Online trolls, Julian Assange on the run and Jimmy Carr’s tax dodge

“You’re a Bolshevik feminist Jewess.” That was one of the more printable insults aimed at a blogger named Anita Sarkeesian, who wanted to make a series of videos about the portrayal of women in computer games. And it wasn’t just offensive comments. In a targeted campaign of harassment, seemingly led by a handful of message boards, she had her Wikipedia page defaced and received dozens of threats of death and rape. What was her offence? Little more than being a woman with an opinion, which is usually enough to burst the dam of rage on the internet.

Last autumn, I wrote a piece about the bullying experienced by many female writers online. It hit a nerve: others came forward to tell their stories and there have since been two BBC documentaries on “trolls”.

Slowly, the law is beginning to catch up with online bullies and the first cries of “you’re infringing freedom of speech” have gone up. The mistake that is often made in talking about the internet is to assume it’s somehow qualitatively different from any other medium. If you threatened to kill someone in person, or by letter, or through phone calls, you wouldn’t expect to get away with it. Our “freedom of speech” already has restrictions. Why should the web be a consequence-free playground?

Added to that, what about Sarkeesian’s freedom of speech? She proposed making some videos and was harassed, shouted down and victimised by hundreds of anonymous persecutors. Thankfully, she has decided to continue making the video series but many women (and men) will have looked at her ordeal and thought again about speaking up.

When you gotta go . . .

Why does the right hate Owen Jones so violently? After the Chavs author spent a day on Twitter talking about how call centres limit their workers’ loo breaks, the Telegraph’s blogs editor, Damian “Blood-Crazed Ferret” Thompson, commissioned two separate hit jobs on him. First came Donata Huggins, who found the whole subject hilarious. “He has spent the day, as [Dave] Spart would, campaigning for longer toilet breaks for call centre workers,” she chuckled. (Dan Hodges, also of this parish, followed up with an ad hominem attack about Jones being the “Justin Bieber of the left”.) 

Perhaps I’m a Dave Spart, too, but loo breaks are only a trivial subject to those who are allowed them whenever they want. The most eye-opening book I’ve read this year is Rose George’s The Big Necessity, which chronicles the struggles of the millions of people across the world without access to adequate sanitation. The Telegraph bloggers would presumably find their plight hilarious.

Leaking away

At some point on the afternoon of 19 June, Julian Assange slipped unnoticed into the Ecuadorian embassy in Knightsbridge to claim political asylum. It was a surprise, not least to those who had put up the £240,000 he needed to make bail while his appeal against extradition to Sweden played out.

Over the course of the past 18 months, I’ve watched in fascination as Assange has destroyed almost every friendship he has had: with the original WikiLeaks team, with the journalists who worked with him, and now – perhaps – with those who backed him financially. He appears to believe that he and his cause are indivisible, and therefore nothing he does can be wrong. Hosting a chat show on the Kremlin’s favourite TV channel, Russia Today? Fine. Refusing to investigate or comment on allegations that his associate Israel Shamir handed over cables on Belarusian opposition activists to the country’s dictator, Alexander Luka­shenko? Not a problem. The importance of the original WikiLeaks project has been drowned in seas of self-promotion.

The irony of Assange’s situation is this: the self-avowed campaigner on free expression now wants to go to a country where, according to Human Rights Watch, “laws restrict freedom of expression, and government officials, including [President Rafael] Correa, use these laws against his critics”.

Manger zone

Have we reached Peak Pret? Walking down Piccadilly at the weekend, I saw a hoarding advertising a new Pret A Manger store “opening soon!”. It could not have been more than a couple of hundred metres from an existing Pret.

I’m intrigued. How can the market bear so many identical shops in such close proximity? Who thinks about going to Pret but doesn’t, for the sake of an extra few metres? The answer can’t be that competing owners are jousting over business, because the chain (unlike, say, Subway) refuses to sell franchises. There are 249 Prets in Britain, 176 of them in Greater London. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry: they’re sure to come to a town near you soon. The chain has stormed the slow-eating capital of Europe with a store on the Avenue de France in Paris. Disappointingly, over there Pret A Manger is not called “Ready To Eat”.

Carr crash telly

Following the news that Jimmy Carr shelters £3.3m a year from tax by using a Jersey-based scheme, I can’t really do better than his fellow comedian Frankie Boyle’s reaction: “It’s OK to avoid tax, providing every time you do a joke about a town being shit you add, ‘Partly down to me, I’m afraid’ under your breath.”

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s most dangerous leader

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.