Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Censorship: making a mockery of allegedly free societies

I lived for five years in a country where excessive female flesh is either obliterated from magazines with black marker pen, even a cheeky hint of side-boob, or the offending pages are torn out altogether. I never saw Porky Pig on TV. I got a letter from the Ministry of Information because the magazine I was editing had a (flesh-free) advertisement for Duo condoms in it - this letter arrived, without a trace of irony, in the same week as the launch of the country's first AIDS awareness campaign. This coy campaign failed to mention sex and gave no real clues as to how HIV might be transmitted. When Puss In Boots hit the cinemas, it was given the absurd new title of Cat In Boots in case the word "puss" caused offence. References to prostitution were redacted from Les Miserables, thus rendering Anne Hathaway's performance pretty meaningless.

How quaint it must be there, you may think. The country I lived in for five years was the United Arab Emirates and, yes, there were plenty of times when the bizarre censorship caused my head to connect with my desk. But countries that rank much higher up the World Press Freedom Index than the UAE at 112 are also capable of stupid censorship.

Exhibit 1: The BBC shot itself in the foot by deleting a classic scene from a repeat of Fawlty Towers. Major Gowen is telling Basil Fawlty an anecdote about going to see England play India in the cricket. He says he went to the match with a woman who "kept referring to the Indians as niggers. 'No, no, no,' I said, 'the niggers are the West Indians. These people are wogs.'"

Their defence was that it was inappropriate to use the word "nigger" before the watershed. If that's the case, the episode should have been broadcast later in its entirety. The joke is on the Major - John Cleese and Connie Booth were satirising a racist character when they wrote the script.

It could be argued that the cartoonish Manuel is a racist character, an embarrassing, dated caricature of a Spanish waiter. But even that argument is too simplistic and fails to recognise that Manuel constantly gets the better of the snobbish bigot that is Basil. When Manuel says: "I know nothing!" in relation to a bet on a horse race that Basil is trying to hide from his wife Sybill, the accent is pure cheese, but the weekly screwing over of Basil is real comedy. Basil is similarly screwed over by Manuel in another episode where a Lothario-type character offends Basil's uptight morals. Basil assumes the Lothario is an idiot but he is able to converse with Manuel in perfect Spanish.

But enough about my scarily encyclopaedic knowledge of Fawlty Towers...

Exhibit 2: Australian commercial TV channels are not known for being bastions of progressive liberalism. As such, they all banned Dick Smith's Australia Day advertisement for his line of Australian-made and owned foods. It features much innuendo surrounding the phrase "I love Dick", which upset the pearl-clutchers, and the bit where he hands out his products to grateful refugees landing ashore in a burning boat upset the professionally sanctimonious - who thought it was patronising to asylum seekers - as well as anti-immigration types who object to any depiction of refugees being welcomed to Australia.

Yes, the ad is crass and jingoistic - but such things are not illegal in Australia, nor should they be. The ad was no less insulting to anyone's intelligence as ads that depict women as perfect housewives, men as useless dolts who'd put the baby in the oven and the roast chicken in the cot if they were left unsupervised, or any tampon ad involving white bikinis, windsurfing or running joyously on a beach.

In short, it was another example of stupid censorship.

Exhibit 3: The silencing of rude words on American television. Freedom of speech clearly doesn't extend to rude words uttered by comedians who are known for, er, being rude. Jon Stewart of The Daily Show and Joan Rivers of Fashion Police are so regularly silenced that sometimes it's hard to tell what word has been deemed so offensive. This is not helped by Joan Rivers' collagen-filled lips, but I am pretty sure "tits" was the oh-so-shocking word the other night. Censoring comedy for grown-ups by grown-ups aired at a time when grown-ups watch TV is ridiculous and childish.

These three examples of censorship are moronic and illiberal. If we put up with it, it becomes acceptable via complacency, and more stupid thought policing will surely follow. This nonsense is only acceptable to adults who enjoy being treated like dimwitted children.

But these examples are chickenfeed in comparison to a nastier, more insidious form of censorship, a horrible corruption of free speech that is not constructive in the slightest. I am referring to the online bullying of Professor Mary Beard after her appearance on the BBC's Question Time. She made perfectly reasonable comments about the benefits of immigration. Naturally, people are entitled to disagree with her comments. Open debate is essential for any functioning democracy.

Personal attacks, however, are disgraceful. How was the immigration debate advanced by the troll who called Beard "a vile, spiteful excuse for a woman, who eats too much cabbage and has cheese straws for teeth."? Or by the idiots with too much time on their hands who superimposed her face onto pictures of female genitalia? The now-closed Don't Start Me Off website was a particularly horrible place to be after they declared Beard the "Twat of the week" and the trolls came out from under their miserable little bridges.

Nobody should be shedding any tears for the closure of Don't Start Me Off. It was a total waste of bandwidth. For while it may be argued that the closure of the site hampered the free speech of the morons who lurked there, such mass hatred will only deter women from accepting invitations to participate in public discussions, such as Question Time.

