The BBC on a Cliff edge, a bad ad for Israel, and a very British plum

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column. 

Tabloid values: BBC news crew stand in front of the Charters Estate, where Cliff Richard owns a flat, 14 August. Photo: Getty
Tabloid values: BBC news crew stand in front of the Charters Estate, where Cliff Richard owns a flat, 14 August. Photo: Getty

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? 

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