Gerry’s News Digest 178: Sugar, Westminster repairs and a rant about US jargon (6th November, 2015)
Hi, this is Gerry. And welcome to my News Digest for Friday 6th November 2015. First of all let me remind you of the new feature on the PodClub app – the vocabulary trainer. It’s designed to help you learn the words that I explain in the footnotes to the written text that you find on the website. And now, on today’s show: the growing debate about sugar, the imminent  collapse of our parliament – well, the building at least – and why I find the Americans both admirable but also annoying. And my first story begins with one of their words.
The Americans call it soda. British people used to call it pop. But in the news these days in the UK the reference is to sugary drinks, particularly fizzy  sugary drinks. An organisation called Public Health England submitted a report to the government about the link between sugar, obesity  and obesity-related health problems such as Type 2 diabetes. Public Health England is a body that brings together public health specialists to provide guidance for the National Health Service in England. The report that Public Health England prepared for the government was supposed to have been finished in July but we didn’t see any sign of it. And there’s nothing like the suspicion that the government is trying to hide something to get everybody excited. Our Parliament has committees of MPs for different subjects. One of them is the Health Committee. It’s chaired by a Conservative MP who is also a medical doctor. Her name is Sarah Wollaston. Her committee was due to conduct an inquiry into childhood obesity. She started asking the health minister what had happened to the report. A big political row ensued  and after about a week the government published the report.
It makes the case for the government to do everything it can to reduce sugar consumption. The British have always had a sweet tooth , as I’m sure you’re aware of if you’ve ever visited the country. We make and eat lots of biscuits, cakes, chocolate bars and other sweets, sugary cereals for breakfast and so on. So, are we eating more sugar than we used to? Our sugar consumption has risen by 30% since 1990. That’s a figure I’ve found quoted by responsible papers such as The Guardian or the Daily Telegraph. The BBC gives me a figure of a 46% increase in global consumption of added sugar. But then the European Association of Sugar Producers claims that UK sugar consumption has fallen since the 1970s. It seems to be difficult to agree on definitions. Perhaps when the sugar producers talk of sugar they exclude corn syrup  for example, which is one of the main additives to processed food and so on. My conclusion is, however, that we are probably consuming a lot more sugar than is good for us.
So what do we do about this? The Public Health England report describes a number of measures that the government could take, for example restrictions on the advertising of sweet food and drink to children, restrictions on marketing and cut-price promotions , the removal of sweets and fizzy drinks from shelves just by the check-out in supermarkets. (I remember, by the way, that the last point used to be the policy in Migros supermarkets. Is it still the case?) The proposal that got the headlines, however, was for a sugar tax. Sugar should be treated like tobacco: high taxation and restrictions on advertising. (I even heard somebody suggest restricting the sale of sugar to children: so no Coke until you’re 16, for example.) On the subject of tax, Mr Cameron, the Prime Minister made it known that he would not support any tax, while admitting at the same time that he hadn’t actually read the report. Tax is a very unpopular word in the present political environment.
As I said at the beginning, it’s sugary drinks that have received the most attention in this debate so far. We’ve learnt that a small can of Coke contains the equivalent of  nine teaspoons of sugar (or seven according to other sources). Imagine putting that into a cup of coffee! But other drinks are just as sweet. According to the government we should only consume seven teaspoons of sugar a day, and the WHO says only six. Jamie Oliver, the chef and TV star, has launched an anti-sugar campaign , and he’s targeting  the drinks market in particular. I watched an interview with him followed by one from a spokesperson for the food and drink producers. You got very different interpretations of reality. Both agreed that we have a health problem with obesity, diabetes and so on, but they disagreed about everything else. Jamie was very critical of food labelling. Labels don’t have to declare added sugar. They’re not easy to understand, he says. As I’ve told you before, I read packaging, and I’m often baffled . Jamie says: Why not measure sugar content in spoonfuls? The industry spokesman claimed, however, that that would be less clear than what we have now. The industry spokesman also tried to downplay  the drinks market as being so important. “It only accounts for  a third of our sugar intake” I heard him say. That seems to me to be very high. As a child, the only drinks I got were milk, above all, and then water or “squash”, that’s water with some added fruit-flavoured sugar syrup. Modern drinks don’t look healthy to me. But what would you do about it?
Our parliament is collapsing. And I don’t mean the politics this time. No, I’m talking about the Palace of Westminster, the neo-gothic building on the River Thames, famous throughout the world as the home of the British Parliament. The building is in bad shape , and it’s going to cost a lot of money to repair it. It will cost even more money if they try to make the repairs while the politicians are in the building. The two houses of parliament are very self-important and they won’t tolerate any disturbance to their work. They won’t put up with loud drilling  going on next door, for example. The most sensible solution is for them to move out while the building work goes on. But where to? I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of the House of Commons at work. The MPs sit on benches  – no desks – in a rectangular chamber, so the Government and its supporters sit on one side and the Opposition and its supporters sit opposite. It’s an adversarial set-up , designed to produce debates with winners and losers.
