Saturday, 29 December 2012

Victim-blaming ends now

There is no joy to be had here, a light in the world has gone out, a young woman has died senselessly from horrific injuries after being gang-raped and thrown from a moving bus. Six men have now been charged with her murder.

Can we now please quit victim-blaming? When it comes to rape, victims are routinely blamed in a way that doesn't happen with other crimes. When a young woman cannot catch a bus and stay safe, it is time to stop banging on about rapists in dark alleys pouncing on women who had the temerity to walk home alone, wear a short skirt, wear heels, drink alcohol or are somehow "asking for it." Only nobody "asks for it."

Rape can indeed happen in dark alleys or to women in short skirts or heels or to drunk women. Just as it can happen in relationships, at home, among friends, while sober, while sleeping, while wearing a burkha. And it happens every day in every country.

In India, the daily sexual harassment experienced by too many women is referred to as "Eve teasing". This is a stupid euphemism, it makes it sound almost playful when it is inexcusable bullshit. Indian women have had enough. Their voices are getting louder and they are finally being heard. It should not have taken the needless death of a young woman for this to happen.

Yes, I know men get raped too. And men who have been raped need to be able to come forward and report the crime just as women should be able to do so.

So instead of blaming rape victims of either sex, the onus needs to be put firmly back on the rapists. There is an advertising campaign here in Britain with the message that without consent, it's an act of rape. My husband shook his head as he saw the advert, stunned that men (and, yes, rapists are usually men, let's not ignore crime stats), need to be told not to rape.

I am lucky to be married to this man. But being married to a man who respects women shouldn't be a matter of luck. Just as being able to catch a bus without being gang-raped shouldn't be a matter of good fortune. It should be normal. For everyone everywhere.

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Tuesday, 18 December 2012

It's that time of the week again! It's the world of stupid!

This is a gun-free World of Stupid this week. I need a break, my head is going to explode. Instead, here are some other examples of idiocy that demand exposure. I warn you. It's not an entirely light-hearted rant this week. There is predictable political stupidity, religious stupidity and stupidity from the judiciary that is either rank or completely repulsive.

1. Britain's bid for marriage equality has officially jumped the shark. Culture Secretary/Equalities Minister  Maria Miller was doing surprisingly well with it all until she announced a "quadruple lock" making it illegal for any Church of England vicar to conduct a same-sex marriage. Except that some vicars would very much like to be able to do this and they are bit peeved that they were never asked. And now the Muslim Council of Britain has demanded that the government make it illegal for them to conduct same-sex marriages as well. Never mind that they are already allowed to discriminate against gay couples in that way already - and they would still be allowed to do so after marriage equality becomes law here. "PASS A LAW FOR US TO NOT BE ABLE TO DO SOMETHING WE ALREADY REFUSE TO DO!"

2. Maria Miller's shark-jumping went beyond her club-footed handling of marriage equality and extended into her expenses when The Telegraph revealed she had claimed £90,000 in expenses for a second home in which her parents live. If only we could all be so well rewarded via the taxpayer for looking after elderly parents... And then, according to The Telegraph, Joanna Hindley, one of Miller's special advisers, warned the paper to consider Miller's role in deciding the future of press regulation before running such a story. Naturally, the government is denying any wrongdoing and it was maybe a little convenient for the right-leaning Telegraph to run this story on the same day as the marriage equality story was breaking, but the stench around it all is not just stupid, it's ominous.

3. Geoffrey Clark, who was running as a UKIP candidate for election to Gravesham Council announced a pretty appalling policy in his manifesto, which we can only assume was seen by other party members before it was printed. Under the section on NHS policy, Clark puts under "items for review": "compulsory abortion when the foetus is detected as having Downs, Spina Bifida or similar syndrome which, if it is born, could render the child a burden on the state as well as on the family."

Just so we're clear here, this is not what prochoice is about - compulsory abortion is not choice. It would be amazing if prolife and prochoice voices could actually come together on this one and condemn this policy equally loudly.

On the upside, it may make the head of many a Daily Mail commentator spin uncontrollably as they try to reconcile their hatred of all abortions with their constant threats at the bottom of every story to join UKIP.

An update on this story: UKIP say they have suspended Geoffrey Clarke from the party, he will be running for election to Gravesham Council as an independent. A UKIP mouthpiece claims they were not aware of his views. Yes. And I am Dolly Parton.

4. A woman in Australia has won her bid for compensation following injuries she sustained while having vigorous sex in a motel room while on a business trip. This court decision sets a fairly stupid precedent. A light fitting came away during the act and she suffered facial injuries and then depression - and then she couldn't do her job anymore. Now, I'm sorry, and I am certainly not one to dismiss mental illness, but a cheeky shag in a Nowra hotel room is not part of anyone's job. Well, unless you're working in legalised prostitution, as is the case in the Australian state where Nowra is. The woman in question was a federal government employee so I am going to go out on a limb and suggest the sex was not work-related.

Eating, sleeping, showering, going to the loo, reading boring conference papers - these are the sorts of things you have to do when you're in a motel on a business trip. If you suffer an injury during these activities, then, yes, employers should compensate away. The sex bit is entirely optional. It would have made more sense to sue the motel for the dodgy light fitting. Or simply get your face attended to at the nearest A&E and have a laugh about it at the pub by Friday night.

5. And speaking of stupid precedents, it appears Lord Turnbull, a judge in Scotland, does not understand why Britain has age-of-consent laws. This week, 22-year-old Steven Pollock walked away from Edinburgh's High Court with just a community service order and the stipulation that he attend a sex offenders' programme - for the rape of a 13-year-old girl. Who was drunk. In fact, in Lord Turnbull and the prosecutor's world, the offence wasn't even a rape at all - the charge was downgraded to "sex with a minor".

Lord Turnbull said out loud in the courtroom where other people could hear him: "It is important to understand that the offence rises out of consensual conduct rather than any form of force, grooming or manipulation."

Oh boy, here we go again. We're bound to have morons come out of the woodwork to say that 13-year-old girls "these days" all wear high heels and make-up and have the temerity to reach puberty earlier. As if every 13-year-old girl is a sex-hungry vixen dressed like a truckstop lapdancer. And even if a 13-year-old is dressed "inappropriately"/is not wearing a burkha/put a saucy dab of Carmex on her chapped lips/grew breasts, that is not an invitation for rape. The age of consent is a sane line in the sand - it is the age at which most reasonable people are mature enough to decide if they want to have sex or not.

There has been a media campaign in Britain to hammer home the point that if someone of either sex is drunk, they're not well placed to consent to sex and it is best to either help them get home safely or find somewhere for them to sleep it off. But in the world of Lord Turnbull, this basic level of respect does not apply to 13-year-old girls.

Bloody hell. After all this week's stupid, my head is going to explode anyway...

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A conversation I had at the bus stop today

As I waited at the bus stop wondering where the hell the 293 was, an old man sat next to me. At that moment, a group of about 40 schoolchildren and their teachers walked past us. The kids were laughing, happy, well-behaved. The teachers seemed to be enjoying their job. Some of the kids smiled and waved at us and said hello.

Then the old man spoke.

"I can't imagine why anybody would want to kill children. Imagine that, if someone came out now with a gun and shot 20 of them. I just don't understand. America needs to change its attitude to guns, the whole culture is wrong."

So said a man who knows a thing or two about guns. He told me he was called up to fight in WWII, starting his military career in Ireland and Scotland before ending up in Italy. He was away from friends and family from 1939 until 1946. I told him how my late grandfather in Australia fought in Papua New Guinea before ending up in Japan, helping rebuild Nagasaki after the atomic bombs was dropped. When he returned to Australia in 1947, he was an avowed pacifist who never picked up a gun again and refused to have one on his farm.

