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.