Sunday, 13 December 2015

The war on Christmas: Largely a load of balls

Come on, people. Are we really still doing this? Despite Christmas being in everyone's faces everywhere from Detroit to Dubai*, from Canberra to Cape Town, from Toronto to Timbuktu, people still insist on whining about the alleged war on Christmas.

Stop it. Please. Give it a rest. You are being ridiculous and childish. You are embarrassing yourself. If someone wishes you "Happy holidays!" instead of "Merry Christmas!", you are not being oppressed. If any location that is not actually a church does not want to display a nativity scene or hold a carol-singing event, you are still not being oppressed. Christmas has not been cancelled.

Unhappy about the commercialisation of Christmas? Er, don't buy any presents then. It's not compulsory. Upset about the festival of gluttony that is Christmas dinner in your country? Go spend the day volunteering at a soup kitchen. Nobody is forcing you to spend piles of money on presents or food.

If you are a Christian living in Daesh-occupied territory, in Saudi Arabia or North Korea, then yes, you are being oppressed if you want to celebrate Christmas. But these aren't the people who generally whine about the war on Christmas, probably because they are busy trying to survive if they live under the rule of the Daesh losers, King Salman or Kim Jong-un. They are three regimes where being a Christian can cost you your life. I am yet to come across a "war on Christmas" whiner who is in genuine mortal danger for being a Christian or observing any of the traditions of the festive season.

If you can decorate your house in lights galore, put up a Christmas tree, display a nativity scene, nobody has attacked you for saying "Merry Christmas", and you can freely attend Christmas church services and sing carols, you are not a victim in a war on Christmas. You are not a victim at all. Why don't you speak up on behalf of the real victims - the Christians who are not safe in brutal regimes - instead of carrying on like a spoilt brat who didn't get the right bike from Santa?

On Christmas Day, someone will probably be killed by Daesh for being a Christian or for being the wrong type of Muslim. On Christmas Day, there will be no church services in Saudi Arabia. On Christmas Day, there will be Christians in North Korea languishing in prison for their beliefs. That is real oppression.

To compare a cheerful "Happy holidays!" greeting and to bang on about "political correctness gone mad!" is to be revoltingly insulting to those who are in real danger, who do not have freedom of religion, who have to hide their faith for fear of arrest or worse.

Enough of the hollow whining about a war on Christmas. It's as tinny as cheap tinsel.

* I know Dubai is in the UAE, which is a Muslim country. Christmas is indeed a big deal in Dubai. I used to live there, I have never seen so many big Christmas trees in my life and there are plenty of churches for those who choose to observe the season.

Photography by George Hodan

Sunday, 6 December 2015

London and San Bernadino: A tale of two medias

In San Bernadino this week, two shooters, a married couple with a six-month-old child, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, murdered 14 people at a party at an environmental health department building. Farook was an employee of department so the disgruntled employee motive was considered. But US officials told the media that Tashfeen Malik posted a pledge of allegiance to Daesh on her Facebook page so the terrorism motive took centre stage, in both the investigation and in the reporting of the awful story.

It has not been shown yet that Malik or Farook had any direct contact with the sad morons of Daesh, but it was inevitable that Daesh would take credit for the attack. Of course, the media does a lot of Daesh's recruiting work for them by constantly giving their mindless bullshit airplay. The wretched cretins didn't need to seek out a quiet couple in California to claim they were the puppet masters.

And then members of the US media in San Bernadino exhibited astounding behaviour after Farook and Malik had been shot dead by US authorities. Cable news journalists overran the couple's house, where they lived with their child and Farook's mother. MSNBC, BBC, CBS News and CNN all broadcast live scenes of this media feeding frenzy. MSNBC shamefully broadcast footage of items that could identify Farook's mother, who is not a suspect, as well as photographs of children. That is a monstrous breach of privacy as well as being completely unethical and irresponsible.

Weapons and components which could be used to make explosives had already been removed from the house by the authorities, and reporters were not allowed into the garage where these items were found, so the footage that was broadcast was simply that of a mundane house with some religious paraphernalia. But even this was presented in a prism of breathless sensationalism, with reporters even checking the calendar to see if anything had been noted down for 2 December. The couple who committed this vile crime were clearly disturbed and their combined worldview hideously warped, but they were not stupid enough to write "Massacre a bunch of people!" as if it was an errand on par with "Pay the electricity bill."

While it did seem like a quick process between the massacre taking place on 2 December and the media being allowed in once the house had been returned to the landlord on 4 December, the FBI confirmed that the property had indeed been released.

But that doesn't make the behaviour of reporters, or indeed the landlord who let them in with their cameras, any less appalling.

Why weren't the producers pausing even for a moment to ask what such footage adds to the story instead of letting it go to air live? This is the question that needs to be asked regardless of whether a journalist is reporting on mass murder, Motocross or a mouse plague.

We are living in a culture where the priority of news outlets is to be first, even if being first is at the expense of accuracy, relevance or privacy concerns.

Compare this to the more restrained reporting by the British media on the Leytonstone tube station stabbing, which happened last night. Again, those dickheads representing Daesh will rush to take credit for the acts of a dismal would-be murderer because the attacker reportedly shouted "This is for Syria" as he stabbed his victim, a 56-year-old man. The victim survived, albeit with serious knife wounds, and another two people received minor injuries.

The suspect was Tasered and is in police custody. Personally, I think this is the best possible outcome of such an attack because it means the suspect can be properly questioned and more intelligence may be gleaned. That said, it is easier to subdue a knife-wielding suspect than one firing a gun at people.

It is heartening to see the British media reporting on the story responsibly, especially when compared to the mania that overtook reporters in San Bernadino this week. Even the Daily Mail, an outlet that has sensationalised similar stories in the past, is focused on the facts and on the stories of the ordinary people who behaved in an extraordinary manner in helping prevent more people from being injured.

It has been reported that police have been to the suspect's home as part of the ongoing investigation but we are not likely to witness a media scrum camped outside this residence. Sky News has even stopped short of sending Kay Burley, their resident ghoul, to stake it out.

Terrible floods in the north-west of England have, quite rightly, shunted the Leytonstone attack from the top of today's news agenda in Britain. Good. This event represents a greater threat to more people than the deluded rantings of an attention-seeking twat at a tube station.

We cannot deny that we are living in challenging times. And it is because of this that we need even-handed, responsible, accurate reporting more than ever. The 24-hour news cycle is a hungry beast that will always be fed - but even-handed, responsible and accurate reporting will always make for a better information meal than junk reporting.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Learning from history? It'll never catch on...

Imagine this scenario if you will: People in England, including the leaders, consider the country to be under threat by the "other religion". The fear of the "other religion" may not be entirely unreasonable when one considers that countries where this particular faith is the state religion have already been involved in wars with England, and these countries represent an ongoing threat of future wars against this green and pleasant land.

England, with the able assistance of government propaganda, is gripped by a fear of an invasion by the "other religion". People are genuinely fearful that the "other religion" will become the state religion and the principles of this religion will form the basis of English law.

The leaders deal with this perceived threat by throwing vast sums of money at the military in case there is an attack on English soil. They also go apeshit with surveillance and censorship. Spies are operating in England as well as in the countries that support the "other religion". Texts and other paraphernalia from the "other religion" are forbidden. Adherents of the "other religion" are forced to worship in secret and can even be arrested under the guise of national security laws.

Ironically, most adherents of the "other religion" in England go about their business peacefully, practicing their faith privately. They are ordinary people doing ordinary jobs or running businesses. For the most part, they are not remotely interested in proselytising, even though such evangelism is part and parcel of the "other religion".

This is what happened in England in the 16th century. The leader of the country was Elizabeth I. The countries that threatened England included France and Spain and the threats were real and did indeed result in war. The spies of Elizabeth I infiltrated people's private lives. The punishment for practicing the "other religion" included execution for treason by some of the most hideous means imaginable. The "other religion" was Catholicism.

There was even a massacre in Paris at the time - it is estimated that 3,000 French Protestants were killed in Paris on St Bartholomew's Day in 1572 and an estimated 70,000 more were killed across the whole of France. A grim religious civil war gripped France and Huguenot refugees fled the country in fear for their lives, with many finding a safe have in England.

It all sounds a bit familiar.

Despite the horrendous bloodshed - or possibly because of it and the growing popular discontent with a bloated and distant monarchy - the French Revolution ultimately came about in the 18th century and plenty of its seeds were sown with the events of 1572 onwards. From this, a secular France was achieved and freedom of speech was one of the principles of the revolution.

Except now we have a fearful French leadership, a France that, for now, is banning public demonstrations in the wake of the terrible events on November 13. It was heartening to see people in Paris defying this stupid ban this weekend, refusing to be as scared as Francois Hollande appears to be. Excellently, 10,000 people who planned to be part of the global climate marches placed their shoes at the Place de la Republique instead. Regardless of your views on climate change, if you love freedom of speech, this is something to be applauded.

Meanwhile, here in the UK, some people are calling for banning the burqa and increased surveillance even though neither of these things stopped the latest Paris attacks. Over in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders is moronically calling for the Quran to be banned even though banning books is not just profoundly anti-freedom and propagates ignorance, but is as useful as a fishnet condom now we have the newfangled internet. Then again, Wilders is also calling for Jordan, a country that has done some heroic things in terms of coping with Syrian refugees, to be renamed Palestine, so he is not to be taken seriously.

And it's not as if the world is even capable of learning from very recent history. Raqqa, the current target du jour for the west, was bombed by Syria last year. I don't know whether you've noticed but it achieved sod-all.

If I genuinely thought airstrikes would be an effective way to stop those pathetic Daesh losers, and if airstrikes didn't keep killing innocent civilians just as Daesh does, I wouldn't have a huge issue with it. But I am not convinced they will do anything more than create more radicalisation and add to the refugee crisis. And there are reports that Daesh is now encouraging their pitiful fans to travel to Sirte in Libya instead of Syria, where they are also entrenching themselves. It is a grotesque game of whack-a-mole and not one that we can simply bomb our way out of and expect peace at the end.

Airstrikes are generally popular with people who are highly unlikely to be standing underneath one. Attacking from on high comes across as a sanitised form of warfare, like a big video game, one where you don't have to look the people you are killing in the eye. It could well be that boots-on-the-ground warfare, the kind of warfare that has a more targeted approach, will prove more effective in breaking up oil supply lines, in stopping weapons getting into the hands of Daesh, in retaking the Syrian oil installations than flattening Syria - and no doubt Libya next - from on high.

And then then there is the paucity of discussion about an endgame. What should Syria look like if Daesh is ever neutralised? What sort of government should be in place? Are there any plans for job creation and rebuilding the shattered economy?

After Turkey shot a Russian plane down, people seemed to divide into Team Turkey and Team Russia, as if either country has covered themselves in glory of late, and as if the issue is so simplistically binary.

We have Turkey, a nation unfit to be in NATO and certainly unfit to attain EU membership any time soon, complicit in the sale of Daesh oil while continuing their campaign against the Kurds.

And we have Russia, whose leader, Vladimir Putin, is more interested in keeping Assad in power, particularly as he will uphold the 2013 oil and gas deal which is great for Russia but would deny Syria the opportunity to achieve greater energy self-sufficiency.

Energy self-sufficiency would be a tremendous thing for Syria if it ever attains its dream of democracy that started out in 1945 and has been comprehensively shat on ever since. Energy self-sufficiency would also mean Syria is not dependant on Saudi oil - and it is dependence on Saudi oil and revenue from weapons sales that keeps the world passive when it comes to dealing with that absurd kingdom's violent, conservative, oppressive Wahhabism, the very ideology that Daesh spreads in its bid to recruit people.

I don't claim to have the answers to this unholy mess but I am sure that failing to learn from centuries of human history and pushing for simplistic solutions are not going to make the problems go away any time soon.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Thoughts on Paris after the inevitable atrocity

Here, in no particular order and with absolutely no sense of optimism about anything I say having any kind of influence, are some musings on the aftermath of the horrific events that took place in Paris on Friday.

1. Firstly, let us refer to Islamic State as Daesh for they really hate it. This is something people from across the political spectrum agree upon. Hell, I even agree with Tony Abbott on this one. That said, it is important to recognise that they are indeed attempting to create a state, they have had some success in doing so over relatively large areas, and, therefore, it is important to treat them like any other vile, repressive state. We should not recognise their sovereignty over the land they have stolen. We should not trade with them. We should join with the people who have lost everything in doing all we can to help them return home and for prosperity and peace to prevail.

2. We need to call on the countries that surround Daesh's territory to come together as one on this issue, even if they disagree on many other issues. Saudi Arabia, in particular, cannot continue enabling Daesh's ongoing existence - they have played a major role in creating what is essentially a more violent version of the absurd Wahhabism that has turned Saudi into a gruesome laughing stock, even among its Arabian Gulf neighbours. And Saudi's neighbours have played their role in enabling poisonous ideology to spread, even if this has sometimes occurred by complacency rather than design. In any case, no one country or small group of countries should ever play the role of the global policeman.

3. And just as we need to acknowledge that Daesh's ideology is a particularly vile theocracy that is just as political as it is religious (if not more political than conveniently religious...), the West needs to acknowledge its role in destabilising the Middle East. This has been going on for a while now. And all we are left with are crude hypotheticals to which we will never know the answers. These include: Would 9/11 have happened if Gore than Bush was president? Regardless of who was president and 9/11 still happened, what would have happened if America took a truly Biblical turn-the-other-cheek approach and didn't plough into a misguided war with Iraq? What the hell has killing Osama bin Laden achieved apart from a mic-drop moment for Barack Obama? What intelligence has died with bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and even the relative minnows, such as Mohammed Emwazi?

4. Merely attempting to bomb our way out of the current state of affairs is probably not going to be particularly effective. Daesh should have its lines of communication cut off too. In the aftermath of this weekend's events in Paris, some idiots seemed amazed that murderous thugs in the Middle East could communicate with murderous thugs in France. It is the same mentality that leads to people saying moronic things such as: "Those people cannot be refugees if they have mobile phones!" as if modern telecommunication only happens in the West. Bombs are raining down on Daesh targets in Raqqa as I write this post but it will not be enough. The city was already bombed last November and the main casualties were civilians.

5. Likewise, Daesh should have its weapons supply lines cut off. This will be quite the task but it is essential. Daesh's arsenals are made possible because of modern transportation as well as weapons from eastern European arms manufacturers getting safe passage into Syria through Turkey, Libyan armouries ending up in Syria, captured arms from the US and Saudi ending up in extremists' hands, arms supplied by funding from Saudi extremists with Saudi laws against such funding not really being enforced at all, Daesh sympathisers in Pakistan and Afghanistan obtaining US surplus from the black market in Quetta and Peshawar...

And then there is the money to be made from the global arms marketplace that supplies the "good guys", but war has always been great for business.

6. There has been some good and responsible reporting on the events in Paris amid the bloody awful reporting. Tragically, Sky News word-puker Kay Burley tweeting a picture of a dog with the words "sadness in his eyes" was not even the daftest thing she did this weekend. She also asked someone lining up to give blood why they were giving blood. Merde, I dunno, Kay. Because they were really looking forward to the banana afterwards?

7. The relentlessly hungry beast that is 24/7 news coverage has given rise to some awful journalism, in particular on the issue of passports found at the scene. Most distressing was an Egyptian passport found at the Stade de France that some reporters were quick to link to the terrorists, except it turned out to belong to a spectator who is currently critically injured. Unfortunately, the nonstop model of news means that being first tends to take precedence over being accurate.

8. Andrew Marr got it so wrong this morning on BBC when he said that Paris is the only story today. No. It is not. There are other ongoing stories that have a Paris terror angle, such as the government's rush to pass the snoopers' charter even though such powers proved ineffective in France this weekend, what impact cuts to police, the military, and the NHS will have if a similar attack happens in the UK, and the refugee crisis. But even so, there are still other stories both in the UK and abroad that still need to be reported and it would have been good to see coverage of other news especially when the news channels inevitably started repeating themselves and news tickers remained unchanged for hours.

Amol Rajan, who often makes sense, described 9/11 on Marr's programme as an attack on capitalism. No. It was not. The twin towers were an easy target for amateur pilots. It was an attack on so much more than that. Equally, Bono describing the attack on the Eagles of Death Metal concert in Paris as an attack of music was head-up-the-arse nonsense of the highest order.

9. Despite what you may be seeing, hearing and reading in mainstream media sources, there are plenty of brilliant journalists out there who are working tirelessly to cover stories other than Paris. Lebanon, Yemen, Burma, Iraq, South Sudan, Kenya, the list goes on of places where newsworthy events are taking place. Despite what many a moaner says, other stories are being reported - but you might have to actually do some damn research and find some alternative news sources or recognise that it was covered in mainstream news outlets but you might not have bothered to pay attention. Additionally, local and regional news sources are often easily found online - and when you do find these stories, share the hell out of them. In this free market world of news, consumers have the power to give all manner of news the airplay it deserves.