"My grandfather told me: 'War is just old men sending young men to die.'" I told the old man. He nodded in agreement.

The 293 finally arrived. We got on the bus together and I sat beside him. He told me he had three children, five grandchildren and "six-and-a-half" great-grandchildren.

"I am so glad none of my children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren have ever had to go to war," he said.

And we agreed that we were glad to live in a country where people don't feel the need to be armed to prevent government tyranny. And a country where a group of laughing schoolchildren can walk down the street with their unarmed teachers without a care in the world. That's a microcosm of a world to which we can all aspire.


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Sunday, 16 December 2012

Gun control, law reform and other stuff people don't want to talk about

First, can certain loud voices from the left and the right please quit being naive. The horrific shooting at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, was always going to be politicised, just as the death of Savita Halappanavar has been politicised in Ireland. This is what happens when something truly dreadful happens and people want answers, want to make sense of it, want to prevent it from happening again, and they hope the government might be able to do something about it.

Second, it probably comes as no shock to anyone who has ever read my blog or followed me on Twitter that I do support sane gun law reform on a worldwide scale. Background checks, cooling-off periods, regulations about gun storage, compulsory gun safety training, meticulous record-keeping as to who has licences - these are all important when it comes to buying something as potentially destructive as a gun.

Yes, I know criminals tend to be pretty good at getting their hands on guns, regardless of any laws, and laws are only as good as their enforceability, but laws are also a way of making it clear what a country stands for. When I lived in the United Arab Emirates, for example, pretty much expat I knew routinely ignored the law that bans premarital sex - it is a law that is almost impossible to enforce unless someone falls pregnant or is stupid enough to copulate in public. But it is a law that is most likely supported by many Emiratis and it does reflect the values that inform the UAE legal system.

When it comes to enforceability, there was an interesting tweet from the account @brento76 - "You know what would be neat? How about enforcing the gun laws that are already on the books?" Brent is a man with some very different political opinions to my own but I agree that is important to examine existing gun laws and see how each state can do better when it comes to enforcement.

Equally, laws that require a reasonable approach to gun ownership won't stop all gun violence overnight, but they do send a message to the community and to the wider world that gun ownership, regardless of where you stand on it as a right, is something that should be taken seriously.

Since the Newtown shooting, straw men have been popping up like idiotic scarecrows. One of the obvious ones is the oft-repeated cry that Barack Obama is going to take everyone's guns away - or Obama is somehow to blame for the shooting. Anyone who simultaneously spouts these arguments and supports states' rights is a moron who is trying to have it both ways. This straw man argument conveniently ignores the fact that gun laws vary from state to state in the US and it would take a bipartisan effort of Herculean proportions for Obama to ever get all 50 states to agree on unified national gun laws.

After the Port Arthur shooting in Australia, where Martin Bryant shot 35 people dead in 1996, the Prime Minister at the time, John Howard, a conservative if ever there was one, managed to get cooperation across the whole country. Gun laws were tightened on a nationwide basis, across six states and two territories - and there has not been a mass shooting in Australia since. Sporting shooters are still able to shoot stuff, feral pigs, rabbits and foxes, which are not native to Australia and destroy farms and wildlife, are still regularly shot, and Australia still culls kangaroos when they become more pest and less national symbol. The Australian equivalent of the NRA, the Shooters Party, is seen as a fringe organisation rather than one that has any real power over national agenda-setting. (That said, the party managed to get an amendment  through in the state of New South Wales in 2008 allowing unlicensed shooters with no police or mental health checks to join gun clubs.)

And herein lies a big difference between Australia and the US - there are massive cultural differences between the two countries when it comes to attitudes towards gun ownership. And cultural change is hard and can take generations to achieve.

Similarly, the "but everyone in Switzerland has a gun by law and they have a low rate of gun violence" is another straw man that pops up after every horrific shooting in the US. Switzerland has 6.4 firearms-related deaths per 100,000 people each year, which is indeed lower than the 10.27 of the US, but still higher than many other countries in the developed world. Having been to both Switzerland and the US, it is obvious that they are culturally very different places, with Switzerland being a very regulated, ordered, obedient society. Switzerland is not really a libertarian gun-lover's paradise. On my last two visits to the US (Detroit and Los Angeles), someone was shot dead outside my hotel. This didn't happen last time I went to Switzerland. But I digress...

Plenty of gun advocates doggedly claim that the US needs Swiss-style gun laws, which is fine provided they fully understand Swiss gun laws. Adult men in Switzerland are issued with a gun (as opposed to buying as many guns as they want from Walmart...) and they are required to undergo militia training. Permits to carry guns in public are restricted in Switzerland and usually only issued to people working in professions such as security. But these crucial elements of Swiss gun legislation, along with cultural differences, are often ignored by the kind of people who simultaneously cite the Swiss example and claim that if they were in the cinema in Aurora, Colorado, they would have saved the day with their concealed weapon. That'd be the concealed weapon they might not have permission to carry in Switzerland. Adding another gun to a darkened cinema where everyone is panicking doesn't necessarily strike me as helpful, but try telling that to the armchair heroes out there.

The other elephant in the room is the link between gun violence, poverty and low education levels - this means a rather affluent, educated state like Vermont (and indeed Switzerland...) has fairly relaxed gun laws and has a low rate of gun violence. Sometimes the stats don't pan out so well for the left or the right. And like cultural change, fighting poverty and improving educational standards are hard, but they are important priorities for any government serious about reducing violent crime, including that which involves firearms.

In the meantime, the disgracefully ignorant Westboro Baptist Church is saying the shooting happened because the state of Connecticut legalised same-sex marriage, here in Britain some despicable idiot from the English Defence League said the shooting was OK if the kids were "filthy leftists", single parent families are being blamed, video games are being blamed and much praying appears to be going on. It's the same old story after every mass shooting. We should all be tired of it - and we should all be angry.

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Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Tax: it's not all bad

I am delighted to report that Costa Coffee sales are up. The high street coffee chain has released figures showing that like-for-like sales at its coffee shops were up by 7.1% and total sales increased by 25.5% in the three months to November 29.

This is no coincidence given that Costa has demonstrated that it is paying its fair share of tax while Starbucks has been less than forthcoming and says it has not been making a profit in Britain, a curious claim for a company that is expanding. Despite the Starbucks near my office appearing to be no less busy since news of their tax shenanigans broke, it would appear that overall, British consumers are happy to support businesses who, like them, pay tax in a responsible manner.

Yes, I know Starbucks is a business, not a charity, and I know they have minimised their tax liabilities legally. But just because something is legal, it doesn't mean that it is right. The government has a duty to close loopholes so that multinationals contribute properly to Britain, to play its part in ensuring its staff and their families can access important things such as healthcare, transport and education.

Instead, Starbucks has been allowed to negotiate a new tax bill with the government. Nice work if you can get it. I might give George Osborne a call and see if I can pay a little less tax next year, which brings me to the point that, yes, most of us would pay less tax if we could. But most of us are not Starbucks and most of us cannot afford the kind of accountants and taxation lawyers who are very good at helping clients stick to the letter of the law even if they violate the spirit of it. Most of us are not managing our affairs Jimmy Carr-style and accepting cash-in-hand for a babysitting job as a teenager is about as dodgy as a lot of us ever get.

But without tax revenue, we lose out on the basics such as healthcare, education, infrastructure, transport and law and order. And we miss out on things that aren't essential to survival but important culturally, such as free museums, galleries and, yes, even the BBC. We can whine all we like about the things we deem to be a waste of taxpayers' hard-earned money and argue over whether our taxes should go to the royal family, wars we disagree with, MP allowances, the welfare bill and so on and so forth. It is important to monitor where our tax quids go and to call out government when they piss it up the wall.