If the House of Commons moves out to a temporary home elsewhere will they have to find a room that’s exactly like the one at Westminster? Or will they perhaps try something new? Some people say that if they sat in a hemisphere like the Swiss parliament, for example, it might produce a different - and maybe better - type of discussion? Other people say that it’s a good opportunity to take Parliament out of London. Parliament could move around the country – to Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and so on. As to whether our politicians will really make any long-term changes to the way they work, I’m doubtful. The power of tradition is very strong in this country.
An illustration of our love of tradition is concern about repairs to Big Ben. Big Ben is the big bell at Westminster that sounds the hour. Major repairs are needed there also – to the clock and the clock tower. The sound of Big Ben is referred to as Big Ben’s bongs. And the bongs are broadcast live on the BBC at 6pm and midnight ahead of the news. Everybody wants to know what will replace Big Ben’s bongs on the radio? Nobody seems to think that the BBC could use a recording. That’s tradition for you.
What’s your attitude towards the United States? I find I’m often quite conflicted . There are aspects of American life that I admire, but there are other things that really get on my nerves. Today, I’ll give you examples of each. First, I applaud the American public services for uncovering two European scandals. It took American investigators to finally start bringing some order into the affairs of FIFA. Despite plenty of European reports alleging wrongdoing  in the governance of world football, nothing happened until the Americans started proceedings. And something similar seems to have happened in the diesel engine emissions  scandal. The EU was presented with a report in 2013 that suggested that all was not well with the emissions controls on these engines. The British government was contacted in 2014 with similar claims. Nothing happened, however, until the Americans moved.
So those are examples of beneficial  American activities. On the other hand, and at a more trivial level, American business jargon can drive me mad. I was drinking coffee the other day in a famous American multinational coffee shop chain. My coffee was served in a paper mug with a cardboard sleeve to insulate my hand from the heat of the coffee. It’s one of my bad habits, which I mentioned earlier, to read what’s written on packaging, and so I started to read what was on this cardboard sleeve, and this is what it said: “Same sleeve, less waste. Because we care about our planet, this 70% post-consumer-fiber cup sleeve uses 31% less paper than our original.” There’s so much I could say about that text, but just let me make the following quick points. I had no idea what a “post-consumer-fiber cup sleeve” could be. The word fibre was spelt in the American way, but that was a minor irritant. That phrase just makes no sense. It suggests some sort of fibre made from a consumer who is no more – dead perhaps. Luckily, the English text was followed by a French translation. You can’t play around with French like that, and I was pleased to read “fibres recyclées” – tout simple – recycled material. Fine. But what fibres, what material? If it used less paper, did it use more of something else? Those figures and the fancy  words explain nothing. And then that opening: “Because we care about our planet…” Doesn’t this sort of vacuous , self-serving  linguistic rubbish raise your blood pressure? By the way, the final line at the bottom of the sleeve read: “Intended for single use only.” For the love of the planet? There’s a photo on the website.
And I think that’s enough ranting  from me for one day. Don’t forget the new vocabulary learning app. And remember if you’ve got any comments or rants of your own please write to me via the website: www.podclub.ch. Or use Twitter: my Twitter address is @Gerrypod. But for now, thanks for listening and take care!
 imminent: adjective to describe something that’s (probably or certainly) going to happen soon
 fizzy: an adjective to describe a liquid that has bubbles (usually of CO2)
 obesity: the medical condition of being dangerously overweight/fat
 to ensue: to follow
 to have a sweet tooth: to like sugary things
 corn syrup: a sugar syrup that is made from maize
 cut-price promotions: for example, when you make a special offer of two for the price of one
 the equivalent of: here: the same amount as
 to launch a campaign: to start a movement (trying to persuade people to think or do something),
 to target: to aim at
 to be baffled: to be completely confused, to have no idea
 to downplay: to deliberately make something sound less serious or less important
 to account for: to form a particular part of
 shape: here: condition
 to drill: to make a hole with a machine
 bench: a long seat that a number of people can sit on
 an adversarial set-up: a situation designed to have enemies or opponents against each other
 conflicted: having opposing opinions at the same time (liking and disliking something at the same time)
 to allege wrongdoing: to accuse (somebody) of illegal or immoral actions
 emissions: the gases that (an engine) gives out
 beneficial: an adjective to describe an action that does good
 fancy: here: posh, pretentious
 vacuous: empty, meaningless, completely lacking in serious content
 self-serving: having an effect designed to benefit itself or the person who does it
 to rant: to shout angrily about something (also a noun)