Mary Beard showed great courage and humour in speaking out against the mindless misogyny. She will grace our TV screens again because she is smart, interesting and far more accomplished than anyone who thinks a picture of a face on a vagina is comic gold. But many are not as thick-skinned. Many intelligent women may think twice before appearing on TV lest they don't meet some absurd standard of beauty and their voices are drowned out by an asinine rabble. A loud, cruel pack of intellectual bankrupts should not be allowed to stifle debate. That is censorship at its ugliest.

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Thursday, 24 January 2013

Pap smears and privilege

The notion of privilege is a rubbery one. Just because someone is a wealthy, white male living in a wealthy western country, for example, that does not make him immune from experiencing violence, depression or serious illness. And someone who is living in disadvantaged circumstances, such as a family with inter-generational unemployment, may have privileges that would be denied them if they were in the same circumstances elsewhere.

Sometimes what should be a universal right is a privilege, something available to some but not others. An example of this is Britain's NHS, available to people across the socio-economic spectrum. It is not perfect, accessing certain treatments can be a postcode lottery, and every time Jeremy Hunt, the inappropriate and unqualified Health Secretary, opens his mouth, I am terrified he is going to announce its disbandment - but what it does offer is free pap smears for women aged 25 and above.

Yes, lying back on a narrow bed in a clinic, taking off your pants, spreading your legs and having an instrument that resembles a plastic duck bill inserted into your vagina so that a few cells can be gently brushed off for pathological analysis is a privilege. This is a privilege denied so many women across the world.

Women in Guinea and Burundi have the world's highest rates of death by cervical cancer, at 23.7 and 22.4 per 100,000 respectively. Women in countries such as the United Arab Emirates, where healthcare for expatriate women is dependent on the level of insurance offered by your employer, often miss out on receiving pap smear coverage, especially if you're unmarried and the insurer lumps pap smears in the same category as "fertility treatment". The rationale is that because premarital sex is illegal in the UAE, unmarried women shouldn't be having sex and thus don't need fertility treatment, even though a pap smear is not actually a fertility treatment. For local Emirati women, a lack of education and taboos surrounding the open discussion of sexual health issues, can also mean cervical cancer screening is not as common as it should be.

If only women across the world could enjoy the same access to pap smears.

I have already blogged on this a couple of days ago because it is Cervical Cancer Awareness Week - the age for your first pap smear on the NHS should be lowered from 25 to 20. The age was raised from 20 to 25 in 2003 because "only" around 3% of cervical cancer cases affect this age group and the high number of abnormal smear test results in the age group leads to more false positives. But this is cold comfort to those who have lost daughters, sisters, friends, partners and wives to cervical cancer under the age of 25. Surely it would be better to revise the raised age once the rates of teenage girls receiving the HPV vaccination reaches much higher levels?

Britain's easy availability of the HPV vaccine, which prevents many forms of the cervical cancer-causing human papillomavirus, is another privilege everyone's daughter should be enjoying.

Since 2008, the HPV vaccine has been available to girls in Year 8 of high school. But there are still issues with the uptake of this and the problem lies with the poor example many parents are setting their daughters. A University of Manchester study of 117,000 girls showed that the uptake of the vaccination was just 58% among 12-13-year-olds whose mothers had never been screened for cervical cancer. In the same age group, the uptake was almost 84% among girls whose mothers had been screened in the past five years.

Mothers who are not setting an example to their daughters by not getting regular pap smears and, presumably, not talking about it either, are the ones most likely to have un-vaccinated daughters. We don't know the circumstances behind each and every vaccination refusenik - is it a case of girls not liking needles? Are parents unconvinced by the need for the vaccination? Are parents ill-informed about the vaccinations? Are there parents out there who truly believe it is a "slut needle" in the same way Rush Limbaugh believes that birth control pills are for "sluts"?

Is it simply a matter of cervical cancer not being discussed in many British households? Well, I'm sorry, but the time has come to have those discussions, to get over yourselves, to quit being prudes, to recognise that words like "vagina" and "cervix" are not rude words, but anatomical terms every young woman needs to know about and be able to say without hiding behind the sofa and turning beetroot-red.

Add to this the fact that 20% of women eligible for pap smears on the NHS simply don't bother. My friend Jai Breitnauer blogged eloquently on this as well as the HPV vaccination uptake scandal this week and I urge you all to read it.

The women and teenage girls of Britain are in a privileged position when it comes to cervical cancer screening and prevention. Sometimes privilege doesn't come in obvious forms such as wealth and power. But a privilege that comes in the form of a needle, a speculum and a brush is one that will save lives. And one day, when every woman can receive cervical cancer screening, and every young girl can be vaccinated against HPV, that privilege may become a worldwide right.

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Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Today I shall talk about cervical cancer...

This week is Cervical Cancer Awareness Week. But for any awareness week to actually be effective, all the awareness-raising has to translate into action.