However, the one thing I learnt from living for five years in a tax haven is that with taxes come rights. Obviously, basic human rights should not depend on how much you pay in tax, but when you do have a financial stake in the country where you choose to live, it is easier to complain when you feel your rights have been violated and it's much easier to hold the government to account.

As an example, when I lived in the United Arab Emirates, I received a completely absurd parking ticket from a police officer at Dubai Airport. I was looking for somewhere to stop briefly in the busy drop-off zone and a police officer caught my eye and pointed to a space by the footpath, directly behind another car. I smiled, waved and thanked him as I got out to help unload my visitors' suitcases and he started to write me out a ticket and demanded my driving licence. I asked him why I was getting booked, he refused to explain, he wrote me out a ticket in Arabic.

I admit I should have learnt more Arabic while I lived in the Middle East but in a country that claims to be constantly improving its justice system, it is not too much to expect an explanation for a mysterious parking ticket. Imagine if I was a tourist and that was the warm reception I received at the airport? I asked for his name, he pointed to some Arabic writing on the ticket and told me: "You're not in London anymore!" even though my licence, which he had confiscated, clearly said I was Australian.

A Lebanese friend translated the ticket for me - I'd been booked for "blocking the road" and he'd written that his name was simply "Mohammed" which wasn't really going to narrow it down in the Dubai constabulary. I had no choice but to pay the fine if I wanted to get my licence back from a police station drawer. I could forget any ideas about making an official complaint - I know it wouldn't get any further than maybe a phonecall or a turgid form to fill out. Even though I was working as a motoring journalist on a national newspaper at the time, I wouldn't have gotten too far with any plans to write an expose on bent traffic enforcement.

That parking ticket was my tipping point. As I drove off furiously, I burst into tears and told my husband I didn't want to live there anymore. And true to my word, I left not long after that incident. It is awful to feel so powerless over a damn parking ticket and to know that my rights for any kind of recourse where next to nil.

To say the UAE is tax-free is actually a myth - the government finds plenty of ways to get their hands in your pocket but they just don't call them taxes. Spurious traffic fines, road tolls, government-owned telephone companies, government-owned utilities companies, government-owned media... But without a line on your payslip each month telling you that you've made a contribution towards the running of the country and its facilities, it's hard to complain too hard about the government or get taken seriously if you open a can of whoop-ass on the authorities. Both locals and expats have landed themselves in hot water - as in prison - for doing just that.

As such, expats cannot send their kids to state schools, health insurance is compulsory in Abu Dhabi but at the whim of your employer in other emirates (I had two jobs in Dubai - one where it barely covered cough mixture, and one where they didn't offer any health insurance at all, and a job in Abu Dhabi where coverage was excellent - it's a crapshoot...) and if you want that gaping hole in the footpath fixed outside your flat, you can try asking the municipality to do so but you're not paying council tax, so why would they hurry?

Paying taxes provides us with all manner of things essential to a healthy, functional society. We don't always agree with the way our taxes are spent and we don't always agree with the way it is collected. Few of us are delighted that Starbucks can simply promise to £20 million in tax over the next two years and it'll all be fine.

But it's not the principle of paying tax that needs to be challenged. Instead, we must challenge how the government collects tax and hold them to account to spend it wisely. And we can do that by voting with our wallets to boycott the likes of Starbucks, as well as exercising freedom of speech to criticise the government without fear of prison.

(Meanwhile, here are some further sensible suggestions for UK tax reform from @christophersaul who is an British expat based in Dubai and willing to actually contribute to the UK coffers)

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Monday, 10 December 2012

Hold on to your hats and mittens! It's this week's world of stupid!

We've reached critical mass with the commentary on the royal prank call and tragic death of Jacintha Saldanha. I'm not sure what the DJs could have said in their banal interview on Australian TV to make it any better apart from: "We are very sorry, this casts a shadow over the rest of our lives, and we hereby announce that we are going to quit radio and devote our time to volunteering for a suicide prevention charity."

And the whole sorry saga has created a distraction from other stupidity that deserves to be exposed. As such, here are some other examples of idiocy that simply cannot be tolerated.

1. George Osborne's Autumn Statement: Nobody expected it to be a kind-hearted budget - and it wasn't. But the mirth from the government's front bench, Nick Clegg's ongoing political impotence and the mocking of Ed Balls' stammer were all completely unnecessary.

2. Nadine Dorries happened yet again: This time, she is on board the WAHHHHHHH-mbulance because she says that asking about how much she was paid for her time on I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here is sexist. Except it's not. It's a valid question. And Nadine crying sexism, when she supports gender-segregated, abstinence-based sex education, is beyond parody.

3. Virgin Mobile US thought it'd be hilarious to declare that "a necklace or chloroform" could be a festive surprise for the woman in your life in their Christmas promotion. Still, the outcry ensures people are talking about the brand and they probably didn't lose a single customer as a result.

4. Also in America, a group of self-professed "riflemen and patriots" are setting up The Citadel, a walled community with one point of entry. They are hoping that up to 5,000 households will settle there, the kind of people "who wish to live without neighbors who are Liberals and Establishment political idealogues." Bizarrely, they seem to have nabbed a picture of a British castle for their website. That would be Britain where most of us go about our business unarmed and have a much lower rate of gun crime...

5. In the name of work, I have been in Qatar for COP18, the annual United Nations climate change conference. The air conditioning at the supposedly "carbon neutral" conference was turned up so cold that people were wearing winter clothes indoors. The irony appeared to be lost on the organisers.

6. David Davies is scaremongering over marriage equality in the UK - we already know that churches won't be forced to perform same-sex marriages in much the same way that certain churches refuse to let divorcees or people who aren't regular parishioners get hitched on their premises. Nobody will lose any religious freedoms by giving freedoms to gay people.

Then Davies travelled one stop further on the Idiot Bus, saying: "I think most parents would prefer their children not to be gay, knowing most parents want grandchildren if nothing else." Newsflash, Dave: Gay people are already parents in Britain, even without full marriage equality and they are raising what are commonly known as "children". Not gay children. Just children. Who may or not be gay. In much the same way that heterosexual parents may be parents to gay children.

He is also concerned that legalising marriage will change the way sex education is taught in British schools. Another newsflash, Dave: Sex education is not the same as marriage education and homosexuality is already discussed in British schools.

7. Irish musical berk Brian McFadden showed a lack of understanding about the complexities of domestic violence with a moronic tweet describing women who stayed in abusive relationships as "pathetic". He then tried to explain the tweet by adding another idiotic tweet to the mix: "It's just one of my friends is in that situation and it made me angry."

Wow, Brian. I'm sure your friend is delighted to know that you think she's pathetic. That'll help her situation no end.

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Sunday, 9 December 2012

Prank calls, pregnancy and popular hypocrisy

Very few people were completely po-faced after hearing the prank call from Australian radio station 2Day FM to King Edward VII Hospital, where the Duchess of Cambridge was being treated for acute morning sickness. Prank calls are juvenile and frequently about as funny as burning orphans, but after it happened, there was plenty of chatter, largely along the lines of: "Well, it was an idiotic thing to do, but how lame was her impersonation of the Queen? And seriously, how stupid would someone have to be to fall for it? Hahahaha!"

Now that the nurse who answered the call and put it through to another nurse has committed suicide and a dreadful blame game is being publicly played, most of us are not laughing quite as hard. Nobody with any compassion would think that a silly mistake, even one as public as a prank call that went viral, should lead to one of the people involved paying the ultimate price.

