Go out in to the street and look at your fellow human beings. Any street. See how they walk, and how different it is from the way we used to walk around even 10 years ago.
No one takes advantage of a crisp autumn day to look at the changing leaves or the unexpected curiosities of the urban landscape. No one nods, or flirts, or even looks at anyone else. Everyone has the same drugged, internal, abstracted look: and why?
Because we are all on the mobile. We are either making a call – a call that could almost certainly wait until we get to a landline – and have the tool glued to our sweating ear. Or else we have it in our hands.
See how we heft it and coddle it. Watch how we stroke its smooth skin and wonder what use to make of it next. Shall we dial a number and disconnect, just to leave our electronic spoor? Shall we send a text, an emoticon, a pictogram?
Everyone has one now, in his breast pocket or her handbag, a chocolate-bar-sized dispenser of personal gratification. We can all have that buzz now, whenever we want: the comfort of a voice, the quick fix of external affirmation that we need to get us through the day.
Yes, the British people – make that the human race – have a new addiction that needs feeding. There are now 40,000 mobile phone masts in the United Kingdom, and a further 8,000 are likely to be constructed in the next three years.
Many of these masts, or “base stations”, are sited well away from human habitation – who cares about that mutant plastic tree by the side of the motorway? But as the national compulsion grows, the masts are sprouting in villages, in cities, and not least in a certain world-famous riparian town that annually hosts an important aquatic sporting event; and when the local people find that a socking great 15-metre phone mast is about to be plonked near their house, their school, their hospital, they mind, believe me, they mind.
And they are right to mind; but not, perhaps, for the reasons normally given. The other day I was chatting to some councillors in this world-famous riparian town, and someone said: Here, what about these mobile phone masts, then? What do you think about the dangers?
And I am afraid that the honest answer came bubbling out, which is that frankly I don’t think a mobile phone mast is any more threatening to human health than a tin of baked beans.
Something in my make-up makes me leery of public health scares. I thought the BSE panic was wildly overdone (do you see the CJD hospices on every street corner, as one of the nuttier doctors predicted?). And yet the panic alone, ably stoked by the Labour Party, cost the country about £5 billion and destroyed the livelihoods of many farmers.
If I understand things correctly, the radiation from a mobile phone mast is no greater than the radiation from an individual mobile phone. The emissions are hundreds, if not millions, of times lower than the levels insisted upon by international standards.
But with all due respect to my scientific training (biology O-level), I am not sure that I am the man to read on this subject. I have a hunch that the masts are safe; I have a hunch that there may be other statistical explanations for the clusters of tragic diseases that seem to be associated with these masts.
But the reality is that I do not have advanced knowledge of electromagnetic waves. As long as there is reasonable doubt – and the Government itself has said that the precautionary principle should be applied – then I cannot in all conscience insist that people’s fears are groundless. The calculation should really be a matter for them: to have either a mobile phone mast, an eyesore with an unknowable (probably infinitesimal) potential for harm, or the bother of not getting a signal on your mobile.
That is why it is infamous that, under the present rules, local residents have hardly any say in where these masts are sited. Under current planning law the telecommunications companies – the ones that paid £22.5 billion to Gordon Brown to use the spectrum – can shove the masts virtually wherever they like. Normal planning procedures do not apply, and the result is mayhem.
That is why I owe a big apology to my colleague Richard Spring, hero, Tory MP and unrecognised prophet. About six months ago, he tried to flog an article to The Spectator, in which he described the controversy. He did not assert that the masts themselves were causing illness; he merely pointed to some troubling illnesses among those who lived near them, and to the widespread alarm that the erection of these masts was causing. He made the good point that the controversy alone was damaging, since it blighted property values, and could make houses impossible to sell.
Like a fool, I took my usual stuff-and-nonsense anti-hysteria line, and told Richard that a spot of radiation never did anyone any harm, good for acne, etc. I did not publish the article. I now see that I missed the point: the issue is not my untutored views on safety; it’s about democracy. If it is the collective will of the people of a certain area that they shall have no mast in that area, then the decision should at least be taken by those who are elected by and accountable to those people.
The decision should be taken by people who can be shouted at in village halls, and if necessary booted out of office. Far too many decisions are now being taken away from such people, and put in the hands of the regional quangocrats. If people want the complete absence of risk, and no mobile signal, they should be able to express that preference democratically. Thanks to Richard Spring, that is the new Tory policy: all new masts to be subject to full planning procedures.
Boris Johnson is MP for Henley and editor of The Spectator
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