforms.

‘A one-size-fits-all approach’

The problem is not that “all healthcare professionals have some set agenda against women”, Ms Kearny says.

Rather it’s that bias is woven into the fabric of modern medicine because for centuries it was “delivered by and designed for” men.

Women’s health – by contrast – was often rooted in myth and pernicious gender stereotypes.

“Hysteria”, a now-defunct medical term, was a catch-all diagnosis for females presenting with an array of symptoms, meaning their pain was attributed to emotional causes, rather than biological ones.

But today, some women say they continue to feel gaslit – disbelieved and patronised – in medical settings.

And a lack of diversity in medical research compounds the issue.

More than 70% of participants in early-stage clinical trials globally are still white men, while male cells and animals are used as standard in the lab, according to Professor Robyn Norton, a public health expert.

The results are then applied to women, intersex, trans and gender-diverse people, causing issues when it comes to their treatment, diagnosis and how their symptoms are understood, Prof Norton says.

She describes it as a “one-size-fits-all, male-centric” approach to healthcare that has created huge knowledge gaps.

One analysis carried out in 2019 by the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research – which used data from the entire Danish population – found that, across 770 diseases they studied, women were diagnosed later than men, with an average lag time of four years.

In Australia, research from the University of Sydney in 2018 found that females admitted to hospital for serious heart attack were half as likely as men to get proper treatment and that they died at twice the rate six months after discharge.

Scientists have warned that another roadblock is the chronic underinvestment in women-specific health issues.

Endometriosis is pointed to as a key example. Despite impacting roughly 10% of reproductive-age women and girls globally, there is no cure, and it takes seven years on average for patients to be diagnosed.

One recent study found that 89% of Australian women were still being advised by health professionals that pregnancy would fix their symptoms – despite growing evidence it’s a medical fallacy.

Such disparities are being recognised and investigated globally, experts say – with countries comparing notes on what might be the best approach.

The UK, for one, recently announced measures aimed at closing the “gender health gap” in its system. And in the US, the federal government has launched an initiative to improve funding and research into women’s health, led by First Lady Jill Biden.

Ms Kearny says Australia is already making inroads.

In the past 12 months, her government has opened 22 endometriosis and pelvic pain clinics aimed at improving care and diagnosis.

The nation’s drug regulator has removed restrictions on prescribing and dispensing medical abortion pills to increase universal access to reproductive healthcare.

And researchers will soon be able to examine how key diseases are experienced in female, intersex and gender diverse populations at a new centre Prof Norton is leading.

She’s optimistic her team’s work could “catalyse the kind of change in Australia that could see it become a leader in this space”.

There’s also been some investment in women’s health in the latest national budget. Almost A$100m ($66m; £52m) has been set aside for things like reducing the out-of-pocket costs associated with gynaecological conditions, as well as studies into menopause, pregnancy loss and fertility. All are issues which have been historically under-funded.

But while advocates like Bonney Corbin – the chair of Australia’s Women’s Health Alliance who also sits on the council – have welcomed the cash injection, they say it doesn’t go far enough and that state governments should step up too.

“A gender lens on healthcare is more than funding things related to breasts and uteruses. We need to look at women’s bodies on the whole,” she explains.

In the coming months, Ms Kearney’s advisory body will release its first set of major reform recommendations.

She says it has no intention of putting forward “tick-box” measures that tinker around the edges.

Instead, she says the long-term goal is to create a blueprint to “build a healthcare system that actually works for everyone”.

Whether the advice will lead to lasting change remains an open question despite the assistant health minister’s participation at this point, Ms Corbin says.

If it doesn’t though, she hints that there could be public backlash.

“We’ve mobilised a whole lot of women in this process – now we need action.”

A Bugatti car, a first lady and the fake stories aimed at Americans

By Paul Myers, Olga Robinson, Shayan Sardarizadeh and Mike WendlingBBC Verify and BBC News

A network of Russia-based websites masquerading as local American newspapers is pumping out fake stories as part of an AI-powered operation that is increasingly targeting the US election, a BBC investigation can reveal.

A former Florida police officer who relocated to Moscow is one of the key figures behind it.

It would have been a bombshell report – if it was true.

Olena Zelenska, the first lady of Ukraine, allegedly bought a rare Bugatti Tourbillon sports car for 4.5m euros ($4.8m; £3.8m) while visiting Paris for D-Day commemorations in June. The source of the funds was supposedly American military aid money.

The story appeared on an obscure French website just days ago – and was swiftly debunked.

Experts pointed out strange anomalies on the invoice posted online. A whistleblower cited in the story appeared only in an oddly edited video that may have been artificially created. Bugatti issued a sharp denial, calling it “fake news”, and its Paris dealership threatened legal action against the people behind the false story.

But before the truth could even get its shoes on, the lie had gone viral. Influencers had already picked up the false story and spread it widely.

One X user, the pro-Russia, pro-Donald Trump activist Jackson Hinkle, posted a link seen by more than 6.5m people. Several other accounts spread the story to millions more X users – at least 12m in total, according to the site’s metrics.

It was a fake story, on a fake news website, designed to spread widely online, with its origins in a Russia-based disinformation operation BBC Verify first revealed last year – at which point the operation appeared to be trying to undermine Ukraine’s government.

Our latest investigation, carried out over more than six months and involving the examination of hundreds of articles across dozens of websites, found that the operation has a new target – American voters.

Dozens of bogus stories tracked by the BBC appear aimed at influencing US voters and sowing distrust ahead of November’s election. Some have been roundly ignored but others have been shared by influencers and members of the US Congress.

The story of the Bugatti hit many of the top themes of the operation – Ukrainian corruption, US aid spending, and the inner workings of French high society.

Another fake which went viral earlier this year was more directly aimed at American politics.

It was published on a website called The Houston Post – one of dozens of sites with American-sounding names which are in reality run from Moscow – and alleged that the FBI illegally wiretapped Donald Trump’s Florida resort.

It played neatly into Trump’s allegations that the legal system is unfairly stacked against him, that there is a conspiracy to thwart his campaign, and that his opponents are using dirty tricks to undermine him. Mr Trump himself has accused the FBI of snooping on his conversations.

Experts say that the operation is just one part of a much larger ongoing effort, led from Moscow, to spread disinformation during the US election campaign.

While no hard evidence has emerged that these particular fake news websites are run by the Russian state, researchers say the scale and sophistication of the operation is broadly similar to previous Kremlin-backed efforts to spread disinformation in the West.

“Russia will be involved in the US 2024 election, as will others,” said Chris Krebs, who as the director of the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency was responsible for ensuring the integrity of the 2020 presidential election.

“We’re already seeing them – from a broader information operations perspective on social media and elsewhere – enter the fray, pushing against already contentious points in US politics,” he said.

The BBC contacted the Russian Foreign Ministry and Russia’s US and UK embassies, but received no response. We also attempted to contact Mr Hinkle for comment.

How the fakes spread

Since state-backed disinformation campaigns and money-making “fake news” operations attracted attention during the 2016 US election campaign, disinformation merchants have had to get more creative both in spreading their content and making it seem credible.

The operation investigated by BBC Verify uses artificial intelligence to generate thousands of news articles, posted to dozens of sites with names meant to sound quintessentially American – Houston Post, Chicago Crier, Boston Times, DC Weekly and others. Some use the names of real newspapers that went out of business years or decades ago.

Most of the stories on these sites are not outright fakes. Instead, they are based on real news stories from other sites apparently rewritten by artificial intelligence software.

In some instances, instructions to the AI engines were visible on the finished stories, such as: “Please rewrite this article taking a conservative stance”.

The stories are attributed to hundreds of fake journalists with made-up names and in some cases, profile pictures taken from elsewhere on the internet.

For instance, a photo of best-selling writer Judy Batalion was used on multiple stories on a website called DC Weekly, “written” by an online persona called “Jessica Devlin”.

“I was totally confused,” Ms Batalion told the BBC. “I still don’t really understand what my photo was doing on this website.”

Ms Batalion said she assumed the photo had been copied and pasted from her LinkedIn profile.

“I had no contact with this website,” she said. “It’s made me more self-conscious about the fact that any photo of yourself online can be used by someone else.”

The sheer number of stories – thousands each week – along with their repetition across different websites, indicates that the process of posting AI-generated content is automated. Casual browsers could easily come away with the impression that the sites are thriving sources of legitimate news about politics and hot-button social issues.

However, interspersed within this tsunami of content is the real meat of the operation – fake stories aimed increasingly at American audiences.

The stories often blend American and Ukrainian political issues – for instance one claimed that a worker for a Ukrainian propaganda outfit was dismayed to find that she was assigned tasks designed to knock down Donald Trump and bolster President Biden.

Another report invented a New York shopping trip made by Ukraine’s first lady, and alleged she was racist towards staff at a jewellery store.

The BBC has found that forged documents and fake YouTube videos were used to bolster both false stories.

Some of the fakes break out and get high rates of engagement on social media, said Clement Briens, senior threat intelligence analyst at cybersecurity company Recorded Future.

His company says that 120 websites were registered by the operation – which it calls CopyCop – over just three days in May. And the network is just one of a number of Russia-based disinformation operations.

Other experts – at Microsoft, Clemson University, and at Newsguard, a company that tracks misinformation sites – have also been tracking the network. Newsguard says it has counted at least 170 sites connected to the operation.

“Initially, the operation seemed small,” said McKenzie Sadeghi, Newsguard’s AI and foreign influence editor. “As each week passed it seemed to be growing significantly in terms of size and reach. People in Russia would regularly cite and boost these narratives, via Russian state TV, Kremlin officials and Kremlin influencers.

“There’s about a new narrative originating from this network almost every week or two,” she said.

Making the fake appear real

To further bolster the credibility of the fake stories, operatives create YouTube videos, often featuring people who claim to be “whistleblowers” or “independent journalists”.

In some cases the videos are narrated by actors – in others it appears they are AI-generated voices.

Several of the videos appear to be shot against a similar-looking background, further suggesting a co-ordinated effort to spread fake news stories.

The videos aren’t themselves meant to go viral, and have very few views on YouTube. Instead, the videos are quoted as “sources” and cited in text stories on the fake newspaper websites.

For instance, the story about the Ukrainian information operation allegedly targeting the Trump campaign cited a YouTube video which purported to include shots from an office in Kyiv, where fake campaign posters were visible on the walls.

Links to the stories are then posted on Telegram channels and other social media accounts.

Eventually, the sensational “scoops” – which, like the Trump wiretap story and a slew of earlier stories about Ukrainian corruption, often repeat themes already popular among patriotic Russians and some supporters of Donald Trump – can reach both Russian influencers and audiences in the West.

Although only a few rise to the highest levels of prominence, some have spread to millions – and to powerful people.

A story which originated on DC Weekly, claiming that Ukrainian officials bought yachts with US military aid, was repeated by several members of Congress, including Senator J D Vance and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Mr Vance is one of a handful of politicians mentioned as a potential vice-presidential running mate for Donald Trump.

The former US cop

One of the key people involved in the operation is John Mark Dougan, a former US Marine who worked as a police officer in Florida and Maine in the 2000s.

Mr Dougan later set up a website designed to collect leaked information about his former employer, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.

In a harbinger of his activities in Russia, Mr Dougan’s site published authentic information including the home addresses of police officers, alongside fake stories and rumours. The FBI raided his apartment in 2016, at which point he fled to Moscow.

He has since written books, reported from occupied parts of Ukraine and has made appearances on Russian think tank panels, at military events and on a TV station owned by Russia’s ministry of defence.

In text message conversations with the BBC, Mr Dougan has flatly denied being involved with the websites. On Tuesday, he denied any knowledge of the story about the Bugatti sports car.

But at other times he has bragged about his prowess in spreading fake news.

At one point he also implied that his activities are a form of revenge against American authorities.

“For me it’s a game,” he said. “And a little payback.”

At another point he said: “My YouTube channel received many strikes for misinformation” for his reporting from Ukraine, raising the prospect of his channel being taken offline.

“So if they want to say misinformation, well, let’s do it right,” he texted.

A large body of digital evidence also shows connections between the former police officer and the Russia-based websites.

The BBC and experts we consulted traced IP addresses and other digital information back to websites run by Dougan.

At one point a story on the DC Weekly site, written in response to a New York Times piece which mentioned Dougan, was attributed to “An American Citizen, the owner of these sites,” and stated: “I am the owner, an American citizen, a US military veteran, born and raised in the United States.”

The article signed off with Dougan’s email address.

Shortly after we reported on Mr Dougan’s activities in a previous story, a fake version of the BBC website briefly appeared online. It was linked through digital markers to his network.

Mr Dougan is most likely not the only person working on the influence operation and who funds it remains unclear.

“I think it’s important not to overplay his role in this campaign,” said Darren Linvill, co-director of Clemson University’s Media Forensic Hub, which has been tracking the network. “He may be just a bit of a bit player and a useful dupe, because he’s an American.”

Despite his appearances on state-run media and at government-linked think tanks, Mr Dougan denies he is being paid by the Kremlin.

“I have never been paid a single dime by the Russian government,” he said via text message.

Targeting the US election

The operation that Dougan is involved in has increasingly shifted its focus from stories about the war in Ukraine to stories about American and British politics.

The false article about the FBI and the alleged wiretap at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort was one of the first stories produced by the network that was entirely about US politics, with no mention of Ukraine or Russia.

Clint Watts, who leads Microsoft’s Digital Threat Analysis Center, said that the operation often blends together issues with salience both in Ukraine and the West.

Mr Watts said that the volume of content being posted and the increasing sophistication of Russia-based efforts could potentially pose a significant problem in the run-up to November’s election.

“They’re not getting mass distribution every single time,” he said, but noted that several attempts made each week could lead to false narratives taking hold in the “information ocean” of a major election campaign.

“It can have an outsized impact”, and stories from the network can take off very quickly, he said.

“Gone are the days of Russia purchasing ads in roubles, or having pretty obvious trolls that are sitting in a factory in St. Petersburg,” said Nina Jankowicz, head of the American Sunlight Project, a non-profit organisation attempting to combat the spread of disinformation.

Ms Jankowicz was briefly director of the short-lived US Disinformation Governance Board, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security designed to tackle false information.

“Now we’re seeing a lot more information laundering,” she said – using a term referring to the recycling of fake or misleading stories into the mainstream in order to obscure their ultimate source.

Where it goes next

Microsoft researchers also say the operation is attempting to spread stories about UK politics – with an eye on Thursday’s general election – and the Paris Olympics.

One fake story – which appeared on the website called the London Crier – claimed that Mr Zelensky bought a mansion owned by King Charles III at a bargain price.

It was seen by hundreds of thousands of users on X, and shared by an official Russian embassy account. YouTube removed an AI-narrated video posted by an obscure channel that was used as the source of the false story after it was flagged by BBC Verify.

And Mr Dougan hinted at even bigger plans when asked whether increased attention on his activities would slow the spread of his false stories.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “the game is being upped.”

What do you want BBC Verify to investigate?

Fears for Australian child missing after croc attack

By Tiffanie TurnbullBBC News, Sydney

A desperate search is under way in northern Australia for a child feared to have been taken by a crocodile.

The 12-year-old was last seen around dusk on Tuesday, swimming near the remote town of Palumpa – about a 7-hour drive south west of Darwin in the Northern Territory (NT).

Police say a specialist search and rescue team has been deployed after “initial reports stated the child had been attacked by a crocodile”.

The NT is home to an estimated 100,000 saltwater crocodiles, more than anywhere else in the world, but attacks are uncommon.

Members of the community in Palumpa – home to only 364 people – and local police began searching for the child immediately after they vanished in Mango Creek around 17:30 local time (08:00 GMT).

They have now been joined by additional officers and the expert search and rescue team who are combing both land and water for signs.

An aerial search may also be launched, according to local media.

“Officers are currently searching a large section of the creek via boat and we thank [the] community for their ongoing assistance,” Senior Sergeant Erica Gibson said in a statement.

“Local officers are on scene and our thoughts are with the family and the community.”

Chris Mason: We stand on the threshold of a landmark election

By Chris Mason@ChrisMasonBBCPolitical editor

The general election campaign is all but over.

In the last few weeks, recent precedent suggests up to one in five voters have already voted, by post.

Tomorrow, it is the big moment for everyone else.

It is six weeks to the day since Prime Minister Rishi Sunak got a drenching in Downing Street and this roadshow of persuasion began.

So, what has changed, what hasn’t changed and what does this tell us about where we find ourselves?

The stand-out fact at the heart of this campaign is that for all the noise and hullaballoo over the past month-and-a-half, the colossal gap in the opinion polls between Labour and the Conservatives has barely budged.

Conservatives, from the top down, are braced for defeat – and a potentially catastrophic one at that.

Labour, poll after poll after poll suggests, are miles ahead.

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Sir Keir Starmer and his Labour team have been quietly preparing for government, while wracked with a paranoia about complacency.

Nothing the prime minister has attempted, both during his conventional time in office and then during this campaign, appears to have made much difference to his political fortunes.

The Conservative Party is adept at chameleon-like reinvention – after all, we’ve seen a succession of Tory prime ministers defining themselves against the record of their immediate predecessor.

But that strategy began to collide with its own contradictions.

Was Rishi Sunak seeking to own the long Conservative stint in office, or distance himself from it?

How many of the myriad challenges the UK faces could realistically be blamed on any other party?

The past 14 years of Conservative-led government add up to a stint in office shaped by two referenda – Scottish independence and Brexit – and the international shocks of Covid and the war in Ukraine.

The referenda recast our domestic politics and our relations with our nearest neighbours.

One propelled the Scottish National Party to unprecedented heights, altitude from which it expects to tumble tomorrow.

The other – leaving the European Union – convulsed the continent, the country and, in particular, the Conservative Party, emboldening, chewing up and recasting the Tories in ways still visible now.

The cast of Conservative MPs elected in 2019 was an improbable coalition, sent to Westminster by an electorate collectively desperate to see the Brexit impasse end and the UK’s departure from the EU delivered.

That done, the Jenga-like combination of northern English Tories – many of whom wanted more state intervention in the economy – and traditional small-state Tories, often in the south, quickly proved very wobbly indeed under Boris Johnson’s chaotic leadership.

And while most people don’t pay attention to politics most of the time, even the least engaged – here and around the world – noticed the UK, that longstanding bastion of political predictability, churn through three prime ministers in a matter of a few weeks in autumn 2022.

In this context, I suspect the history books, shorn as they are of the daily noise of news, may be quite kind to Rishi Sunak: a man who brought an element of political and economic stability to the UK after the absence of either, confronting political headwinds that precedent suggested would be almost impossible to withstand.

But stopping other countries laughing at us and managing a sluggish economy at best – after nearly two decades of pitifully weak economic growth, traced back to the economic crisis of 2007 and 2008 – was never likely to be a general election-winning formula.

And there is another thing: no party has ever won five general elections in a row in modern times.

That is the brutal truth of history, from Rishi Sunak’s point of view, that he walks towards tomorrow.

But there is another brutal truth, from Keir Starmer’s point of view too: Labour lose far more elections than they win, including ones people might expect them to win.

Labour has lost four general elections in a row.

While some might have expected them to have a wobble or a panic at some point in this campaign, particularly if it looked like the Tories were catching them up, Labour have been as disciplined as they have been careful, studiously protecting what they hope is a consistent enough lead to point not just to victory, but a comfortable one.

They talk a lot about their planned “missions” in government.

Their mission in opposition has been to reassure; to show recent Conservative voters they can be trusted not least with the economy and national security.

They have tried to pull off the balancing act of sounding like a government in waiting without sounding complacent; setting out what they’d like to do without implying getting to do it is guaranteed.

They know too that if they do win, they will inherit bleak public finances and a restless electorate – a wave of optimism and goodwill seems unlikely, however sizeable any majority.

And even a big majority doesn’t make some things easier.

Sir Keir Starmer acknowledged to me this week in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, that Labour would let prisoners out early because the jails are full, just as the Conservatives have done.

Alongside those stubbornly sticky opinion poll leads for Labour, the other big fact of this long campaign was the arrival, after characteristic teasing, of Nigel Farage – as both a candidate and the new leader of Reform UK.

The Conservative Party’s grinning nightmare personified, his party’s uptick in the opinion polls matching the uptick in the blood pressure of so many Tories.

And I note a new name in politics, who I reckon might be worth keeping an eye on: Zia Yusuf.

Mr Yusuf is a hugely successful thirtysomething tech entrepreneur who has donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to Reform UK.

This and him being Muslim is interesting in its own right, counterintuitive as it might be to some that he would back Reform.

But to listen to him at a giant rally in Birmingham at the weekend was to hear Reform’s political case in a markedly different register to that of Nigel Farage.

No less passionate or full of conviction – not least in his view that immigration is out of control – but a different tone.

A future political leader I found myself pondering, if he maintains his appetite for politics.

Next the Liberal Democrats, where if services to absurdity were the route to electoral success, they would be heading for a landslide.

Leader Sir Ed Davey’s midlife crisis just so happened to coincide with a general election campaign, and no end of zany capers followed.

In the clamour for our attention, the Liberal Democrats have always struggled, elbowed out of the limelight by Westminster’s giants, the Conservatives and Labour, and for much of the last decade dislodged from third place in the Commons by the Scottish National Party.

Sir Ed’s stunts have certainly caught the eye, and he can point to his difficult life, losing both parents to cancer as a child and being the father of a disabled son, to claim that messing about isn’t inconsistent with being serious-minded and aware of the struggles of many.

The Lib Dems are chipper: they are confident they can capitalise on what they are certain is a disdain for the Conservatives in parts of the country which are not enamoured by Labour.

It looks likely, given how they privately estimate they might do and how privately the Scottish National Party fear they might fare, that the Liberal Democrats can overtake the SNP to become Westminster’s third biggest party.

If this happens, it would push back the strength of the political case for another Scottish independence referendum and embolden the platform from which the Lib Dems would speak – guaranteed as they would be, for instance, to be able to contribute to Prime Minister’s Questions every week.

And then there is the Green Party of England and Wales.

How might they fare in parts of Brighton, Bristol and Suffolk, for a start, where they are throwing considerable efforts?

Let’s see.

In other words, politics could be reshaped beyond the biggest parties, as well as between them.

We stand on the threshold of what looks like a landmark general election.

But time is running out for folk like me talking about all this stuff.

Soon it will be over to you to decide how things look on Friday morning.

Child marriage ban welcomed in Sierra Leone

By Umaru FofanaBBC News, Freetown

Sierra Leone has brought in a new law banning child marriage with much fanfare at a ceremony organised by First Lady Fatima Bio in the capital, Freetown.

Invited guests, including first ladies from Cape Verde and Namibia, watched as her husband President Julius Maada Bio signed the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act into law.

Anybody now involved in the marriage of a girl aged under the age of 18 will be jailed for at least 15 years or fined around $ 4,000 (£3,200), or both.

University student Khadijatu Barrie, whose sister was married off at 14, told the BBC she welcomed the ban but wished it had come in to save her younger sibling.

“I really wish it had happened earlier. I could have at least saved my sister and my friends and other neighbours,” the 26-year-old gender studies undergraduate said.

Sierra Leone is a patriarchal society and it is common for a father to give his daughter’s hand in marriage forcibly.

Ms Barrie faced this prospect aged 10. She resisted it and fled the family home after her father disowned her.

She was lucky enough to find teachers who paid for her school fees and a sympathetic worker from the UN children’s agency who helped her out with accommodation.

But she says it is difficult for those who live in rural areas to buck tradition and every community will need to be informed about the new law for it to be effective.

“If everyone understands what’s there waiting for you in case you do it I’m sure this country will be a better one,” Ms Barrie said.

The ministry of health estimates that a third of girls are married off before they turn 18, accounting for the country’s high number of maternal deaths – among the highest in the world.

Those who face punishment under the new rules include the groom, the parents or guardians of the child bride, and even those who attend the wedding.

Mrs Bio, who has been at the forefront in campaigning against sexual abuse since her husband became president six years ago, wanted the signing of the bill to be a big occasion.

Since MPs passed the legislation a few weeks ago, it has not received much coverage locally.

At the ceremony, President Bio said that his “motivation and commitment to empowering women and girls is firmly rooted in my personal life journey”.

His eight-year-old daughter was amongst those who watched him sign the bill.

The 60-year-old president explained how he had lost his father at an early age and had been brought up by his mother and later his elder sister who “supported and encouraged me to pursue my dreams to the best of my ability”.

He acknowledged his wife’s commitment to championing women’s rights: “Together, we want to build an empowered Sierra Leone where women are given an even platform to reach their full potential. I have always believed that the future of Sierra Leone is female.”

Rights activists reacted favourably to the lawm, calling it a watershed moment.

On their X page, the US Bureau of African Affairs welcomed the passage of the bill saying the “significant milestone not only protects girls but promotes robust human rights protections”.

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The moment Gordon Banks denied Pele at the 1970 World Cup is known as the ‘save of the century’ – but have we just seen another stop to match it?

This time the scene was played out in the pouring rain of Leipzig rather than the sweltering heat of Guadalajara, but Turkey goalkeeper Mert Gunok’s leap to somehow claw away Christoph Baumgartner’s header will live just as long in the memory of anyone who saw it.

It was a crucial save, too, coming at the very end of a pulsating last-16 tie and denying Austria a last-gasp equaliser their manager Ralf Rangnick felt they fully deserved.

“We didn’t have the necessary luck and I believe if the game had gone to extra time we would have won,” said Rangnick.

“We had time to score an equaliser, but it’s difficult when they have Gordon Banks in goal!”

Banks was also the name on all the pundits’ lips, as they tried to describe Gunok’s save while his team-mates were sprinting to congratulate him when the final whistle was blown seconds later.

“It’s Gordon Banks. Unbelievable. What a moment. The keeper just spins it around the post, it’s a brilliant save,” was former England defender Matthew Upson’s reaction on Radio Five Live.

“That is first class! It’s like a Gordon Banks replica,” said Lee Dixon on ITV.

“That save from Gunok is one of the great saves of Euros history,” was Chris Sutton’s verdict.

‘Baumgartner thought that was in’

There have been several dramatic late goals in these Euros – think Jude Bellingham’s brilliant strike for England against Slovakia on Sunday – but this was a save to match any of them, at an identical point of the match.

Turkey were hanging on to a 2-1 lead in the face of relentless late pressure when, in the 94th minute, Austria mounted one last attack.

With the exhausted Turkey defence out on its feet, Baumgartner darted into space at the back post and directed his header downwards, the ball skidding off the wet turf and seemingly heading for the opposite corner… until 35-year-old Gunok found a way of getting across his goal to keep it out.

“How he saves it is unbelievable,” added Sutton, who seemed almost lost for words.

“I cannot think of a better game I’ve seen,” said Upson. “Drama, commitment. Wow, what a game. Baumgartner thought that was in the back of the net. He does everything right.

“Off that greasy surface, he’s done so well. It was Gordon Banks, identical. The Turkish fans are going crazy.”

‘That’s his job, to make saves’

Turkey defender Merih Demiral, who scored twice – including the quickest knockout-stage goal in European Championship history – was named man of the match but paid tribute to Gunok afterwards.

“Mert did a great job, we had a big discussion after the final whistle and I couldn’t believe my eyes – maybe one of the best saves I saw with my own eyes,” Demiral said.

“He deserves it, Mert is the oldest player on the team and has always guided us and shown us the path forward, so I am very happy he made that save.”

Turkey boss Vincenzo Montella was one of the few people not to use superlatives when talking about Gunok’s stop, but he did not downplay its importance for his country’s cause.

“I don’t know, because there have been so many spectacular saves,” Montella said when asked his thoughts on where Gunok’s save ranked in the all-time list.

“I am happy for him, happy for the team, happy for the country and happy for the group we have created here and what we produced out there today.

“Well done to Mert, that is his job, to make saves and we are very happy he made a match-winning save in the last minute.”

The reward for Turkey and their army of devoted fans is a quarter-final against the Netherlands in Berlin on Saturday, and Montella feels anything is possible with their support.

“We have a huge following, there is passion and love,” he explained.

“It is very visceral back home in Turkey so I am very happy to have handed our Turks here in Germany a bit of pride, and across the world.

“This responsibility, love and support we constantly feel it, but you can only embrace these dreams if you work hard from day one – we will celebrate tonight but then we get down to work.”

What information do we collect from this quiz?

‘That might be the best save I’ve ever seen’ – your reaction

Here are a selection of the tweets and messages we received from BBC Sport readers in the moments after the save…

Andy: You can watch football for as long as you want and I don’t think you’ll see a better save than that. Easily up there with the best saves ever. Incredible.

Andrew: Mert Gunok with the perfect Peter Schmeichel tribute act at the death.

JMG: That was an absolutely stunning save. In fact, stunning doesn’t even do it justice. To pull that off in the 95th minute, my word.

Howard: That save was arguably better than Gordon Banks v Pele in 1970… because it was in a winning cause.

Richard: That might be the best save I’ve ever seen. Incredible from Mert.

Steve: The photo of that save by Gunok doesn’t do it justice! Absolutely brilliant. It will probably end up in most top top saves of all time lists in the future!

Jon: I genuinely think that Gunok save is the best I’ve ever seen. Unbelievable!

‘I am not a church boy’: RFK Jr responds to sex assault allegation

By Mike WendlingBBC News

Independent US presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy Jr has described a Vanity Fair story as a “lot of garbage”, responding to several allegations including that he had sexually assaulted a former family babysitter.

Vanity Fair reported that in the late 1990s, Mr Kennedy had groped Eliza Cooney, a recent college graduate hired as a part-time babysitter for his children and to assist him with his environmental law work. She was 23 years old at the time.

When asked specifically about this allegation and the others in question on the Breaking Points podcast, Mr Kennedy said, “I am not a church boy.”

“I had a very, very rambunctious youth,” he said. “I said in my announcement speech that I have so many skeletons in my closet that if they could all vote, I could run for king of the world.”

When pressed by podcast host Saagar Enjeti further on the sexual assault claim, Mr Kennedy said he had no comment.

The magazine also reported he had had several extramarital affairs and vigorously defended a cousin, Michael Skakel, who was convicted of murdering a 15-year-old girl in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Mr Kennedy’s campaign pointed reporters to a post on X where he accused the magazine of being in league with Democratic Party leadership.

While discussing the article on the podcast, Mr Kennedy focused on a separate allegation in the story – that he had posed with a barbecued dog while on a trip to Korea, later joking about it in a message to a friend.

Mr Kennedy said the photo had been taken not in Korea but in the Patagonia region of South America, and that the animal pictured was a goat.

