Could the Stig go Green?

Signing up Johnny Ball to talk on nuclear power is like the fur industry getting Beatrix Potter on-s

It wasn’t quite ‘within days’ of my last blog, but we have now received the government’s official confirmation that they are planning for a new wave of nuclear power stations to be built across the UK.

The announcement was made by John Hutton on Thursday, but not before we heard from the government’s own Nuclear Consultation Working Group that the second public consultation process had failed hopelessly to make up for the deficiencies of the first. This was drily underlined by Jonathan Dimbleby who called a straw poll on Friday’s Any Questions and couldn’t find a single person in the audience who felt they had been involved in a meaningful debate on the issue.

I won’t go into all the many arguments against this decision here, since Green MEP Caroline Lucas has done such a sterling job elsewhere on this very website. Enough to say that, given the likelihood of another legal challenge to the decision-making process, I’m not too downhearted but that it has made for an eventful week.

As soon as the announcement was made, public debate did at last spring up in all media outlets, so every Green and LibDem spokesperson (and a couple of Tory and Labour dissidents) were called out to argue against the madness.

I wrote a joint letter with two of my fellow candidates for London Mayor, Ken Livingstone and Brian Paddick, which was published in the Evening Standard. In what the Guardian called ‘a rare show of near-unanimity’, we condemned the decision and said: “We believe that we can meet our city’s energy needs through becoming much more efficient with our energy use, local energy generation and exploiting our renewable resources.”

Indeed we can and, with trains carrying highly dangerous nuclear fuel already passing through central London, we will also have to bear a large share of the risks of this policy. Boris Johnson refused to sign the letter, showing a worrying rejection of the interests of Londoners in favour of party discipline.

The debate I enjoyed most this week was rather unexpected. I really wasn’t looking forward going on Talksport radio on Thursday night, especially when I found hummer-driving James Whale would be in the chair and that I’d be arguing against Johnny Ball.

I have been almost in mourning since I first saw him acting as a roving spokesperson for the nuclear industry a year or so ago. Mr Ball and his seminal 1980s science programmes were directly responsible for my chemistry set and therefore indirectly responsible for my choice to study science at university – something I’ll be eternally glad I did. But, to my surprise, our exchange ended up very good natured, fact-filled and even interesting, and that’s despite an outbreak of nonsensical climate denial breaking out towards the end.

It is, I have to admit, a stroke of PR genius for the nuclear industry to have signed up Johnny Ball. If anyone’s image says ‘friendly, trusted scientist’ to my generation (who are statistically most opposed to nuclear power) then it’s him. And he must be having an impact; it’s like the Fur Council signing up Beatrix Potter as an advocate or, indeed, like an investment bank taking on a Labour Prime Minister. It’s about time the forces of good stole this tactic and gathered a few unlikely allies of our own. Perhaps the Stig should expect a call?

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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder