Monday, 2 March 2015

To the jihadi brides: Stop being so stupid and come home



Honestly, I just want to give Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana one of my tough-love-cut-the-shit-and-get-your-act-together talks.

Something like this...

Shamima, Amira, Kadiza, you are three intelligent teenagers. You have everything going for you. You have been doing well at school. You have families who love you. You are not homeless. You have enjoyed the financial and educational advantages of growing up comfortably in Britain. And now you are throwing it all away to be "jihadi brides".

Do you have any clue what you are letting yourself in for? Being a jihadi bride is moronic. It sure as hell isn't romantic. Do you think you will be marrying handsome warrior princes like some sort of warped extremist Disney movie? Do you think you will have a choice in the men you marry? And once you are married to these repugnant men, do you think you will have choices about things such as when you have sex, how many children you have, whether or not you have to do tedious household chores, what you can wear, whether you can leave the house, what books you read, what you can see online, what music you listen to, who you can talk to?

You won't have any more choices. You will be silenced. You will become invisible. You will never reach your full potential. You will have no freedom of movement or speech or expression.

You will be marrying men who think women are inferior, who are profoundly anti-education, who use rape as a weapon of war on other women, who think that beheading people and burning people alive are perfectly acceptable things to do.

You will be marrying into a form of extremism that bears no resemblance to the lovely Ahmadiyyan Islamic community in my neighbourhood. The people who attend the mosque in my neighbourhood conduct themselves magnificently with their commitment to education for all, to working with the people of Merton rather than against them, to volunteer for a wide range of charities, to condemn and reject violence, to welcome non-believers as friends into their mosque, to be a part of Britain.

If you come home, you could be part of multicultural, positive Britain. You could join the people who seek to unite rather than divide our communities.

But instead you have chosen to be a part of an evil force that thrives on hatred, that depends on people hating all Muslims, that seeks to undermine everything great about living in Britain.

Here in Britain, you are able to go to school without fear of being shot. You can go on to university, again without worrying that some lunatic will gun you down for daring to be educated. You can marry for love. You can have a career. You can be a mother. You can drive a car. You can travel. You can vote. You do not have to marry the revolting men who are doing their best to make the world a horrific place. You can come home and appreciate how good you have it here in Britain.

I was once your age. And at that silly, wonderful age, I thought I knew everything and that the ridiculous things I did in 1992 were very clever and sophisticated. Like you, I did well at school but I was not a grown-up and neither are you. I am sure you think you are being very clever, daring and heroic. But now I am old enough to be your mothers and I look at the three of you and despair. I have more than 20 years life experience on you. I can see what you are doing and I can see how ridiculous you look.

It'd be easy for me to sit here in judgement of your families, to wonder out loud how the hell they didn't notice something was up. After all, fleeing the country to marry terrorists is an outrageous form of teenage rebellion. It makes sneaking into pubs, smoking a sly cigarette behind a bus shelter or wearing a parental non-approved outfit seem pretty pathetic. Teenagers are good at hiding stuff from their parents, especially their internet browsing history. There is not much to be gained by slagging off your very worried parents.

Governments, airports and airlines will look into how they can stop girls like you from leaving the country to do something as stupid as become a jihadi bride. Your legacy will not be one of religious heroism, exemplary devotion or piety. Your legacy could be something truly pitiful such as new regulations for unaccompanied minors travelling out of British airports. It will be on par with the regulations that require us to hand over nail clippers and 110ml tubes of toothpaste at airports after we've removed our shoes and belts. They will be the kind of regulations that are dubious in their effectiveness and cause people to irrationally curse all Muslims when they are trying to get on a plane to Alicante. For that you deserve a slow hand clap. You will help breed more stupid hatred.

So come home.

There is still hope for you. I believe in redemption and rehabilitation. I do not believe you should be locked up for life if you return to Britain. I believe that you are still young enough to build lives that do not involve joining a terrorist organisation. You three have taken teenage rebellion to a whole new level but you can still come back from this ridiculous path you've all taken.

Or can you?

I am not sure where any of you are right now, or who you are with, or whether you are safe. If you ever read this, I will be amazed. You may find yourselves in appalling situations very soon, unable to escape marriages to men who condone rape and murder. Your freedoms will be lost, your voice will be silent.

But if any of you happen to read this, if you are not already entrenched in marriages that are about propagating violence, if there is any way any of you can turn around, please do so. You will not regret it.



Photo by ColinBroug


Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The three-parent baby panic


ZOMG! END OF DAYS! THREE-PARENT BABIES ARE NOW A THING!

To be more measured and less hysterical, the House of Commons and the House of Lords in Britain have passed amendments to legislation that will pave the way for fertility clinics to use a process during IVF called mitochondrial donation. Babies conceived this way would have biological material from three different people: a mother, a father and a female donor. The baby would have 99.8% of its genetic material from the mother and father and the remaining 0.2% would come from the donor. The donor would be anonymous and have no parental rights concerning the child.