But this awful situation has exposed awful hypocrisy on a global scale. Newspapers that we know have been involved in phone hacking are now coming over all self-righteous. These are the same newspapers that have employed staff who previously had no issue with hacking phones to get the kind of information that 2Day FM obtained in a prank call. These are the same newspapers who couldn't wait for the presses to roll after the story broke about the tapped phone conversation between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles, featuring the infamous tampon remark. These are the same newspapers that have been obsessed with the Duchess of  Cambridge's uterus from the day she got married.

The cognitive dissonance required to simultaneously be horrified by Jacintha Saldanha's suicide and to continue to pry into the gynaecological business of the Duchess as well as other famous women is astounding.

The Guardian, meanwhile, as the chief cheerleader for the Leveson Inquiry, is also suitably dour about it all but not necessarily any less hypocritical. When the Leveson Inquiry was in full swing, The Guardian was the go-to paper for live updates as the testimonies took place. Except that on the one lonely day that the inquiry devoted itself to the portrayal of women in the media, The Guardian didn't bother with a live blog and coverage the next day was scant. It was the one day of the inquiry where the issues surrounding the news values of women's bodies were under the microscope and The Guardian was strangely silent.

But no amount of pontificating by Lord Justice Leveson or regulation of the press can shoot down the big elephant in the room - why we are so concerned with the intimate details of celebrity pregnancy in the first place. As long as the news about any famous pregnancy is obtained legally, there's not much that Leveson could have put in his 2,000-page report to stop intensely personal matters being made public. While the British public has a right to know that the Duchess of Cambridge is pregnant with an heir to the throne, we don't have any right to know intimate details about said pregnancy.

Not even the power, privilege and money of the royal family could guarantee the Duchess's stay in hospital would remain private in this internet era. As such, the pregnancy was announced before the end of the first trimester, just in case someone was tacky enough to leak pictures or information to the wider world. Kate could not enjoy the luxury the rest of us have of keeping her pregnancy quiet until the 12-week mark was safely passed. It's easy to call "first world pains" on that but it is a sad reflection on where we are as a society voraciously hungry for information that is none of our business.

Tellingly, the information contained in the prank call was pretty much already in the public domain. But at the time of writing, on Sunday, December 9, 2012, we should have still been in blissful ignorance about it all.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Morning sickness: it's a right royal romp!

Just when I thought today could not become any more idiotic, I get a press release in my inbox with the headline: MORNING SICKNESS REMEDIES FIT FOR A QUEEN.

Yes, that's right, people. The PR people for herbal remedy shills, Dr Stuart's, saw fit to jump on the baby-and-barf bandwagon. Using the Duchess of Cambridge's trip to hospital for hyperemesis gravidarum as the hook for the sales pitch, the oh-so-perky press release tells us that a cup of herbal tea will see you right if you're pregnant and puking. A brew of Dr Stuart's Ginger and Lemongrass is all you need.

Never mind that the Duchess is suffering a form of morning sickness that is so awful that it has been known to kill pregnant women, especially in centuries gone by. Never mind that women have actually terminated pregnancies because they could not cope with this particularly horrendous nausea. Why, all they should have done was had a jolly cup of tea! Silly women!

I have precisely no idea why one Lauren Soar of Manc Frank PR saw fit to add my name to her media list or why she thought it was at all big or clever to use debilitating morning sickness that generally requires hospitalisation, medication and a drip to try and promote a herbal tea. Raising awareness of a particularly hideous form of morning sickness is one thing. Trying to sell tea at the same time is quite another.

Now, I am quite the fan of ginger tea for sorting out upset tummies and hangovers, but pregnant women everywhere who are suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum generally need something a tad stronger to get over the condition.

Stay classy, Lauren. You've gotta love a PR who peddles dodgy medicine and jumps on a bandwagon that is already out of control and taking up way too much time on the news cycle to make a few bucks for a client... 

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Royal womb watch - and the wombs that we really should be watching

We are living in an era of limited privacy, much of which we have brought upon ourselves with our assorted social media accounts and demand for information about things that are really none of our business. Such as the contents of the Duchess of Cambridge's uterus. The media feeding frenzy outside the hospital where she is being treated for hyperemesis gravidarum - acute morning sickness - has been predictable and repulsive.

Live blogs on newspaper websites and endless TV news coverage is erupting on a story that hasn't developed much in the past 24 hours. Today, we had a Sky News reporter offering us the non-news that William very quickly got out of a Range Rover and dashed into the hospital this morning wearing much the same outfit as he was wearing yesterday. Wow. Man wearing trousers and jumper gets out of a car and walks through a door. Groundbreaking.

But this is the level of banality we can expect until the baby is born, despite the fact that hyperemesis gravidarum is nobody's idea of fun and the Daily Mail running tripe like spooky computer-generated images of what the kid might look like is beyond absurd.

Even I, an avowed republican, wouldn't wish hyperemesis gravidarum on anyone. It is awful, it is debilitating, it is what killed Charlotte Bronte. But what I really wish is that every pregnant woman in Britain, and indeed the world, can access the same level of prenatal healthcare the Duchess is currently experiencing. Right now, St Helier hospital, the location of my nearest Accident and Emergency and maternity units, is under threat. A&E and maternity may yet be closed down in a warped attempt to save money. This is in spite of a rising birth rate in the area and a recent multi-million pound refurbishment to the maternity unit.

As such, you'll have to forgive me for not getting massively excited about the royal pregnancy announcement.  As I've said before, if they want privacy, they can simply renounce their claims to the throne and live as private citizens. If your response is: "Why should they do that? Why can't the media just leave them alone?", I agree, the wall-to-wall media coverage is an unnecessary invasion of privacy and bona fide news stories are missing out on valuable airtime. But if you've ever clicked on a link about the royal couple, you are part of the problem.

Besides, as British taxpayers, perhaps we do have a right to know about the prospect of another member that we will have to support. It is the equivalent of a pregnant woman being obliged to tell her employer that she is expecting.

Instead of getting excited about the royal pregnancy, it seems far saner for us to get excited about the pregnancies of our friends and family. The pregnant women and new mothers who are close to me have real lives, far removed from that of a Duchess. As such, they have to deal with issues such as maternity leave, which doctor and hospital to trust, budgeting for the new arrival, caring for children they may already have and what they can expect by giving birth under the NHS system.

The Duchess can "scale back her engagements" for the foreseeable future in a way that pregnant women who have to work for a living cannot. Chances are, with the best of British healthcare at her disposal, the royal foetus will be fine. It's the pregnant women around the world who may not be fine that truly deserve our attention.


If you'd like to help pregnant women and new mothers around the world who are truly disadvantaged, I can highly recommend making a donation to help the amazing work done by MSF.

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Sunday, 2 December 2012

Leveson's toothless tiger

It's strange to be writing about the Leveson report from Qatar, a country that currently sits at a dismal 114 on the World Press Freedom Index, two rankings down from the United Arab Emirates, where I worked as a journalist for five years. The UK is currently ranked at a could-do-better 28. But at least I have the freedom to criticise the report, and the responses to the report without fear of ending up in a British prison. This is a stark contrast to Qatar where this week a poet has been sentenced to life imprisonment for criticising the Emir-led government.

I don't think Britain is on a track that will end up with similarly outrageous prison terms for things that should never be a crime anywhere in the world. And the Leveson report does not represent a move towards full government control of the media - but legislative change has been recommended to give an independent panel legal footing.

