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.