These actions should include booking a pap smear if you are a woman (er, obviously...) and you are due for one or you've never had one before and encouraging your female friends to have a pap smear if they are due for one or have never had one before.

The good news is that with early detection, cervical cancer does not have to be a death sentence. But pap smears are essential for early detection and subsequent early treatment.

It is important for all sexually active women to know about pap smears, to know why they are important and to not be afraid of them. It is a few moments of slight discomfort and pants-off mortification in front of a doctor or nurse who has probably seen more vaginas than all of Motley Crue combined and, as such, will not find yours to be horrible or weird. But the discomfort and mortification could save your life. I'm not even being melodramatic - a pap smear probably did save my life.

My story - and why women in Britain need to lobby the government

I was very lucky. I was 21, living in Sydney, when I had an abnormal smear test. In Australia, the rule of thumb for pap smears is to start having them from the time you turn 18 or a year after you become sexually active, whatever comes first. Pap smears are generally covered by Medicare, just as they are by the NHS. But the NHS rule is that you should start having them every three years at the age of 25. This is too late for many women who have died tragically young.

My abnormal smear revealed CIN 1 cell changes - the lowest level abnormality - and it was sorted out very easily. By a gynaecologist I rather embarrassingly ran into at a party a year later when it turned out he was a friend of my landlord. To my eternal shame, I pointed to my face and asked him if he recognised me from that end. To his eternal credit, he laughed. Ahem...

For the next two years, I had a smear test every six months, and now I have one every year. Imagine if I had to wait another four years after I was 21 before my first smear test - that would have been plenty of time for the cells to develop into something far more sinister.

In Britain, Dr Chris Steele has been a leading advocate for women under 25 to receive smear tests. His Too Young To Die campaign needs more support - you can start here. And here is a link to the Facebook page for the Mercedes Curnow Foundation, which campaigns to lower the age of pap smears in the UK from 25 to 20.

But we also need to lobby the man in charge, Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. If you go to his webpage, whoever put it together has included a link to click on if you are not one of his constituents but you do want to contact him in his capacity as Health Secretary. Unfortunately, this will take you here, to a rather soulless online form. It only gives you the option of receiving a reply by email or post but not by telephone. How do we know Hunt will read any of the feedback that comes via this link? How do we know if anybody reads it at all? Still, if we all bombard this link with our questions about the availability of smear tests to women under 25, who knows? Maybe something will happen?

The HPV vaccination - the pearl-clutchers hate it but it will save lives

Hurrah! Medical science has advanced to the point where cervical cancer has the potential to become a thing of the past! There is now a vaccine against many forms of the Human Pappiloma Virus (HPV) but here's the thing - it has to be administered before the young woman becomes sexually active. It is too late for me but it is not too late for our daughters. The UK National HPV Immunisation Programme takes place when girls are in Year 8 of high school.

Naturally, there are people out there who panic at the thought of girls aged around 13 being given a such a shot. The moronic mentality seems to be that giving girls a vaccination that will help them when they become sexually active will cause them to automatically become sexually active. Yes. And having more fire extinguishers around will cause more fires. Anti-vaccination people generally make my piss boil. As such, I suggest everybody educate themselves here before they troll me.

More ways to take action regardless of whether you have a cervix or not...

Everyone should watch this segment from ITV's This Morning to hear Dr Dawn Harper explain more about cervical cancer and hear these real-life stories.

Making a donation to Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust is another great thing to do this week - they support women who have the disease as well as their families, and advocate for early screening and prevention.

And while you're at it, make a donation to Inspirational Friends - two women, Hannah Lawton and Jessie VanBeck, are planning to row across the Atlantic in the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Rowing Race to raise money for Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust and Myton Hospice. This is in memory of a friend who lost her battle with cervical cancer in May last year.

Monday, 21 January 2013

You guessed it! It's another world of stupid!

Here we go again with further idiocy that cannot go unnoticed. Last week, we saw idiocy involving kids in politics, horse meat, Megan Fox, horrific events at a US campus, a Maria Sharapova-sugar brouhaha, a Jimmy Savile puppet and a cycling goon.

1. OK, so President Obama has signed a load of executive orders in favour of gun control and he did so surrounded by children. The US right, unsurprisingly, has called him out on this. It is gimmicky because good policy should stand up without using kids as props. Regardless of the issue, using kids for political gain has always been a tad unseemly, whether it's kissing babies, posing with photogenic offspring to appeal show off one's family values or whatever. Ugh. But then the NRA also called out Obama for having armed guards protect his own children. Yes. That is because as the children of the most powerful man in the world, Sasha and Malia are obvious targets. For people who may be getting their hands on guns a little too easily.

2. The great British horse meat debacle has resulted in a festival of equestrian puns - and a festival of absurd hysteria. There was a nationwide gross-out when it was revealed that Tesco's pre-made beef burgers contained horse meat. People who are perfectly happy to eat cows, sheep, pigs and chickens panicked and declared it was disgusting. Never mind that the addition of some nice, lean horse meat might actually improve a burger, and cheval is a damn sight better than the crap in the average hot dog - these people were not going to eat Seabiscuit! Then there were the sanctimonious vegetarians who used this as another excuse to be sanctimonious vegetarians.