The report itself makes for some bizarre, and often wishy-washy, reading (he went way too easy on Jeremy Hunt for example. Cameron should be thrilled about that...). Despite ongoing controversies about people being arrested over stupid tweets and Facebook posts and David Cameron calling for a social media clampdown in the wake of last year's riots, the report only devotes a page to the internet. It is as if it was all too much for Lord Leveson to think too hard about the implications of this newfangled internet on a free press and freedom of speech. Indeed, he seems to be harking back to the original definition of a free press, which was literally the freedom to use printing presses. How quaint.

But what about phone hacking? Phone hacking is indeed an invasion of privacy and the Dowlers should never have gone through what they did when their daughter was missing. Equally, hacking celebrity phones for gossip about private lives is completely out of line. And phone hacking is illegal. If someone hacks a phone, there are already criminal sanctions available in courts of law to punish the perpetrators.

The Leveson inquiry testimonies exposed phone hacking as a practice that was largely used to collate celebrity gossip stories, the kind of stuff that is simply not in the public interest and serves the greater good in no way at all. But what if a phone hack revealed government corruption or exposed a terrorism plot? Should a public interest test be applied if such cases went to court?

All the celeb goss crap does is generate website clicks and copy sales. Should Hugh Grant's sex life be in the public interest, for example? No. He is an actor, he is a man with a penis, he is not a saint and he has never spoken out about the evils of fornication. What he gets up to in his personal life these days is his business. He did indeed break the law with the Divine Brown incident in LA, but that was a story that had an element of public interest and it was not obtained through hacking.

Tabloid journalism can be incredibly awful but in a free society with a free press and free market capitalism, they are businesses that are entitled to operate. It is also important to remember that even if a media outlet was run as a non-profit organisation, it still needs cover costs, such as ensuring staff are paid. While it is generally cheaper to run a website than a print or broadcast operation, it's a rare media outlet that can be successful, not pay anyone and not have to generate any revenue. As consumers of media, we have a responsibility to be educated consumers, to be aware that such media businesses may be beholden to advertisers and to read and watch smartly. Similarly, political bias is generally pretty obvious in newspapers, whether it is from the left or the right.

As consumers of media, we have the power to choose where we spend money on media. If you don't like the Daily Mail, don't buy it and don't give its website hits. And you have the right to do the same if you don't like the Guardian. There are plenty of good things being written by good journalists but they are not always commercially successful. Seek them out, spread the word, don't just rely on one newspaper or one news channel for all your information. You have choices. And you have the freedom to call out bad journalism through all manner of mediums - social media, letters to the editor, online comments, talkback radios, hell, start your own blog if you feel that strongly about it...

Then there is the issue of libel and defamation. In theory, you have the right to sue if you have been libelled or defamed by a media outlet. But the cost of litigation means that this has become a privilege for the wealthy. And this is where David Cameron's criticism of Leveson is hypocritical. Is he about to announce reforms whereby ordinary citizens could access legal aid if they wanted to pursue libel or defamation lawsuits but cannot afford to legal fees? Of course not. Is it in Cameron's interests to urge a private citizen who has been libelled or defamed in the Daily Mail? The constant and unbalanced exposure of "benefits scroungers" springs to mind, but would David Cameron make it easier for people on benefits to sue newspapers? Of course not.

And Cameron knows he cannot afford to lose the support of newspapers that have spoken out against the Leveson recommendations. But perhaps this is a time for newspapers to re-examine their support of politicians and parties. As an Australian, I have always been baffled about the way British papers will come out in public support of one political party or another at every election. How is that the role of a newspaper? Where is the balance or the independence?

As I write this from Qatar and reflect on the often frustrating realities my colleagues and I encountered while working in the UAE, 112 on the Press Freedom Index, I am very grateful that I can criticise without fear of getting arrested when I land back in London tomorrow night. I fully expect that I will not lose that right in post-Leveson Britain.

I had a very different experience in the years 2006 to 2011. Now that I no longer live and work in the UAE, I can now freely say that Hassan Fattah, the Editor-in-Chief at The National, where I worked in Abu Dhabi, told me to "tone down" an opinion piece about whether the seven sheikhs of the emirates had the will to cooperate to improve the nation's transport. And I can tell you about a story of mine that was spiked by Fattah. I worked on it in my own time and I planned to expose a man wanted by the Cypriot courts who was (and, as far as I know, still is...) hiding from the law in Dubai - but Fattah told me the story was "legally fraught." It is the kind of story that I would have no problem convincing an editor to run in Britain.

Instead, we used to get excited about pathetic victories, such as the time the section of the newspaper on which I worked got away with running a picture of a trophy featuring a naked man. It is probably the only time The National has ever run a picture of a penis. "Getting away with it" was something we'd do to feel like we had a small win over the system and for our own amusement.

I expect that Britain will not end up with a highly restricted and regulated media like that of the UAE or Qatar - and I expect that current laws regarding illegal activities of journalists be upheld so that the whole profession is not brought into disrepute. And I include tabloid journalists in the profession because not all tabloid journalists are hacking phones and tabloids have as much of a right to exist in a free society as the Guardian. Deal with it.

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Wednesday, 28 November 2012

And it's yet another world of stupid...

I might have to make World of Stupid a weekly feature on my blog for there is so much idiocy going on in the world that I can barely keep up with it all. Here are some recent highlights that deserve exposure...

1. Today a woman in Cambridge presented the Duke of Cambridge with a babygro. Never mind that as far as we know his wife isn't actually pregnant, some halfwit still thought that was an appropriate present to give to a childless man. Apart from the grotesque womb-watching this woman and countless other idiots across Britain are indulging in, what's truly moronic is giving such a present to the insanely wealthy. If anyone will be able to afford clothes for their future children it's Wills and Kate. There are so many more people in Britain more deserving of free baby clothes. Why not give them the damn babygro?

2. In America, there was much hysteria over the South Florida Planned Parenthood clinic offering $10 off a clinic visit (for whatever women's health-related reason...) and $5 off emergency birth control last Friday, known as Black Friday. According to assorted pearl clutchers, this was actually "discounted abortions". Except it's not. Nobody wandered in to the clinic on a whim to terminate a pregnancy as one might do if it was $10 off a cute pair of shoes. If you're going to slag off Planned Parenthood, at least try and be accurate.

3. Some idiotic parents named their newborn daughter Hashtag. I have no more words for this.

4. The UKIP candidate for the North Croydon by-election claims that gay couples shouldn't adopt children as this is an abuse of the child's human rights. He also claims gay couples might raise their kids to be gay. Because clearly that is how the gay happens. On the upside, he is fine with single people adopting but he has not specified whether he'd prefer single people to be heterosexual in order to adopt. Please, if you live in North Croydon, do not vote for this buffoon.

5. Chris Brown has mercifully left Twitter. But not before one last stream of intellectually bankrupt invective at a woman in which he expressed a desire to open his bowels and fart on her.

Ahem. And on that classy note, I must go and have some dinner...

UPDATE: And I've had dinner, caught a plane to Doha and experienced idiocy on a massive scale. The people who stand gormlessly on travellators as if they're on the world's shittest fairground ride are to be expected. But then there are the people who look astounded when they sit in someone else's seat and that someone appears and wants to sit in their seat. As happened to me last night. There was a sleeping child in my seat, next to her grandmother and her father who was meant to be sitting seven rows away.

As my seat was in the midst of a feral family group, I moved to the father's original seat - an aisle seat, when I prefer a window seat, but it was away from the rabble. Sadly, the seat was next to a fidgety woman with a weak bladder so every time I almost got to sleep, I'd be woken up so she could go to the loo.

