Sunday, 22 December 2013

Jessica Sacco, Phil Robertson and the free speech-free market conundrum

This is what the First Amendment says:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Stunning words. Indeed, they are words that should be enshrined in a written constitution in Britain. This week, in light of the Phil Robertson-GQ magazine-Duck Dynasty outcry and the Jessica Sacco Twitterstorm, plenty of people have cried foul about Phil and Jessica both suffering a loss of the first amendment rights.

Except they haven't lost any such thing.

Phil Robertson made his astounding comments about gay people and black people in an interview with GQ magazine, an excellent piece of magazine journalism. It is entertaining, interesting and offers GQ readers an insight into someone they probably hitherto didn't know much about. Now we all know about it.

We also know that the network, A&E, has suspended Phil Robertson from the reality show in the wake of the outrage. This is not an example, as per the First Amendment, of Congress "abridging the freedom of speech." Congress rightly has not intervened. It could well be an example of A&E breaching Robertson's contract, however. I haven't seen his contract but I'd be very interested to see what sort of terms exist for suspension or, as A&E have described it, an "indefinite hiatus". If the suspension is a breach of contract, Phil is well within his rights to seek redress. If it's not in breach of contract, A&E have made a perfectly legal business decision in a free market economy.

You might find his views appalling. You have the right to express just how appalled you are at his views, just as he has the right to express his views. Congress cannot interfere with any of this.

A&E has made a business decision in suspending Robertson in the wake of the furore. The powers-that-be do not want the brand associated with views that many see as bigoted. Given that Duck Dynasty merchandise has sold out at Wal-Mart since the suspension, it would appear that many people are prepared to support Robertson through the power of shopping. And that is their choice, just as it is the choice to either boycott A&E in support of Robertson or watch everything A&E makes in support of the suspension. Or you can be indifferent to Duck Dynasty. Freedom of speech does not mean it is compulsory to listen to anything anyone has to say.

Will Duck Dynasty rating plummet? Will advertisers pull out in droves? A&E is a business. How this ultimately plays out may indeed depend on how loudly money talks. Let the free market decide...

And speaking of businesses, last time I checked IAC is also a business. This would be the business that employed PR executive Justine Sacco until the other day. She was fired after tweeting: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding, I'm white!".

Sacco was the very definition of blissful ignorance as she tweeted this just before a long flight from London to Cape Town. Upon landing, she discovered she was at the eye of a Twitterstorm and had thousands of new followers for all the wrong reasons. #HasJustineLandedYet started trending on Twitter and her tweets had been mercilessly combed by commentators from the left and the right.

It turned out that Sacco had tweeted a lame and unoriginal line about Brits having bad teeth, singled out a German man for having BO on a first class flight (no idea why his being German was relevant but hey-ho...), made a joke about having a sex dream featuring an autistic person, live-tweeted the worst service ever (if waiting a whole eight minutes for water is, in fact, the worst service ever) and generally offered a Twitter feed of much privilege.

The conservative website Twitchy was one of the first places to send the AIDS tweet viral as well as revealing while Sacco was mid-air that she is also prochoice. Twitchy misread American liberals by wondering out loud if her prochoice views meant she would be immune from being called out by the left for being racist. She was not immune from anyone. She probably broke the world record for Most Times A Single Twitter User Has Been Called Out For Unchecked Privilege.

It turns out Sacco is the daughter of a South African billionaire. She may lose her US work visa as a result of being fired but she probably won't end up on streets. Even so, it was a harsh lesson in how brutal the masses can be over an ill-judged tweet.

So was Justine Sacco trying to be funny? Probably. Several people have pointed out that if this came from Sarah Silverman or Seth McFarlane's Twitter feed, nobody would bat an eyelid. They're probably right. Unfortunately, Twitter lacks tone, even if one does put a cheeky exclamation mark at the end of a comment about AIDS in Africa. Sadly for Sacco, her tweet didn't come across as satire. It came across as ignorant and racist. Then again, nobody should require international fame as a comedian before attempting a joke on Twitter.

Sacco deserves kudos for an extensive apology in which she took responsibility for her actions instead of the usual excuses given in such circumstances: "I was hacked." "I was being ironic and nobody has a sense of humour anymore." or "I was tired/jetlagged and drunk/on meds at the time.".

Should IAC have fired her? Maybe not, but as someone who has dealt with PR companies and PR executives on a professional level for almost 20 years, I understand why she was. The best definition I have ever heard of the public relations profession is "reputation management." PRs love it when a client is doing great things but they have to pick up the pieces when the client does something scandalous. That is their business. That is how they make their money and, frequently, lots of it.

Like any business in the current world economy, IAC is probably terrified of losing business. IAC runs popular websites including OKCupid,, Vimeo, The Daily Beast and Tinder. And Sacco was a public relations executive for the company. Her job was to play her part in managing the reputations of global brands. On her now-deleted Twitter account, she proudly named her employer in her bio. She didn't even offer the usual (if obvious...) "opinions here my own" line. It came across for all intents and purposes that she was representing her employer with her Twitter account.

The Twitter mob certainly made it clear to IAC that there was widespread, possibly brand-damaging outrage. And that's the thing about Twitter - it isn't always kind or constructive or sensible but it has rapidly become a means of exercising free speech that is loved by people across the social and political spectrum. If someone wants to call out Justine Sacco for making a bad joke, that freedom must exist just as Sacco is free to make a bad joke. Free speech isn't always pretty but freedom is more important than prettiness.

And, quite rightly, Congress has not made any laws restricting Twitter, just as it has not intervened in either the Robertson or the Sacco scandals. But both A&E and IAC have made business decisions in the way they have dealt with these two very different people. And now it is up to the court of public opinion and the free market to see if the suspension and the sacking will pay off.


More reading...

Here is a piece from Padraig Reidy, senior writer at Index on Censorship about Sacco, Twitter and comedy.

And here is Camille Paglia's take on the Duck Dynasty story.

Photo courtesy of Anthony Quintano

Thursday, 19 December 2013

The FA, BA and a load of BS...

Negotiations between the Football Association (FA) and British Airways (BA) over flying the English football team to Brazil for next year's World Cup have broken down. As a result, BA will not be flying a plane-load of multimillionaires for free to Brazil to play in a tournament in which they will be lucky to get past the pool stage.

Good on BA.

A source told The Sun newspaper that it would cost BA up to £10 million to take a plane out of service for the exclusive use of the English team, reschedule timetables and reassign crews. The source said: "In return, BA gets no more than a photo of the back of a plane in a few newspapers. In brutal terms, it just doesn't make sense."

Last time I checked, BA was a business, not a charity. And it is certainly not a charity that is obliged to fly the English football team for free. It's not as if we are talking about a kids' football team holding cake stalls and raffles to fund train fares for a match in the next county. We are talking about a team of players where they could all afford to pay everyone's return first class airfares and barely notice the cash missing. And it's not as is the FA is short on cash either.

The source is dead right. It is not worth the expense and logistical nightmares for BA just for a few photos in a few newspapers. The FA can pay for their own shit.

Here's the thing. If anyone from the FA is seriously trying to tell BA that flying England will be great publicity, they are not living on this planet. Thanks to booking flights online, a lesser reliance on travel agents and frequent flyer cards that involve multiple airlines, the way customers book flights is completely different compared to decades gone by.

People are not necessarily loyal to the one airline anymore.When people jump online to book flights, it's a matter of weighing up factors such as price and convenient times rather than slavish devotion to a "national carrier" (which in the case of most countries is an airline that was privatised years ago). Nobody is going to book a BA flight because one of their planes appeared in a photo in a newspaper with the English football team and a couple of pretty cabin crew posing on the stairs.

Now the word on the street is that Virgin might fly the team to Brazil. I guess £10 million for Richard Branson to pose with the team and act all patriotic-like is cheaper for him than paying his fair share of tax. 

Monday, 9 December 2013

What is the point of a first lady?

Michelle Obama has been condemned for promoting healthy eating for kids, Laura Bush was criticised for not being enough of a feminist, Barbara Bush's weight was mocked, Nancy Reagan's lack of weight and astrologer habit was laughed at, Samantha Cameron and Michelle Obama's fashion choices are put under constant scrutiny, Hillary Clinton endured absurd scrutiny about the state of her marriage while Bill was in the White House, Justine Milliband can only be considered as a respectable potential Prime Minister's wife because she and Ed finally got legally married. And so on...