Vanity Fair reporter Joe Hagen, who previously wrote a profile of Mr Kennedy for the magazine, said the photo was evidence of Mr Kennedy “simultaneously mocking Korean culture, reveling in animal cruelty, and needlessly risking his reputation and that of his family”.

The story also outlined Mr Kennedy’s alleged affairs and included details of drug addiction in his youth, which the candidate has been open about on the trail.

On the same podcast, Mr Kennedy – the son of Robert F Kennedy and nephew of President John F Kennedy – said that although he was committed to running for president as an independent, “the best path for me to the White House is through the Democratic Party”.

“I think that would probably be the best choice for everybody and it’s certainly something I would consider” if President Biden were to step aside, he said.

The BBC has contacted Vanity Fair for comment.

More on this story

Hungary’s Orban urges ceasefire on Kyiv visit

By Gordon CoreraSecurity correspondent, Kyiv • Nick ThorpeCentral Europe correspondent

Viktor Orban arrived in Ukraine on Tuesday for an unannounced visit having just taken over as rotating president of the European Union.

While in Kyiv, the Hungarian prime minister said a ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine could speed up negotiations to end the war that followed Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022.

Mr Orban has been a critic of Western support for Ukraine and is seen as the European leader closest to Russian President Vladimir Putin. This was his first visit to Ukraine in 12 years, although he has met Mr Putin repeatedly during that time.

During his joint appearance with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky the body language between them was not warm and neither took questions from the media after they gave their statements.

Mr Orban previously slowed agreement on a €50bn ($54bn; £42bn) EU aid package designed to support Ukraine in its defence against Russia.

But for the next six months his position as head of the European Council means he has an influential role as a figurehead for Europe. He came to Ukraine on his second day in that role for discussions, saying there was a need to solve previous disagreements and focus on the future.

In his statement following their meeting, Mr Zelensky said it was “very important to have Europe’s support for Ukraine maintained at sufficient level… it’s important for co-operation between all the neighbours in Europe to become more meaningful and mutually beneficial”.

In his own statement, Mr Orban stressed the need to work together but also said he had raised the idea of a ceasefire to hasten negotiations with Russia.

“I have asked the president to consider whether… a quick ceasefire could be used to speed up peace negotiations… I am grateful for his frank dialogue and his answers.”

Mr Orban also said: “My first trip has taken me here because the issue of peace is important not only for Ukraine, but for the whole of Europe. This war that you are suffering is deeply impacting European security.”

President Zelensky did not publicly respond to those comments.

Later, in a post on X, the Ukrainian leader said Mr Orban’s visit to Ukraine was a “clear signal to all of us of the importance of unity in Europe and taking collective steps”.

“We discussed the path to a just, lasting, and fair peace.”

Many Ukrainians believe a ceasefire would simply cement Russia’s hold over territory it has taken from Ukraine and, if negotiations were to take place, they would prefer them to be conducted from a position of strength rather than on the back foot.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said his country was open to “work with everyone and solve problems”.

“This work is difficult and time-consuming, but it eventually yields tangible results,” he told the BBC.

“During the visit, President Zelensky had a candid but constructive discussion with Prime Minister Orban about ways to achieve a just peace, not simply a ceasefire or peace talks.”

The two leaders also discussed bilateral issues including the 100,000 ethnic Hungarians who reside in Ukraine.

Mr Orban said the two countries were determined to put past disagreements behind them, and that he was reassured progress was being made on the rights of the ethnic Hungarians.

He also wished Ukraine “every success”.

The EU opened membership talks for Ukraine the week before Hungary assumed the EU Council Presidency.

The ex-gangster who has become South Africa’s sports minister

By Rafieka WilliamsBBC News, Johannesburg

A former gangster and bank robber who turned into a nightclub owner and opposition politician, Gayton McKenzie has now risen to become South Africa’s minister of sports, arts and culture.

President Cyril Rampahosa appointed Mr McKenzie – the leader of the Patriotic Alliance (PA) – to the portfolio in the multi-party government that he announced on Sunday after his African National Congress (ANC) lost its parliamentary majority in the 29 May election.

A prolific tweeter, the 50-year-od relished his appointment, posting a photo of himself putting on football boots and, with a touch of humour, typed: “Thank you for all the well wishing messages, I will reply shortly I’m just busy getting ready, I have work to do 🥅 ⚽️.”

For Mr McKenzie’s admirers, his appointment is the latest sign of how he overcame adversity to achieve success. He robbed his first bank before he turned 16, then became, as he put in an interview with a local radio station, a fully fledged gangster, spent seven years in prison, and vowed to change after his release.

“I might have had 12 rand in my pocket but I had billion rand in my mind. And that is what people do not understand – they concentrate on what they lack instead of how to get what they lack,” he said in a 2013 interview with public broadcaster SABC.

He became a highly paid motivational speaker, got books about his life published, including A Hustler’s Bible, and ventured into various businesses – from mining in Zimbabwe to nightclubs in South Africa – with Kenny Kunene, his soulmate from prison.

Mr Kunene earned the nickname “Sushi King” after he had sushi served on the bodies of women clad only in their underwear at his 40th birthday bash at the Zar Lounge nightclub in an upmarket suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa’s main city.

The nightclub subsequently shut, as did a branch in Cape Town registered in Mr McKenzie’s name following legal action over alleged unpaid rent and electricity, according to the IOL news site.

“I’m not in interested in clubbing. I’m busy with other projects. We killed the Zar brand – there are no future plans [for Zar],” Mr McKenzie was quoted as saying at the time.

These days, Mr McKenzie is better known as a politician, having launched the PA in 2013, with Mr Kunene, as his deputy.

More than a decade later, the party gained 2% of the national vote and fared better in elections for the provincial government in the Western Cape, getting 8%.

Its support came mainly from coloureds, as people of mixed-race are known in South Africa.

The PA’s signature slogan is “Ons baiza nie”, an Afrikaans phrase which loosely translates as “We are not scared”. Afrikaans is widely spoken in the coloured community, which makes up around 8% of South Africa’s population.

“For the first time there is coloured people also going to parliament through the Patriotic Alliance. We are the only party that takes all races to parliament,” Mr McKenzie said, after the results were announced.

Political analyst Kagiso Pooe told the BBC that Mr McKenzie had a “bravado” style, which appeals to his constituency.

“People want to believe and see someone that comes from their type of background and isn’t shy to say, ‘This is who I am.’ You see it with people like President Zuma, President Trump and other such personalities,” he said.

Mr McKenzie’s campaign against undocumented migrants was a vote-winner for him, the analyst added.

“Unfortunately, mainstream politicians and parties have shied away from this and he tackles it directly.”

Mr McKenzie’s critics denounced his campaign as xenophobic. He waged it under the slogan “Mabahambe”, which is Zulu for “They must leave” – and, in a publicity stunt, he visited the border with Zimbabwe to chase away people trying to enter South Africa.

He was also accused of hypocrisy, as his critics pointed out that in the 2013 SABC interview he described immigrants from other parts of Africa, including Zimbabwe, as an “integral” part of South Africa’s economy, while “the problem with us is, black people I’m talking about here, we are lazy”.

As Mr Ramaphosa began negotiations over the formation of a coalition government, Mr McKenzie publicly said that he wanted his deputy to run the home affairs ministry, which is in charge of immigration.

He sought the police ministry for himself as he said his previous life as a gangster meant he was in a good position to tackle South Africa’s high crime rate.

“None of them [other politicians] are equipped to deal with the mafias, with the murder rates we are seeing. South Africa needs me,” he was quoted as saying by the TimesLive news site.

He was unperturbed when he failed to get the post, saying he had in fact asked for the sports ministry in “off-the-record” negotiations with the ANC.

“Sport can be used to change children’s lives. A child in sport is a child out of court,” he said.

