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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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital