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

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war