10. An interesting quote from Richard Dawkins that sprung up this weekend deserves more analysis: "They're the ones who don't take their religion seriously." He was referring to the religious people, in particular Catholics and Muslims, who he deems to be "good". My instinctive interpretation of "not taking religion seriously" is to refer to the people who happily identify with a particular religion but don't follow every single example of their faith's book to the letter.

They are, for example, the Muslims who drink alcohol, the Muslims and Christians who have sex outside of marriage or blaspheme when they're angry or surprised, the people who may indeed have conservative attitudes to issues such as homosexuality but do not believe that execution is an appropriate punishment despite some of the more startling passages from their holy books, the people who may indeed be offended at jokes at the expense of their faith but do not seek to kill or even arrest anyone over such humour.

The phrase "don't take their religion seriously" is a glib soundbite but my broader interpretation probably encompasses more religious people than we realise, even those who may bristle at being described in that manner. It strikes me as a lazy shorthand term for moderate religious people but, in my experience, moderates are actually the majority. It's just that moderate voices, especially in the wake of terror attacks, are seldom heard. Noisy idiots, such as Anjem Choudry, end up getting airplay as representing entire faiths and all this achieves is a recruitment drive for Daesh.

11. It's OK if you don't put a French flag filter on your Facebook profile photo. It's OK if you do. Whatever you do, don't be dick about it. There are enough of those in the world already. See Bono etc.

Photo by Lode Van de Velde

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Airport whining and perspective failures

How do you know when a load of Australians has landed at Heathrow? You can still hear the whining long after the plane has landed. Yes, very droll. But airport whining is not restricted to people from the country where I was born.

On November 2, I returned to London after a weekend in Newcastle and picked up a copy of the Evening Standard at Kings Cross station for the tube ride home. The front page and a spread inside were dedicated to the "chaos" caused by thick fog at Heathrow airport. While the story was a change from their usual worship of Boris Johnson, it was just a compendium of first world whiners. Even Olympic cyclist Sir Chris Hoy joined in the moaning.

Apparently, the airlines and the airport could have done more. Nobody seemed to have any concrete suggestions about what could be done to fix a weather event beyond human control, but "more" of something was apparently required. The gripes centred on not receiving texts or emails from airlines in a timely enough manner. People were furious about turning up at the airport - presumably they travelled to the airport with their eyes closed, oblivious to the pea souper that shrouded the nation - only to be stunned that fog delayed their flights. Aside from the texts and emails warning passengers of likely delays and cancellations owing to fog, I'm not sure what else the airlines could have done. Tried to blow away the fog with giant hairdryers? How the hell did these overgrown babies cope with air travel before the advent of texts and emails?

Cancelled flights suck but flying in a plane where the pilot cannot see beyond the nose cone is hardly a reasonable alternative.

And this week, we've witnessed endless news time gobbled up by footage of British tourists stranded at Sharm el-Sheikh after the Russian plane crash and complaining that they just want to go home. I get it. Even after an idyllic holiday, there comes that bit at the end when you've packed up, headed to the airport, and your thoughts turn to being reunited with your own bed.

But, seriously, being stranded for a bit longer at a secure resort - and the resorts have stepped security enormously since the 2005 terror attack - is hardly the worst thing in the world. If I had to take an enforced extended Sharm holiday while I was waiting for a safe flight home and a news channel rocked up at my resort, I would happily appear on camera. I'd be thrilled to give a big up-yours to the terrorists by letting them know I was not scared of their murderous bullshit, that, despite the tragedy of the plane crash, I was determined to enjoy some bonus time in the sun, wearing a sinful bikini and drinking cocktails. Hell, it is only the fact that I am happily married that would stop me from adding fornication to my list of haram behaviour.

Of course, as soon as last night's Dr Who showed a scene where a plane was shot down, a Twitter fauxrage erupted. When I tweeted that the show is fictitious and the writers are not actual time-travellers who were to know that a plane crash, possibly linked to terrorism, was going to happen that week, some random internet stranger accused me of showing no respect to the Britons stranded in Egypt. Said internet stranger made no mention of dead Russians, just people stuck on sun loungers for a few more days.

This is the pathetic level of analysis going on at the moment - misplaced sympathy and kneejerk reactions to an episode of Dr Who. Of course, if the people who freaked out about the scene of the plane being shot down bothered to watch the entire episode, they would have seen it in its full context, which was a powerful allegory about the sorry state of the world and the futility of attempting to achieve peace with more war.

It was a stellar piece of acting by Peter Capaldi, it rose above such flinty noise as people whining in airports, and it was entirely appropriate for this Remembrance Sunday weekend.

Photography by Luisa Mota

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Censorship, students and unfashionable opinions

Congratulations, Cardiff University Women's Society, on your tremendous victory. Germaine Greer has decided not to speak at your campus on the topic of "Women and Power in the 20th Century". She has decided that, at the age of 76, she cannot be arsed with the inevitable hassle. She cannot be blamed for feeling as if her safety won't be guaranteed, that people won't throw things at her.

Well done, Cardiff University Women's Society, for successfully silencing a woman, for making her fear for her personal safety. I hope you are proud of yourselves.

I get it. You are upset with Germaine Greer's views on trans women. Her views on trans women are not ones that I share - indeed, I do not agree with her on everything and I doubt she would expect me to do so - but to react to her unfashionable views by silencing her or making her fear for her safety is ridiculous. Trans women face issues of personal safety that are unimaginable to many of us. Mental health issues are a major problem, suicide rates are unacceptable, bullying and harassment and violence are sadly commonplace, and the voices and experiences of trans women are often silenced and shut out.

But silencing one woman will not make things better for anyone.

This current craze for no-platforming is the kind of intellectually mild censorship that should have no place on a university campus, a place where your ideas are supposed to be challenged, where there should be no one dominant viewpoint, and a place where debates should take place between people of differing opinions.

As one of the leading figures in feminism of the 20th Century, I'd be very interested in what she has to say on the topic of "Women and Power in the 20th Century". Her perspectives, as someone who was part of the story as well as a commentator on the story, would have, most likely, been fascinating.

But now nobody at Cardiff University will get to hear her perspectives on this important period of feminist history.

It is a period of history that still has implications to this day - there are still debates going on around the world about the issues that angered women last century and people like Germaine Greer helped bring women's issues into the mainstream. It is because of Germaine Greer and her contemporaries that people started to realise that women's issues are not minority issues.

You may not agree with her views on trans women but it is hard to argue that she did not pave the way for women - and the views of women who disagree with her - to be heard. Have you even bothered to read The Female Eunuch and to understand it in its historic context so you can appreciate why Germaine Greer is important in 2015? Are you so arrogant, so fixated on one of her opinions, that you cannot appreciate the importance in learning from history and from someone who was part of that history?

Trans issues did not play a massive role in the 20th Century women's movement. Indeed, mainstream second wave feminism has been frequently criticised for being too middle class, too white, too heterosexual, and certainly trans-exclusionary. But here are a few constructive ideas for the members of Cardiff University Women's Society - why didn't it occur to you to attend Greer's lecture and ask her challenging questions about where trans women were during the changes that took place in the 20th Century? Or you could peacefully picket the lecture (while we still have the right to peacefully protest in this country...), or hold your own event with powerful trans women as speakers. Or just don't attend the lecture and get on with your life. "Freedom of speech" is not the same as "compulsory to listen".

Imagine if you attended the lecture and started a constructive conversation with Germaine Greer about trans issues. Universities can be amazing places where students achieve amazing things - science students have made breakthroughs that astounded their professors, humanities students have come up with world-changing philosophies, and Cardiff University students could have played a pivotal role in opening up dialogue on trans issues between the generations. But that won't happen now because the intellectually lazy route of censorship was the more comfortable ride.

Photo by Circe Denyer

Monday, 26 October 2015

Report on rape, expect idiocy at leisure...

The take-home message of my last couple of days is probably: Don't bother trying to reason with rape apologists and people who don't understand the basics of the British justice system because you will only end up beating your head against the nearest brick wall.

But that is exactly what I foolishly did and, wow, have I come across some of the finest minds operating in Britain today.

On the Evening Standard Facebook page, a link to a this story about a reported rape in my local area was posted last night. The headline, "Woman, 34, 'raped in south-west London park as she walked home alone" was like catnip for victim-blamers.

People demanded to know what the hell she was doing walking home by herself at 2am. It didn't seem to occur to these dullards that the buses had stopped running by then, it's not always easy to hail a taxi in that part of the neighbourhood at 2am, the night buses were still a walk in the dark away and possibly not even heading near her home, or that, quite simply, it was not a long walk and the Merton Police Twitter account likes to remind us all the time how safe the borough is.

Also, none of these variables and possibilities bloody matter because she had every right to walk home without getting raped. I've walked by myself in that area at night without expecting to be raped.

And there were the inevitable comparisons of rape to crimes against property. According to yet another academic giant, men (What? All of them?) take their Rolexes off when they walk through a rough neighbourhood. By this logic, if a man is mugged for his Rolex, that is exactly the same as the monstrous violation of one's body that is rape. I'm not sure if the men making these statements realise that men can be raped too but that notion might make their tiny heads explode.

Others added some racism to the victim-blaming, demanding to know why there was no description of the alleged attacker in the article. This obviously meant that she was attacked by an immigrant, probably an illegal one, according to the cavalcade of fools.

Or maybe it meant that she was attacked in the dark and was too busy trying to fend off her attacker in the dark to pause and observe him for distinguishing features.

There was no race-based description, according to one genius, because some people are "protected" by the police. Yeah. Except a quick peek at the news section of the Metropolitan Police website shows that if there is a description based on skin colour or nationality available, this will be publicised in the alerts about people wanted for questioning. If there is a clear photo of a suspect, which makes the person's ethnicity pretty obvious, the Met will publish that too.

Then someone called Emily Burton (and my apologies in advance to all the perfectly pleasant women out there called Emily Burton...) felt the need to send me a message on Facebook in response to my attempts to reason with a mob who were either angry with a woman for walking home alone or angry that the police were "obviously" hiding something.

Here is her delightful and sisterly message to me:

HEY LISTEN UP YOU DRIED UP OLD CUNT everyone is fucked off with your RETARDED OPINIONS , bet you've never had a shag in your life !!! never mind the fact you are the ultimate billy no mates , now go back to your bible you stupid bitch and FUCK THE HELL OFF !!! Georgia Lewis BRAIN DEAD CUNT

BTW if you don't know what the definition of a brain dead cunt is LOOK IN A MIRROR

The message went into my "Others" folder. If she didn't alert me to the fact she'd sent me a message on the Evening Standard's Facebook page, I probably wouldn't have seen it for months. I publicly thanked her for the message and told her that I hope she is never raped because I wouldn't wish rape on anyone, and because that would be a terrible way to learn why victim-blaming is an awful thing to do.

It would appear that she then thought better of announcing to the world that she sends unsolicited and abusive messages to people she has never met, because her comments disappeared and she now seems to have vamoosed from Facebook altogether.

And then the Wimbledon Guardian, my local newspaper, reported on the story this morning and posted it on their Facebook page. Lo and behold, more idiots!

This time, two people objected to the reporter's use of the word "alleged". One bloke called Dave asked why "alleged" and whether this is "something women do for attention". And a woman called Emma said: "Surely 'allegedly' should be used when finger pointing a suspect, not for what the victim has said. I'm sure the police can determine if rape occurred or not. Allegedly wasn't the right choice of word."

Er, yes, Emma and Dave, in a responsible news report "allegedly" is the right word. Until someone is arrested and unless that person is then found guilty of rape, the victim's report to the police is still an allegation.

I pointed this out to Dave whose stellar response was "If that's your opinion, mine's different."

Christ on a cracker, Dave, no. It's not my opinion. It is how the British justice system works to ensure a fair trial. The principle of innocent until proven guilty is a pretty important one. According to Dave, who adorably attempted feminism, this might put women off reporting rape.

No. The principle of the presumption of innocence should not ever put off a woman - or a man, for that matter, from reporting rape. You know what does put women off reporting rapes though? The victim-blaming crap that puts her on trial in the kangaroo court of online comments for having the temerity to walk home alone with the apparently outrageous expectation that nobody will rape her.

A rapist is responsible for rape. That is all.

Photo by jks Lola

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Cut the crap on Chinese and Saudi human rights!

Come on, David Cameron. Come on. If you're going to kowtow to China and Saudi Arabia, at least have the honesty to admit that it has sod-all to do with human rights and everything to do with money.

This really has been the week of unedifying spectacles in Britain. The state dinner to honour Xi Jinping served bottles of wine worth £1,450 each - that's one month's rent on a one-bedroom flat in Clapham or a figure not too far above the drop in annual household income that will be experienced by an estimated 20% of British households if the House of Lords can't fend off the planned changes to tax credits. There was the Duchess of Cambridge looking demurely bored, resplendent and obsequious in the red of the Chinese flag. The blokes looked either dapper or awkward in white tie. It was all rather obscene.

Then there was the press conference that wasn't really a press conference. Not if Britain is trying to be a democracy with a free press anyway. Cameron kicked things off by announcing there would only be two questions. Two! One from a British journalist and one from a Chinese journalist. Sorry, Dave, that does not a press conference maketh. But I'm sure you know that. But God forbid we do anything to offend Xi with anything resembling a media holding governments to account. That's not how they do things in China.

And it sure as hell shouldn't be the way things are done here.

Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC political editor, crammed a lot into her one question (she had no choice, really...), calling out the Cameron and Xi on the steel industry job losses, the lavishness of the state visit and China's human rights in one fell swoop. And both men gave glib politician's answers that promised nothing and said nothing worthwhile or courageous.

Xi can slyly grin his way through a monologue about human rights being important to China and how changes are happening all he likes because he knows he will not get voted out of office any time soon, nobody will hold him to account to make any changes and he leaves the UK safe in the knowledge the moneymaking deals are safe.

Britain and China have been trading for a while now. Historically, we've done business with China since the Ming Dynasty and more recently, we've lapped up the deals as China became open to making money (largely for state-owned companies and with very little of the new wealth trickling down to the cheap labour force...). China is now a massive market for luxury goods and has the world's highest number of women billionaires at 49. Way to go, Red China!

But despite all these yummy deals, human rights have not improved in China. Exact statistics are almost impossible to obtain but it is estimated that China alone executes more people than the rest of the world combined - at least 607 executions took place in China last year and 778 in 2013. There is no free press and journalists are arrested with alarming frequency - just last month, Wang Xiaolu was arrested for "spreading false information" when he reported on the stock market crash. The one-child policy leads to forced abortions and forced insertion of IUDs. Freedom of religion is restricted. Chinese democracy is nothing but a fairly terrible Guns N' Roses album.

Limiting a press conference to two questions, both from government media outlets, is just the sort of thing one would expect from China. And yet that happened here in Britain this week.

Let us not pretend that China is anywhere near being a freedom-loving democracy. But, more than that, let us quit pretending that doing business with them will stop the human rights abuses any time soon. By "us", in particular, I mean you, David Cameron.

And the same goes for Saudi Arabia. It is probably the worst place on the planet to be a woman. And it is pretty damn horrific if you're an atheist, a Christian, a Hindu, gay, bisexual, transgender, unmarried and sexually active, a republican, a Wiccan, or you are at all interested in a free press, freedom of assembly or universal suffrage.

This didn't stop Cameron giving the same apologist answers for human rights abuses in China when he was asked by Channel 4's Jon Snow about his part in the ridiculous election of Saudi Arabia to the UN Human Rights Council. As well as stammering around the issue of whether he'd personally intervene to try and save the life of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, the teenager sentenced to be beheaded and crucified for encouraging pro-democracy protests, he again peddled the lie that all these trade deals we do with Saudi help improve human rights.

Nothing much is improving in Saudi Arabia when it comes to human rights. Saudi has executed at least 175 people in the past year, including 102 in the first six months of 2015 alone. Nearly half of these people were foreign nationals and the mentally disabled and those accused of crimes committed while under the age of 18 are not safe from the sword or firing squad either.

It took the lobbying by Jeremy Corbyn and the ensuing mass outrage at the sentencing of British expat, Karl Andree, to 350 lashes for being caught with home-made wine in his car for David Cameron to do anything constructive. He cancelled a training contract with Saudi prisons worth £6 million to the UK and now, it seems, Karl Andree may be spared the lashes.

Obviously, this is great news for the Andree family and anyone who is appalled at such a violent punishment for a victimless crime but it was also a case of affordable principles.

In the big scheme of things, a £6 million pound contract to train staff who work in one of the world's most repugnant justice systems is small potatoes.