Of course there are the inevitable howls about "designer babies", about how the inevitable outcome is vain parents greedily creating some sort of dystopian but very attractive master race. The reality is that the rules will apply to a very narrow range of genetic conditions. With careful regulation, this will help eliminate mitochondrial diseases that make people's lives horrific, as well as saving on healthcare costs. This is a good thing.

The 50 concern troll MEPs who wrote a letter calling on the European Commission to look into Britain's supposed "lack of compliance" can, with respect, bugger off. Likewise, the group of Italian MPs who urged the House of Lords to vote down the proposals can also take a long walk off a short pier.

What is particularly vile is the 50 MEPs claiming this amendment will "violate the fundamental standards of human dignity and integrity of the person." I urge these people to tell muscular dystrophy patients that their lifelong pain and drastically shortened life expectancy is essential to their human dignity. Perhaps sufferers of Leber hereditary optic neuropathy simply need to embrace the loss of eyesight from a young age for the good of their personal integrity. Maybe Leigh syndrome patients could learn to enjoy the dignity of respiratory failure and seizures.

Newcastle University's Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research has been instrumental in making this amazing medical breakthrough a reality. The research team, led by Professor Mary Herbert and Profesor Doug Turnbull, should be a source of immense pride for the north-east of England and for Britain as a whole.


Photography by Anna Langova

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The unseemly spectacle of disgruntled men piggybacking on the Natalie Allman case


I genuinely had no idea that the law was such an ass. To discover that a judge can order a woman who was treated so violently by her ex-partner that she could have died from a slashed throat to write to that same abuser three times a year to update him on their kids came as an appalling shock.

But that is what has happened here in the UK in 2015. In a country that I think is generally a very good place to be a woman. In 2011, Natalie Allman was tortured for seven hours by Jason Hughes. They had broken up but he was still living in the same house while Hughes was looking for a new place to live. He had a drinking problem - a litre of vodka or six bottles of cider a day was not unusual, according to court records. Allman called off their engagement two months before their planned wedding day and had started seeing someone else. Hughes, it would seem, did not take this news well.

He tried to smother her with a pillow. He battered her face was battered with a dumb-bell. He slashed her throat in front of their twin sons. The blade narrowly missed a major artery. Her throat had to be surgically rebuilt.

Hughes has been jailed for nine years for malicious wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. Not attempted murder. His defence was that he wanted to make her look ugly to other men, not to kill her. Astoundingly, this worked. One would think that if you wanted to make someone look ugly, you'd slash their face but according to the judge, this was not the case.

One would think that the nine-year jail sentence would be the end of it. With Hughes locked away for nine years, Allman could get on with her life, safe in the knowledge that he could not harm her or her sons. And she did just that. In 2012, she gave birth to a son with her new partner, Wayne Young. They are still together. This should be the happy ending Allman deserves.

But in January 2014, Hughes applied for a Residence and Contact Order. He asked for six letters a year and phone calls from the twins at Christmas and on their birthday. After spending £3,000 on legal fees to fight this absurd demand, a court ruled that she should send up-to-date photos and three letters a year to update Hughes on their health, education and emotional development. The court gave permission for Hughes to send the twins Christmas and birthday cards and a letter at the start of each school year.

If Allman does not comply with this order, she could be found in contempt of court and jailed. She is the victim here. We should not have a situation in a civilised country where a victim of horrific domestic abuse faces prison for refusing to stay in touch with her abuser. That is the sort of morally repugnant rubbish you'd expect to find in societies where women are made to marry their rapists, not in Britain.

This is a story about the importance of justice for domestic violence victims. And it is a story about the importance of balancing parental rights with compassion, commonsense and the protection of children. Hughes should have lost all rights as a father when he attacked his sons' mother in front of them.

But this story did not stop a few trolls from coming out of the woodwork. A particularly unseemly character on the Metro newspaper's Facebook page hailed Hughes as a hero for wronged men and condemned Allman as a cheating woman and a bad mother who was asking for it. No. She was not. To make excuses for such brutal violence against a woman you've never met on the grounds of adultery, either real or imagined, is to live in the dark ages. Or modern day Saudi Arabia, where people can still be beheaded for adultery. In Britain, beheadings for adultery are associated with Henry VIII and he has not been on the throne for quite a while now.

The cesspit of foolishness that is the Daily Mail comments section featured academic giants criticising her for finding a new partner and having another baby so soon after her relationship with Hughes. I'm sorry. I didn't realise there was a required period of celibacy for women after the end of a bad relationship.

And then someone popped up in my Twitter notifications to tell me "the law is a farce here". No argument from me so far but then there was the kicker: "Good fathers get deprived because of bitter mothers but evil men get rights."

Yes, I know, there are indeed cases where men miss out on access to their kids for no good reason. This is not a good thing. Obviously. But to tack this issue on to this story is appalling. The Natalie Allman case is not about a bitter mother. It is about inexcusable domestic violence and how the laws in a supposedly civilised country can fail victims so comprehensively.