The horsey beef burgers brouhaha wasn't a failure of food hygiene. It was merely a failure of food labelling. If the label tells the consumer there is horse in their burger, they can make the choice as to whether they find that appalling or if they simply decide that a horse is like a delicious, long-necked, more agile cow.

3. Stephen Marche has written a profile piece on Megan Fox for the US edition of Esquire magazine that is so embarrassingly awful, the only viable excuse for it is that he lost a bet. Marche's words were beyond parody. There was a long riff about ancient Aztec sacrifice, he slags off the physical attributes of Lena Dunham, Adele and Amy Adams in his defence of Fox, he writes without any apparent irony that her skin is "the colour the moon possesses in the thin air of northern winters."

Fox joins the irony vacuum by saying how she doesn't want to be famous anymore while posing for a magazine in her underwear.

But my favourite bit is Marche's description of Fox's lips: "The lip on the left curves exactly the same way as the lip on the right." Either Marche is confused by facial anatomy or he isn't describing the lips on her face...

4. Manti Te'o, a US college football star who plays for Notre Dame (which seems be inexplicably pronounced in the US as "Noter Dame" - I'd love an explanation of this), fabricated a story about a dead girlfriend. For months, the US sports media believed that Te'o's beloved, one Lennay Kekua, was in a serious car crash and was then diagnosed with leukaemia. The story became even more tragic when Te'o revealed that Kekua passed away on September 11, aged 22, within hours of his real-life grandmother dying. Except Kekua never existed and was able to reveal that Kekua never existedand Te'o's story contained enough holes to make a tonne of Swiss cheese.

A Notre Dame spokesperson said Te'o was fooled by an elaborate online and phone hoax. Er, right.

But here is a story from Notre Dame that is far more important and deserves far more airplay than the moronic Te'o.

5. Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova garnered 40,000 Twitter followers after her first tweet: "Your ultimate sugarmama has arrived. #myfirsttweet." I'm not sure what is more idiotic - the fact that such a banal tweet would be so popular or the fact that the tweet is promoting her new candy company, the awkwardly named Sugarpova. Actually, the biggest idiots are possibly the people who are now angry with her for starting a candy company when she is allegedly meant to be a role model promoting a healthy lifestyle. Or perhaps people could start taking responsibility for what they put in their mouths rather than looking to a shrieking tennis player for guidance.

6. The BBC accidentally repeated a Tweenies episode from 2001 featuring a spoof of Jimmy Savile as a puppet presenting Top of the Pops. It was a stupid blunder, someone should have checked et cetera, et cetera. But the outcry is simply today's excuse for the pearl-clutchers to get their knickers in a twist and slag off the BBC. Any kids who happened to catch the episode on Cbeebies yesterday morning wouldn't have a clue who he was and are blissfully unaware of the horrible news stories that keep erupting. Any offended parents who spotted it could simply turn the TV off and get on with their lives. Anyone whose kids were actually harmed by the puppet yesterday should call the police to have it arrested.

7. Lance Armstrong. That is all.

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Monday, 14 January 2013

My feminism is better than your feminism!

It has been rather unedifying to watch the slanging match unfold in the wake of Suzanne Moore's "Brazilian transsexual" one-liner. In her piece, written for an anthology and reprinted in the New Statesman, this was the bit that caused the most furore:

"We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape - that of a Brazilian transsexual."

Once it was published in the New Statesman, after existing for months without causing controversy, it didn't take long for Twitter to erupt, slamming Moore as transphobic. She quit Twitter after firing off a few angry responses to her critics, she returned to Twitter and she apologised. And now people are arguing about whether her apology was the right kind of apology.

Moore's initial defence of her turn of phrase was that it was a "throwaway line". Perhaps it wasn't her best use of the English language, but as someone who has been a newspaper columnist, I know how easy it is to write a word, a phrase, or even an entire column and not realise you've caused offence until it has been published. That happened to me back in 2004, when I wrote a column for the Sydney Morning Herald that compared the attention breast cancer research receives in comparison to bowel cancer, which kills more people but gets far less publicity. It didn't attract the same onslaught of comments as Suzanne Moore's  piece, but I was called out for using the word "funbags" in a breast cancer column. Among the angry emails I received, one reader told me how awful I was and wondered out loud how I'd cope with the pain of breast cancer.

Then Julie Burchill weighed in to defend Moore in the pages of The Observer, but it has now been deleted. Her childish, hateful rant made Moore's piece look about as tame as a polemic on church tea parties. Aside from pushing the bizarre and ill-informed notion that all transsexuals are middle-class and over-educated, Burchill blathered on about "dicks in chicks' clothing", "shims", "shemales" and "a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs." When she compared the word "cisgendered" to words like "cistern", she morphed into a puerile schoolkid who just realised "pianist" sounds a bit like "penis".

