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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