If Natalie Allman speaking out to the media gives domestic violence victims, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, the confidence to come forward, to bring their attackers to justice, that is a good thing. Like rape, we will never know the full extent of domestic violence because it is not always reported. But if we expect to walk down the street without being assaulted, the same should apply in our homes, in our most intimate relationships.

And if Natalie Allman speaking out can help bring about a change in the law so that men like Jason Hughes are not able to be a grim spectre in the lives of their victims from behind bars, that would also be a good outcome.

Let Natalie Allman have her moment without slut-shaming her for her life choices or turning this into a chance to slag off "bitter mothers". She is not a fame whore. She just wants justice.







Image by Sabine Sauermaul

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

An open letter to anti-vaxxers


Dear anti-vaxxers,

I know you think you mean well. You probably even fancy yourselves as nice people. Indeed, if I came across you as I was going about my business, we would probably have a perfectly pleasant interaction as long as the exchange didn't involve a discussion on vaccination.

But your willful ignorance, your desperation for a conspiracy theory, your refusal to listen to a world of science from incredibly smart people who do not actually have vested big pharma interests, and your obscene, privileged posturing make you and your ilk terrible people. Sorry, but by refusing to understand and accept the importance of herd immunity in eliminating horrible diseases, you are being dreadful.

By promoting your selfish, anti-science agenda, you are putting vulnerable people at risk. Children with cancer. Anyone with a compromised immune system. The elderly. Newborn babies. People with allergies to vaccine ingredients. Children who are in between vaccinations, such as the series of injections for whooping cough. A story I wrote as a young reporter back in 1996 was about a child who contracted whooping cough in between shots in rural Australia. The sound of her little lungs struggling with a cough that sounded like someone choking a puppy is not something I ever want to hear again.

Do you feel good about yourself now?

You are pontificating from a place of modern privilege. You probably don't remember the awful era when entire families were wiped out by measles. Or when polio forced children into iron lungs. Or when the horrific menace of smallpox killed millions of people. Or when there were no rubella vaccinations to prevent children being born with life-altering conditions? In the last week, people in Britain have been moved to donate more than £300,000 to help a 67-year-old man who was mugged outside his house. His name is Alan Barnes and he suffers from serious sight, growth and bone problems because his mother contracted rubella when she was pregnant in 1947. But ensuring girls are vaccinated against rubella prevents these conditions being passed on during pregnancy.

It is because of vaccination that you probably don't know anyone who has suffered with polio or smallpox. It is because of vaccination that measles hasn't killed any children in your street. It is because of vaccination that child mortality is low in the developed world. Vaccination has made the world a better place.

But diseases such as measles and whooping cough are making a comeback that is about as welcome as a new Dennis Waterman album.

Spare me your lies about vaccination causing autism. It doesn't. And even if there was a connection, which there isn't, it is appalling that you'd rather have a dead child than an autistic child.

Spare me your citing of the Merck case as a reason to not vaccinate. I know that Merck overstated the efficacy of vaccines. But Merck is not the sole manufacturer of vaccines. And this case does not mean all vaccines should be banned. Your own exaggerations are like calling for all cars to be banned because one car manufacturer had a recall.

Spare me your whining about the evils of big pharma. I am not an idiot. I know drug companies make money from vaccines. But so many eminent scientists who are not on big pharma's payroll have conducted study after independent study on vaccine safety and risks (and yes, I acknowledge that, like any medicine, there are risks but the benefits far outweigh any risks). Immunologists and epidemiologists know what they are doing. They know that while you are freaking out about formaldehyde, they know exactly how much is required to make a safe vaccine and they know that not all vaccines contain formaldehyde and they know there is more formaldehyde in a goddamn pear.

Spare me your "I didn't vaccinate and my kids are perfectly healthy!" rhetoric. You fail to comprehend causation and correlation. And if your anti-vax dogma stays with them into adulthood, they may not be perfectly healthy if they travel to a country where travel jabs are highly recommended and they contract something delightful such as typhoid or cholera. Perhaps if your kids go to places where diseases that are largely unheard of in your backyard - and contract those diseases for themselves - they might learn the error of your ways. But, Christ, what a way to learn that lesson.

Spare me your "But if your kids are vaccinated, why are you worried about my unvaccinated kids?" crap. Please at least try and understand herd immunity instead of being content to wallow in the arrogance of ignorance.

Do I come across as a bit rude? Do you feel as if I am shaming you for not vaccinating? Good. I am not here to spare your precious snowflake feelings because you are ignoring people of science who are way smarter than you or I, and you are instead devoted to a movement popularised by bloody Jenny McCarthy, and fuelled by stupid websites such as Natural Health News, Health Impact News and Mercola.

If explaining the importance of vaccinations to you through the lessons of science and history is not going to work on you, then I have no qualms about making you feel ashamed. If parents of vaccinated kids don't want your kids around, perhaps you can take the time you would have spent ferrying them to playdates to think about what you are doing to your kids and to other people.

You should be seen as a pariah, as someone who is on the wrong side of science and history.

