Lobbyists in the spin crowd, the folly of “the third umpire” and opting out of the royal birth

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

The case of Lynton Crosby, an Australian who has been appointed the Tories’ chief election strategist, suggests that public relations (or spin doctoring), private-sector lobbying and government policymaking have merged into a seamless whole. Crosby’s company has advised private health-care providers, hustling to get their hands on the NHS, and tobacco manufacturers, desperate to see off plain cigarette packaging. This allegedly creates conflicts of interest.
 
David Cameron claims that Crosby “does not advise on government policy”. If so, he is an odd sort of strategist. PRs are no longer just technical assistants who, once policy is agreed by ministers, explain how to present it. They help to create the policy and sometimes have the decisive voice. George W Bush’s spin doctor Karl Rove became the White House deputy chief of staff, with specific responsibility for policy development. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s spin doctor, was described by many (unofficially) as “the real deputy prime minister”. But neither carried Crosby’s baggage. Though Rove briefly advised the tobacco company Philip Morris, he gave up the role precisely because he envisaged conflicts of interest. Campbell, for all his faults, was a passionate socialist who acquired the cynicism necessary for spin doctoring from a career in journalism.
 
Policy and presentation have become two sides of the same coin, so that planning “election strategy” inevitably entails forming policy. Private-sector lobbying, however, remains the most important influence. By employing Crosby, Cameron has brought it further into the heart of government.
 

The son and heir

 
Kate Windsor – like her husband’s late mother, Diana, and his grandmother Elizabeth – managed to produce a live, male heir at the first time of asking, even though this child was not required to be in possession of a Y chromosome. Think of how much Henry VIII’s first two wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, suffered for their difficulties in achieving that goal. In the premodern era, the birth of a healthy royal male in direct line of succession promised peace and stability. These were regarded as God’s most precious and elusive favours, making the birth a true cause for celebration.
 
Now, thanks to scientific and medical advances – but not, I think, the grandfather Charles’s homoeopathic remedies –birth and the child’s survival beyond infancy are almost routine. The anxious wait and subsequent celebrations are public rituals like Christmas and Bonfire Night. Nobody spares a thought for our ancestors, just as nobody thinks that, on Bonfire Night, they are burning a member of a persecuted minority driven to terrorism.
 

Push the button

 
As soon as the young Mrs Windsor went into labour, the Guardian website kindly allowed me to screen out its “live coverage” of her progress. But why was I required to “opt out” (using a not-very-prominent button labelled “Republican?”) rather than, as Cameron proposes for internet pornography, “opt in”? And why do the Guardian’s masterminds think anyone who wants regular updates on royalty would visit their website instead of, say, the Mail’s or the Telegraph’s?
 

Unfair play

 
Players and coaches in all sports make an enormous fuss about marginal decisions: whether or not a football crossed the goal line, a rugby ball was grounded behind the try line or a bat touched a cricket ball before it was caught. If the umpire or referee gets it wrong, they imply, a cosmic injustice is done. Sports governing bodies hope to settle matters by using technology as a court of appeal.
 
However, technology – and the interpretation of it – turns out to be as fallible as a human being. Several times during the current England-Australia Ashes series, the “third umpire” was accused of getting a decision wrong even after he had examined slowmotion replays, listened to audio feeds and scrutinised a device called the “Hot Spot”.
 
The cry “We wuz robbed!” is integral to sport and always will be. Cricket should abandon its pompously named “Decision Review System” – which involves tedious delays, compared by one sports writer to a mobile phone ringing repeatedly during Hamlet’s closing soliloquy – and get on with the game. Injustice cannot be eliminated. A batsman who narrowly fails to hit the ball, rather than edging it for a catch, didn’t skilfully contrive to miss it. He was beaten by the bowler. If he misses completely, he is less competent than the batsman who manages a thin contact. In that sense, an incorrect “not out” decision carries more justice than the correct one.
 

Only connect

 
My Apple iMac computer (of a 2005 vintage) recently gave up the ghost – it was “obsolete”, the repair people ruled. So I bought a new one. It came with a battery-powered wireless keyboard.
 
Can anyone explain how this is an improvement? The computer continually tells me the batteries are running out, though they clearly are not, and the keyboard connection is lost if I hit the keys hard, as I am apt to do when writing about Tories.
 
When the batteries do run low, I shall have the trouble and expense of buying new ones. I am reminded of Hutber’s law, named after the late Patrick Hutber, an economics journalist: “Improvement means deterioration.” 
The arrival of the future ruler, as imagined by Legoland. Photograph: Getty Images.

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 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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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.