A moving piece from Paris Lees, a trans woman, does Moore more favours than Burchill's ham-fisted attempt at being heroic.

Then Lynne Featherstone, former Equalities Minister and Lib-Dem MP for Hornsey and Wood Green added to the idiocy by calling for Burchill to be sacked. As a freelancer, Burchill isn't actually on staff at The Observer, but that didn't matter to Featherstone. Unless a journalist has actually broken the law, it is completely inappropriate for an MP to call for a sacking. That is not the role of any MP who wants to be seen as not attempting to influence the press. And people wonder why I am cynical about the Leveson Inquiry...

Featherstone can now calm down. The offending article has been deleted. On one hand, it's a shame because I like to know exactly what people are thinking and what ideas they are putting out there. If the hatred is out there where we can all see it, we know what we're dealing with. But it is the editor's prerogative to take down a piece if they look back and decide it is inappropriate. No editor has 100 per cent perfect judgement 100 per cent of the time.

It has become a very nasty argument very quickly, frequently boiling down to semantics at the expense of real issues. Honestly, critics from the right must be loving this "my feminism is better than your feminism" spectacle. It is only a matter of time before some cretin from the right will describe it as a catfight and think he or she is being incredibly hilarious and original.

And in the midst of it all, Moore made an interesting point when she said she is "less concerned with people's genital arrangements than the breakdown of the social contract." This line caused offence but it requires more nuanced analysis.

We could argue until the cows, sacred or otherwise, come home about whether one is born or becomes a woman. And that argument would end up with most participants sounding like crappy motivational posters.

Instead, it is important to acknowledge that the experiences of teenage boys who decide to undergo gender reassignment surgery as adults can be different to those of teenage girls struggling to find their place in the world. But both groups frequently experience abuse, oppression, confusion, physical pain, emotional distress and other assorted horrors of adolescence, great and small. And both groups can equally call themselves women and they deserve all the respect that should entail.

Trans women are part of the feminist fold. Different women face different issues and the experiences of sexism (or lack thereof) are not the same for everyone. The issues faced by Saudi women on a daily basis, for example, are different to those I face in my day-to-day existence in London. I have learnt about how trans women have experienced poor treatment by some members of the medical profession in ways that I have never experienced or had imagined until I was made aware of the issues.

Feminism is a broad church and there are as many interpretations of feminism as there are women. Lecturing each other on how to do feminism isn't helpful. Not when there are real issues that need to be discussed, real battles that need to be fought and many voices that deserve to be heard.


Update: Suzanne Moore has eloquently responded to this often absurd situation here.

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Crocodile tears and closed shops

Jessops has closed its doors. The high street photographic retailer shut 187 stores and put 1,370 people out of work in a tough economic climate. Then, it was announced that HMV had gone into administration. There's another 4,500 jobs in jeopardy. And Blockbusters has gone into administration as well. That's another 4,190 people facing the fun of Workfare. Cue the inevitable outpouring of grief over more closed shops on Britain's high streets and the plight of the suddenly unemployed.

And cue a big pile of hypocrisy. Unless you diligently bought all your camera gear at Jessops, have never tried to pass off your groundbreaking Instagram work as bona fide photography, and eschew online shopping, you're not really in a great position to bemoan the demise of Jessops. We're all part of the problem. So many of us have becomes accustomed to shopping from home in our pyjamas, from smartphones and tablets, from work PCs in our lunchbreaks.

Stores like Jessops become free showrooms where people will try out all the products and then go home, jump online and scour the internet for the best deal. In the case of Jessops, their online price would seldom be as competitive as Amazon. So they are part of the problem too. Likewise, HMV struggled in an era where people seldom buy CDs anymore. And a colleague of mine wisely pointed out that Blockbuster could have survived if they invented the equivalent of Lovefilm as part of their drive to go online. After all, people are still watching films at home, just as they are still taking photos and listening to music.

As far as we can tell, all three businesses met their tax obligations but whether government tax breaks - or ensuring competitors such as Amazon paid their fair share of tax - would have saved the day for either one is uncertain.

The simple fact is that retailers who don't adapt to the drive towards online shopping are going to fall by the wayside.

Inevitably, stories from staff and suppliers to both Jessops and HMV have come out, offering insider perspectives on the human cost and reasons for the downfall that we may not have thought about. And, no doubt, ignorant customers with vouchers they can't redeem are probably being rude today to HMV staff who are facing unemployment.

Cue the moans about the death of the high street. Cue Mary Portas appearing on the news to repeat her mantra about how she hates that high streets are full of pound shops, charity shops and betting shops. Cue the opening of the No Shit, Sherlock files as she states the bleeding obvious - that these three types of shops typically attract business in recessions.

Yes, it'd be simply spiffing if every high street in Britain was a charming melange of tea shops, independent purveyors of cashmere knitwear and fair trade homewares stores. But struggling people need charity shops, they don't want to pay any more than a quid for a large bottle of bleach and, regardless of what you think about the morality of gambling, the notion of a big payout is always attractive when times are tough.