David Cameron was never going to risk the lucrative arms trade with Saudi Arabia to spare a British citizen from being lashed. The UK-Saudi arms relationship goes back a long way. Between 1992 and 1994, 75% of the UK's total arms sales were to Saudi Arabia. In 2013, Saudi was the world's biggest buyer of British arms, spending £1.6b. Since March this year, the government granted 37 export licences for military goods to Saudi Arabia. We will never know how many of these weapons will end up in the hands of IS but it would be naive to suggest that does not happen.

If David Cameron just admitted that the deals with China and Saudi Arabia were all about the money and really won't have any impact on improving human rights in either country, at least I'd appreciate his honesty. Right now, there's nothing honest about pretending these trade deals will help the people of either country and everything about a supposed democracy where a two-question press conference is allowed by the Prime Minister stinks.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Charity and the cult of the personality

Today, #kidscompany and Boris Johnson were trending at the same time on Twitter. It was quite the coincidence because both stories that led to the social media noise illustrated precisely why the cult of the personality continues to make idiots of us all. We may look back with the privileged superiority of 20/20 vision in hindsight at how people fell under the spell of Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin but we are not necessarily any smarter in 2015.

Boris Johnson was in the news because he rugby-tackled a 10-year-old boy. Everyone reported this with the usual "Oh,  isn't Boris hilarious!" tone. It's another Boris distraction from his appalling record as Mayor of London and his ineffectiveness as an MP. He does this on purpose, because he knows it's what people will talk about instead of anything serious.

But falling for the cult of the personality isn't limited to the BoJo fan club. The #kidscompany Twitter trend centred on the terrible story that is the collapse of the Kids Company charity. Kids Company was founded in 1996 by British-Iranian psychotherapist, Camila Batmanghelidjh.

Batmanghelidjh was lauded across the political spectrum. Celebrities, such as the members of Coldplay and JK Rowling, donated generously to the charity that started as a youth drop-in centre in London's Camberwell neighbourhood and grew until it had therapy centres, alternative education facilities and a presence in 40 schools in London and Bristol, as well as a performing arts programme in Liverpool.

And, crucially, David Cameron hailed her as a heroine, as part of his "Big Society" concept. Remember that? That thing in which we are all meant to be in together? That one.

Kids Company received £30m of taxpayers' money. Three million of this was meant to be spent on restructuring an organisation that had grown perhaps too fast with ego and ambition overtaking reality. Instead, it was mostly spent on overdue staff wages and, if we're lucky, the government might be able to recoup £1.8m. When a government has to prop up a charity that is attempting to provide vital social services, we have a serious problem.

When Camila Batmanghelidjh became a public figure, she was very quickly known for her brightly coloured caftans and turbans. She was charismatic, she was passionate, she was patronisingly described as "larger than life", which we all know is code for "overweight but makes up for it with personality".

And it seems that her dizzying presence blinded people to a lot of things. There is an ongoing police investigation into sexual assault. Today, we had the unedifying spectacle of the Commons committee hearing into the inner workings of Kids Company. The committee heard that despite claiming to care for 36,000 clients, there were only records for 1,699 people. There were questions about handing out cash to vulnerable minors and whether that really is the best way to deal with the complex issues that go along with social and economic disadvantage. After this day of testimony, it would appear that Kids Company was poorly run with no real strategy for solving social and economic problems at their root causes or for how the charity should expand.

Just because Kids Company is a charity, that should not make it immune from scrutiny. If anything should be scrutinised, it's charities because people who donate have the right to know how their money will be used. It is a huge responsibility.

The elephant in the room is that the government saw fit to give £30m of our money to one charity without a whole lot in the way of due diligence. The very notion that £30m of public money can be thrown at a charity to try and solve complex problems in three different cities is ridiculous.

While tweeters waste bandwidth giggling at Batmangelidjh's weight and outfits and at Boris tackling a child, not enough people are talking about how few answers the government has for elevating people out of poverty.

Photography by George Hodan

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Grim times for peaceful protest

See that photo above? I am pretty sure I have very little in common politically with the people in the photo but I support their right to peacefully protest in Washington DC. In a free society, they have every right to express their views without inflicting violence on others or having violence inflicted upon them.

This is how peaceful protest should work. Peaceful protest does not necessarily mean quiet, demure protest. Hell, it does not necessarily mean protesting fully clothed either, Pussy Riot and Slutwalk being two cases in point.

But it has become abundantly clear that the right to peaceful protest is misunderstood.

The protest at the Conservative party conference was, objectively, by any reasonable person's measure, a peaceful one. It was estimated that at least 60,000 people marched in Manchester - with four arrests made, that means that, at worst, 0.00666666666% of all the people who protested were arrested. But the tiny and unconstructive minority ensured that anything but the nation-changing issues raised by the protestors got airplay in the next day's papers.

The newspapers have the right to run whatever the hell they want on their front pages. That is how a free press works. But sadly, a few buffoons gave the press a leave pass to run stories that were not related to any of the motivations behind the protest?

Journalists were spat it, which is obviously completely revolting. I understand the frustrations with the media that might lead to spitting but that does not make spitting on someone trying to do their job in any way acceptable. Pitifully though, when I tweeted that I "understand the frustrations", I was jumped on by a Tory apologist hate mob who accused me of condoning spitting. Which I did not do. Never mind that I am the person who dry-retches if I overhear someone spitting across the other side of the road. Apparently, understanding why people are frustrated with the media made me the patron saint of expectoration.

Someone threw an egg at a young Conservative who was trying to get a rise out of the crowd by brandishing a photo of Margaret Thatcher, even though he was probably still in nappies - or possibly not yet conceived - when Thatcher was ousted in 1990. The "egg-throwing yobs" became front page news rather than the issues that are a legacy of Thatcher's Britain.

And some people used their freedom of speech to yell "Tory scum!" at Boris Johnson as he entered the Conservative Party Conference. He punned his way into the headlines by claiming he was warmly welcomed with cries of "Tories, come!". Oh, the hilarity. And, thus, the fact that Boris Johnson only had the cojones to criticise the impact of his party's welfare cuts on Londoners after he voted for the bill that includes the welfare cuts, went unnoticed.

Then there was the sickening, dreadful report of street sexual harassment and a rape threat made to a woman attending the Conservative Party conference. This story was broken with minimal detail by Guido Fawkes. It is not known whether the accused was affiliated to any groups at the protest or whether he was just some random dickhead who decided to join in and allegedly behave like a sexist douchebag. I can only say "allegedly" because it is unclear if the incident was reported to the police. After all, police officers were not in short supply at the protest. Or was the woman concerned happy to just let Guido Fawkes use the story to further his political agenda and equally as happy to let a man who thinks sexual harassment and rape threats are OK to walk freely around Manchester?

And look at that, I've just spent four paragraphs of this blog post doing exactly what the establishment wants. I've talked about the minute minority rather than the real concerns of the 59,994 or more people who managed to march on the Conservative Party conference last Sunday without being arrested.

And just this weekend in Ankara, the Turkish capital, more than 100 people were killed in a bomb blast at a peace rally. Many are holding the government responsible, either directly or indirectly, and, at the time of writing, nobody has claimed responsibility.

Anybody, regardless of their politics, should be horrified at this infringement on the right to peaceful protest in Turkey. But, if you are also part of the brigade that judged the entire march on the Conservative party on the actions of a few, if you seriously think Boris Johnson's beloved water cannon should be used for events like this, I have to ask you: Why do you hate freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and democracy so much?

Democracy does not begin and end at the ballot box. It is a continuous process that includes the right to protest. It is not about people who didn't vote Conservative being "sore losers" unless your political thinking has not evolved past that of a six-year-old. Peaceful protest is one way to challenge the government, hold them to account, and suggest alternatives.

It does not matter if the protest comes from the left, the right or the middle. The right to do so peacefully must be upheld if we are serious about living in a democracy. Whether it is the 250,000 who marched against TTIP in Berlin this week or a handful of Britain First types brandishing inarticulate signs and yelling inarticulate slogans about immigration, it is a right we should all cherish.

One day, you might be the one being silenced because you were angry enough to protest but more people were angry enough at protests in general to stand by and let water cannon - or worse - take over.

Photography by Peter Griffin

Nadiya Hussain and the half-baked ideas

"Happily married mother of three deservedly wins baking contest" was never going to fly as a Great British Bake-Off headline. It is naive to think that Nadiya Hussain's hijab, religion or skin colour were going to go unnoticed as she went from strength to strength with a peacock cake, baked nuns, bubblegum frosting, and her final showstopper, a lemon drizzle wedding cake draped in a sari of Union Jack colours. Intentional or not, Nadiya expertly trolled the Daily Mail and the hordes who populate the online comments section with ill-informed blather.