In short, first ladies everywhere are expected to be glamorous/kind-hearted/devoted to a worthy but not-too-political cause/supportive of their husbands even when their husbands are being dicks/faithful even when their husbands are not/well-groomed/never weirdly dressed/devoted mothers/assets to their husbands' campaigns.

It is ridiculous and it has got to stop. What if the wife of a president or prime minister decided to do nothing much? What if she decided not to bother with a pet cause? What if she just went about her business working for a living or being a stay-at-home mother or whatever she did to fill her days before her husband rose to power? What if she decided not to be a public figure? What if she didn't even turn up for cheesy photo opportunities on the campaign trail before he was elected?

These women are often high achievers in their own right but they are mostly famous because of who they married. The expectations put on these women is frequently ridiculous. People whine that they are "disappointed" with Michelle Obama as a first lady because she hasn't shaken things up enough. But if she did let loose with, say, a pro-choice campaign or whatever was stirring the bees in her bonnet, she'd still get slammed by others for being too political.

First ladies can't win.

Ugh. Even the term "first lady" implies an absurd ideal of femininity that few of us will ever reach.

But it is different for "first men". For starters, the term "first man" sounds ridiculous, like a made-up spot in a cricket team. We don't care what they wear. We don't expect them to support some fluffy charity. We don't see them on the covers of magazines. We seldom get their views on anything much.

The exception to the "first man" rule was Tim Mathieson, partner of former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. He had the temerity to not be legally married to Gillard and to work for a living as a hairdresser. As such, he was accused of being gay (because in Australia, clearly, being gay is the worst thing ever and it is obviously impossible for a heterosexual man to cut and colour hair...). And even then, he wasn't expected to take on a charity or do anything much beyond being a law-abiding citizen.

But Mathieson's treatment was an extension of the mindless sexism that plagued Gillard's ill-starred term as PM. Gillard didn't fit the traditional mould of a married politician. This seemed to confound people, the kind of people whose tiny minds are no doubt blown by the concept of gay people getting married. Whoa!

Yet in Iceland, the former Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, was openly lesbian. Life went on without her getting slammed down with a load of stupid homophobia. It would appear Icelanders have mastered the art of minding their own business when it comes to the sex lives of their leaders.

If only we could all mind our own damn business in Icelandic style.

Meanwhile, Angela Merkel's husband is not really known outside of Germany. I can't name him without resorting to Google, I don't know what he looks like, I don't know what he wears, I don't know what his views are on anything, and frankly, I don't care. Why should I? Why should anyone?

Sure, there probably are women out there who aspire to be the wife of a president or a prime minister. Whatever. If they are that sad and shallow, it is probably for the best that they are not aspiring to be presidents or prime ministers themselves. Instead, those whose husbands do rise to great heights will be expected to be decorative, an "asset to her husband's campaign", and to be a public figure, only not one that is too controversial or supports anything too radical or unladylike. It also helps if she is a "fashion icon", has photogenic children who never burp or fart in public and she is into something suitably feminine like interior design.

But this is part of a bigger pile of bullshit. This is the pile of bullshit that deems that leaders should be married, that unmarried leaders are somehow defective, that men, especially married men, are better leaders, that gay leaders are still a bit weird and controversial, and that wives of leaders cannot simply do their own thing. And as long as we keep feeding the pile of bullshit with daft expectations on first ladies, we will not get any closer to being represented by politicians that actually represent all of us. We will miss out on some great people ever being elected to powerful positions and we will continue to be the poorer for it.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Another guest blog post for MoronWatch,

I am just back from a trip to Australia - hence the radio silence in here - and it was great to be home again. But some alarming stuff is going on in Australian politics so I wrote a guest blog piece for MoronWatch. Click here to enjoy it/get all riled up/etc.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

In defence of Private Eye...

I am sharing this week's Private Eye cover because I can. Not because it is Private Eye's finest ever satire. It's not. I am sharing it because, despite an attempt yesterday by police officers to remove it from sale at a newsagent near the Old Bailey, this cover has been ruled by the Attorney-General to not be in contempt of court. Thus I am free to share this image without risking a prison term. This is a good thing.

Mr Justice Saunders, presiding over the trial of Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson, Stuart Kuttner, Clive Goodman, Cheryl Carter, Charlie Brooks and Mark Hanna, concurred with the Attorney General saying: "It's meant to be satire. You ignore it. It has no serious input and is not relevant to your considerations."

There are several charges faced by these seven people. Brooks is charged with illegally intercepting communications, conspiring with others to commit misconduct in public office, as is Coulson and Goodman; and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, along with Carter, Hanna and her husband, Charlie Brooks. Nobody is being charged with witchcraft so, at a very literal level, the cover is not in contempt of court. Kuttner is charged with illegally intercepting communications.

The judge also described the cover as being in "especially bad taste". But this is not a crime. Nor should it be. We could argue all day as to whether making a witch joke about a woman is misogynistic or about 400 years out of date, but that isn't what this is about.

This is about threats to press freedom in Britain.

What is alarming is that two police officers approached a newspaper vendor to inform him that the publication may be in contempt of court. It is heartening that the vendor knew the law and asked for a court order. Which obviously didn't exist.

Ironically, in the midst of calls for more press regulation, this trial is an excellent example of why we don't need more laws, regulations or Royal Charters interfering with the press. All the charges faced by these seven people are for crimes which already existed before anyone had heard of Leveson. And like Leveson devoting hardly any time to the internet in his lengthy report, the notion of two police officers trying to stop a vendor selling Private Eye near the courthouse despite this being the online age is rather laughable.

Just as many US states should probably look to enforcing existing gun laws properly instead of making more laws, it would behoove British lawmakers to look at existing laws that affect the media, see how effectively they are enforced, and make sure that justice isn't just for the super-rich before adding even more laws to the books. Instead, we have a new and stupid law in which a publication is still liable for the plaintiff's costs in a libel action even if the plaintiff loses and it is proven in a court of law that the publication told the truth. If that isn't a law designed to make the media fearful and to work in a constant state of trepidation, I don't know what is.

As Private Eye editor Ian Hislop himself said on a recent episode of Have I Got News For You, Britain does not have a "pretty press" but it does have a free press. Of course it can be argued that a press that is largely owned and run by capitalists is never going to be entirely free but I'd still prefer a press where market forces and self-regulation rule rather than government. Or Hugh Grant.

Self-regulation seems to be like Kryptonite to many of the left but it is intriguing that one of the best examples of self-regulation came from the Guardian group. The Guardian has, on one hand been a cheerleader for Leveson but on the other hand, it took full advantage of press freedom with the Edward Snowden stories. This is indeed a curious contradiction and the anti-Leveson Daily Mail slagging off the Guardian over this reeks of sour grapes over not getting the scoop. When its sister paper, the Observer ran a piece by Julie Burchill in defence of a piece by Suzanne Moore in which she was accused of transphobia, there was an outcry. The Observer decided to take the piece down.

If I was the editor, even though I thought it was a rather clumsy, unkind piece, I would have left it up and encouraged discussion. But it was decided that Burchill crossed several lines and, gauging the mood of the day, the Observer decided to act. The government didn't demand that they act. There was no need for the police to be called. Nobody was arrested. And a piece of writing that horrifed large swathes of the left was removed apologetically. A perfect example of self-regulation that the left cannot complain about.

And how about another example of self-regulation? In Australia, I worked at the now-defunct antipodean edition of FHM as the lone sub-editor. Not long before I started, another example of self-regulation happened. The mag's disaster-of-the-month spot had run without incident for a long time but when the monthly disaster was Hillsborough, complete with comedy captions on the photos, a relative of one of the victims saw the feature and complained loudly. Again, it was decided that a line had been crossed, the magazine's publisher publicly apologised and a substantial donation to a relevant charity was made.

As a result of that rather expensive incident, just in time for my colourful tenure at FHM, it was decided that on the serious stories (such as features on injured 9/11 firefighters, traumatised war veterans, the sort of stories Lose The Lads Mags campaigners don't realise make their way into some of the mags they'd like to ban...), we'd run straight captions rather than joking about stuff like limbless soldiers and save the funny captions for the rest of the mag. Again, the public mood was gauged, steps were taken to produce something that was at the time still very popular, there was no need for new laws or for the Australian government to intervene.  

Self-regulation can and does work. It goes in every media outlet across Britain on a daily basis as decisions are made and boundaries pushed out or pulled in. In light of this week's attempt to take Private Eye off sale, last week's cute kitten cover was rather prophetic.

 As Hislop said in the same episode of Have I Got News For You, you shouldn't ban publications such as the Daily Mail, if you don't like them, just don't buy them (or give the website the clicks for which it is so hungry).

Take some responsibility as a consumer of the media - seek out news sources that you find to be fair, balanced, that publish stories in the public interest, that offer perspectives you might not get in the mainstream media. If you are reading this, you clearly have access to the internet. Take a look at what's out there. Share it with your friends. Just as the press should be free, you are free to challenge what is said in the press and you are free to choose where you get your information from.

And if the biggest winner this week is Private Eye sales, that is good. In every edition, there are swathes of stories which should be on the front page of every paper in the country but only ever end up in Private Eye. Take a look. And have a read of this excellent piece by Nick Cohen. It might be your first step towards taking responsibility for your media consumption rather than calling for more laws.

Monday, 30 September 2013

G4S, BBC, police: All in it together?

So far, this is what we know about a BBC staff being prevented* from working on a balcony at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester yesterday...

1. There was a large protest about NHS cuts and privatisation - 50,000 people marching on the CPC - in Manchester.

2. It was a peaceful protest. Only two arrests were made.

3. BBC political correspondent Norman Smith did not film live coverage of the NHS demonstration from a balcony at the CPC venue.

4. According to Norman Smith's Twitter feed (@BBCNormanS), security staff had been told by police not to allow the BBC access to a balcony overlooking the protest, but no reason was given for this ban.

5. On the Greater Manchester Police Twitter feed (@gmpolice), it has been denied that police prevented the BBC from filming.

6. Whoever manages the police Twitter account did say that people were "prevented from entering plaza area outside venue reducing potential tensions between protestors & delegates".

Firstly, the balcony in question is private property in that it is part of the venue where the CPC is currently being held. But to say the CPC is a private event is a little absurd. A BBC reporter wanting to film here is not the same as demanding to film, say, a wedding at the same venue.

The CPC has been getting wall-to-wall coverage on the BBC Parliament TV channel, as did the Labour and Lib-Dem conferences. It is important in an open, functioning democracy that BBC, as well as all other news outlets, cover the party conferences. And it is important that people are free to protest at party conferences, regardless of their views. If a party conference is targeted by protestors, that should be covered and every assistance should be given to the media to properly cover it. If a balcony is a good vantage point for getting live footage of a protest, that should be made accessible to the media just as the CPC is open to cameras and reporters.

The NHS protest as well as the events of the conference are inextricably linked and need to be properly covered. Even if you would happily see the NHS disbanded tomorrow, it cannot be denied that 50,000 NHS-supporting people giving up part of their weekend to protest the party conference at which the Prime Minister and Health Secretary were both present is not newsworthy.

Norman Smith's Twitter feed raises more questions than it answers.

He tweeted: Also to be clear. I was stopped by security staff who said they had been told by police not to allow access. No reason was given  

Smith doesn't elaborate as to whether he challenged security staff. Nor does he say if he contacted Greater Manchester Police to ask why filming from the balcony was not permitted. All we have from the police is a tweet about other people being denied entry to other areas reduce "potential tensions between protestors and delegates".

Can anyone from the security company (G4S, by the way... Remember them? The company that did such an appalling job of London Olympic security that the army had to be called in...) or Greater Manchester Police elaborate as to what danger could have been caused by allowing filming to take place from a balcony? After all, a balcony would offer a safe, aerial shot of the protest. A bulky TV camera wouldn't be getting in the way of protestors from a balcony, would it? If filming took place from this particular vantage point, BBC staff would not be getting in the way of the police officers patrolling the protest either.

All in all, it sounds like it was a good place to film live events without obstructing either protestors trying to get a message across or police officers trying to do their jobs.

So, here are the questions that the public deserves to have answered. Our taxes pay for the police force and the BBC so accountability is crucial.

1. If nobody's personal safety was going to be compromised by BBC staff working from a balcony, what exactly was the problem?

2. Was there a problem with the BBC running live footage of the protest? Is it the live aspect of filming an event as unpredictable as a protest that caused consternation?

3. Was anyone from the Conservative Party passing on directives about how BBC journalists should do their jobs to members of the police force who then passed these directives on to a private security company?

4. Did the police force and G4S in their combined actions yesterday cross a line from simply ensuring people stayed safe to dictating how a media outlet does its job?

5. How strongly did Norman Smith protest when disallowed access to the balcony?

6. If Norman Smith proceeded to the balcony and carried on filming regardless, would he have risked being arrested?

I know I am not alone in wanting these questions answered. And if you still think this is a storm in a teacup, just remember how many important stories have been broken precisely because journalists showed some backbone and didn't bend to petty rules. A media populated by obedient people is not a media worth having.

* "Prevented" as far as we know from the journalist's Twitter feed. If he wasn't prevented from filming from the balcony, it is reasonable to gather that he would have filmed from the balcony and there would not be any questions that need to be answered about police and G4S interfering with journalists doing their jobs properly. 


Monday, 23 September 2013

10 reasons why I am maintaining the hospital rage

Back in May, I wrote about the threat to St Helier Hospital in my pocket of South West London. Under the "preferred option" cobbled together by a group under the Better Service, Better Value (BSBV) umbrella, we have the prospect of both St Helier and Epsom hospitals losing A&E and maternity units. St Helier would also lose its renal unit and paediatric intensive care and its hip fracture clinic, considered the best in the country by the National Hip Fracture Database, is also in danger because it is attached to the A&E unit.

Nobody with even a passing interest in the politics of the NHS would be surprised to know that this is all about money, in particular, saving money across a swathe of hospitals that serve an area of London where the population is both growing and ageing.

Since May, there has been a small victory. The consultation period was going to take place over the summer holidays, when people are often away and when consultations such as these are not meant to take place. This has been postponed until at least November. At this rate, it might just keep getting pushed further and further back until the next election rolls around and it may then become a moot point.

But this is not a time for complacency. It would be an anti-climax if it did become a moot point. However, the whole sorry process may not be abandoned and campaigners need to maintain the rage and keep up the pressure. Since May, the @Save_St_Helier Twitter feed has been very busy with challenging questions being asked of whoever manages the BSBV Twitter feed.

These 10 points are reasons why I am still angry as are so many people in my area.

1. BSBV claims that existing staff will be better deployed rather than either any investment in new staff or any job losses to save money (despite the whole process being about saving money). This may sound reasonable until you realise that it wouldn't matter if there was one gigantic hospital to serve the area or there was a little hospital on every street, the fact remains that there simply are not enough members of staff. The whole plan does nothing to address the issue of not enough junior doctors going into emergency medicine.

2. BSBV is extremely GP-heavy in its membership. While the rhetoric about more care in the community and a smaller number of A&Es again sounds laudable, one of the biggest issues is, quite simply, access to GPs. It is easy to bash GPs as lazy but when people have to wait a week for an appointment, it is obvious why many non-urgent cases end up overburdening A&E departments. We need more examination of innovative solutions such as group consultations for patients at risk of diabetes. This is working well at a GP clinic in Smethwick and it is this sort of creative thinking that prevents more cases of diabetes and reduces pressure on A&E departments.

3. If St Helier and Epsom lose A&E and maternity departments, the already-overburdened St Georges Hospital in Tooting will receive a massive multi-million pound upgrade. If you ever visit St Georges, you will find that parking is a nightmare and it is hard to see where the hospital can expand significantly without the compulsory acquisition of neighbouring homes. When asked how the cost of such a huge upgrade was arrived at, we were simply told "capital estimates". There has been no response to the question of whether these estimates were based on real quotations from architects or construction companies. We have been told that such massive work will "pay for itself in five years". We are still not sure if this is five years from now or five years from 2016, when St Helier and Epsom are slated to be downgraded under the preferred option, or five years from whenever construction might start at the already chaotic St Georges site.

On nine occasions in one 12-month period, St Georges had to divert ambulances to St Helier because it could not cope - BSBV is alarmingly calm about this and claims that the upgrade to St Georges will mean this won't be a problem if St Helier is A&E-free. I wish I knew where they keep their crystal ball.

And remember, the money needed to upgrade St Georges so it has any hope of coping with an increased flow of patients is taxpayers' money.

4. The plans to upgrade St Georges are made even more farcical by the fact that St Helier is in the midst of a massive upgrade. Already, £5 million has been spent on St Helier's A&E and £2 million on maternity and there is a big banner across the front of this Art Deco monolith proclaiming the hospital is in the midst of a £219 million upgrade. There have been no satisfactory answers as to what will become of this ongoing project if St Helier is downgraded. The giant banner really needs to come down with much fanfare as it is lulling local residents into a false sense of security about the hospital's future.

And remember again, the money already spent upgrading St Helier is taxpayers' money.

5. Mr Hassan Shehata is one of the best obstetricians in the country. He is the Joint Director of Women and Children's Services for the Epsom and St Helier NHS Trust. He has been instrumental in the creation of RCPG guidelines for maternal care. Yet he is being ignored by BSBV. This is probably because he has repeatedly and publicly stressed the urgency of getting women in labour to hospital quickly, especially when things go wrong. Here is a letter he wrote for the local paper about how in some cases, five minutes can be the difference between a good and bad outcome for some women. But if St Helier and Epsom lose their maternity units, women in labour, an event that can change for the worse very quickly, will have to travel for much longer than five extra minutes to get to a maternity unit.

Indeed, just last week a local woman gave birth in the car park of Epsom Hospital where she was then fortunate to be taken in to receive excellent medical care by that hospital's maternity unit. BSBV have not responded to my question as to whether she would have had the same outcome if she had to travel all the way to St Georges. Maybe the BSBV crystal ball wasn't working that day.

6. One of the oft-repeated comments from BSBV is that there are better outcomes for some patients if they spent longer in an ambulance and are taken to specialist A&E units, such as specialist stroke, trauma or cardiac units. This is already happening. It won't be something new that will suddenly start happening after St Helier and Epsom lose A&E units. But for the many, many cases, such as asthma attacks, bumps to the head or serious but not necessarily life-changing fractures, the nearest A&E is generally the best place to be. It is all well and good to constantly cite the case of star footballer Fabrice Muamba as an example of a patient surviving because he went to a specialist cardiac unit further away from where he collapsed - but his is an extreme case. And any similar cases to his are already being treated in this way.

7. If St Helier and Epsom lose A&E departments, they will be downgraded (and it is a downgrading, no matter which way you cut it...) to Urgent Care Centres (UCC). It is hard to get a clear definition from the NHS website as to exactly what treatment you can expect from a UCC. When I asked Dr Marilyn Plant, joint medical director for BSBV, about when patients should go to a UCC, she replied that this should happen when a patient "feels" their condition is not life-threatening. Right. So bad luck if you rocked up to the UCC rather than an A&E because you "felt" that your chest pain was a spot of nasty indigestion when it was in fact a heart attack. Whoopsie!

8. And while we are on the subject of these UCCs we can expect if St Helier and Epsom lose A&E, they may not be open 24/7 like A&E departments are. Understandably, this has scared a lot of people. So I asked BSBV about this. Here's the really freaky news - BSBV cannot guarantee that any new UCC will be open 24/7 and it is up to local Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCG) to determine opening hours based on "clinical need". Firstly, BSBV is, as they are fond of reminding us constantly, largely made up of CCG members across a number of trusts but at the same time, BSBV is not prepared to commit to a guarantee of 24/7 opening hours. Secondly, it again seems like a case of the BSBV crystal ball working overtime. The minimum requirement for UCC opening hours is just 12 hours a day. It is intriguing that BSBV is confident people might not need urgent medical attention outside of certain hours. Because that's how it always works in real life...

9. As we are maybe - or maybe not - leading up to the consultation period, it has also become difficult to get any straight answers about what this means for the ongoing privatisation of the NHS. Croydon Hospital, one of the hospitals affected by the BSBV review, already has an UCC run by Virgin. But if anyone dares ask if St Helier or Epsom will also have privately run UCCs, the answers are vague and unclear. Indeed, Dr Marilyn Plant herself was interviewed on video for the local paper and she kicked off proceedings by saying she didn't want to talk about privatisation. We get told that any facilities will still be free at point of use for patients but we are not getting any confirmation as to whether such facilities will end up making people like Richard Branson even wealthier. Many CCG members across the trusts involved in this saga have declared interests in companies such as Virgin, Assura and Harmoni. Is it a crazy coincidence that these people are decision-makers who are involved in determining how money is spent?

Once again, this is taxpayers' money.

10. Finally, the cost of the whole BSBV programme is a bone of contention that campaigners are, quite rightly, not prepared to bury. I aksed for a breakdown of costings - with a figure of £11 million being bandied about, I wanted details. But instead I was given a very basic breakdown of phases two to five of the programme, a grand total of a not-insignificant £6 million pounds but no breakdown of the first two phases. I asked again today about this and got another load of fobbing off - I was told this information wasn't kept by BSBV (because, hey, why would they bother to keep a record of how they're spending our money - that's just nuts!) and that it was on an old website but not the new website and then I was told to make an FOI request. Which isn't always free and can take at least 20 days. Finally, I received word today from BSBV that they would soon share this information.

This is the tweet they sent:

"It's a perfectly reasonable request though, so will access and publish phases 1 and 2 figures on our website."

Good to know that is is "a perfectly reasonable request" to access information about how taxpayers' money has been spent on a programme aimed at saving money in ways of which many clinicians are raising serious doubts.

I eagerly await this full breakdown of how £11 million has been spent. I do wonder if the salaries of the communications team will be outlined in this breakdown. This would be the team that blocked a local doctor's Twitter account but is not explaining why. Good to see that people being paid with our money are stifling free and open discussion at our expense.

If you have read this far, congratulations. I just hope that at least one journalist on a national newspaper or the BBC or Channel 4 or Sky News picks it up and runs with it too. I can only do so much from my little blog but I couldn't simply do nothing.

Image courtesy of Noel Foster.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Late for Friday the 13th... Why sex workers' rights matter

 I feel terrible. I had every good intention to write a blog piece for Friday the 13th in support of sex workers. But I missed the deadline. And I missed the deadline because I was doing something pretty darn conventional. I was attending a wedding. Between a man and a woman. With my husband. A bunch of us, all of us heterosexual married couples, all met at a pub and got on a minibus to go to lovely stately home for a lovely wedding.

And all of us are privileged. Among the group of friends on that minibus, the women represented a range of occupations - teacher, nurse, journalist, brand manager, stay-at-home mum. Not one of us, as far as I am aware, is a sex worker.

So why should any of us care about the rights of sex workers?

Because, under current laws in Britain, sex workers do not enjoy the same rights as the rest of us working in supposedly non-controversial occupations.

UK laws are muddy when it comes to prostitution. The exchange of sexual services for money is perfectly legal but soliciting in a public place and owning or managing a brothel are illegal. Pandering is illegal, but this can mean anything from trafficking a person into Britain for the purposes of sex to transporting a prostitute to the location of her work. In theory, if a taxi driver knowingly drove a prostitute to a client's house or to a hotel where she (or he) intended to work, they are breaking the law.

Meanwhile in the Australian state of New South Wales, sex workers can work in legal brothels, which are subject to the same sort of planning and zoning laws as other businesses. This means these brothels are subject to the same taxes as other businesses as well as workplace laws. Most importantly, this means that sex workers do not have to tolerate sexual harassment, they are entitled to fair pay and they can report any sort of physical attacks, including rape, to the police without any fear of ending up in trouble themselves.

Whether a prostitute is raped at work or not, she should not have to fear ending up getting arrested herself.

Just as my friends and I would not be accused of asking for it if we were raped because of the jobs we happen to do, the same should be true for a sex worker. Any sex worker. Regardless of who they are or the type of work they do. When there is no consent, there is rape.