In the meantime, my toe, which I'd stubbed at home before going to the airport, swelled up and turned black. Oh, and a moronic mother felt that the bit of aisle right beside my goddamn seat would be a great place to hang out with her child (who was actually very cute but at that moment became the demon groin trophy of Lucifer...). That wouldn't have been so bad if (a) I didn't want to sleep for the whole flight and (b) she didn't think that moment was the best time to teach her kid the bloody annoying Heads and Shoulders, Knees and Toes song. They got my best withering stare.

As a result, I got about three minutes sleep, spent most of this morning in Doha flitting between medical centres to get my foot X-rayed and diagnosed while haemorrhaging cash (but was grateful I wasn't in the same position in America without insurance). It turns out my black toe isn't broken but it is badly bruised and sprained so I am currently on my friend Rachel's sofa with an elevated, ice-packed foot. Hopefully, I will be able to walk on it tomorrow when I have work to do and people to meet - although I did make a grand entrance at the airport in Doha this morning in a wheelchair on the back of one of those little trucks that loads the food onto the plane.

The anti-inflammatory is making me feel a little odd so I probably shouldn't add wine to the mix lest I morph into Liza Minnelli...

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Getting people to work just isn't working

Are you still labouring under the misapprehension that the UK government is at all serious about getting people off welfare and back to work? How do you feel about the pitiful results of the multi-million pound welfare-to-work programme? Just one in 28 unemployed people referred to this programme have found a job lasting at least six months.

There are 18 work programme contractors receiving taxpayer pounds to try and get people off welfare and into employment. Of these, 15 are private companies. One of these private companies, Ingeus, is a multinational founded by Therese Rein, wife of former Australian Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd and that particular contract is worth £727 million over five years. It's the biggest of the 18 contracts. Still, it's nice to see the British government is helping make people in the colonies rich, I suppose...

So are we getting value for money from Ingeus? You'd hope so at a cost to the taxpayer of £145.4 million per year. In the year ending in July 2012, Ingeus was referred almost 28,000 unemployed people in the north-east of England. Of those, 920 obtained sustained employment. A dismal 3.3% success rate. It has cost £157,826.09 per employed person or 6.47 times the average UK salary. Whichever way you crunch the numbers, it is a pathetic result.

A4e, costing us £438 million, is working in the south of England, an area that is generally more prosperous than the north-east. So you'd think they'd have better results than Ingeus. Nope. A4e managed to find 490 jobs for more than 17,650 unemployed people - an even more dismal success rate of 2.8%. They are the kind of performance figures that pretty much any private company would find unacceptable.

Meanwhile, the Employment Related Services Association (ERSA), representing the providers, unsurprisingly disputes these figures, claiming that the government should take into account figures up to September 2012 - ERSA claims 20% of the unemployed people referred have obtained long-term employment. I have had a dig around the ERSA website and I'm not sure how this figure was arrived at. Do they mean that across the nation, 20% of unemployed people have found work, without allowing for regional variations? Was there really some sort of massive improvement in the two months between July 2012 and September 2012?

There are further rubbery figures from the Department for Work and Pensions. The department seems keen to shift focus away from the epic cost to the taxpayer for very little result and instead claims that at least 56% of the scheme's earliest participants have come off benefits. Except that "coming off benefits" doesn't necessarily mean the same thing as "now gainfully employed". But don't hold your breath for any analysis of the 56% by the DWP. How many have lost their benefits but haven't found long-term work?

British taxpayers deserve to know why has the government shown such such flagrant disregard for public money by spending so much of it on programmes, mostly privately run, that are simply not working. The bigger issue is that there just aren't the job vacancies available in order to solve the unemployment crisis and this debacle has exposed the lack of vacancies and the lack of ideas this government has for creating new jobs.

All this absurd privatisation has achieved is job creation for private companies who are meant to help people find jobs that don't necessarily exist. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent and no new jobs have been created. Indeed, the money spent could have funded government jobs that have been cut. Or maintaining regional development agencies, such as One North East, another victim of this government's short-sighted cuts despite creating jobs and supporting business and industry.

It'd be Yes, Prime Minister hilarious if it wasn't so tragic and obscenely wasteful.

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Don't mess with Texas if you're opposed to birth control...

Texas, I've heard, is an interesting place. I'd like to check it out one day. One of my closest friends is a Texan and she is hilarious. I think I'd have fun there. What isn't fun is the notion of squeezing the entire world's population into Texas, all seven billion of us and counting.

But this is the bizarre argument of certain elements of the anti-choice brigade when they are opposing not just abortion but also access to birth control, particularly for women in developing countries who, quite frankly, might just want a few more choices in their reproductive lives. Yes, the good news is that we can all relax and breed merrily, regardless of our circumstances because agenda-ridden groups say we can all fit comfortably into Texas. This is according to the Population Research Institute, founded by Father Paul Marx, a Roman Catholic priest. No prizes for guessing his standpoint on birth control and abortion.

But as much as I disagree with most of his views, I accept he has the right to hold such views. Indeed, as a prochoice person, I agree that the forced abortions that happen in China as a result of the one-child policy are unacceptable. What is absurd, however, is using the "we all fit in Texas" analogy to argue that the world is not yet full and nobody needs birth control.

The PRI quotes the UN Population Database, which states that in 2010 there were 6,908,688,000 of us on Earth. They go on to say the landmass of Texas is 268,820 square miles so if that is divided up amongst everyone on the planet, we each get a seemingly generous 1,084.76 square feet per person. Hell, that's more space than I have in my whole house and I share that with one other person! Under this plan, I could have more space to myself and so could my husband! What's not to like?

How about the mind-numbing simplistic nature of this line of thought? I get that the Texan analogy is not meant to be taken literally. The PRI is not suggesting the entire world move to Texas and actually admits on the website that this hypothetical utopia would just be "one massive subdivision".

That's what makes the analogy seriously stupid - the 1,084.76 square feet we should each be enjoying doesn't take into account the space we take up when we are at work, when we are enjoying leisure time, when we go shopping and run errands, the roads and railways required to transport people to places aside from their homes, or the need for infrastructure, such as sewerage and drainage systems, water supplies and energy generation facilities or any sort of manufacturing industry or agriculture. Indeed, millions of people across the world do not enjoy basic education, nutrition or healthcare, never mind the work, shopping and leisure opportunities I mentioned. What the hell kind of economy is funding this hypothetical space that can fit seven billion-odd people?

The PRI's disclaimer is that Texas represents "a tiny proportion of inhabitable Earth." As such, seven billion of us can all fit quite comfortably on this planet. Except that land, wealth and food are not distributed fairly, vast swathes of beautiful natural landscapes are destroyed on a daily basis to make room for more people and for the infrastructure and industries needed to support everyone, as well as the industries that are pretty much created to make rich people even richer but don't necessarily benefit society as a whole.

For some additional idiocy, the PRI's analogy assumes that the average family has four people in it. Except that family sizes vary across the world - if anyone should be aware of that, it's an organisation that professes to research population. The rhetoric of PRI also ignores quality of life and places sheer quantity of life as being far more important in every circumstance.

If you are using this Texan analogy as an argument against letting women access birth control, you are oversimplifying a complex issue. Fighting poverty and ensuring our planet has a sustainable future will require long-term cooperation between multiple governments, it will require massive investment across the globe in healthcare and education, it will require entire nations to look at changing cultures of pollution and waste. And that's just for starters.

Giving women access to birth control and more reproductive choices won't solve the world's problems alone. But wanting to restrict access to birth control because apparently we can all fit in Texas is a moronic oversimplification and it harms women.

