Tabloid values: BBC news crew stand in front of the Charters Estate, where Cliff Richard owns a flat, 14 August. Photo: Getty
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The BBC on a Cliff edge, a bad ad for Israel, and a very British plum

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column. 

I first noticed the BBC’s embrace of tabloid values in July 1992, when the corporation’s main evening bulletin led with the murder of Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common. The blood-soaked body of a young, blonde mother found on a summer afternoon with her two-year-old son beside her is the stuff of tabloid editors’ dreams. But it had no wider significance and I think the national broadcaster should be more upmarket, more thoughtful and, if you like, duller than that.

Now, nobody is surprised when the BBC sends a helicopter to cover a police raid on the Berkshire home of a pop star, apparently on suspicion that he sexually assaulted a minor in 1985. Arguments about who tipped off whom are beside the main points. First, the BBC shouldn’t be covering stories of this kind in such a way; second, suspects should not normally be named before they are arrested and charged, a point that was made robustly by Lord Justice Leveson and reiterated by guidance from the Association of Chief Police Officers.

The drama surrounding the raid will lead many to presume Cliff Richard’s guilt. The claim that such publicity encourages more victims to come forward is piffle. Given Richard’s celebrity, straightforward factual stories detailing any charges against him – if they are ever made – would be enough. After all, hundreds of non-celebrity sex offenders are successfully prosecuted every year without any publicity. Overdramatising the case seems likely to encourage fantasists and gold-diggers.

The more fuss is made about searches, arrests and so on, the less chance there is of a fair trial and the greater the injustice to the suspect if he turns out to be innocent. Yet, for years, downmarket newspapers have got away with ignoring these simple principles. The BBC should observe higher standards. (And no, I don’t like the music, either.)

Full-page blunder

The Guardian has been deluged with protests about its decision to run a full-page pro-Israel advertisement accusing Hamas of “child sacrifice”, which the “Jews rejected . . . 3,500 years ago”. The paper’s readers’ editor, Chris Elliott, agrees that the advertisement should not have run. I wonder. The “blood libel”, as Elliott points out, is the oldest and nastiest of all anti-Semitic tropes. It is extraordinary that the American organisation that placed the advertisement, This World, which claims to promote “universal Jewish values”, should revive such an accusation in order to turn it against others. It legitimises the discourse adopted by the more extreme opponents of Israel, who accuse Israel’s leaders of a new holocaust, describe Gaza as a concentration camp and compare the treatment of Palestinians to apartheid.

In other words, Israel’s supporters have shot themselves in the foot. If people want to do that and pay me for letting them do it, I would say, like Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian’s editor-in-chief, “Be my guest.”

Race to the top?

I was always a sceptic about Barack Obama, seeing him as a shallow yuppie blessed with a gift for making inspirational speeches. I never expected significant change. So it has proved. Ferguson, Missouri, where the National Guard was called in after several nights of unrest over the fatal police shooting of a black teenager, has a predominantly black population but an almost wholly white police force and council. Putting a mixed-race head of state, whose domestic writ is severely constrained, on top of a white power structure makes no difference at all.

When Obama was elected, British commentators – in a version of what Australians call “the colonial cultural cringe” – praised the “advanced” attitudes of the US to minorities, comparing them unfavourably with Britain’s. This ignores how black people have lived in America in significant numbers roughly six times as long as in Britain and how levels of segregation there are far higher than in any of our cities. Don’t be fooled. Obama is just decoration.

Feasting on sunshine

“Greengages traditionally come from France and Spain,” advises the Daily Mail, salivating over news that Marks & Spencer will be stocking some grown in Kent at £2.50 a punnet. Here in Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, we have been virtually living on greengages, grown on a single tree in our garden, for the past fortnight. They are uniquely delicious and, at their best, prompt fantasies about feasting on sunshine.

I see no reason why greengages shouldn’t be grown in southern England in large quantities. How have we reached a situation whereby something we can perfectly well grow here – and have done so from the 18th century onwards – is treated as though it were a pineapple or an Hojiblanca olive, which must be imported? 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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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.