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11 March 2020

First Thoughts: In defence of Trevor Phillips, stockpiling loo roll and why the BBC must temper its language

Labour would do better to listen to my old friend Trevor Phillips, former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, than suspend him.

By Peter Wilby

Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, calls for “calm heads”. So why do BBC newsreaders refer, as each day’s coronavirus infection figures are announced, to a “jump” in cases? Not an “increase” but a “jump”, passing, as my Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “abruptly from one…  state… to another, omitting intermediate stages”. 

Jumps occurred in South Korea, where cases more than doubled on each of three consecutive days, and in Italy, where they rose from 20 to 888 in one week. Not in the UK where, as I write (10 March), the numbers have risen by more than 50 per cent on only two days (1 and 4 March). This is a predictable progression for an infectious disease.  

This doesn’t mean all is well. The progression implies that we are most likely at the beginning of an epidemic. But we aren’t there yet. The BBC, if it must use alarming words  – no doubt it is keeping “rocket” in reserve – should save them for later stages.

Masking the problem

And why so many pictures, on TV and in newspapers, of people wearing face masks, which scientists say are of little use for the general public? Perhaps I need to get out more but so far I have seen only one person on the London Tube wearing a mask and none on the streets. At the hospital where my wife has eye treatment, even the medics were maskless.

Headline loos

I had always thought alarm about toilet paper (or “lavatory rolls” as the Daily Telegraph very correctly calls them) running out was a British thing. It seems the fear is shared by other nationalities, Australians in particular. Unlike food and water, toilet paper hardly seems essential if you go into what the media calls “lockdown”. Before it was invented – by the Chinese in the 14th century – people used grass, leaves and mussel shells. The Romans had an elegant arrangement that involved a sponge attached to a wooden stick. But the modern fallback, until very recently, was newspapers, which few people now buy. Perhaps the coronavirus will prompt a revival in their sales.

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The case of Trevor Phillips

My old friend Trevor Phillips, former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, is apt to wander off-piste at times. In 2002, he, a black Briton of Guyanese descent, wrote that “the old-fashioned discipline of Caribbean teachers…  even the possibility of corporal punishment… could stop many a criminal career before it began”. The article was published, with an orgasmic thrill, by the Mail on Sunday.

The last time I met Phillips, he spoke passionately about scores of young black men being murdered on London streets. If white people were killing them, he said, there would be a national outcry and demands for urgent action. But because other black youths were the killers, the atrocities were largely ignored. It was hard to disagree.

Now Phillips’s Labour Party membership is suspended while charges of Islamophobia are considered. The complainants perhaps have a point: he has written, regarding Muslims, of “the unacknowledged creation of a nation within the nation”, and can be provocative in his public utterances. But for all his lapses into tabloid-style nonsense, Trevor Phillips often raises uncomfortable and pressing issues. Labour would do better to listen than to suspend him.

Pink washing

Rather than sing “Happy birthday” twice (too boring and repetitive) or the national anthem (too Tory for me), I sing the first verse and chorus of the Red Flag while washing my hands. For New Labour supporters and others, however, there is an alternative version which, in a spirit of inclusiveness, I sometimes substitute for the traditional lyric: “The people’s flag is palest pink/It’s not as red as you might think… We’ll change the country bit by bit/So nobody will notice it…” But I sing the latter quietly, fearing that, if overheard and reported to the Labour Party, I shall follow Trevor Phillips to the naughty chair.

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This article appears in the 11 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, How the world is closing down