“There’s one promise I’ve made: I will make spinning [of cars] one of the biggest sports in this country,” he added in a live Facebook post.

Car spinning is a recognised motorsport in South Africa – it involves vehicles being driven in circles and a driver climbing out to perform stunts.

But there are many unregulated events and as IOL sports journalist John Goliath wrote, stigma still surrounds it as a lot of people in the coloured, Indian and black townships often do spinning in the streets, which is viewed as dangerous.

“The spinning of tyres started in the townships as a ritual to honour fallen gangsters during the apartheid era,” he said.

Mr McKenzie has promised to make it possible for car spinning to take place in a safe environment, and to help to keep young people away from gangsterism and drugs.

“The spinners will be recognised,” he said, adding: “When a boy has an interest in cars, he doesn’t have time for drugs. He just worries about his car.”

But Mr Ramaphosa’s decision to give Mr Mckenzie a seat in his cabinet is politically risky, as he is at the centre of an investigation ordered by the Western Cape government, which is controlled by the Democratic Alliance (DA), a fierce political rival of the PA.

Until last year, Mr McKenzie was the mayor of Central Karoo, and was accused of failing to account for 3m rand ($161,000, £127,000) raised at a glitzy gala dinner in 2022 to improve public services, including repairing swimming pools and replacing bucket toilets.

According to local media, a court ordered him last month – just weeks before his promotion to the cabinet – to declare certain financial records to investigators.

While the PA described the ruling as “flawed”, the DA welcomed it, saying Mr McKenzie would “soon learn that corruption does not pay off”.

The DA kept up the pressure by picketing last week in the small town of Beaufort West, which is part of Central Karoo, to demand answers about the money.

Mr McKenzie said in a post on X that he intended to visit the area to give “feedback”.

“The truth shall come out. I have nothing to hide,” he said, adding: “Lies have short legs.”

More stories on South Africa’s election:

  • The winners and losers in South Africa’s historic new government
  • A landmark moment in South Africa for a humbled ANC
  • Why voters fall out of love with liberation movements
  • Behind the ‘Zuma tsunami’ in South Africa

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How Microsoft and Nvidia bet correctly to leapfrog Apple

By Zoe KleinmanTechnology editor

Life comes at you fast.

Last month, AI chip giant Nvidia briefly became the world’s richest company, overtaking Microsoft, which had in turn risen above Apple.

When this news was mentioned on stage at a tech industry event I attended in Copenhagen, there was spontaneous applause from the audience.

As I write, Nvidia is now back in second place, after a fall in its share price took its combined value down to $3tn (£2.4tn) compared with $3.4tn for Microsoft.

Two things have propelled these two US tech titans to such a dizzying pinnacle: AI and foresight.

Microsoft started investing in OpenAI, the creator of popular AI chatbot ChatGPT, back in 2019. Meanwhile, Nvidia boss Jensen Huang pushed his company towards AI chip development many years before generative AI exploded onto the scene.

Both firms took a long-term bet on the current AI boom – and so far, it’s paid off, leaving former top-dog Apple trailing in their wake. But how long will it last?

This year’s London Tech Week, an annual event for the UK tech scene, may as well have been called London AI Week. The letters AI were emblazoned on every stand, and uttered in every speech.

I bumped into Anne Boden, the founder of Starling Bank, a significant fintech disruptor. She was buzzing with excitement.

“We thought we knew who the winners and losers were [in tech],” she told me. “But with AI, we are throwing the dice again”.

She believes she’s watching the AI revolution re-landscape the tech sector, and she wants to dive back in.

That same week I also popped along to Founders Forum, an annual gathering of around 250 high-level entrepreneurs and investors. Some serious money, in other words. It’s a confidential event, but I don’t think I’ll get into too much trouble for saying that much of the chat there was also centred around AI.

A few days after that, a headline in the Financial Times caught my eye. “Most stocks hyped as winners from AI boom have fallen this year,” it read, claiming that more than half of the stocks in Citigroup’s “AI winners basket” had fallen in value in 2024.

Life comes at you fast indeed.

“Given how high valuations have leapt for tech companies, missteps ahead could cause big wobbles in share prices,” warns Susannah Streeter, head of money and markets at the investment firm Hargreaves Lansdown.

“Just like the bubble, over-enthusiasm risks spilling over into disappointment.”

In 2023 you’d have been forgiven for thinking that anything with the acronym AI in it was guaranteed to open up a lucrative seam of funding, with investment dollars flooding into all things AI.

My friend Saurabh Dayal, who is based in Scotland, identifies AI projects for his investment firm to potentially collaborate on.

He said he soon grew tired of misleading pitches.

“I spend a lot of time saying ‘… but that’s not AI’,” he tells me.

It seems both investors and clients are finally growing wiser to the term AI, and, as a result, more picky.

Speaking to the FT, Citi’s Stuart Kaiser said that while AI remained a big theme in the world of stocks and shares, “just saying AI 15 times isn’t going to cut it anymore”.

In addition, there is increased awareness of current generative AI products not exactly living up to their own hype. Inaccuracies, misinformation, displays of bias, copyright infringements and some content that’s just plain weird.

And early AI-enabled physical devices like the Rabbit R1 and Humane Pin have received bad reviews.

“We’re seeing the market around generative AI mature a little right now – early experiments set a lot of grand expectations, but when the rubber hit the road there were too many unexpected outcomes,” says Chris Weston, chief digital and information officer of the tech service firm Jumar.

“Businesses have a lot of value tied up in goodwill – the trust and comfort that their clients have in their services. Introducing ungovernable chatbots is a step too far for many right now.”

Tech analyst Paolo Pescatore agrees that the pressure is on for AI firms to deliver on their promises. “The bubble will burst the moment one of the giants fails to show any meaningful growth from AI,” he says.

But he does not believe that is going to happen any time soon.

“Everyone is still jostling for position, and all companies are pinning their strategies on AI,” he adds.

“All the players are ramping up their activities, increasing spend and claiming early successes.”

There’s another reason why the AI bubble might pop. It’s got nothing to do with the quality of the products or their market value. It’s whether the planet itself can afford it.

A study published last year predicted that the AI industry could consume the same amount of energy of a country the size of the Netherlands by 2027 if growth continues at its current rate.

I interviewed Prof Kate Crawford from the University of Southern California for the BBC’s Tech Life podcast, and she told me that worrying about the amount of electricity, energy and water required to power AI kept her awake at night.

Dr Sasha Luccioni from the machine-learning firm Hugging Face is also concerned.

“There’s simply not enough renewable energy to power AI right now – most of that bubble is fuelled by oil and gas,” she says.

The hope is that the tech could be used to identify sustainability solutions, like for example the secret of nuclear fusion, the way in which the sun gets its energy. But that hasn’t happened yet, and in the meantime, “AI systems put a huge strain on energy grids that are already under immense strain,” adds Dr Luccioni.

With so much uncertainty, few should bet against another shake-up among the world’s richest firms. But currently, Apple has a fight on its hands to catch up with Microsoft and Nvidia in the AI race.

Read more about AI

Why parents are locking themselves in cells at Korean ‘happiness factory’

By Hyojung KimBBC Korean

The only thing connecting each tiny room at the Happiness Factory to the outside world is a feeding hole in the door.

No phones or laptops are allowed inside these cells, which are no bigger than a store cupboard, and their inhabitants have only bare walls for company.

Residents may wear blue prison uniforms but they are not inmates – they have come to the centre in South Korea for a “confinement experience”.

Most people here have a child who has fully withdrawn from society, and have come to learn for themselves how it feels to be cut off from the world.

Solitary-confinement cell

Reclusive young people like these residents’ children are referred to as hikikomori, a term coined in Japan in the 1990s to describe severe social withdrawal among adolescents and young adults.