When parking on the high street is impossible, expensive or a constant game of parking ticket roulette, is it any wonder shoppers with cars prefer to drive to malls with gigantic free carparks? They're not pretty but they're convenient and they're warm. People like convenience and warmth. As long as councils continue to make it difficult for motorists to park and there is insufficient investment in public transport, this will continue to happen.

And if high streets die what happens then? How about repurposing buildings for social housing, or for schools and universities, or for medical centres? Maybe unattractive buildings of no historic significance can be knocked down and parks created in their place?

Whatever the case, few of us are keen to give up shopping online. And as such, we must deal with the inevitable consequences.

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Wednesday, 9 January 2013

The idiocy that is celebrity role models

Every time a celebrity does something stupid, the inevitable cry from the gallery of pearl clutchers is: "But he/she is a role model for the children!".

Except they're not. They're human beings who happen to be very well paid for whatever it is that has made them famous. These people are usually physically attractive - indeed, this often helps make them more famous than actual talent - and they can be regularly seen on magazine covers, in newspapers, on TV and online.

Unless they actually publicly state that they would like to set a good example for kids everywhere, these people are under no obligation to meet any minimum behaviour standards as deemed appropriate by the gallery of pearl clutchers.

Premier League footballers, for example, are young, fit, healthy, wealthy men who are blessed with the ability to skilfully kick a ball. For this, they frequently earn more in a week than many of us earn in a year. Why is anyone remotely surprised when they sleep around or drive fast cars idiotically or behave like entitled brats? Obviously, not all of them behave like dickheads. Plenty are perfectly nice blokes. But when a footballer scandal breaks out, it's not about letting down their kiddie fans. It's about young rich men behaving in an entirely unsurprising manner. Cue the opening of the No Shit, Sherlock files.

Or when Rihanna again returns to the abusive and awful Chris Brown or tweets photos of herself in various states of inebriation, the instant reaction is an appalling mix of victim-blaming, slut-shaming and freaking out about the example she is setting teenage girls. Instead, the reaction should be to have proper discussions about domestic violence, about how being a celebrity isn't a guarantee that you'll be immune from douchebag boyfriends, about how it's perfectly fine to emulate Rihanna's style or enjoy her music, but that doesn't mean copying her life choices is compulsory.

When a celebrity does something stupid, it's an opportunity for parents to, oh, I dunno, actually have a conversation with the kids about it all. As soon as a kid can read a magazine and look up stuff online, that's when it's important to talk to them. It is easy to see how young people develop the idea that celebrities have an apparently easy and glamorous existence. This leads to the notion that footballer's wife, reality TV star or glamour model are all realistic career paths.

I know it all sounds way too hard but there is no reason why young people can't be taught to be critical consumers of media. Why not explain to the teenage girl who hates her spots and her thighs that the images in magazines are PhotoShopped to within an inch of their lives? Why not tell a boy whose favourite footballer has been caught in bed with three prostitutes and enough white powder to do the hotel's laundry that he can admire him for his on-field skills but that off-field behaviour is separate and nobody's damn business?

It is naive to try and shield kids from the world of celebrity. It is naive to think an earnest conversation over the breakfast table will mean a 14-year-old girl will stop wanting Kim Kardashian's hair and put up posters of Marie Curie instead. It is farcical to think a football-mad boy of the same age won't get excited at the thought of being a wealthy Premier League star with a Ferrari in the garage. But it is commonsense to respect their intelligence enough to talk about celebrities with them, challenge their notions of role models, and gently let them know that finishing their education is a wise idea, regardless of what path they might choose as adults.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Fifty shades of yellow

I had an interesting Twitter conversation last night. It all started when I retweeted the fabulous Freya, who tweets as @FuzzCookies. Reflecting on yesterday's awkward Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition mid-term review press conference, she observed: "When Nick Clegg needs the toilet at work, he usually has to raise his hand for permission. Not today on Coalition Birthday as a treat."

Yes, it's lavatorial humour but an apt analogy for the toothlessness of the Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister. It's in the same vein as Private Eye magazine's The New Coalition Academy satire which portrays the government as a dysfunctional school with David Cameron as the headmaster.

But Baroness Meral Husseine-Ece, a Liberal Democrat peer who tweets as @meralhece, didn't find Freya's tweet nearly as amusing as I did and responded to Freya and I with: "Really unfunny."

Being berated by a Baroness for sharing "potty jokes" certainly appeals to the naughty schoolgirl side of my nature, and soon a lively discussion ensued as to whether or not Freya's original tweet was funny. Then Tara Hewitt, who tweets as @Tara_Hewitt, weighed into the chat. Tara describes herself as a "Blue Blairite" in her blog - a Tony Blair supporter and NHS diversity consultant who has since joined the Conservative Party. Tara commented that she supports the coalition and pointed out that it was good policy on the part of the Lib-Dems to raise the tax threshold.