But under current British law, it is not necessarily that simple for the sex worker who wants to report a rape or any other kind of assault.The possibility for too many terrible situations is ever-present for sex workers in Britain.

If, for example, a prostitute was attacked in any way while travelling in the back of a taxi with a client, her reporting of the crime could land the taxi driver in trouble under absurdly broad pandering laws. Even if the driver tried to help the sex worker. There is also the additional risk of exposure to charges for laws about soliciting in public as well as indecency laws. In such a hostile legal environment, it would not be surprising if such attacks have happened but have never been reported at all.

It's not good enough. Laws need to change. Nobody is saying life is all sunshine and rainbows for every sex worker. If someone has been forced into any form of sex work against their will, that needs to be dealt with under the law. But when a sex worker is working of his or her own free will, not only should they have the respectability of earning a fair wage and paying tax without stigma, but they should also have the same rights to safety as anyone else, regardless of their occupation.

The niqab and the Plimsoll line of modesty

Has anybody who is currently exercising a disproportionate vomit of rage over the niqab ever actually spoken to a woman wearing one? Do they know personally of any niqab-wearers? Have any of their rights actually been violated because of a niqab?

While a woman who is forced to wear a niqab is having her rights violated on a daily basis, every woman who wears whatever the hell she likes, whether it's a niqab or a bikini, is not. That is the basic starting point for not advocating a ban on the niqab, except for genuine reasons of security and identity, such as airports and courtrooms. In airports in Muslim countries, women who wear the niqab have to show their faces at passport control, usually to a female member of staff. It's not as if there is some bizarre rule in other countries that allows veiled women to board planes sight unseen.

The first time I saw a woman in a niqab, I was 15, on holiday in Malaysia. The woman was shrouded from head to toe in grey with only her eyes peeking through a slot and a really thick pair of glasses. It all seemed comical and I found it almost impossible not to laugh. I'd never seen a woman dressed like that in rural Australia.

I may have evolved somewhat since then. I regularly spoke to women in niqabs when I lived in the UAE. The first time, I was in a Dubai bank and was served pretty quickly thanks to the ladies' queues they often have in banks there. I mentally noted that I'd never actually spoken to a woman with only her eyes showing and, at first, I had a ridiculous urge to speak louder as if her eyesight was somehow sharper than her sense of hearing. Then I realised she could hear me just fine, she was perfectly helpful, and I got on with my day.

On another occasion, I spoke at length to a veiled woman in an estate agent's office in Abu Dhabi. I have no idea what her job was - she was more interested in learning about Australia - but she had a big glass office. After talking for a while, I stopped noticing the black cloth across her face and my imagination filled in the blanks as to what her face might have looked like. Suddenly, the muezzin rang out, she excused herself to pray and then continued the conversation without missing a beat.

Even though a niqab hides a major part of a woman's identity from the wider world, every woman behind the niqab is a human being with her own story as to how she came to be wearing such a garment. I completely understand why people find it confronting, weird, scary but as soon as we start banning it from public life, we create a new series of problems.

For women and girls who are forced by husbands, fathers and brothers to wear the niqab, a ban will make them even more invisible. Women who are under this kind of awful male control would be at risk of not being allowed out in public at all by the men who have appointed themselves their guardians. While many feel it is not ideal for women to be walking the streets or attending educational institutions with only their eyes on show, at least they are out in public, they are accessing education and engaging with other people. If these women were stopped from working or studying or leaving the house at all by the men in their lives, they may disappear without a trace. If any of these women want to get help to escape domineering family members, a law that means they may be kept indoors is not going to help.

Which brings me neatly to the bigger picture of abuse of veiled women. It is easy to imagine the glee and dancing in the street by readers of The Sun if a niqab ban ever became law. But it won't do a damn thing to help women access domestic violence assistance, to come forward to report abuse or to leave awful family situations. It's a simplistic response. Plenty of women who are not wearing niqabs struggle to come forward to report domestic violence or leave horrible relationships. Why would it be any easier for a woman who is made to cover her face by a male relative and lives in the fearful shadow of an awful interpretation of Islam?

In France, the niqab is banned but no woman has been prosecuted for wearing one and no man has been prosecuted for forcing a woman to wear one (although it is perfectly reasonable to pass a law against forcing women to do anything against their will). The laws don't appear to have done a damn thing to stop abuse towards Muslim women either in their own homes or by members of the public.

If the niqab is banned, will this clear the way for the banning of the hijab or the abaya too? For other items of religious clothing? What about Roman Catholic nuns who still wear the long enclosure veil? And if you're the kind of idiot who likes to slag off women in "revealing outfits" and you also rail against Islamic clothing, where do you draw the line at either end of the modesty spectrum? Is there some sort of dual Plimsoll line of modesty whereby there is too much coverage at one end, because it is a Muslim thing, and then too little coverage at the other end because you think a woman looks like a slut?

Whenever a law is passed that dictates what women can wear, whether it forces them to cover up or not, nobody really wins.

Image courtesy of Steve Evans

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The tragic hopelessness of Yemen

There is no excuse for what happened to Rawan that awful day. None at all. She was eight years old. Her parents married her off to a 40-year-old man in Meedi, her Yemeni hometown.

He raped her. That is the only word for such an act.

To call the night she was raped her "wedding night" is completely inappropriate. A wedding night is a time for joy, happiness, fun, for two people who consented to be together to enjoy each other and to make a positive start to their married life. This was a night devoid of any of that love or joy.

The internal injuries she suffered as a result of this rape killed her. He raped and murdered her. And her parents are culpable too. All three of them, and anyone else who facilitated the marriage, be it a celebrant, wedding dress seller or caterer, all have blood on their hands.

To call Rawan a "bride" is to reinforce the notion of a bride as a piece of property whose feelings, opinions, hopes and aspirations simply do not matter.

The death of Rawan cannot be explained away by "cultural differences". The rape and murder of a child is not acceptable. Not in any country or culture or religion. 

It is easy to blame all of Islam for the death of Rawan. But the story broke because of brave villagers in the town of Meedi. Local tribal chiefs tried to cover the story up and a journalist was warned off but outraged villagers spoke out and the journalist prevailed.

Kuwaiti bloggers also helped get Rawan's story wider exposure, especially in the western media. This also took considerable courage. Kuwait, despite having perhaps the most progressive media laws among the Arabian Gulf states, is still not exactly a bastion of press freedom. It is certainly easier for Kuwaiti activists and journalists to speak out against other countries than it is for them to criticise their own leaders. And Kuwaiti newspaper Al Watan deserves kudos for reporting the story - sadly, the story was conspicuous by its absence from The National and Gulf News in the UAE, and the Saudi Gazette in Saudi Arabia.

But on top of the warped interpretation of Islam that made even one person think it was OK for Rawan to be married off to a 40-year-old man, the horrific situation has arisen, as ever, from bigger problems. The UN released a report in January which chronicles the shocking extent of Yemen's poverty, healthcare and education issues.

Consider these figures:

1. Of Yemen's 24 million people, 10.5 million lack sufficient food supplies and 13 million have no access to safe water and basic sanitation.

2. Nearly 14% of Yemeni girls are married before the age of 15 and 52% before the age of 18.

3. According to Human Rights Watch, many Yemeni girls are kept from school when they reach puberty.

4. Yemen is ranked a lowly 154 on the UN Human Development Index.

5. Yemenis spend an average of 2.5 years at school.

6. Mortality rates for those aged under five are at 66 per 1,000 live births.

7. Adult illiteracy is at 37.6% for both sexes and at 60% for women.

8. There are 68.1 births per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 18.

9. The maternal mortality rate is at 210 deaths per 100,000 live births.

Yemen is broken. Its education system is verging on non-existent for many, especially girls. The country's healthcare is beyond appalling and Yemen is not blessed with the oil and natural gas that has boosted the economies of many of its neighbours. Education is an essential element of any country's fight to overcome poverty - there are plenty of other Muslim countries where education rates, especially among women, are high and these countries are prospering, so it is simplistic to simply blanket-blame religion.

Poor education levels beget poverty and poverty begets oppression and desperation. Rawan's parents would have saved a lot of money by marrying her off at such a young age, avoiding the costs of feeding, clothing and educating her, and gained a windfall in the form of a dowry. But this does not excuse the fact they failed horrifically to protect their child.