Yours sincerely,

Georgia Lewis, a successfully vaccinated member of society since 1976.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Colleen McCullough: Probably more successful than the dead obituary writer


"Colleen McCullough, Australia's bestselling author, was a charmer. Plain of feature and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth."

The daft obituary then went on to quote her from an interview in which she said: "I've never been into clothes or figure and the interesting thing is I never had any trouble attracting men."

This was for a woman who not only wrote multiple books, including The Thorn Birds which sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, but was also an accomplished neuroscientist.

I'd give a slow hand clap to the writer of this obituary that appeared in The Australian this week but apparently he died six years ago. Right. So once an obituary is written and kept on file at a newspaper, it is simply impossible for it to be edited in any way, shape or form? Rather than existing as an electronic file, an obituary is carved into a stone tablet and cannot be updated, am I correct? A dead obituary writer's words must be respected at all costs even if he has written a load of tripe?

There was a lame attempt to make amends yesterday with a respectful piece in the Murdoch-owned paper from the former premier of the state of New South Wales, Bob Carr, but the #MyOzObit hashtag on Twitter had already made a mockery of the stupid original obituary.

And that is the best way to respond to such sexist bullfuckery - with mockery and humour.  My own #MyOzObit might be something like "She was only 5'1" and had a flat nose, but Georgia still managed to marry an actual man, albeit at the age of 34." or "Georgia was allowed to compile fashion pages for women's magazines between 1999 and 2004 despite her inability to walk in high heels."

I wouldn't call for a ban on The Australian because I am not a "ban-all-the-things!" feminist. If anything, it's good to know exactly how this newspaper views accomplished women, that it will still reduce them to their weight, appearance and ability to attract men, even in death. Let's have that idiocy right out there where we can see it so we know what we're dealing with and we know to set the time machine back to 1950.

But I will use my freedom of speech to call out the double standard.

If you don't think there is anything sexist about the obituary, just imagine for a moment if The Australian treated male writers the same way. Perhaps The Australian's new obituary writer is currently beavering away on the following pieces:

"Despite going quite bald and sporting some unfortunate facial hair over the years, Salman Rushdie punched above his weight when he married Padma Lakshi."

"Martin Amis had a face that looks a bit like a battered potato but this did not impede his ability to be twice listed for the Booker Prize."

"If he sidled up to you in a smoky bar, you'd probably make your excuses and leave. If you were drunk enough to take him home, you'd probably find yourself wishing that Will Self, with his gangly arms and sunken chest, would spend less time writing novels and more time pumping iron."

These words, I confidently predict, will not make it into any obituary of any of these three men anywhere in the world. Indeed, in life, these men are not subjected to criticism about physical appearance in the same way that the very-much-still-alive Hilary Mantel is, disappointingly by women as well as men who didn't like what she said about Kate Middleton or just couldn't finish Wolf Hall.

Similarly, historian David Starkey with his demented owl demeanour does not cop the same vitriol that the brilliant Mary Beard has received. When people criticise Starkey, they tend to criticise his views rather than his appearance. However, Mary Beard dealt with one of her trolls brilliantly by meeting him, educating him and ultimately writing him a reference.

And I suspect that Colleen McCullough would have roared with laughter at her obituary in The Australian and been deeply touched and amused by the #MyOzObit hashtag, just as Mary Beard deals with her trolls with wit, charm and humour, while never downplaying the serious implications of sexism.

She acknowledges that the vile abuse is "meant to hurt and wound" and could very well "put many women off appearing in public, contributing to public debate." When you seek to reduce a woman to her appearance or her personal life, to downplay her achievements, to silence her, you need to ask yourself why you feel the need to do so. Perhaps it might behoove you to go and achieve a few things of your own instead.








Wednesday, 28 January 2015

King Abdullah is dead, satire is on life support...



I had to check and double-check and check again. The world is currently such a ridiculous place that sometimes even the sharpest among us can accidentally fall for a spoof article. So when I found out a US Army General was sponsoring an essay competition in honour of the recently departed King Abdullah, I did a double take.

But sure enough, there it was, announced on the Department of Defense website on January 26, the same day the first execution by beheading under Saudi Arabia's new ruler, King Salman, took place. General Martin E. Dempsey is the brains behind this absurd idea.

I even tweeted the writer of the announcement to ask if this competition was real, if this really was the next innovation of the awful grief orgy for a despotic monarch of a terrible regime. He replied, rather adorably: "No, ma'am. Not a spoof. It is the real deal." I was last called "ma'am" when I went through passport control at the airport in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2009.

The thing is the focus of the competition isn't a terrible idea. The statement said that the competition focuses on "issues related to the Arab-Muslim world and is designed to encourage strategic thinking and meaningful research on a crucial part of the world." There is nothing at all wrong with intelligent research on the Arab-Muslim world. Indeed, intelligent research is a welcome alternative to oversimplification, ignorance and lack of understanding of a region that is both troubled and fascinating.

But the whole idea jumps the shark when it is stated that King Abdullah is a "man of remarkable character and courage" and a "fitting tribute to the life and leadership of the Saudi Arabian monarch." This would be the "leadership" of a man who, despite being an absolute monarch, has still let the religious arm of the state run an oppressive, evil regime. Come on, Abdullah - if you were going to be an absolute monarch, you may as well have tried for the benevolent dictatorship style rather than the useless style where you turned a blind eye to religious police being ridiculous, awful and violent to people trying to live peacefully in your country.

I get it. Saudi Arabia is joining the military effort in the fight against ISIS. Saudi is letting the US use their land to train and equip Syrian fighters. Saudi buys arms from the US and the UK for its well-equipped military, even though it has done pretty much bugger-all since 1991. Saudi is, naturally, are more than happy to let the US buy its oil - despite all the noise about the US being so close to energy self-sufficiency, 13% of oil consumed in the US is imported from Saudi.

But the sad fact is that Saudi lending a hand in the fight against ISIS won't do a whole lot to stop the radicalisation that leads to terrorism. It cannot be denied that ISIS has its ideological roots in Wahabbism, the extreme form of strict Islam which has formed the basis of Saudi law and society since the start of the 20th Century with its influence starting much earlier.

Saudi Arabia can throw whatever military might and money it likes behind the fight against ISIS, but as long as the country is beholden to Wahabbism, to the vile religious police, and to a judicial system that does not include fair and open trials and favours public beheadings for crimes ranging from murder to witchcraft, it is part of the problem. It sets a hideous example that inspires some of the worst of humanity.

But as long as there are arms deals at stake and cheap petrol to be enjoyed, it is clearly far preferable for the leaders of the western world to drop everything, including flags to half mast, and head over to Saudi Arabia like dumb labradors to lick the face of the new king in an unironic grief orgy.

Kudos to Michelle Obama for not covering her hair (and looking suitably bored) in Saudi this week - and kudos to Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush for also eschewing headscarves when they visited the kingdom -  but it would have been even better if she didn't go at all. Perhaps she could have released a YouTube video, dressed in one of her trademark sleeveless dresses, saying that she was defying her husband by not going to Saudi. That would have been cool.

Instead, we have witnessed commentators on TV news channels talking about King Abdullah as if he was the Saudi equivalent of Germaine Greer. He mentioned that women will be able to vote and run for office in this year's municipal elections, but we will have to wait and see if King Salman makes good on this promise. He promoted one woman, the Utah-educated Norah Al Faiz, to the position of Deputy Minister of Education for Women's Affairs. She is very accomplished but she is still the deputy to a man who oversees these matters pertaining to women. There are more women in higher education than men in Saudi, this is true, - but when these women cannot drive a car, when they cannot work or travel without permission from their male guardians, when not all professions are open to them, the potential to be gleaned from their education is reined in by misogynistic restrictions. Women's testimonies in courts are worth less than those of men. Women who have pressed rape charges have ended up being punished for immorality if the accused is found not guilty.

On the upside, King Abdullah has daughters who have received university education. But these would be the daughters that he keeps locked up in the palace in terrible conditions, a hangover from his anger at that particular wife not giving him a son. He is a latter day, science-denying Henry VIII, seemingly unaware that it's his contribution to the reproductive process that determines the sex.

So, yeah, I'm not about to shout from the rooftops about what a great guy King Abdullah was for women of Saudi.

And no, it's not just a matter for Saudi Arabia to deal with internally. It is everyone's business. Even if you don't subscribe to the principle that no woman is free if even one woman is oppressed, how about considering, for example, that Saudi beheads people of other nationalities too. It is easy to say: "Well, just don't get a job there if you lose so many rights!" but with cases such as Burmese and Nepalese maids beheaded after farcical murder trials, it is clear that vulnerable people see working in a place like Saudi as an escape from poverty. There is a global problem to consider here.

After all, the world had the balls to impose sanctions against South Africa during the apartheid years. How is the gender apartheid of Saudi any less a crime against humanity?



Monday, 26 January 2015

Happy Australia Day to London's newest paramedics


To the Australian paramedics who are marking Australia Day by starting work for the London Ambulance Service, I say thank you. My hat is off to you all.

I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that there will be tough days ahead, that you will see awful things, that you may be called on the save lives in the event of another terror attack, and that you are not going to be resting on your laurels. You will also meet some amazing people who will restore your faith in humanity, both among your patients and your fellow staff members.

Some of you may not last the distance in the job and that is OK - working for the London Ambulance Service is one of the toughest jobs in this city. And I predict many of you will excel over here and go on to achieve incredible things even under trying conditions. I really hope you get to enjoy the great things about living in London on your days off - you will have earned that night at the theatre, the trip to the pub, a walk along the Southbank or whatever it is that floats your boat.

Twice I've had to call ambulances for people here in London and on both occasions, I was so impressed by the professionalism, compassion and skills of the staff. I saw paramedics quickly calm and revive one of my neighbours as she collapsed at a bus stop after a stressful time in her life, and treat another elderly neighbour who suffered a mini stroke with the good humour required when someone is ailing but does not want to go to hospital. I am proud that fellow Australians will be joining these dedicated people at a time when the London Ambulance Service is under immense pressure.

Indeed, A&E services in London and across the whole country are under pressure and many are under threat of closure. This will add to the stress of the job for the Australian paramedics who may find themselves having to treat patients in ambulances while queuing up for a cubicle at an overworked A&E department. This group of Australians will be joining the everyday heroes who already keep London's emergency services working perhaps as well as can be expected in this era of austerity, NHS mismanagement from on high, and abrogated responsibility from the Health Secretary.

It is impossible not to politicise this story for it is politicians, along with Clinical Commissioning Groups, who are making the decisions that will impact on the working lives of London's newest paramedics. Anyone who shuts down discussion on A&E departments on the grounds that it should not be a "political football" is usually someone who is responsible for undermining said A&E departments.

Here's hoping the Australian paramedics, along with those who are already working for London Ambulance Service, can just get on with doing their jobs. To see Australian paramedics on the news this morning starting work was a wonderful Australia Day alternative to the archaic, cloth-eared idiocy of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott awarding an "Australian knighthood" to Prince Philip. On the upside, as a republican, I hope this bizarre decision is just the boost the Australian republican movement needs after last year's royal visit led to Prince George being called "The Republican Slayer". Sorry, monarchists, but something has gone tragically wrong if someone who is not yet toilet-trained is influencing opinions on the state of the Australian constitution.

But I digress. Today is not a day to dwell on Tony Abbott's latest ridiculousness. It is a day to welcome Australian paramedics to London. May they love living and working here as much as I do.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo, part trois... The Plimsoll line returns. And has the bear been poked?



Back in September 2013, long before most of the world had heard of Charlie Hebdo, I blogged about the Plimsoll line of modesty. I was ranting, as I sometimes to, on how frequently women can't win, no matter what they choose to do/say/wear etc.

Get your boobs out on Page 3 and risk being called a slag and a traitor to other women, wear something Islamic and you'll be told you're oppressed as if you are a stupid child, wear a short skirt and you might be asking to be raped, dress a little dowdily and you run the risk of some concern troll offering you a makeover, and whether your shoes are high or low, you may have to defend your choice to wear them and declare them as "empowering" even if you're just wearing them to keep your feet dry.

It is as if there is an imaginary Plimsoll line for hem lengths and square inches of flesh exposed before a woman crosses from slapper to sheepish. And now it would seem there is a Plimsoll line for offence as well.

The question has been asked over and over again since the Charlie Hebdo massacre: Did the magazine poke the bear?

And this is where there has been a global exercise in missing the point and, ultimately blaming murder victims for their own demise from everybody including the Pope. That said, the Pope is perfectly entitled to express his views and anyone who uses words rather than bullets for dissent is doing it right.

So the big question is: At what point is something fair comment, accurate reportage or "acceptable" satire and at what point does it become offensive? There is no one point for all people for this to happen. It depends on the individual. There is no Plimsoll line for offensiveness. This is not a question with a solitary right or wrong answer.

Plenty of people, and not just IS-loving extremist terrorists, found plenty of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons for different reasons - but the people who are not extremist lunatics have used their freedom of speech to call out Charlie Hebdo, as is their right to do so. They have not shot people dead as the extremist lunatics have done. It is a tragedy that the dead magazine staffers are no longer around to engage in any sort of meaningful conversations about their work and answer their critics.

As I said, there is no Plimsoll line for offensiveness. Monty Python's The Life Of Brian, for example, offended countless Christians when it was released in 1979 but there were plenty of Christians who found it hilarious. Likewise, who is to know where the line should be drawn with material that may offend Muslims? Again, it depends on the Muslim. Plenty of Muslims are offended by Charlie Hebdo but defend the magazine's right to free speech. And other Muslims may disagree with this entirely. Nobody speaks for all the world's Muslims any more than anyone spoke for all the world's Christians in 1979.

But the Monty Python team were not assassinated for making The Life Of Brian, just as nobody has been killed over The Book Of Mormon. Indeed, the Mormons have used the show as a PR tool which is rather brilliant.

So does all satire about Muslims need to be tempered in case more maniacs decide to gun down journalists, cartoonists and editors? This is the question that shows a lack of understanding about terrorism. Terrorism is effective because of the horrific element of surprise. Even after 9/11 and 7/7 and the Madrid bombing, we are still shocked when something like this happens, we remember where we were when we heard the news, we panic when it happens close to home or close to our loved ones.

Charlie Hebdo could, I suppose tone down the satire. But that would not necessarily save any more lives. And what is stopping another publication from being the next target? The Daily Mail, for example, sometimes renders satire redundant. It, like the Daily Express, is also a newspaper that does not exactly give Islam an easy ride. So, should these newspapers stop publishing stories on, say, the Rotherham sex abuse scandal just in case some maniac turns up at their offices and shoots everyone? Or how about Jezebel, a US website that often publishes stories about the latest insane thing Saudi Arabia has done to women? Plenty of Muslims find Saudi to be a ridiculous regime. Others may think banning women from driving and making sure male guardians give women permission for everything from working to travelling is perfectly reasonable. So should Jezebel quit calling out Saudi's sexist bullshit?

If any of these outlets became the target of a terrorist, we'd still be shocked. And then fearful. And then we start censoring, editors start second-guessing themselves, people start cancelling travel plans or changing their daily routine. And that is how terrorists win.

See? Where does it end? Does every news outlet in the world have to keep self-censoring and neutering stories and tempering opinion pieces until all it is left with is bland, inoffensive material that is of no use to anyone?

Charlie Hebdo may have poked the bear but everyone has their own bear and the level of poking it can withstand can vary wildly.

Interestingly, the outrage over the Charlie Hebdo cartoon depicting the victims of Boko Haram's kidnapping and sexual enslavement as pregnant welfare queens was, I thought, ridiculous. I was so relieved when someone else interpreted it the same way I did - not as a sexist dig at the victims but a poke in our collective consciences over our attitudes in EU countries to Muslims on benefits. There is always outrage at asylum seekers on benefits and immigrants on benefits - and if they happen to be Muslim, that seems to kick the outrage meter up a few more notches. But there is still outrage, sometimes from the same people, at the kidnappings and forced marriages. To me, it posed the question of what we'd do if all the victims turned up on our borders, pregnant to their Boko Haram rapists, seeking asylum and state benefits. Would we all suddenly be collectively generous to these women or would attitudes remain unchanged?

I thought it was one of Charlie Hebdo's better cartoons. The cartoon depicting a black female politician as a monkey was, I thought, rather repulsive and I have no problem with saying that without reaching for a gun.

If this whole story has taught us anything, it's that satire doesn't always travel well and a lot of people have been left either baffled by French satire or simply unamused. But satire doesn't have to be universally amusing. Not everyone has to get it. And nobody should be killed over it.

You should be able to poke the bear. It is up to the bear to respond in a civilised manner.



Photography by Lilla Frerichs

Monday, 12 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo, what now? Part Deux


Following on from last week's blog post on the Charlie Hebdo murders, it is clear we still really don't know what to do about all this terrorism and the threats to free speech and a free press. What is clear is that the right to free speech includes the right to say something stupid (and this is as it should be) and plenty of people are exercising their right in this manner.

Still, facetiousness aside, it is heartening to see people in multiple cities come out in their thousands in a show of defiance against threats to free speech but ironically, the wall-to-wall coverage of these marches has taken up so much of the news cycle that other important stories are not being reported.

Indeed, to add to the irony, among the leaders of nations who linked arms to show their support for free speech in Paris were plenty of people who would do well to clean up their own backyards.

We have Francois Hollande demanding to know how the attack could have happened despite laws passed at the end of 2013 which increased government surveillance powers. Here's a clue, Francois: Your stupid laws aren't working. Then there is David Cameron who rushed through email and phone surveillance laws last year, describing them as "essential".Oh, and let's not forget Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel. That'd be the same Israel that jailed three journalists in 2013 and targets journalists, especially those trying to cover the situation in Gaza. Not that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, also at the march, is any better with attempts to control the messages people hear via state-controlled media and ensuring peace negotiations are kept secret and not properly reported. And Queen Rania of Jordan was there too. She'd be the one everyone says is so amazing yet she is also queen of a country that blocked 300 news websites in 2013 and isn't above jailing journalists either. But she seems to get a leave pass because she has such great style.

Barack Obama and John Kerry were criticised for not being there, despite the US ambassador to France and the Assistant Secretary of State being there. John Kerry was in India and is off to Paris next week for talks on countering violent extremism. Maybe Obama couldn't be arsed to attend, maybe he was busy doing other things, maybe he didn't want to link arms with a bunch of hypocrites, maybe it seemed like a futile exercise to him. I don't know and I don't really care just as I wouldn't really care if Bush was still in the White House and he didn't take a trip to Paris.

The reason I don't care is because one of the more ridiculous responses to all this has been to demand that every newspaper in the world print the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in a show of solidarity. "Demand" is the operative word here. While it was certainly absurd that numerous media outlets ran pixellated versions of the cartoons with their coverage of this story, trying to force every newspaper to run the controversial cartoons is not what free speech is about either.

If a newspaper doesn't want to run a cartoon for whatever reason, they shouldn't have to do that. You don't have to publish every single thing that has offended someone in order to be an advocate for a free and fearless press, or to defend the right of others to publish things that may cause offence.

A great way to not hand victory to those who threaten press freedom would be for journalists to simply keep on working, to be fearless, to not be bound by political agendas, to pause every time they are self-censoring to ask why they are doing this and what they - or their masters - are so scared of.

Having worked for five years in the UAE, I was involved in some absurd self-censorship. I wrote an opinion piece about how easy and transformative it would be for the UAE to have a rail service to link all seven emirates. If it ever happens in my lifetime, I will be stunned. As such, I ended the piece with: "Do the leaders of the UAE have the political will to make this happen?". Cue a panic-stricken editor emerging from his office, fearful that I had broken the country's laws against criticising the rulers.