Yes, that was a good policy but, as Freya pointed out in her inimitable style, it was "like finding a tiny diamond in a football pitch-sized flurry of shit." Yep.

The simple fact is that the coalition is not really working. It was a flawed idea from the start because the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats are just too different. In Australia, there is a long-standing coalition that is currently in opposition. But it is a coalition of the Liberal Party, a conservative party despite the name, and the National Party, a conservative party with a strong focus on the interests of rural Australia - as such, regardless of what you might think of Australian Tories, it is a coalition that makes ideological sense.

In the last general election, it was obvious plenty of people were dissatisfied with Gordon Brown's Labour government but the outcome was intriguing. Plenty of seats went to the Conservatives - which was understandable and not surprising - but a big chunk of votes also went to the Liberal Democrats. It wasn't enough to form a Lib-Dem government in its own right, but it was enough to send a message that many people in Britain didn't feel as if a more conservative pathway was the answer either.

Fear of a minority government reigned supreme and a coalition was formed. It was like being at a wedding where all the guests know it isn't going to work out, but nobody is able to stop it from happening.

It is clear the coalition is at odds on welfare reform, unity on marriage equality is proving difficult despite David Cameron's support, there are schisms over Britain's role in the European Union and issues such as the tuition fees debacle led to Nick Clegg broadcasting a apology. The apology then went viral on YouTube as an wobbly auto-tune song - when you go global via a really unfunny form of comedy, it's time to reassess your life.

In yesterday's press conference, Cameron and Clegg vowed to hold it together until the next election in 2015. But this is going to make for a bizarre election campaign for the Lib-Dems when the time comes. Over the next two years, will they continue to compromise the values of their party and support Conservative-led policies but then offer a new raft of policies for the election which will be at odds with Tory policy? If they do that, will any left- and centre-left-leaning voters trust them enough to support them for another term? If they don't do that, however, the Lib-Dems may as well join the Conservative party and be done with it.

Will this mess lead to the rise of UKIP as the third major political party in Britain? My tip is that it won't, despite the outcome of some recent opinion polls and Labour may just squeak into office. I can't see the Lib-Dems performing brilliantly at the next general election - local government elections are an indication of that (although, frankly, it'd be great to see party politics removed from local government but that's another rant for another day, suffice to say I wish Siobhan Benita was the mayor of London.).

UKIP is currently attracting kneejerkers who feel David Cameron isn't being conservative enough, but the party holds limited appeal for younger voters. UKIP leader Nigel Farage is valiantly claiming to be an eccentric, but I can't see him becoming a serious force in British politics as long as enough people see him as an anachronism, a racist or just a lunatic.

The Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times" could well apply to the next two years in Britain. By 2015, we will know if the welfare reforms actually got more people off benefits and back in the workforce. Whatever the case, we will still have potty jokes to amuse us. Whether we will have a pot to piss in remains to be seen.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Another world of stupid because there's just so much of it...

My Zero Tolerance of Idiocy policy is already taking a hammering this year. Here's a summary of the latest tidal wave of stupidity to come my way. Honestly, stemming this tide is like trying to stop a tsunami with a tampon...

1. Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham has wondered out loud if sugary breakfast cereals, such as Frosties, should be banned.* No, they shouldn't. This is a free market economy and there is clearly a market for Frosties. Yes, sugary cereals are gross - but the responsibility for what goes into the mouths of British kids lies with parents. How about education, awareness and parents taking the time to read the nutritional information on food packages? It is all there on the box where anyone can see it.

If reading labels on stuff you are going to feed your children is too hard for you, you're not going to win a Parent of the Year prize any time soon. Assuming the parents of Britain are that stupid and lazy, perhaps a clear, brightly coloured label should be introduced for foods high in sugar, salt and fat. To make it really clear that Sugar Puffs contain sugar. Frankly, there should be a stigma associated with feeding your kids nothing but Sugar Puffs for breakfast, when healthy cereals are just as affordable. But if you're an adult, you have every right to eat whatever the hell cereal you like.

And there's nothing to stop you putting sugar on your kids' All-Bran when you get home. Or perhaps we just need to ban sugar as well. And The Great British Bake-Off...

2. Ann Coulter, queen of non-sequiturs and false equivalencies, says that if the names and addresses of gun owners are made public, as suggested by some Democrats, then it is only fair that the names and addresses of women who've had abortions should be made public too. There's idiocy all round here. Publicly naming gun owners could backfire, if you'll pardon the pun - burglars may target houses of people they know to be unarmed, or if an intruder wants to target the house of someone they know to be armed, they'll probably just rock up with a gun of their own. Guns should be registered**, but it isn't terribly productive to have the list easily available via, say, a Google search.

Equally, the details of women who have had abortions should not be available for all the world to see because, just like records for any other medical procedure, it's nobody's damn business.

3. Prince Charles has stuck his head over the parapet and said he is concerned for the future of the planet, especially as he has a grandchild on the way. That's great, Chuck. How about you start by telling your mother she probably doesn't need to drive a Range Rover. And you could always set an example by flying economy class when you travel internationally and insisting your family does likewise.