Campaigners in Yemen have been pushing for a law that makes 15 to be the minimum age for marriage. The current law allows for girls of any age to be married but bans sex with them until they are "suitable for sexual intercourse" - but this isn't clearly defined. In that context, a minimum age of 15 seems positively progressive.

But it's not enough. As long as Yemen is a poor nation, as long as it struggles to achieve even a basic modicum of democracy, as long as the country's problems are dismissed as being "because of Islam" or are ignored by feminists who think it is more important to complain about wolf-whistling or lads' mags, as long as foreign aid is both distributed corruptly and condemned as a waste of money, as long as we all throw our hands in the air at every level, from the personal to the governmental, and believe nothing can ever done, Rawan's story will just be one of many.

* For advice on what you can do at personal level, check the Plan UK website.


Thursday, 29 August 2013

Boris loves Aussies. Well, certain Aussies anyway...

 As an Australian who lives in Britain surely I am overjoyed that Boris Johnson says Britain should welcome Australians in with open arms. Surely, reasons BoJo, that because we're all part of the cosy Commonwealth, Australians should be able to live and work in Britain with the same ease that EU citizens can. After all, despite the Commonwealth being a quaint and archaic hangover from the days of the British Empire, these days it's all so much happier. We all love nothing better than a spot of sporting activity at the Commonwealth Games, it's like a big, old school athletics carnival. Everything is simply marvellous in the Commonwealth!

First, as an Australian and therefore a Commonwealth citizen and someone whose home country has the Queen as head of state, it did seem rather farcical that when I married a British man and wanted to join him in London after living in the Middle East, I had to fly from Abu Dhabi to Sydney, hand over a bunch of paperwork to the British High Commission in Canberra and then wait a couple of weeks for a spouse visa before flying to London. Despite being an avid republican, there surely must be some advantage to being part of the Commonwealth, so I understand Boris's call for closer ties with my native land.

But I do wonder if Boris realises he has perpetuated a few stereotypes that take us right back to the grim days of the White Australia Policy. This was a horrible, shameful era in Australian immigration history and, tragically, one that many Australians are probably nostalgic for today in the wake of the "Stop the boats!" propaganda being peddled by Tony Abbott, the conservative who will probably be the next Australian Prime Minister.

In a piece Boris wrote for newspapers in Australia and Britain, he cites the case of Sally Roycroft, an Australian teacher who has achieved great things in troubled areas of London but will not be sponsored by her employer. As such, she will have to leave Britain despite making a real contribution here. That is an awful situation and, sadly, commonsense does not seem to apply to her immigration status.

But when you read deeper into Boris's diatribe, he talks of how Australians are just like Brits. To prove this point he offers examples such as walking around Sydney and seeing ads for Jamie Oliver recipes, meeting Aussies who watch Top Gear. In short, it is a very white, middle class picture of Australia that has much in common with white, middle class Britain. He then goes on to say that in 1999, Australians voted to retain the Queen as head of state rather than become a republic. Except none of this reflects the broader picture of multicultural Australia or multicultural Britain. And it certainly ignores the harsh reality of life for many indigenous Australians, very few of whom have thrived since Britain first colonised my country.

Of course, it is easy for me to say this with all my white privilege. And if it wasn't for convicts landing in Australia in 1788, I would not have ever existed as an Australian. I'm married to a British man. I can stay here for as long as I like. Good for me! I work here, I pay tax here, I have frequently been told that I am "the kind of migrant we want here" - which usually means "white, not a Muslim, native English speaker, no funny accent, enjoys Fawlty Towers". I'm not likely to be singled out at a tube station by an Home Office official to ensure I am here legally. I am sometimes mistaken for a British woman (although less so, the more I drink).

And it may well be time, as Boris says, to establish a bilateral Free Labour Mobility Zone between Australia and Britain. I can see how that could benefit the labour markets of both countries. Plenty of Eurosceptics would hail this as a victory for commonsense immigration, for more immigrants who "integrate".

But, with Boris's help, they are conjuring up an image of more white Anglo-Australians coming to Britain despite Australians being way more than descendants of convicts from a rat-infested fleet 225 years ago. We are way more diverse and vibrant and interesting than that. Ethnic minorities are growing and education rates are on the rise - a bilateral labour agreement might not produce an influx of Aussies who resemble the cast of Neighbours, despite the BoJo-enhanced stereotypes. And given the disadvantages faced by indigenous Australians, particularly in education, I'd be surprised if such an agreement would enhance their opportunities to work or study in Britain.

Charities such as World Vision and Marie Stopes work in Australia to provide assistance to indigenous Australians where successive governments have failed. Perhaps the people who have suffered as a result of poor educational opportunities, lack of decent healthcare and, in too many cases, blatant racism, could come to Britain as refugees? Or would that be too much for Boris? After all, he picks and chooses which bits of EU membership he likes so why wouldn't he do the same when it comes to Britain's relationship with Australia. Which should include all Australians.

Image courtesy of adamproctor2006

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Fannying about in Sydney

Honi Soit is the newspaper produced by University of Sydney students for University of Sydney students. But the latest cover, reproduced here in all its uncensored glory, has been recalled after a farce that proved exactly why such a cover image is important.

While Honi Soit is pretty hard to come by outside of Sydney University, the Student Representative Council feared that such a cover may break Australian media laws. They would be the same media laws that led to the now-defunct Australian edition of FHM requiring a very busy band of re-touch artists to ensure that errant pubes or vulva outlines were eradicated from covers and inside pages back when I worked there. I recall seeing an advance copy of a mag and marvelling at a model's crotch - her white bikini was indecently damp and the result was a smoothed-out PhotoShop vulva. It looked like she was wearing a crash helmet down there.

Fear turned to farce for Honi Soit when black bars were placed over the visible labia and clitoris. Except the bars weren't entirely opaque and the SRC absurdly called for all copies to be removed from the stands, returned to the Honi Soit office and locked up.

Good grief. Student newspapers exist to challenge the status quo, to take risks, to give voice to opinions that will often be sadly silenced when students graduate and find themselves in the self-censoring corporate world. Honi Soit editor, Hannah Ryan, was not afraid of breaking the law but the SRC panicked. Inevitably, the uncensored cover has been shared far and wide thanks to the internet making a joke of Australian media laws. It is probably the most widely viewed Honi Soit cover in the newspaper's long history.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the university's vice-chancellor Dr Michael Spence "defended the paper's editorial freedom but criticised the cover."

He said: "Personally my view is the cover is demeaning to women but I do realise I'm not the target audience for Honi Soit. However, the student body at the University of Sydney has a long and proud tradition of independence and it's a tradition we will continue to uphold."

Er, so he didn't really defend any freedoms at all then. The 18 women involved in the cover all posed willingly and it was created with the support of the university's Women's Collective. It was shot in the university's Women's Room. These women are not ashamed and nor should they be. But thank you, Dr Spence, for telling us these women have demeaned themselves and all women. Where would we all be without this man to tell us what to think?

On the upside, thanks to the power of the internet, a selection of real women's vulvas have been shared globally. If this means that even one young man or teenage boy learns that not every woman has a denuded symmetrical crotch that looks like a plastic taco shell, that is a good thing.  No, I am not a mother. Yes, I would happily let any future teenage son of mine see the Honi Soit cover. What are you going to do, Moral Panic Merchants? Call Social Services in advance lest I end up being a bad mother sometime in about 2030?

Fear of pubes is nothing new, despite what anti-porn campaigners might think. We have a worldwide archive of centuries of art where pubic hair has been diligently eliminated and the pudenda is always neat and tucked away.

A sense of shame, fear and revulsion surrounding real female bodies is nothing new. This, in turn, breeds some awful attitudes towards women's bodies by men and distressingly negative attitudes in women about themselves. The ongoing existence of ridiculous media laws and the resulting panic, such as that exhibited by the SRC, demonstrates exactly why we need to see more images that challenge our collective fear and prudery, not less.


Click here to read the blog post from Lily Patchett, one of the 18 women who featured on the cover.

