• Author:Ben Jones
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My letter from America* part one

*with apologies to Alastair Cooke

I write this at 36,000 feet making my way from New York to San Fransico aboard American flight 179. Despite a three hour delay due to bad weather, which was a little frustrating after an early alarm call and a bumpy enough journey so far (despite my best efforts, I remain a nervous flyer), I am writing this in good spirits. 

It is hard not to be when spending quality time (as holiday time invariably is) with my wonderful wife, but also when in the United States. It is hard to be precise but my trips to America are well into double figures. I love coming here, although this is my first venture as far west. Given my strong feelings for this great country it feels remiss that I have not recorded them anywhere. This post intends to start putting that right.

I considered the best way to do this and decided to reflect on what I have seen and heard since arriving a few days ago.

The first and very obvious observation is that- even with the delay aside- the flight I am currently taking is nearly as long as the one I took from London to cross the Atlantic. The vastness of the USA is mind-blowing. I regularly fly from London to Manchester- around 180 miles- and consider that to be a decent trek as part of my normal business. Many of my fellow JFK dwellers this morning were travelling five, ten, twenty times that distance as part of a routine commute or business routine. 

I am though- to borrow that offensive cliche bypassing much of the country- the “flyover states”-  by heading from east to west coast without stopping. What am I missing? Only a road trip could answer that. One for a future holiday! 

Since being in the States, several big news stories have broken. The biggest of all- attracting worldwide coverage- is the case of the three young women held captive in Cleveland for ten years and their escape this week. Enough has already been written about the monstrous acts of their captor, the bravery of the women (especially Amanda Berry), the starring role played by neighbour Mr Ramsey, and the questions being asked of the Cleveland police, the 911 responder and the FBI. What is my contribution to this story? 

Well, I have been most struck by the news coverage of the event and the way the people of Cleveland, including friends and families of those involved, have figured. There has been much use of sporting metaphors (“we have a slam dunk case”), a huge willingness of the families to be filmed living through this event (grandmother and Berry filmed having their first phone call together for a decade), an insatiable thirst to speculate and comment on speculation from the case (from the horrendous circumstances in which they were confined to what could have happened to them, including graphic discussion about the likelihood of sexual assault), and an incredible ability to fill hours and hours of coverage with very little actual news. 

The takeaway (as our American cousins like to say): despite the amazing nature of this story (which really speaks for itself) the US networks’ coverage- this includes all the networks I saw which from ABC, Fox and CNN- resorted to trivia and half truth to fill time. There is clearly a mindset that repeating something- no matter how true or important- must be avoided in exchange for saying something else or the same thing differently. I am left asking, is this the fault of the networks who are trying to compete with each other with something new every five minutes minutes, or ours as the audience for demanding more and more intrusion and detail? I’m just not sure; probably a bit of both.

That takes me to a second big news story. The gruesome case of Jodi Arias, who was convicted this week of murder and now faces the possibility of the death penalty. Here I have two observations. The first, filming courtroom and the legal process is a good thing. I have long believed that giving the public information, unfiltered, raw, direct is the key to improving our democratic process and the choices we make. Parliament being televised has brought more accountability. If you don’t like what you see, you are informed enough to do something about it at the next election. We need to extend this transparency dramatically into every corner of public life and public bodies. Local government discussions, meetings of public bodies, courtrooms should all be filmed and made available free to the public online if not on TV. There is nothing to fear from the public seeing how our laws are made, kept and discharged. There is nothing to fear in letting the customer see what s(he) is paying for. 

Both US cases, emphasised the important role the local mayor and police chief play in American public life. A clear, visible figure to answer the questions, learn the lessons, and when needed take the praise and criticism of the people who elect and pay them. We are catching up slowly with this approach- something I strongly support. 

Walking around New York it was clear to see how much building work is being done; how many hotels were being renovated, how many major projects were underway. My conclusion; this looks like evidence of the US economy in growth, something we had heard much about in recent months? If so, good news all round. I hope we catch our customary cold from the US sneezing soon! 

One last reflection for this post- more to follow after a few days on the west coast- contains the endless stream of adverts on TV for health remedies, drugs and treatments. The fact that they dominate the ad breaks is not news in a country fascinated by its health and wellbeing but the percentage of time the adverts spend on disclaimers rather than on the product itself is worthy of comment. 

Nothing speaks more powerfully to the litigious culture of this country that after the mere mention of a product and its intended benefits prompts a long list of possible side effects and the inevitable advice to speak with your physician if you have any doubts. Don’t blame me if it doesn’t work or you die after taking the pills is clearly the message. Lawyers 1, General Public 0.

The spectre of being sued hangs over so much here; hence why the pilot leaves the seatbelt signs on much longer than anywhere else I have flown or the detail given on menus for what you might or might not find in your food. 

That said, it is great to be here, in, or at least above, the land of the free. I now can’t wait for this plane to land (or at least to stop moving around!) so we can enjoy the rest of our trip.