4. And while we're on the topic of royal ridiculousness, Prince Charles is apparently*** also concerned that the consequences of allowing a firstborn daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to ascend to the throne or allowing heirs to the throne to marry Roman Catholics haven't been properly thought through. Good grief. The fact that this is still being discussed in 2013 is beyond absurd. Republic, anyone?

5. And while we're on the topic of non-news invented by the Daily Mail, that excuse for a newspaper is still trying to create a controversy where none exists over Jack Whitehall's jokes on The Big Fat Quiz of the Year. Not content with reprinting the allegedly offensive gags and trying to imply that Gabby Logan and Richard Ayoade were uncomfortable with it all, the Mail published a bizarre article about the price of houses in the Whitehall family, ex-girlfriends of Jack Whitehall's father and other such stalker-like material. Did Jack Whitehall spurn the advances of someone in the Dacre family?

6. And speaking of pearl-clutchers, there has been a predictably hysterical reaction to an excellent article about paedophilia in the Guardian by Jon Henley. The charge of poor reading comprehension was led by ex-MP Louise Mensch who started a Twitter storm over it all. Except the article doesn't actually condone paedophilia or say it's acceptable. Henley has instead offered a balanced, even-handed account of how there is still much disagreement among experts on paedophilia, its definition and its consequences - and why understanding paedophilia is important when finding ways to protect children. Read it here and judge for yourself.

7. I've received a press release for wedding chests. Wedding chests that cost £2,600, to be precise. The press release, spruiking on behalf of Tom Aylwyn, claims this is a modern take on the wedding chests of old. Except it's not. It's still a box in which to put housewifely stuff. This seems a bit insane if you've already moved in together. And even if you haven't shacked up, surely you'd rather spend £2,600 on useful stuff for the house rather than a goddamn box.

Here is one of the chests. You can't even sit on it without getting a weird pattern on your bum...


* Despite this idiocy, I'd prefer Andy Burnham to be Health Secretary instead of Jeremy Hunt. Yes, Jeremy Hunt really is that unsuitable for the job. Or for Parliament.

** Yes, I know criminals will always get their hands on guns, but that is not actually a reason to give up on registration.

*** This is according to "friends" of Prince Charles who told the Daily Mail. So it could be a total load of bollocks. But my point still stands that such discussions should have ended some time in the 16th Century.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Happy new year! The first world of stupid for 2013!

2013 is here and the stupidity is showing no signs of abating. Here are a few examples of early idiocy for the new year...

1. Kay Burley, who is inexplicably still employed by Sky News, plumbed new depths in moronic journalism the other day when interviewing a doctor about Britain's baby boom. She could have asked intelligent questions about the social and economic implications of all these new people, she could have asked if the country's health services can cope with it all, she could have referenced an inquiry into unplanned pregnancy that has been largely ignored by the mainstream media. Instead, she asked whether Fifty Shades Of Grey was responsible.

2. The Daily Mail got off to a flying start with the first front page of the year by manufacturing outrage at Channel 4's The Big Fat Quiz of the Year, a new year's eve programme featuring James Corden, Jack Whitehall and Jimmy Carr. Not only did the comedians, all of whom are over the age of 18, drink actual alcohol on telly but they made "offensive" jokes about the likes of the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Usain Bolt and Barack Obama, according to The Daily Mail. Anyone who expected this trio to make witty puns about bunny rabbits and spend the programme in quiet prayer and reflection is too stupid to have a TV licence.

The jokes were made "seconds after the watershed". Er, yes, so that would mean they were broadcast after the watershed, when rude jokes can be broadcast. The Mail then reprinted all the offending jokes, just in case we needed to check how hard our pearls needed to be clutched.

3. The Telegraph has been a little bit more restrained in being outraged at The Big Fat Quiz of the Year, but in their article today, describing it all as "vulgar", they have helpfully told us when Channel 4 will be repeating the programme. Just in case we didn't catch the jokes being reprinted in the Mail and we need to see it for ourselves to check how hard our pearls need to be clutched.

4. In the United Arab Emirates, a group of labourers have been taken on a dinner cruise and given phone credit recharge cards as an expression of appreciation for their hard work. This would be in lieu of them being paid a proper living wage so they could not only send money home but be more economically active within the UAE, living in accommodation with a modicum of privacy, being able to bring wives and families over to live with them in the UAE and having any real rights...

5. This seems to be a thing in America but it might catch on elsewhere - ultrasound parties! That's right, folks. Pregnant women not content with posting ultrasound pics on Facebook can now book a technician with a sonogram machine to make a home visit so everyone can gather around and look at fuzzy grey foetal images. "Hey, friends! Come on over and see my reproductive organs!"

This is not about being prolife or prochoice. This is about being pro-privacy and anti-ridiculous.

I am filing this one under the category of "If I am ever pregnant and you catch me doing this, please throw a glass of cold water in my face...".