Image courtesy of Honi Soit

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The politics of beauty writing

I am delighted to announce that I have added a new string to my bow. Today is my debut as a guest ranter for Jossbox, a website run by a very good friend of mine. My first piece is a snark-filled rant about a ridiculous new advert Penelope Cruz has created to sell her line of lingerie. It is an advert full of unintentional comedy and, as such, it was an easy joy to disparage it mercilessly.

Beauty products are sold via Jossbox and it also runs articles about the wondrous world of beauty. So why is an avowed feminist like me writing for such a site? Surely I have become some sort of feminist Uncle Tom writing for a site that sells things that are used to make women attractive?

Oh, please.

Anyone who thinks that lipstick is the enemy needs to grow up and go fight some genuine oppression. If you don't want to wear make-up, that is your choice. If you do, that is also your choice. If you wear make-up some days but not others, that is fine too. Hell, in any given week, my face will range from unadorned-and-if-you-don't-like-my-uneven-skintones-then-you-can-bugger-off to more-red-lipstick-than-the-Joker-in-Batman. See? Choice. It's all about choice and respecting all choices.

Ages ago, a stupid row on Twitter broke out because somone objected to an article on the Jossbox site. The offending article was simply a vox pop of a group of women on whether or not they apply make-up in public. It's not a debate that will end up in Parliament, it was not meant to be a political statement for the ages, it was just a selection of views on the kind of subject that might pop up in casual conversation among women. Or it might not. Some women talk about nothing but politics. Or art. Or church architecture. Or cricket. Or whatever the hell they damn well please.

But some tweeter whose name I have forgotten and I can't be bothered to find out again singled out this one article as some sort of example of everything that is wrong with the world. Why anyone would be shocked to find an article about make-up on a website that sells beauty products should be a mystery to anyone with a functioning brain stem. A Twitter argument broke out and she blocked me, despite being the original troll who picked a moronic fight in the first place.

Instead of raging about a post that fell squarely in the categeory of no-shit-Sherlock, it was pathetic that the angry dullard on Twitter sought to tear down Jossbox. The website is a business my friend has started from scratch. I am proud to support her in that endeavour and if my little rants help get a few more clicks and sales going her way, that would make me very happy indeed. She has worked incredibly hard to get it to where it is today and she continues to work hard. If that isn't an example of an empowered, determined woman, then I will eat my lipstick.

Image courtesy of courtney murray rhodes

Friday, 9 August 2013

Because I could have been released from prison today...

I am writing this from my dining room table in my house in London. The sun is trying to shine, I can see fat pigeons pecking away at the lawn, the cricket is on the telly in the next room and my husband is chatting with my parents, who are visiting from Australia.

But if, on this day, six years ago, things didn't go so well for me, I could have been spending today being released from a jail in the pretty but sleepy UAE emirate of Fujairah.

On August 4, 2007, my boyfriend, a lovely British man called Stuart, died in a swimming accident. A happy weekend away for a group of 10 friends turned into a tragedy culminating in nine of us at the police station in absolute shock while the police checked all our passports. For some reason, Stuart's passport was in my handbag and I handed it over along with mine. And then the officer refused to hand it back. I threw a tantrum and told him it was not his to keep as it was the property of the Australian government. I became increasingly angry and hysterical and then I was handed a document to sign, all in Arabic.

If I had a bit more presence of mind, I would have demanded a translation. As it was, I just wanted to get out of there so I signed it, asked if I could now get my passport back, and they laughed at me. It turned out I'd signed a document agreeing to stand trial for adultery but nobody bothered to tell me this. Any sex that takes places outside of wedlock in the UAE is considered to be adulterous.

Not realising what I'd signed, I was summoned back to Fujairah on August 9 for what I thought would be some routine, if tedious, paperwork to get my passport back. Instead, I ended up at the court-house, ushered past a man in a cell, to the judge's office. He was an enormous man who sat behind a giant desk with an interpreter to help him out. I was sat on a plastic chair in the middle of the room, interrogation-style. The sun was in my eyes and there were photographs of Stuart's body and autopsy diagrams all over the desk.

For about half an hour, I was quizzed about the circumstances of Stuart's death and we all agreed it was a tragic accident, a 38-year-old man gone before his time. And then came the questions about how we met, whether we were having sex or living in sin, whether I was a Christian, whether I drank alcohol or not and whether I believed in heaven and hell. I was even asked if I believed Stuart had gone to heaven after he died.

After two excruciating hours, I'd managed to convince the judge I was a 31-year-old, God-fearing virgin teetotaller and I was finally free to go. Some latent acting skills, the ability to think on my feet, and a pretty good knowledge of UAE laws about sex and alcohol saved me. Given I didn't see a single computer anywhere in the court-house, I was pretty confident the authorities wouldn't have had the technology to do DNA tests on hotel bedlinen.

Honestly, if Stuart, an avowed atheist, could have seen the farcical proceedings, he would have shaken his head and laughed. That blackly comical thought may have kept me from completely breaking down in front of a judge who clearly thought I was a slut.

I knew I was breaking the law by having sex out of wedlock, as thousands of expats do every day in the UAE. But as long as you keep it discreet and don't do it on a beach or get pregnant, the police are wise enough to turn a blind eye. For the unmarried and pregnant , the choices are basically a shotgun wedding, to leave the UAE permanently, an abortion in a country where it is legal, or to procure an illegal, possibly fatal, backstreet abortion in the UAE.

If I was found guilty of adultery, I could have faced a maximum sentence of six years in prison. Six years. All because the authorities were more concerned with my personal life than properly investigating the circumstances of a terrible accident.

Of course, the six-year scenario is possibly a little melodramatic. If I was sent down for the full six years (or for any period of time), I would have contacted every media friend I have in Australia and Britain, an international media outcry with plenty of bad PR for the UAE would have been likely and I probably would have either received a Ramadan pardon or a shorter sentence and a swift deportation.

I ended up staying in the UAE for another four years. In 2009, I met my husband in Abu Dhabi and we left together for London in 2011. Despite the horrific circumstances of August 2007, I had a great group of friends from all over the world, I knew wonderful Emiratis who were stunned at what happened to me after Stuart died, I still felt I had more career options left to explore there, I was enjoying the travel opportunities that are expensive and impossible from Australia, and I wanted to leave the UAE on my own terms.

My time in the UAE was the very best and very worst times of my life and I do not regret living and working there for five years. As I reflect on how today could have been the day I was let out of a Fujairah prison, I appreciate the freedoms I have here in Britain. Despite idiotic censorship campaigns currently happening here, it is still a great place for freedom of expression and a free press. And my experience in Fujairah gave me first-hand experience about the importance of due process and a fair and open justice system.

People who are still whining that it took so long to deport Abu Qatada, for example, are missing the bigger picture - due process is important, no matter who you are. Just as it was important for Britain to follow due process with Abu Qatada, British (and Australian) citizens can be victims of a lack of due process elsewhere. Due process is boring but it is an essential part of any fair and civilised society.

Six years on from being tried as a whore, I am truly grateful that today, I am not emerging from a Fujairah prison. After writing this without fear of the Met knocking on my door to arrest me for writing mischievous things, I will be able to enjoy a pub lunch today, I will be able to drink a glass of wine in full view of the street, I will be among friends, I will raise a glass to freedom and to Stuart.

Photo by Imre Solt

Thursday, 8 August 2013

The latest news from Nuts magazine

Just as I was writing yesterday's blog post on Marmite madness, this press release below came in from Nuts magazine. I am not usually in the habit of publishing press releases verbatim but this explains nicely why it is absurd for the Co-op to demand modesty bags on a legally available magazine.

Paul Williams also makes the point that for the last few weeks, "more conservative covers" have been tested and the readers have responded well with increased sales. Of course, a "more conservative" cover for Nuts will still upset assorted pearl-clutchers but it is an example of a brand listening to its target market rather than a group of people who never have and never will buy the magazine.

Is this in any way a reaction to the "Lose The Lads' Mags" campaign? Maybe, but it is also an example of paying attention to market forces as well. While lads' mags sales in general have been declining, perhaps this latest move from Nuts will be the start of a resurgence. That'll cause a collective head explosion over at UK Feminista. After all, whenever you draw attention to something you don't like, you are giving it the oxygen of publicity.