If you held you nose and dived in under the online story that announced Nadiya's win, you'd find people who declared the whole baking contest to be a politically correct and convenient fix, an EU conspiracy, a Jeremy Corbyn conspiracy, and a vehicle for Nadiya to become a celebrity, because apparently she is also a desperate and grasping fame whore.

This was hot on the heels of a ridiculous piece by Amanda Platell claiming that 19-year-old Flora, a young white woman, might not have been eliminated if only she'd baked a chocolate mosque.

But "Nineteen-year-old baker is not quite as good as older, more experienced bakers" does not a good headline make.

Then the Daily Mail got some stick for not putting Nadiya on the front page on the morning after the nation found out that she'd won Great British Bake-Off. In previous years, the white-faced winner was on the front page, but not Nadiya, born in Luton, of Bangladeshi heritage and unashamedly wearing a flour-stained hijab.

And it turned out that some of their readers quite liked Nadiya and were genuinely happy that she won.

What better way then, for the Mail to try and adjust the balance than to commission Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a Ugandan-born, British Muslim journalist, to write a piece saying that Nadiya is the best thing for British race relations in a long time.

This is the same tactic the Mail used when, after weeks of scaremongering about the refugee crisis in Europe, it became clear that people were genuinely horrified by the images of Aylan Kurdi's dead body on a Turkish beach and briefly ran some sensitive, measured coverage on the story. And then it was back to business as usual. The people again become a "swarm".

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's piece was ridiculed for the following quote: "Today her adopted hometown of Leeds is bursting with pride. It was ten years ago this July - the same year Nadiya and Abdal wed - that four bombers attacked London; three of them were raised in or near Leeds."

In the context of the article, Alibhai-Brown goes on to say that Nadiya is not viewed as the unwanted foreigner (well, yes, she was born in Luton...), that she is an example of how integration happens through "natural respect, shared interests and a sense of ease". This is very true but it is still sad that three utterly repugnant bombers that have nothing to do with Nadiya should to be mentioned at all.

Sometimes a baking contest really is just a baking contest.

The broader context is how Alibhai-Brown's column fits into the the Daily Mail as a whole. Online, there was a link on the same page as her column to a stupid piece about the loveliness of Nadiya's husband's skin. If anyone thinks Alibhai-Brown's column is the start of a brave new world for the Mail's coverage of anything related to race or religion, they are naive in the extreme.

I don't begrudge Alibhai-Brown for writing her piece for the Mail. If most writers are honest, especially liberal ones, they'd happily take the opportunity to write an opinion piece for the Mail, to attempt to be a Trojan horse in the midst of some frequently awful content. I'd let the Mail run this or anything else from my blog if they paid me. I'd write something fresh for them if they paid me too.

But none of this makes the Mail immune from criticism about its past or present content. In a free press in a country with freedom of expression, the Mail can print what it likes but that does not mean nobody should call them out either.

And in the midst of all the noise, one person has been forgotten despite her lovely face being everywhere. The one person is Nadiya herself. She might not want to be hoisted onto a pedestal as the poster girl for integration, especially given she has lived her whole life in Luton and Leeds. She might just want to go back to baking amazing cakes. And if that is the case, we should let her do that in peace and quit trying to politicise her.

Image by Karen Arnold

Monday, 21 September 2015

Piggy wiggy woo-who cares...

I can't lie. Like most of Britain this morning, I gasped and laughed when I first heard the astounding claim that David Cameron inserted his penis into the mouth of a dead pig in some initiation ritual during his days at Oxford. I can never resist a pun and I found myself in a piggy pun vortex with friends on Facebook. The shots were cheap but we all needed a good laugh, joking as I was with friends who regularly roll their eyes at the sorry state of British politics. I freely admit my own hypocrisy here.

But now the time has come to analyse this situation a little more soberly, even as "Get Piggy With It" remains my earworm. I usually reserve the conspiracy theories for the likes of Pamela Geller and David Icke, but the timing of the Daily Mail breaking this story in the form of extracts from Call Me Dave, a book by the sour-grape-laden Lord Ashcroft and ex-Murdoch journalist Isabel Oakeshott is curious to say the least.

Just last week, the Daily Mail, along with the usual media suspects, was busy writing reports on Jeremy Corbyn that had very little to do with policy. Corbyn should be as open to policy scrutiny as any other party leader, but some of the crap in the media last week was ridiculous. Most absurd of all was the Daily Express exposing Corbyn's great-great grandfather as a workhouse boss. What next? Corbyn's caveman ancestors beat their wives with clubs?

By splashing the "bizarre initiation ritual" story across the front page, the Daily Mail was effectively flying the false balance flag. "Hey, look! We can slag out the left and the right! We are equal opportunity sex scandal peddlers!", they may as well be yelling from the rooftop at Northcliffe House.

It's funny how this story breaks just as some real news was starting to seep through the cracks of mediocrity. People were actually talking about cuts to free school meals and cuts to junior doctors' salaries. Some were even embracing a less circus-like approach to parliamentary debate.

But not today.

Never mind that the free school meal cuts break yet another Tory manifesto promise and cutting junior doctors' salaries will see even more medical graduates seek careers abroad. The Daily Mail doesn't want you worrying your pretty little heads about those sorts of things.

It suits the Mail's agenda to have Britain laughing at #piggate and we've all pretty much fallen for it, hook, line and sinker.

Don't get me wrong - the notion of initiation via dead pig fellatio is gross and anyone who compares head-fucking a dead pig to the more commonplace university hijinks, such as stealing traffic cones, is an idiot. Hell, most of us manage to have sex with living people when we're students. But the whole awful story - which is still a pile of allegations - is a distraction from real issues that will have long-term implications on the country.

And it's not just the fact that the story broke after a week of Corbyn-bashing that is pertinent. This story has broken during the week Parliament goes into recess because it's party conference time again. The Twitters got all excited about the prospect of MPs oinking at this week's Prime Minister's question time (wow, that's the kind of mature debate we need...) or subtle porcine references being slipped in to the questions.

So then people were deflated when they realised PMQs is not on again until October 12. That is more than enough time for this to blow over, for us to be distracted by something new and stupid, for the party conference season to throw up more stories, many of which will invariably be personal attacks rather than policy criticism. Woe betide the MP who attempts to crack a joke or tests out a daft new haircut.

And it is plenty of time for important issues to be swept aside because the likes of the Daily Mail don't actually want us to talk about them. I'm not sure if I am enough of a conspiracy theorist to believe David Cameron knew about this in advance but it has probably done him a perverse favour. And Toby Young will no doubt benefit one way or another by taking one for the team as the only Tory to stick his head above the parapet today to defend Cameron.

Anyone thinking of wearing a pig mask and oinking outside outside the Conservative party conference in Manchester the week after next is part of the problem.

Photo by Lilla Frerichs


Wednesday, 16 September 2015

It's about time Britain grew up...

It has been one of those weeks where I just want to yell: "GROW UP! GROW UP, THE LOT OF YOU!" at the internet. Seriously, too many people have been really pathetic.

In particular, those outraged at Jeremy Corbyn not singing the national anthem at the Battle of Britain commemoration need to pipe down and let the grown-ups talk at the big table. If you want to live in a place that forces people to sing national anthems, I hear North Korea is lovely at this time of year.

But, honestly, the outcry over Corbyn and "God Save The Queen", a ludicrous anthem if ever there was one, was manufactured by the media, with the notable exception of the Guardian choosing not to plaster the fauxrage on its front page today.

If the editors were genuinely offended by Corbyn's respectful silence and wanted to show they are all about honouring those who have died in war, why weren't the front pages focused on the actual service of remembrance at St Paul's cathedral? It wouldn't have caused the easily offended little petals on Twitter to lose their shit, it wouldn't have been great clickbait, but it would have been the mature way to cover that story.

Another mature story to put on today's front pages would have been a report about how £4.4 billion worth of cuts to tax credits will affect people who are in work, but that wouldn't play into the whole "all people on benefits are feckless, lazy scroungers who spend all day watching Sky TV in tracksuits while texting their drug dealer on their iPhone" narrative.

And then it was Prime Minister's Question Time, Corbyn's first as leader of the opposition. Has anyone noticed that all of a sudden, journalists are referring to "Her Majesty's Opposition" when they have never done so before? It is accurate, but it is naive to think this is not being done on purpose. Again, grow up and quit editorialising when you are meant to be doing balanced, fair journalism.

Corbyn set the tone with an appeal for a less theatrical PMQs. He asked questions that real voters want asked in parliament. This is what parliament is for - it is meant to represent the people. This is Democracy 101. It would have been good to see Corbyn add more facts and stats to the questions and the responses, but the idea is sound and it will be interesting to see how this continues to play out in the coming weeks and months.

And it's not as if David Cameron's fans can complain about Corbyn's calm, measured approach. The law of unintended consequences means that Cameron comes across better in a less melodramatic forum. His answers were no more substantial than they were in the last parliament. He trotted out the tired £8-billion-for-the-NHS line out once more, without any detail or context again, for example, but he did not come across as a braying schoolboy.

Even when another Tory MP added a jibe about the national anthem to the end of his question, Cameron was classy enough to not take the bait in his response.

It was a far cry from the ding-dong battles of the last parliament but then things got a bit silly again. Andrew Turner, the Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight, popped up from the government back bench to ask a question about the isle's struggle to import a tiger for its zoo. Apparently, the hapless kitty has been kept in isolation in Belgium for two years because of red tape about a rabies certificate. Leaving aside the ethics of keeping a tiger in a zoo on a tiny island rather than letting her live in the wild, this was the moment that PMQs jumped the shark. The whole scenario smacked of a set-up, of a way to draw attention away from questions on issues such as housing and mental health.

And again, PMQs looked like a schoolyard.

Afterwards, there was a pleasing tweet from Labour MP, Chuka Umunna. He may have thrown his toys out of the pram by refusing to be part of Corbyn's shadow cabinet but he was very gracious when he tweeted: "#PMQs is a circus. I've long argued to abolish it and put a better alternative in its place, but it was rather refreshing today - good."

And some people lamented the lack of theatrics. They too can grow the hell up. I am really sorry if a civilised exchange of views is boring for you. I am really sorry that you have the attention span of a kitten and can only concentrate on politics when members on both sides of the house are carrying on like a Grange Hill brawl. And I am really sorry if you truly think that sort of mindless, unproductive crap is the way forward for British political debate.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

An open letter to Peter Bucklitsch

Dear Mr Bucklitsch,

Your disgraceful tweet today made me incredibly relieved that you failed to become my MP in the constituency of Wimbledon at the May election. Only 2,476 people in my neighbourhood voted for you and the rest of us should be glad.

I have no idea if you plan to stand for public office again, but if you ever do, you will be reminded on a daily basis that you felt the need to tweet: "The little Syrian boy was well clothed & well fed. He died because his parents were greedy for the good life in Europe. Queue jumping costs."

Then you felt the need to tweet a bonus load of hateful tripe: "Turkey is not a place where the family was in danger. Leaving that safe place put the family in peril."

As Kurds, the family were not have been warmly welcomed in Turkey. Thus they left Turkey. And then they washed up dead in Turkey. They were not on a beach in Bodrum for a suntan.

You have since deleted the tweets and your Twitter profile but, thanks to the magic of screen grabs, your vile words will still be accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

Firstly, there is no queue to enter a safe country. When you are escaping a war zone, good manners don't apply. It is not like politely waiting your turn to get on the 163 from Wimbledon to Morden.

But what I really want to know, Mr Bucklitsch, is what you actually know about refugees, about the people who are seeking to do whatever it takes to get themselves and their families away from war zones and oppressive, undemocratic regimes?

I am really sorry that Aylan Kurdi, the dead child to which you referred in your sickening tweet, does not fit your stereotype of what a refugee should look like. I am sure his family were not concerned with ensuring their children looked sufficiently like scrawny, scruffy extras from Oliver! before they fled Syria so that people like you would not sneer from the comfort of safe and stable nations.

Aylan, his brother Galip, and his mother, Rehan, are now all dead. Only his father, Abdullah, survived. We know that they wanted to ultimately reach Canada, where they have relatives, not "the good life in Europe". We know they had been trying to enter Canada legally as asylum-seekers but had already had an application rejected. We know that they came from Kobani, a town which has suffered terribly because of appalling violence between IS and Kurdish fighters.

Abdullah was working as a barber in Syria. Presumably, until recently, he was able to earn a living to support his family, to buy them clothes and food. This was not so that people like you, Mr Bucklitsch, would question their refugee status because Aylan was apparently too well-dressed and not under-nourished enough for your liking.

Throughout history, refugees have not necessarily been starving, rag-clad waifs. In the lead up to WWII and from the time war was declared on Germany in 1939, thousands of affluent Jews fled for their lives. Educated people also have a long history of fleeing oppression. Hadi Khorsandi, the poet, satirist and father of stand-up comedian, Shappi Khorsandi, fled Iran, coming to Britain with his family after he criticised the regime that took power after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Countries such as Australia took many refugees from Cambodia during the awful years of Pol Pot's dictatorship - a particular target of his genocide was the educated and skilled. He did not want educated, skilled people. He wanted compliant automatons to work in a purely agrarian society.

But sadly, people like you, Mr Bucklitsch, have little interest in learning from history.

Thank you for adding nothing constructive to the debate. Thank you for reducing a global problem to a single, shameful, ignorant tweet that shows you did not bother to learn anything about the Kurdi family. Thank you for proving that as long as the people fleeing countries like Syria are seen as a "swarm" rather than real people with skills and life stories, we will not come any closer to resolving this horrific situation.

Yours sincerely,

Georgia Lewis

Photo by Gerhard Lipold

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The myth of strike-busting driverless tubes

As soon as #tubestrike starts trending on Twitter, the calls for the London Underground network to switch to driverless trains reach fever pitch. People carry on as if the network can switch to driverless trains in a matter of moments and that it will instantly end tube strikes.

Regardless of your views on London tube strikes, it is important to know that switching to driverless trains can't happen overnight and it won't necessarily stop strikes, even if we woke up tomorrow to find the switch had somehow magically happened.

There are 11 London tube lines, as well as the Overground and the already-driverless Docklands Light Rail (or DLR, but more on that in a moment...). In February 2014, when Mayor of London Boris Johnson, approved plans for driverless trains. But not even Boris would have such a rush of blood to the head that he'd sign off on a project that would be unfeasible on a practical level and astronomically expensive.

Boris signed off on procurement for 100 driverless trains for the Piccadilly Line. Just the Piccadilly Line. This is the start of a project that will cover only four of the network's lines between now and 2034 and it will cost £10 billion.

Every month, my bank account takes a direct hit thanks to Boris' love of raising public transport fares, but not even he would hike fares to the point where the upgrades and new trains required for a driverless tube could be implemented in lightning-fast time.

To implement driverless trains across infrastructure that is more than 100 years old in many parts is not a small or cheap undertaking.

On top of this, there ain't no whinger like the average London underground passenger. Especially when lines are closed for essential engineering work. Apparently, there are people out there who would rather travel on a poorly maintained railway system all the time instead of sucking it up and dealing with the occasional replacement bus service while travelling on a safe, well-maintained service the rest of the time.

And the average London underground whinger would complain at a rate last seen at Fawlty Towers if entire lines were closed for months at a time to do the upgrades required for driverless trains. Transport For London (TFL) needs to strike a balance between getting work done and minimising inconvenience for paying passengers.

Not that any of this stopped Richard Holloway, a Conservative councillor for the London borough of Westminster, from setting up an ill-informed and predictably briefly popular petition on The petition calls on Boris Johnson to "begin operating completely driverless trains on the entire London underground as soon as possible."

I tweeted Richard to ask him about this and he said that the Paris Metro went driverless over a period of five years. "Are we going to let the French beat us?" he asked without a trace of irony, given the French culture of strikes, and despite the fact it's not 1793.

Facts are pesky for Richard - the Paris Metro has not yet gone entirely driverless. I have no idea where he got his five-year figure from - Paris opened its first driverless line in 1998, a second in 2012 and a third is due by 2020. So that means two out of the 14 Paris Metro lines have gone driverless in the last 17 years.

When I asked Richard for costings, he tweeted a link to a BBC news story. I pointed out that this is not a costings document and he asked me if I frequent and ask every petition for a full breakdown of costs for their proposal? Of course I don't. Most petitions on are started by people who are not elected representatives. But if you are an elected representative publicly putting forward a proposal, you are effectively making a policy statement and it is entirely reasonable to be expected to provide costings. Especially when public money is involved.

Richard clearly didn't want to discuss this matter any further and asked if I'd demanded costings on a petition about the UK providing medical care to migrants at Calais.

He had no real answers to my questions and today, he is still on Twitter banging on about driverless trains as a panacea for all strikes. Such as the DLR, I suppose?

But the DLR - the line that is always cited as an example for how the tube should be by the "LET'S GO DRIVERLESS TOMORROW!" brigade - is not entirely without staff nor is it strike-free.

The DLR has more than 500 people on staff, such as cleaners, security staff, station staff and train captains. The captains move around the carriages while the trains are in motion and they have to manually operate the train if something goes wrong. If the rest of the tube network, went "driverless", the tube drivers would be the first people to be offered these train captain jobs - they are already trained to deal with a range of mechanical problems so they'd be obvious candidates.

And, sorry to break it you, Richard, but DLR staff have gone on strike. In May this year, DLR cleaning and security staff went on strike. If there are working people involved in an endeavour and striking has not been outlawed, strikes will probably still happen.

Get mad about tube strikes if you like. That is your right. But don't kid yourself that driverless trains can happen overnight or would be an instant strike-buster.

Photography by Svetlana Tikhonova

Smoke, fire and campus rape

Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Virginia, has been in the news this week after some douchey signs were hung up outside a frat house.

Delightfully, these signs contained the following tempting invitations:

"Rowdy and fun, hope your baby girl is ready for a good time."

(Frankly, guys, if you're referring to your female classmates as "baby girls", you haven't grown up enough to be trusted with your own erect penis near other people. And "rowdy"? Really? That's the kind of cute-but-lame word your mother uses when you're being a little boisterous on the front lawn as in: "Enough with the rowdy shenanigans, you little scamps!".)

"Freshman Daughter Drop Off."

(Young women: Just another delivery along with the beer and pizza!)

and, finally:

"Go ahead and drop off Mom too".

(Yeah! What grown-ass woman wouldn't want to indulge in some MILFy fun with these fine, young men!) 

The fraternity has been suspended pending an investigation before classes even start for the year.

If I saw these signs on my own university campus back in 1994, my initial reaction would be an eyeroll so hard that I'd be able to see out of my own ears. Perhaps the young women at this university should thank the members of the Sigma Nu fraternity for advertising themselves as weapons grade dickheads who should be avoided at all costs. That's what I'd tell any daughter of mine if that was the warm welcome she received on her first day of higher education.

And, hey, this is America! Land of the free! And that includes freedom of speech. If these crazy kids want to exercise that right by outing themselves as cretins, so be it.

But let's not be naive. Anyone who has ever gone to university knows that sex will happen. And not all sex that happens on college campuses is consensual. Statistics on rape in colleges are never going to be 100% accurate and this is partly down to under-reporting and poor notions of consent among young men and women.

For example, the young woman who wakes up after passing our drunk to discover a fellow student having sex with her is being raped but she might be unsure, just as her rapist might think his behaviour is perfectly acceptable and that her passing out in his room is the same as consent. Hint: It's not.

This is not a problem unique to the US. In the UK, Cambridge University introduced talks and workshops on consent in response to a survey of 2,100 female students in which almost half the respondents reported being "pinched, groped or grabbed" and more than 100 reported experiencing "serious sexual assault".

Just because someone was accepted into one of the world's best universities, that does not necessarily mean they are equipped with the life skills to be sexually responsible and respectful adults. Education about consent is important and, ideally, it should start when the kids are still at school. Because that is when people start to have sex. If we can set "enthusiastic consent" as a benchmark for sexual activity, we might start seeing campus sexual assault statistics fall and entertaining the notion of consent forms for sex at universities would become absurd.

If you seriously believe that all the kids responsible for the idiotic Sigma Nu frat house signs have sophisticated notions of consent, I've got a bridge to sell you. Given the fragmented nature of sex education across the US, any campus is going to have students joining the party with different levels of comprehension about everything from consent to homosexuality to birth control. The members of Sigma Nu won't necessarily all end up raping their classmates but it's naive to think that they're all on track to graduating as men who respect women if those signs are their idea of a welcoming gesture.

Sure, let the douchebros of Sigma Nu have their freedom of speech with their signs. And ensuring the freedom of people to go about their lives, especially at institutions of education, without being sexually assaulted is essential if we are as civilised as we claim to be.

Photography by Linnea Mallette

Monday, 24 August 2015

Abortion, adoption and the reality of choice

The story only received scant media coverage when it broke last month. Anti-abortion protesters forced a London abortion clinic to shut down. The clinic's name has not been made public but it is also rumoured that a second clinic is under threat thanks to protesters harassing women. It is suspected that Blackfriars Medical Centre, a longtime target of protest groups such as Abort67, is the second clinic under threat.

Never mind that apart from abortion being legal here in the UK, the Blackfriars clinic also provides ante- and post-natal checks, smear tests, minor surgery, counselling, men's health services, travel vaccines, cardiac health promotion, asthma and diabetes health promotion, dermatology and counselling. But for supposedly prolife people, these life-saving services might get thrown under a bus as long as they can limit access to safe, legal abortion by harassing women whose medical appointments are none of their damn business.

The only politician to stick her head above the parapet is Labour leadership contender, Yvette Cooper, and for that, she deserves respect. She has called for buffer zones around abortion clinics, as has happened in the US, Canada and France. This means the protesters can still exercise their right to free speech and women can still exercise their right to access medical services.

If you want to shout in public about why you believe abortion is wrong, that is your choice - but you have to remember that free speech is not the same as it being compulsory for anyone to listen to you. And free speech means that anyone who disagrees has the right to put forward their case.

Will the UK end up going down the US track of clinics requiring volunteer escorts to usher girls and women safely past protesters? Will the UK ever see its first example of abortion clinic staff being murdered? I really hope that is not the path on which we are travelling. Yvette Cooper should be commended for taking a stand on behalf of girls and women across the country.

Yes, girls as well as women...

The world has been reeling from the knowledge that in Paraguay, an 11-year-old girl, who was allegedly raped by her step-father at the age of 10, has just given birth. Her mother, the person who should be able to make medical decisions on behalf of her daughter, was denied the opportunity to let her daughter have a safe abortion just as she was not taken seriously when she tried to report her husband to the police. Everyone should be relieved that the girl survived the pregnancy and the c-section delivery, but every time she sees her c-section scar, she will be reminded of her rape. She is living in a family stricken by poverty in a country where around 600 girls aged 14 or under become pregnant every year. How has forcing her to give birth improved anything?

What is left of that girl's childhood? Is this the sort of awful story that we want to see replicated in the UK? It is the sort of awful story that should not happen anywhere ever.

Pregnancy is the world's biggest killer of teenage girls worldwide and it would be appalling if the UK's abortion laws changed so that girls here joined that terrible, inexcusable death toll in ever-increasing numbers.

But wait! There's always adoption! Well, sort of.

Adoption can be a wonderful thing, giving hope to children who might otherwise face a terrible childhood. But where are the Abort67 activists when it comes to making adoption easier for people who are able to given babies and children loving, safe homes? Such activists tend to sell adoption as a simple solution, a panacea for every unplanned, unwanted pregnancy but why are they not lobbying local authorities when ridiculous criteria make it impossible for potentially great parents to adopt?

Obviously, it would be irresponsible to simply let anyone who wandered in off the streets adopt children without any checks. After all, we are talking about kids who may have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused, kids who have witnessed violence in the home, kids with serious medical problems and kids who were born addicted to drugs or suffering from foetal alcohol syndrome.

It is important to remember that adoption isn't always sunshine and rainbows. It can be very hard on everyone concerned. Potential adopters have to be realistic, to be aware that they probably won't end up with an angelic newborn.

But when local authorities impose conditions such as requiring at least one parent to take a year off work and, for adoption of sibling groups, one bedroom per child, children will linger in foster care. I recently came across the sad case of five siblings who are awaiting a forever family while being separated in the foster care system. Tragically, they will probably remain in the system for a long time yet unless there is someone out there with a six-bedroom house and the ability to take a year off work.

Why isn't Abort67 focusing on these cases? Why isn't Abort67 advocating the use of birth control and ensuring that every school student in the country receives broad-based effective sex education? Why is Abort67 more concerned with sitting outside clinics?

Because that is easier than doing anything that would actually contribute to reducing abortion or helping children that have already been born.

May Abort67 remain a fringe group. Yvette Cooper was dead right when she said that we do not need US-style abortion wars here.