Last year, a South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare survey of 15,000 19- to 34-year-olds found more than 5% of respondents were isolating themselves.

If this is representative of the wider population of South Korea, it would mean about 540,000 people were in the same situation.

Since April, parents have been participating in a 13-week parental education programme funded and run by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) the Korea Youth Foundation and the Blue Whale Recovery Centre.

The aim of the scheme is to teach people how to communicate better with their children.

The programme includes three days in a facility in Hongcheon-gun, Gangwon Province, where participants spend time in a room that replicates a solitary-confinement cell.

The hope is isolation will offer parents a deeper understanding of their children.

‘Emotional prison’

Jin Young-hae’s son has been isolating himself in his bedroom for three years now.

But since spending time in confinement herself, Ms Jin (not her real name) understands her 24-year-old’s “emotional prison” a little better.

“I’ve been wondering what I did wrong… it’s painful to think about,” the 50-year-old says.

“But as I started reflecting, I gained some clarity.”

Reluctance to talk

Her son has always been talented, Ms Jin says, and she and his father had high expectations of him.

But he was often ill, struggled to maintain friendships and eventually developed an eating disorder, making going to school difficult.

When her son began attending university, he seemed to be doing well for a term – but one day, he totally withdrew.

Seeing him locked in his room, neglecting personal hygiene and meals, broke her heart.

But although anxiety, difficulties in relationships with family and friends, and disappointment at not having been accepted into a top university may have affected her son, he is reluctant to talk to her about what is truly wrong.

When Ms Jin came to the Happiness Factory, she read notes written by other isolated young people.

“Reading those notes made me realise, ‘Ah, he’s protecting himself with silence because no-one understands him’,” she says.

Park Han-sil (not her real name) came here for her 26-year-old son, who cut off all communication with the outside world seven years ago.

After running away from home a few times, he now rarely leaves his room.

Ms Park took him to a counsellor and to see doctors – but her son refused to take the mental-health medication he was prescribed and became obsessed with playing video games.

Interpersonal relationships

While Ms Park still struggles to reach her son, she has started to better understand his feelings through the isolation programme.

“I’ve realised that it’s important to accept my child’s life without forcing him into a specific mould,” she says.

Research by the South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare suggests there are a variety of factors driving young people to cut themselves off.

According to the ministry’s survey of 19- to 34-year-olds, the most common reasons are:

  • difficulties finding a job (24.1%)
  • issues with interpersonal relationships (23.5%)
  • family problems (12.4%)
  • health issues (12.4%)

South Korea has some of the highest suicide rates in the world and last year, its government unveiled a five-year plan aiming to address this.

Ministers announced there would be state-funded mental health check-ups for people aged 20-34 every two years.

In Japan, the first wave of young people isolating themselves, in the 1990s, has led to a demographic of middle-aged people dependent on their elderly parents.

And trying to support their adult children on just a pension has caused some older people to fall into poverty and depression.

Prof Jeong Go-woon, from Kyung Hee University sociology department, says Korean society’s expectation that big life milestones should be reached at set times amplifies young people’s anxiety – especially in times of economic stagnation and low employment.

The view that a child’s achievements are a parental success contributes to entire families sinking into the quagmire of isolation.

And many parents perceive their child’s struggles as a failure in upbringing, leading to a sense of guilt.

“In Korea, parents often express their love and feelings through practical actions and roles rather than verbal expressions,” Prof Jeong says.

“Parents financing their children’s tuition fees through hard work is a typical example of a Confucian culture that emphasises responsibility.”

This cultural emphasis on hard work may reflect South Korea’s rapid economic growth in the second half of the 21st century, when it became one of the world’s major economies.

However, according to the World Inequality Database, the country’s wealth inequality has worsened over the last three decades.

Blue Whale Recovery Centre director Kim Ok-ran says the view that self-isolating young people are a “family problem” means many parents also end up cutting off those around them.

And some are so afraid of being judged they cannot even talk to close family members about their situation.

“They can’t bring the issue out into the open, leading to the parents themselves becoming isolated as well,” Ms Kim says.

“Often, they stop attending family gatherings during holidays.”

‘Watching over’

The parents who have come to the Happiness Factory for help are still eagerly awaiting the day their children can resume a normal life.

Asked what she would say to her son if he came out of isolation, Ms Jin’s eyes fill with tears.

“You’ve been through so much,” she says, voice trembling.

“It was hard, wasn’t it?

“I’ll be watching over you.”

How the Supreme Court became a political battlefield

By Bernd Debusmann JrBBC News, Washington

With decisions on everything from civil rights and the environment to guns and religious freedoms, the US Supreme Court has always played a powerful role in American life.

But that role has been changing in some ways, with the court’s nine justices – unelected and able to serve for life – now looming larger in the country’s politics.

As the grand finale of its 2023-2024 term, the court issued a decision to settle what Chief Justice John Roberts wrote was a “question of lasting significance”, by ruling that Donald Trump and other ex-presidents have a wide (but not absolute) immunity from criminal prosecution for their actions in office.

While Trump hailed the decision as a “big win” for democracy, President Joe Biden said it undermined the “rule of law” and was a “terrible disservice” to Americans.

Let’s take a look at the Supreme Court and how the staid and historically respected body has become a political battlefield.

What does the court do?

Put simply, the Supreme Court is the keeper of US laws.

The justices decide whether laws and government actions follow the US constitution. They also interpret laws passed by congress to decide if they are being correctly carried out.

Lower courts have to follow the precedent set by the Supreme Court, under a legal principle known as “stare decisis” – Latin for “to stand by a decision”. That gives its decisions national and long-term importance.

Most cases reach the Supreme Court by climbing up a ladder of appeals through lower federal courts or the state courts. Even though the Supreme Court receives more than 7,000 petitions a year, it only hears about 100 or so cases each term. The justices follow the “Rule of Four”, where they review a case if four of them believe it has merit.

By design, the court is supposed to be insulated from political change and the justices from political pressure in making their decisions.

Americans do not vote for who can serve on the court. Justices are appointed by the president and then approved by the Senate.

They serve for life or until they voluntarily retire, and they can only be removed by impeachment. Congress has only attempted an impeachment once, more than 200 years ago, and it failed.

Who is on it?

In practice, the court structure means that one of the most consequential decisions a president can make is picking a justice.

Currently, conservatives hold a strong majority with six justices on the bench.

Three of them – Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett – were appointed by Trump.

Republican Presidents George W Bush and George HW Bush appointed John Roberts, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas.

Two of the three liberal judges – Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan – were nominated by Barack Obama. Ketanji Brown Jackson was picked by Mr Biden.

Politics have played a role in appointments “since the very beginning of this country”, said Jonathan Entin, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio who researches the Supreme Court. But the fractiousness of current politics has changed the dynamics on and around the court.

“Democrat presidents tended to appoint Democrats and Republican presidents tended to appoint Republicans,” he said. “What’s changed is that the parties themselves have become more polarised.”

“People in both parties have paid particular attention to judicial ideology going forward,” Mr Entin added. “So it’s much more contentious than it used to be.”

Two years of monumental decisions

The court has only had its current make-up, with conservatives dominating the bench, since 2022. But in that short stretch, it has created a massive shift in the country, starting with ending the constitutional right to abortion in June of that year.

In just the last few weeks, along with presidential immunity, it ruled that federal prosecutors overreached when they used an obstruction law against 6 January rioters, struck down a ban on federal “bump stock” devices for guns, and rejected an effort to restrict access to the abortion pill mifepristone.

It also slashed and weakened the powers of agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency by overturning a previous ruling that judges should defer to federal agencies in interpreting ambiguous parts of laws. That decision, along with other recent rulings related to regulations, will move many powers from federal agencies to the court system.

Last year, the justices also struck down US President Joe Biden’s proposal to wipe out billions in student debt and that race-based university admissions policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina could no longer be used, upending decades-old US policies on so-called affirmative action.