I cannot imagine Kat Banyard will be rushing out to congratulate Nuts on more modest covers but I suspect she will not rest until such magazines are banned entirely.

Without further ado, here is the Nuts magazine press release:


Nuts magazine today (8th August) announces that it will not modesty bag the magazine at retail and as a result - according to the Co-op’s ultimatum – will be delisted from their stores from September. Nuts considers the Co-op’s ultimatum to be an unreasonable attempt to prevent shoppers from freely browsing a legal magazine that is already displayed according to Home Office guidelines.

Paul Williams, managing director, IPC Inspire (which publishes Nuts), says: “Co-op’s knee-jerk attempt to restrict access to a product that consumers have enjoyed for nearly a decade is wrong.  Nuts takes its obligation to craft products that are right for consumers and retailers alike very seriously and for a number of weeks now we have had new covers in place, which have a more conservative tone. We are delighted with our readers’ response to the new covers and last week’s issue was our biggest selling since February.

“The objection that niche lobby groups have against certain sectors of the media should not mean that the right to purchase a perfectly legal product is restricted for the over half a million Nuts readers. As has been widely reported in the media in recent weeks, this is no longer a question of whether or not you like men’s magazines, it is a question of how far you can restrict the public’s ability to consume free and legal media before it becomes censorship.”

Nuts magazine is read and enjoyed by more than half a million UK adults; its readership includes both men and women, according to the National Readership Survey (NRS). The men’s magazine market is worth £12.7m per year to UK retailers. The content and covers of Nuts are perfectly legal.

IPC Media, which publishes Nuts and is the UK’s largest magazine publisher, supports the responsible display of all men’s magazines – there is a set of display guidelines, created by the industry through the Professional Publishers Association (PPA), and endorsed by the Home Office and recommended by the Bailey Review. These guidelines - which have been supplied to all retailers - include the use of modesty boards, if a retailer deems them appropriate for its customers.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Marmite madness

The new ad for Marmite is brilliant. If you haven't yet seen it, click here. If you purse your lips, clutch your pearls and join the 250+ idiots who have wasted their life complaining about it, you are a sad fool.

It takes the piss out of earnest advertisements for neglected animals and plays up on the fact that people either love or hate Marmite. It is the work of a brand that is confident enough to say: "We know some of you think our product tastes like a sweaty sock but we still want you to buy it because surely someone in the house will love it."

Just as many a family has adopted a rescue pet only to find that certain members find Tiddles to be about as lovable as napalm eyedrops, many a house has a jar of Marmite that provokes the same ire.

But because this is the era of everyone getting offended at absolutely anything, there have been moronic complaints that the ad trivialises the issue of animal neglect or the work of animal charities. Good Lord. Get a grip. If you watch this ad and your first reaction is "I will never again donate to the RSPCA!" or "Kill all the pets!", you should not be allowed out of the house on your own.

Then there is the genius who wrote this on the Marmite Facebook for whom stupidity is its own reward:

"This ad shows no regard for all those involved with animal welfair and I personaly will no longer eat Marmite till this ad is pulled."

Holly Brockwell, meanwhile, wrote this excellent blog post on the ad. She came to prominence for calling out Hyundai's awful suicide car advert and, as she says in her latest post, it is indeed possible to have shades of opinion on issues of censorship.

One of the comments at the end of her blog post is, sadly, rather ridiculous. One Judith Haire says this:

"It's all about the timing, innit. Unfortunately, I've seen this post, just after reading a harrowing report in a red top. The RSPCA and veterninary surgeons everywhere are now on red alert to spot signs of abuse to pets, linked to the sharp rise in domestic violence."

Only a psychopath would think that a rise in either abuse of pets or domestic violence is a good thing, but it is not Marmite's problem or Holly Brockwell's problem if Judith Haire reads about the advert hot on the heels of reading a distressing animal/domestic violence story. It is merely a mildly unfortunate coincidence. These things happen sometimes. I remember reading an article about water safety not long after a boyfriend died in a swimming accident - unfortunate timing, yes. But a reason to call for censorship? Absolutely not.

Then Judith goes on with a won't-someone-think-of-the-children line of argument:

"...when [abuse of animals] has been carried out in front of children we can only guess at what it could do [to] their psyches. And even it we couldn't even hazard a guess, look at this ad through the eyes of a child."

Again, only a psychopath would want kids to be exposed to pet abuse. But if a kid saw this ad, their most likely reaction would probably be bafflement ("Why are they putting Marmite jars in cages, Mummy?").

If the Marmite ad is banned, it will be the latest trip down Censorship Lane for Britain.

David Cameron is proposing a ban that won't do a damn thing to stop child pornography. There are calls for new regulations to stop Twitter abuse when there are already existing laws in place to make death and rape threats illegal. And now the Co-Op is bagging up all lads' mags. Oh, and Tesco has agreed to stock Zoo, Nuts, Front and Bizarre magazines on the top shelf (where they are usually positioned already...), Bizarre is to always be bagged, and will only sell to customers who are over 18. What next? Will eating disorder awareness groups call for fashion magazines to be similarly restricted?

Hell, if anything, there is more credible research linking fashion magazines and indeed the images and messages of women's magazines to eating disorders than there is to linking lads' magazines to rape and violence against women. Why not put those magazines up high and in bags too? After all, surely UK Feminista is serious about preventing eating disorders and encouraging women to have high self-esteem a positive body image?

Honestly, it's getting tiresome. I have lived and worked in a country with heavy internet and media censorship. It is absurd, it is ineffective, it is immature and it does not stop abuse. If the Advertising Standards Authority bans the Marmite ad based on, thus far, 330 complaints from a country of more than 60 million people, Britain will be well on its way to becoming an idiocracy.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

David Cameron and the big, bad internet

David Cameron looks so earnest, doesn't he, as he furrows his brow, puts on his best "concerned parent" voice and tells us all how censoring the internet will be a marvellous thing for child protection. Except it won't do a damn thing to stop the creation of child pornography.

People who get off on such material do not enter terms such as "child pornography" or "kiddie sex" into Google and instantly access a world of abusive, exploitative horror. The dissemination and consumption of child pornography is insidious, secretive and encrypted. Has anyone ever seen someone in an internet cafe openly viewing images of kids being sexually abused? Of course not. The consumption of child pornography is furtive, dark and shameful.

But Cameron's simplistic attempt to stop the rot won't actually stop such images and videos being produced in the first place. The whole supply chain of child pornography is a hideous world of wrongness but to stop it happening at all, it is important to focus heavily at the production end. By the time it reaches the pitiful viewer, the children have already been abused.

It is already very difficult to just stumble upon child pornography when searching online. And the intellectually bankrupt censorship Cameron has in mind fails to understand the nuances of human sexuality.

Stuart Hazell, the murderer of 12-year-old Tia Sharp, had searched for "little girls in glasses" before sexually abusing and killing Tia, a young girl who wore glasses. If you put that innocuous term into Google, nothing exploitative comes up. The images are of girls, all fully clothed, all wearing glasses. If someone seriously gets off on underage girls in glasses, Cameron's porn ban won't stop such people seeing images of underage girls in glasses. Given the harmless nature of the images this particular search brings up, it is impossible to stop someone privately getting their jollies from pictures that would not be out of place in frames on mantelpieces. And blocking the "little girls in glasses" term would stop such legitimate searches as those regularly done by photo editors of parenting magazines, for example.

People get off on all manner of things. They don't need to add words such as "porn" or "sex" to find images that might float their boat but are still perfectly legal and should not be censored in a free society. There is no limit to the things that turn people on and there is no way every search engine term that might appeal to a paedophile can ever be identified and then banned.

In short, all Cameron's plan does is appease the assorted pearl-clutchers who are scared of the internet, who refuse to learn how the internet works, and who are easily satisfied by simplistic solutions to complex problems.

Is anyone labouring under the misapprehension that this government is at all serious about child protection? This is a government that has no qualms about letting G4S run children's homes. This would be the same G4S that promotes a guard who fatally restrained a 15-year-old boy to the position of Health and Safety Manager.

But in an era where puritanical voices are getting disproportionately loud, where people genuinely believe that violence against women will be reduced if lads' mags are taken off supermarket shelves, it is easy to see why people from the left and right are being fooled by David Cameron's latest ridiculous idea.