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Thursday, 22 November 2012

Politicians, perks and public transport

Nadine Dorries is whining again today. She says she was given permission to take four weeks off while Parliament was sitting, but admits she didn't disclose that she wanted the time off to go to Australia and appear on I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here. Now everybody is picking on her. Boo and also hoo. But there is an element of hypocrisy - no Member of Parliament should be allowed to take additional time off unless they are ill or there are genuine personal reasons for taking extra leave, such as bereavement. This is how it works for the rest of us. Why should MPs be any different?

And while we're at it, how about we make the working lives of MPs more like the working lives of the people they represent? Perhaps we should view Parliament as being like the London head office of a company that has branches across the whole nation. Below are a few pointers on how MPs can live like the rest of us, not make outrageous expense claims and maybe even save taxpayers some money. This is how it works for employees, especially in the private sector. Surely the Conservative Party cannot object to Parliament being run more like a private company...
  • If you live and work in London, you generally get public transport to work at your own expense. MPs who live in the Oyster card zone should do likewise. This is not at all unreasonable on a salary of £65,738.
  • If you work for a private company with a London head office but you're not based in London, your company will most likely reimburse you for travel expenses when you need to be in the capital for work. As such, MPs, apart from those not based on the mainland, should be able to claim train travel between their constituency and London, provided they travel by Standard Class.
  • However, if you do need to travel to London for work purposes in the private sector, you're probably not allowed to claim for the rent on a second residence in London. Chances are, you will be put up in a hotel and, in this age of austerity, it probably won't be the Dorchester. Instead of MPs having second homes in London, how about a few empty buildings get transformed into budget hotels for MPs? Surely all they need is a clean, comfortable room, a desk, a phone, wifi, and somewhere to shit, shower and sleep?

    The process could be put out to tender so that private companies, such as Premier Inn and Holiday Inn Express, can bid for the contract to develop the buildings and offer rooms to MPs at a guaranteed reasonable rate so the taxpayer is paying for the sort of rate a reliable corporate client would pay. What Tory could possibly object to such privatisation? When Parliament is not sitting, the hotels would be open to the public. This is London. The rooms will be booked. The hotels would create jobs during the construction phase as well as when they are operational.
  • MPs who are not based in London will receive an Oyster card for travelling around London and can only claim taxi fares if they have to attend late night Parliamentary sessions, which are rare.
  • No MP should be allowed to claim for maintenance and repairs on their constituency homes. Everyone else pays for their own home repairs. Why should MPs be any different? Seriously, they are no better than the "benefits scroungers" many of them claim are wasting the taxes of hardworking people.

    This is by no means an exhaustive list of ways that we can ensure MPs lead lives that are more like those of their constituents, but it's definitely a start. Any more suggestions are warmly welcomed. One of my favourite writers, Fleet Street Fox has explained how George Osborne lives in no way like anyone I know but can't seem to apply the same acumen to the economy.

    After all, if the current government is obsessed with cutting spending and reducing benefits, surely they can set an example? We're all in this together, aren't we? Aren't we? Hello? Tumbleweeds...
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Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Women bishops - or, as I like to call them, bishops...

A mosaic in Rome's St Praxedis church features the image of a woman. Beside her, it says "Theodora Episcopa" - this is a depiction of a woman who was also a bishop. The mosaic is from the ninth century. The ninth century. Yet in the 21st century, the General Synod of the Church of England has failed to allow woman who have already been ordained as priests to become bishops. The clergy voted overwhelmingly in favour but no majority was achieved among the laity  - there was more than 50% support but not the 138 out of 206 votes required for it to pass.

So it would appear the progress of the entire church is being held to ransom by a vocal, conservative minority. There was even a clause to allow parishes opposed to women bishops to be ministered to by a substitute male bishop if they really felt that owning a vagina was incompatible with episcopal leadership. Imagine a private company trying to impose such rules: "I'm sorry, Ms Jones, but while you are indeed a competent and fully trained accountant, the fact that you're a woman precludes you from being a partner in this firm. If, however, we do allow women to become partners sometime in the dim and distant future, we will give our clients the option of not dealing with you if they are opposed to women as partners in accountancy firms."

This has caused much outrage and the outrage is not restricted to observant Anglicans but it crosses over to people of other faiths and of no faith. And rightly so - the Anglican church is still the state religion of Britain and, as such, people should be allowed to question this and the actions of the church, regardless of their beliefs.

There is an openly atheist Deputy Prime Minister, an atheist Leader of the Opposition with Jewish heritage, and a Prime Minister who professes to be a Christian but seems to have bypassed the compassion bit, yet still a state religion remains. There is no compulsion to be Anglican or attend church, other religions are welcome here and anyone is free to be an atheist, yet still a state religion remains.

And with yesterday's vote against women bishops, it is now a state religion that breaks the anti-discrimination laws of the very country it purports to represent. Even the royal family, also compulsorily Anglican, has made a few strides towards progressiveness by allowing firstborn daughters to inherit the throne.

All this vote does is further alienate the church from the mainstream and makes calls for a proper separation of church and state in Britain more relevant. This, in turn, could lead to further examination of the role of religion in the royal family and whether it is right for the head of state to only ever represent a shrinking demographic in an increasingly diverse country.

It is a discussion that the whole country needs to be involved in and, given that the outrage over this bishop decision is widespread and crosses faith, political and gender boundaries, could this usher in a new era of political engagement in Britain? After the farce of the low turnout in the PCC elections and a culture whereby more people are more interested in voting for X Factor winners than parliamentary representatives, if this particular outrage gets people interested in matters more important than TV talent shows, that would actually be a good thing.*


* This e-petition is a good place to start your stepped-up political engagement in the wake of the General Synod's decision yesterday:

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Misunderstanding the monarchy

Yesterday's front page of the Evening Standard may as well have carried the headline: "SURVEY SHOCK: BRITISH PEOPLE FAIL TO UNDERSTAND HOW A MONARCHY WORKS".

According a Kings College London/Ipsos Mori survey (and surveys are always a fine source of nonsense and general bullshit), Prince William is currently the most popular member of the Royal family, followed by the Queen. No huge shock there given the hype around last year's wedding and this year's Jubilee. Next on the list came Prince Harry then the Duchess of Cambridge and poor old Prince Charles came in at number five.

Ipsos Mori director, Roger Mortimore, has extrapolated from the survey that: "A lot of people would like the idea of William succeeding straight away. He is young and good-looking and popular."

And here we go again with the familiar refrain from those desperate to keep the monarchy relevant: that it'd be just awesome if we skipped over Charles and let William take the throne when the Queen passes on. Except that's not how monarchies work. The whole point of a monarchy is that the next person in line will indeed inherit the throne, regardless of public opinion or suitability for the role.

Sure, the Royals have made a few attempts at modernisation over the years. The Queen started to pay tax, albeit in response to public pressure, and this year, she announced that if William and Kate's firstborn is a girl, she will still be allowed to inherit the throne. It's hardly a great stride for feminism or women's independence - Kate had to be confirmed into the Church of England before the wedding, if she was a divorcee, William would have been compelled to give up his claim to the throne to marry her, as per the Edward-and-Wallis marriage of 1937, and because her main role in life is now to produce and heir and a spare, the media is on a grotesque uterus watch.

Of course, if her Majesty is tired after 60 years of reigning and 65 years of marriage to Prince Phillip, she could always abdicate and pass the throne over to Charles now. Edward VII abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson, there was a scandal at the time involving plenty of slut-shaming of the highest order, but the world kept turning, his brother became the king, and we all got to enjoy The King's Speech. No real harm done.