What happens behind the scenes?

The Supreme Court goes to enormous lengths to protect its internal deliberations, with almost all its work – such as reading briefs or writing and circulating – taking place behind closed doors.

Because its process seems almost impenetrable, the country was shocked when the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v Wade was leaked to the press.

Face-to-face deliberations, similarly, take place in secrecy, with no staff present.

Justices sit around a large table in order of seniority, each armed with a book and notebook.

In an interview with the BBC earlier this year, former Supreme Court Justice Steven Breyer said they then “have a real discussion” about cases.

Beginning with the chief justice, they each give their legal opinions on a case and why they are – or are not – persuaded by various arguments.

“No one speaks twice until everyone has spoken once,” he said. “If you try to make a point saying that ‘my argument is better than yours’…that’ll get you nowhere.”

“But if you listen to what other people are saying, and then at the end of the first round you pay attention and say that ‘you have a point there, but I think it would be better if we did this’…then you have a real discussion about it,” he added.

Calls for change

As the court has taken on momentous decisions, and overturned decades-old rulings, it has faced growing accusations of politicisation and partisanship.

In September, 58% of Americans disapproved of the way the court was handling its job, the highest level in more than 20 years, according to Gallup.

Outcries over judicial ethics have recently grown stronger, after journalists investigated Justice Thomas for not reporting gifts and Justice Alito’s family flying flags at his home that are considered symbols of the Capitol rioters.

Last year, for the first time in its history, the court released a code of conduct. But the code does not have any enforcement mechanism and advocates, including top lawmakers, are calling for stronger and farther-reaching reforms.

They have suggested a binding code of ethics, expanding the number of judges in lower courts, creating an independent ethics office and – importantly – imposing term limits.

Some have floated adding more justices, although polls suggest that is broadly unpopular among Americans.

Maggie Jo Buchanan, the managing director of reform advocacy organisation Demand Justice, told the BBC that staggered 18-year term limits could, for example, “depoliticise” the court and make it more balanced and representative of the US populace.

“In that way, every president would have the same number of appointees,” she said. “That would ensure that the Supreme Court better reflects the will of the people.”

“Right now, the Supreme Court’s appointments are happenstance politically, whether from time of retirement or an unexpected death,” Ms Buchanan added. “In a Supreme Court that has such power over our rules, a one-term president shouldn’t have more appointments to the bench than a two-term president.”

Other experts have cautioned that structural changes, many of which would require a constitutional amendment, are unlikely to be possible or popular.

“There is a lot to be said for stability,” said Clark Neily, senior vice president of legal studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington DC-based libertarian-leaning think tank that advocates for “small government.

“There’s a lot to be said for not changing the way that a particular institution works, even if there are problems with it,” he added.

Mr Neily – a former litigator who was co-counsel in a 2008 Supreme Court case where a Washington DC gun law was ruled unconstitutional – said that an institution that “has the last word” on the constitution will likely always generate controversy.

“There’s no avoiding that,” he said. “And I don’t think that anybody has really presented a proposal that seems clearly likely to do better than what we have now.”

Israel conscription rule stokes ultra-Orthodox fury

By Yolande KnellBBC Middle East correspondent

When Israel’s ultra-Orthodox or Haredi Jewish community gathers in force you realise just how large it is.

Thousands of men and boys dressed in black and white are crammed into the streets of Mea Shearim – which is the heart of the ultra-Orthodox community – in Jerusalem for an angry protest against the military draft.

It is the latest demonstration since the Supreme Court’s historic ruling that young Haredi men must be conscripted into the Israeli military and are no longer eligible for significant government benefits.

Young men who are full-time students in Jewish seminaries, or yeshivas, tell me that their religious lifestyle is in jeopardy. They believe that their prayers and spiritual learning are what protects Israel and the Jewish people.

“For 2,000 years we’ve been persecuted, and we’ve survived because we’re learning Torah and now the Supreme Court wants to remove this from us, and it will cause our destruction,” says Joseph.

“Going to the army will make a frum – religious Jew – not religious anymore.”

“The draft does not help militarily. They don’t want us Haredim, us orthodox Jews, they don’t need us,” another student tells me, withholding his name as he does not have his rabbi’s permission to give an interview.

“They’re just gonna give us some dirty job there. They’re there to make us not Orthodox no longer.”

For decades, there has been controversy over the role of the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society. From a small minority, the community is now a million-strong, making up 12.9% of the population.

Ultra-Orthodox parties have often acted as kingmakers in Israeli politics, giving support to successive governments headed by Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in return for continuing the draft exemption and hundreds of millions of dollars for their institutions.

This has been a long-standing cause of friction with secular Jewish Israelis who mostly do compulsory military service and pay the largest share of taxes. But the issue has now come to a head at the most sensitive time as the army faces unprecedented strain following its longest ever war in Gaza, and a possible second war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“My son has already been in the reserves for 200 days! How many years do you want him to do? How are you not ashamed?” demanded Mor Shamgar as she berated Israel’s national security adviser at a recent conference in Herzliya.

Her exasperated rant about her son – serving as a tank commander in southern Israel – was widely shared on social media.

With army leaders complaining about a shortage of military manpower, Ms Shamgar – who says she has previously voted for the prime minister’s party – believes that the government has “handled the situation very poorly,” putting its own political survival ahead of national interests on the draft issue.

“Netanyahu and his gang made a major judgement mistake on thinking they can dodge it,” she tells me. “Because once you enforce on half the population that you have to go to the army, you cannot enforce that the other half will not go to the army. It’s not even secular versus religion. I see it as an equality issue. You can’t make laws that make half a population, second grade citizens.”

Earlier this year, a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute indicated that 70% of Israeli Jews wanted to end the blanket exemptions from military service for the ultra-Orthodox.

Despite earlier threats, so far ultra-Orthodox parties have not left the governing coalition over army conscription. Attempts continue to push forward an older bill – once rejected by Haredi leaders – that would lead to partial enlistment of their community.

At an ultra-Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem, men of different ages are draped in their prayer shawls gathering for the morning service. Their conservative way of life is based on a strict interpretation of Jewish law and customs.

So far, just one Israeli army battalion, Netzah Yehuda, was set up specifically to accommodate ultra-Orthodox demands for gender segregation with special requirements for kosher food, and time set aside for prayers and daily rites.

But an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who works on issues of integration and is on the board of an NGO that supports the battalion, believes more compromises are possible and that a new Haredi brigade should be formed.

“It’s up to the Haredim to come to the table and say, we’re ready for real concessions, we’re ready to step out of our traditional comfort zone and do something proactive in finding the right framework that will allow more Haredi to serve,” says Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer.

He suggests thousands of young ultra-Orthodox men who do not currently do full-time Torah study – finding themselves unsuited to academic rigours – should be encouraged to join the army like other Jewish Israelis their age.

For the Israeli military to live up to its reputation as “the People’s Army,” Rabbi Pfeffer also calls on it to do more to build trust and improve its relationship with his community. “There are a lot of accommodations needed, but they’re not rocket science,” he comments.

So far, the process of implementing the ultra-Orthodox draft appears gradual.

More than 60,000 ultra-Orthodox men are registered as yeshiva students and have been receiving an exemption from military service. But since last week’s Supreme Court ruling, the army has only been told to draft an additional 3,000 from the community, in addition to about 1,500 who already serve. It has also been told to devise plans to recruit larger numbers in coming years.

Back in Mea Shearim, after nightfall there are some protesters who take an extreme position, throwing stones at the police and spreading out in Jerusalem to attack the cars of two ultra-Orthodox politicians who they feel have let them down on military conscription.

Historically, this is an insulated section of society that resists change but now amid rising public pressure in Israel and the possibility of widening war, change appears unavoidable.

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