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King Obama? The media are going overboard, says Mehdi Hasan

The press coverage of the US president's state visit to Britain is bordering on the ridiculous.

I blogged in the weekend about Andrew Marr's soft interview with Barack Obama in the White House ahead of his state visit to the UK. There were plenty of journalists willing to take potshots at Marr's giddiness and obvious excitement at being in the presence of "The One".

But newspaper journalists, commentators, pundits, broadcasters and bloggers alike have been fawning in their coverage of the US president since his arrival on our shores on Monday night.

It's a point that hasn't been lost on the more Obama-sceptic press corps back home in the United States. From USA Today:

President Obama traded a cozy pub for a spacious palace Tuesday, but the reception was the same: he was treated like royalty.


After basking amid one of the most affectionate audiences of his presidency Monday in Ireland, Obama arrived here to be feted by a queen and three generations of princes.

He and first lady Michelle Obama were welcomed at Buckingham Palace, where they were given a six-room suite last occupied by Prince William and his bride, Kate Middleton, on their wedding night.

They were fawned over at Westminster Abbey, greeted warmly at No 10 Downing Street and, finally, lauded at the first state dinner thrown here for a US president in eight years.

I never thought I'd find myself in agreement with the City AM editor, Allister Heath, who tweeted:

Why is the UK media treating Barack Obama's visit with such deference? Feels like being in some 1950s BBC newsreel on trip by royal family

Forget Afghanistan or Libya, climate change or Middle East peace -- the real issues have been table tennis and the Downing Street barbecue. Take the BBC, the voice of the establishment, which, on its live blog, notes:

Now the news you've all been waiting for. After the grandeur of last night's state banquet at Buckingham Palace, we are told the Downing Street barbecue is a little more down to earth. Guests are apparently tucking into British sausages, beefburgers, Kentish lamb chops, corn on the cob, Jersey Royal potatoes, with tomato, mozarella and basil salad, then summer berries and ice cream to top it off. Sounds tasty.

Doesn't the "leader of the free world", the president of the globe's only remaining superpower, the commander-in-chief of the mightiest armed forces on earth, deserve proper scrutiny? Rigorous and serious coverage? Yes, he is a great speaker and a cool dude. Yes, he isn't George W Bush. But he is a foreign president who has done some pretty dodgy things (from helping undermine Copenhagen to doubling the number of drone strikes inside Pakistan). Or are all these issues off-limits?

As I type this blog post, I'm watching Obama and Cameron on television, in shirt sleeves and ties, grilling sausages in the No 10 garden. This is what geopolitics has been reduced to; this is what the "special relationship" is all about. Gimme a break . . .

The cult of Obama, especially in the British media, is deeply dispiriting. Having said all this, I'm now off to Westminster Hall to see the US president address both Houses of Parliament on issues unrelated to ping-pong and barbecues and I'm sure I won't be able to stop myself from going all weak-at-the-knees when he starts speaking. Agh!

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.