"But Georgia, it sounds like you don't think they have the political will to do this!" he wailed at me.

"That's right. I don't think they do."

"But people might think that we think they can't do this."

"I know, hence I wrote it as a rhetorical question so people can make their own minds up."

"Can you please tone it down, Georgia?"

As a result, a wishy-washy ending to my opinion piece went to press. Sigh... But I was working in a country that does not have a proper free press or freedom of assembly. I knew the score when I moved to the UAE and my time there was sometimes frustrating but the experience was still worthwhile. And it was obvious my boss was terrified of jail and deportation over a little column in the corner of the newspaper's motoring section.

For those working as journalists in the Middle East, I hope you can one day be a bit more fearless than I was over an opinion piece about trains. And for those of us who are working in countries that are doing better on the Reporters Without Borders Free Press Index, a lot of us can probably do better ourselves. We don't need to be forced to print anything we don't want to print. But a media governed by fear, even if there is nothing in legislation to justify the fear (and even if there is, quite frankly...), is not much of a media at all and it serves nobody.







Picture by Petr Kratochvil

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

After the Charlie Hebdo murders, what now?

There it is. One of the cartoons that has caused at least 12 people in the office of Charlie Hebdo to lose their lives today.

For those who can't read French, it is a cartoon of the leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the words simply say: "Best wishes, by the way. To you, al Baghdadi," and he says: "Especially to your health!". One wonders how weak one's beliefs are if they feel the need to shoot 12 people over such a statement.

Yet for this and other similar cartoons, two cowardly murderers who didn't have the balls to show their moronic faces stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine and opened fire.

And the response to this latest act of terrorism, this latest attack on free speech, is the same old, same old. There's the usual blaming of every Muslim on the planet, the usual calls for moderate Muslims to speak out (which every moderate Muslim/agnostic Muslim/lapsed Muslim I know, and plenty I don't know, do all the time, over and over again, and I really do not know how much more they can do...), the usual plaintive calls for better understanding among all people of the world, the usual pointing out of violence by non-Muslims...

In short, we really don't know what to do.

You don't have to dig too deeply in the comments section of an online news story about, say, burqas to find people saying that France has the right idea on this issue, even those who may otherwise think France is a seething den of sinful socialism. The European Court of Human Rights upheld France's right to ban the burqa last year, a law that has been in place since 2010. France also bans all outward signs of any religion in all government schools. None of this stopped today's disgusting, terrifying events. Equally, Australia, the UK, Spain and the US do not ban the burqa and do allow outward symbols of religion to be worn in state schools and these countries have all experienced the deadly evils of warped Islamic extremism as well.

On top of all this, reports abound of French Jews are leaving their country because of a rise in anti-semitism, including violent attacks on people and synagogues. In 2013, a record 3,270 French Jews immigrated to Israel, a 63% increase from 2012.

So, yeah, there are problems in France, just as there are problems globally with people struggling with the basic concept of live and let live.

Fighting poverty and ensuring everyone has access to education are important actions in the fight against extremism. But plenty of educated, affluent people have gone on to be jihadis.

We really don't know what to do.

I will share the Charlie Hebdo cartoon, although this isn't some heroic act of courage on my part. I fully expect to make it home safely tonight without being targeted by a lunatic over this blog as I anonymously walk to the tube station. I will continue to support the right to freedom of speech, freedom of expression and a free press. But I've always done this, as have so many people everywhere, and still this shit happens.

But we cannot go on censoring ourselves, censoring those with whom we disagree, wanting to ban all the things that might offend us, deliberately trying to be offended instead of ignoring that which one might find offensive, seeking to police humour, and squashing satire along the way.

I am not going to pretend I have all the answers to this one. I don't. I am not sure who does or if anyone does.But I have just seen scenes from Paris appear in my newsfeed. It's a large gathering in France's gorgeous capital city of a diverse group of people gathering in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo and, as a result, with journalists everywhere. A similar gathering is about to start in London. This is moving, important stuff and to scoff at such gatherings is to be, quite frankly, a bit of a dick.

I will end this blog post with an abridged version of my friend Luke Thornhill's Facebook status. As a sports journalist, he is thankful that the only backlash he gets in his line of work is the odd accusation of bias against a sporting team or a tweet from an angry fan, but that does not make him any less of a champion for a free press.

In a world where we really don't know what to do, Luke's resolution and subsequent actions in response to today's events sure as hell beat doing nothing at all.

I have decided to be a bit more Muslim-like and give more of what would loosely be termed as zakat. The Big Issue seller in Hull was the first beneficiary, with a cuppa and sandwich to go with his tip in return for his wares, I hope that the perpetrators of this attack die a little bit more inside on the coals of hell when they realise they're helping turn me into a better person, and that today I did it by adopting a pillar of Islam and supporting a magazine which exercises its freedom of speech in such a brilliant way. Peace be upon you.