Too dreadful even for Clarkson?

Sian's responds to the launch of a new righthand drive Hummer

I have been kept busy this bank holiday, dissing the launch in the UK of the new Hummer monstrosity.

In the hope you’ve never heard of such a thing. Here’s a few basic facts. A Hummer is (surprise) a giant 4x4, based on an armoured car thingy used by the US army. Style icon Arnold Schwartzenegger was responsible for persuading them to make a ‘civilian’ version a few years ago. General Motors have since bought the franchise and their new H3 is being launched in right-hand-drive for the first time in Manchester this week.

The H3 gets around 15mpg in town and its carbon dioxide emissions are equally atrocious, ranging between 327 and 346 gm/km. These figures put the H3 more than 100 g/km above the cut-off point for top car tax Band G, and make it – scientifically – a whole Citroen too big.

I’m not sure what GM think they are playing at. There’s something incredibly wrong about launching a stupendously wasteful car at this moment in history, just when almost everyone is seeing the light and trying to reduce their carbon footprint.

Even in the USA, where a ‘normal’ car is about double the size of a Ford Focus, the sheer horridness of the Hummer has spawned a campaign of organised derision in the form of the FUH2 website, which collects phone camera snaps of people giving ‘the official Hummer salute’ to passing idiots.

Rising fuel prices in America have meant the gas-guzzler strategy hasn’t worked out for GM in business terms either. Plummeting sales of 4x4s – sending profits into free-fall – mean the company is rapidly laying off workers and closing factories, while imports of climate-conscious Japanese cars soar. So it’s hard to see why GM think pushing giant cars will serve them any better in the UK, where petrol costs even more, taxes are getting (marginally) higher for top emitters and there’s a fully fledged backlash against off-road wastemonsters.

Given this, I am also having difficulty imagining who might want one of these nowadays. The H3 has the aesthetics of a transit van and the driver visibility of a tank (thanks to its tiny windows that are a legacy of its military origins) which makes it a nightmare to steer around pedestrians and cyclists. I dread to think what its rear blind spot is, and I wouldn’t fancy trying to park one either.

The Manchester-based dealership where the H3 will be sold is claming in its launch material that there is a market for these things amongst young men who ‘have got and don’t care’. But actually I doubt there are many fashion points left for big gas-guzzlers now, even outside London. (I think it’s significant they didn’t plan the launch here in the capital, where a congestion charge of £25 a day is on the cards.) Even young, white-shirted blokes probably do care about looking ridiculous and getting evil glances from absolutely everyone when they drive down the street. You’d have to be Jeremy Clarkson himself to enjoy that.

In fact, Clarkson exhibited curiously mixed views on the H3’s predecessor, the H2 (these were only available in left-hand-drive and there are, thankfully, only a few hundred on our streets). In his review for the Times back in 2003 he said that despite its faults he, “loved it. I loved the look of the thing most of all” but, by 2005, the H2 had descended in his estimation to the wrong end of his personal ‘cockometer’ scale (which is definitely saying something). I’m holding out a slim hope that he will give the H3 a rave review. That will surely see it off for good.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.