Or is there? The other line monarchists like to spin is that the Royals are mere figureheads with no real political power. Except that Frank Gardner revealed that the Queen has indeed opined on why Abu Hamza was still in Britain rather than being deported to the US for trial. Her views on the matter echoed popular opinion but it was still an opinion expressed to people of influence by a woman who is meant to be above politics.

Plans for same-sex marriage legislation, meanwhile, were conspicuous by their absence from her speech for the opening of the current session of Parliament. Her speech is written by cabinet - were they worried that it was not an appropriate topic for the Queen's dulcet tones or were they trying to put marriage equality on the backburner for this session? Whatever the case, it is impossible not to politicise a speech written by politicians, regardless of who delivers it.

Then there was the revelation that Prince Charles had written 27 letters to Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister. In a massive failure for democracy and transparency, Attorney-General Dominic Grieve blocked the release of the reportedly frank letters despite three judges ruling that the release was in the public interest.

Moronically, Grieve blocked the release "because if he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne, he cannot easily recover it when he is king." He fails to appreciate that as taxpayers who fund the Royal family, we do have a right to know if Prince Charles is trying to use his position to influence policy. If Prince Charles wants to play a role in Britain's political life instead of being a politically neutral Royal, he needs to renounce his position and become a private citizen - then he is free to express his opinions in whatever way he sees fit or he can get himself on the electoral roll and run for office, if he wishes.

But it's easier for Prince Charles to influence policy on the sly with no accountability or transparency while living at the expense of the taxpayers. People of Britain, this is your future king. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!" is another glib catchcry of monarchists who try and convince us all that the Royal family is benign. But it is broke and it needs fixing very badly.

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Monday, 19 November 2012

Why International Men's Day needs a rethink

Every year on International Women's Day, some idiot feels the need to pipe up with: "But what about International Men's Day?" And the inevitable response is: "Every day is International Men's Day. Bugger off." Or words to that effect. It has become a tired refrain every time March 8 rolls around.

Then International Men's Day really did happen. It's today, in case you were wondering. And the inevitable response to this was: "But every day is International Men's Day. It must be so hard to have all that power and privilege. Boo hoo!"

And yes, it is superficially churlish of men to complain about power when they are still the majority in governments across the world, when they still comprise most of the CEO positions in companies globally, when they are making wars happen but don't seem to be doing a whole lot to make wars stop, and so on.

But across the world, men are more likely to be incarcerated, more likely to be victims of violent crime, with the exception of rape, and they are more likely to develop cancer and die of it. Add to the mix the extra disadvantages faced by many men from ethnic minorities and from impoverished backgrounds in developed and developing countries, and it is clear that there are issues on which men should be raising awareness without fear of being disparaged.

For example, this month is Movember, the annual fundraiser for prostate cancer research via the medium of men growing sponsored moustaches. It's a fun way to raise money and awareness about a disease that kills around 10,000 men in Britain annually. Anything that can be done to encourage men to go to the doctor, even if it involves the less-than-pleasant task that is a prostate examination, is a good thing. 

Equally, it is important to ensure boys and girls are all encouraged to embrace education in places such as Britain where it is easily accessible and to ensure access to education for all children is improved globally. Education is one of the best ways to stop the cycle of poverty for men and women and, as such, we need to strive for a world where everybody can go to school.

Then there is the importance of looking at the causes of crime - many of which can be related back to the lack of opportunities that occur as a result of poor education - and find practical ways to reduce crime and keep men out of prison. If men are more likely to be violent, we need to examine why this is so as well. This is not about pandering to men. This is about creating a good and safe society.

And I haven't even scratched the surface in the last few paragraphs as to why issues that impact heavily on men are important. But to call the day International Men's Day is a marketing failure. Instead of looking seriously at the issues that affect society as a whole, there is too much noise as to what the day should be called and whether the day has the right to exist. 

It's not as simple as declaring an International Men's Day. The issues are too many and too big for just one day, just as International Women's Day alone cannot hope to address the issues that are holding women back across the world. And when you look at the issues that both these international days are trying to deal with, it becomes abundantly clear that they are all human issues. And human issues require cooperation, intelligence, open dialogue and sanity from everyone.

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Wednesday, 14 November 2012

RIP Savita: A tragedy that was always going to be political

If you are 17 weeks pregnant and you present with serious back pain at a hospital in a developed country, a country with an excellent record for maternal care, you don't expect to leave the hospital in a coffin. But that is precisely what happened to 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar. 

The tragic story of Savita has broken today and there are assumptions being made left, right and centre as to whether an abortion might have saved her life. It is pointless for either prochoice or prolife people to complain that her death is being used as a political football. An embittered debate about Irish abortion law and the role of religion in Ireland were always going be to among the outcomes of this awful situation.

At the time of writing, this is the information we have available:

1. Savita presented at University Hospital, Galway, on Sunday, October 21, complaining of severe back pain.
2. Soon after she arrived at the hospital, it was determined that she was miscarrying.
3. It was determined that her 17-week-old foetus was not going to survive to full term but, despite Savita requesting an abortion, this request was refused because there was still a foetal heartbeat.
4. Savita's cervix was dilating and her uterus was leaking amniotic fluid. She spent at least three days in agony.
5. The foetus was finally removed once the heart stopped beating. 
6. Savita's husband, Praveen, claims they were told she could not have an abortion while the heart was still beating because: "This is a Catholic country." 
7. Ireland is not a "Catholic country." It has no official religion.
8. Savita was not given antibiotics until Tuesday, October 23.
9. By Saturday, October 27, Savita's heart, kidneys and liver failed.
10. Savita died of septicaemia in the early hours of Sunday, October 28.

We cannot be sure at this stage if Savita was suffering the initial back pain because of an infection or whether the infection occurred in hospital. But spending at least three days with a dilated cervix, leaking amniotic fluid, while in the throes of a miscarriage is certainly not conducive to remaining infection-free, that is certain. Based on the available information, Dr Jen Gunter*, an OB/GYN, tweeted this on Savita's case: "Infected uterus needs to be emptied. End of story." 

Savita's family - and the women of Ireland - now have to wait for the findings of three investigations. As well as the hospital's own investigation, the national government's Health Service Executive will conduct a parallel investigation, as is standard practice when a pregnant woman dies in hospital, and the Galway coroner has also planned a public inquest.

If the investigations find that a timely abortion may have saved Savita's life, there will doubtless be calls from prochoice groups for legislative changes in Ireland. But careful reading of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland reveals that even under the current restrictive abortion laws, Savita could have been entitled to an abortion as soon as it was apparent that her pregnancy was not viable. In 1983, the Eighth Amendment added the following paragraph to the constitution:

"The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right." 

So, based on that amendment, Savita's foetus did indeed have the right to life, but it was determined when she went to hospital that she was miscarrying and was not going to be able to carry the pregnancy to full term. The foetus was never going to become viable. Tragically, the "due regard to the equal right to life of the mother" part of the amendment does not appear to have been applied to Savita when hospital staff were making decisions. By telling her she could not have an abortion because Ireland is a "Catholic country", she got an invalid, non-medical excuse that completely ignored the country's constitution.** 

Given that Savita was married and had recently celebrated a baby shower for what was clearly a wanted pregnancy, it is outrageous to suggest that she took the decision to request an abortion lightly. On the upside, hardcore conservative prolifers can't posthumously slut-shame her because she conceived in circumstances of which they approve, but that's not going to be of any comfort to the loved ones Savita has left behind. 


A draft report into Savita's death says that by the time Savita presented at the hospital, it was too late to save the baby and that her infection was undiagnosed for three days. More here.


* More on this appalling case, with better medical knowledge than I possess, from Dr Jen Gunter:

** If you are in Ireland and want to take action in Ireland on abortion law, here is a useful link:

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