Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Pearl-clutching prudery and John Whittingdale

Would you like some pearls to clutch while you carry on about the culture secretary, John Whittingdale's long-finished relationship with a sex worker?

For this story is not about press regulation, or blackmail, or Leveson. It is about prudery and the inability of people to mind their own damn business. It may also be about the Tories and a complicit press merrily throwing one of their own under a bus to stop people talking about piddly little things like tax reform, but most of all, it is about prudery.

There have been some rather unsavoury suggestions that Whittingdale was blackmailing journalists who knew of his past relationship with a sex worker. Something along the lines of: "If you run that story about my personal life, I'll tighten the screws on press regulation!". But nobody has been able to produce any evidence of this being the case.

If this is what happened, we have a problem. It would be a serious compromise to the office of Culture Secretary if Whittingdale was holding journalists over a barrel in such a manner. If any journalist has any evidence of such outrageous behaviour by a member of the cabinet, please speak now or forever hold your peace.

There are loud howls from the peanut gallery as to why journalists who knew about Whittingdale's relationship with a sex worker held off on publishing such a supposedly embarrassing story.

If it was the case that Whittingdale was blackmailing journalists, he should resign, and the blackmailed journalists would surely be calling for his resignation on those grounds.

But what if the story simply failed the "So what?" test. What if the journalists who were fed the information by another sex worker out to make a quick quid decided that a relationship between two single people that has long since ended was not newsworthy? What if it was decided that there was no news value in reporting on a past relationship that happened well before Whittingdale was Culture Secretary and involved a woman who is not and does not seek to be a public figure?

What exactly are people shocked about here? That sex workers exist? That an MP might, quite legally despite other outdated laws, pay for sex? Or that a sex worker would have the temerity to join a dating website and seek to have a personal life?

Is British society so whore-phobic that collectively a dim view is taken of a sex worker seeking a relationship outside of work, something the rest of us in supposedly respectable jobs take for granted?

Whittingdale's relationship did not break any laws. He has not attempted as an MP to pass punitive legislation in relation to sex workers nor has he ever put himself forward as a "family values" spokesman. As such, he is not a hypocrite.

The only way I can see to move forward from this fiasco is for Britain to finally grow up and quit being shocked by sex workers or by the sex lives of consenting adults. We need to get over our appetite for non-news stories about stuff that affects nobody outside of the relationship. This current debacle is pathetic. John Whittingdale's long defunct relationship is not news. Can we please move on and discuss things that are actually important?

Picture by FergalFam007

Sunday, 10 April 2016

An open letter to The Agenda Beirut

Dear members of staff of The Agenda Beirut,

This letter is directed in particular to senior management, for that is where the buck stops when an organisation says or does something stupid or unprofessional, and to one Issam T. Eid, who is responsible for writing, quite frankly, a sexist load of tripe.

I refer to Mr Eid's embarrassing attempt to promote his Automotive Journalism course. Here, Mr Eid rattles off the eight ways he can teach people to become automotive journalists.

Firstly, the writing is sloppy and there is a blatant disregard for paragraph spacing. This is somewhat ironic given that one of his tips is: "Even if you like what you wrote, have someone else read your articles". Did anyone else cast their eye over this tragic sales pitch before it was posted?

Then there is a spot of encouragement for race-to-the-bottom journalism with the advice: "Nowadays if you believe you're a good automotive journalist, you can write articles and post them online". The problem is that plenty of people with an internet connection believe they are good journalists and post reams of bullshit online.

Hell, I can believe I am Wonder Woman, but when I look in the mirror, I see more Helena Bonham Carter than Lynda Carter. Belief does not always translate into reality. It is one thing to motivate your students to believe they can achieve great things. It is quite another to urge anyone who "believes" they are a good journalist, automotive or otherwise, to fill the internet with unedited rubbish.

And then, at the end, perhaps most offensive and ridiculous of all is the advice under point #8. This is, apparently, the "life cycle of an automotive journalist (Pros vs. Cons)".

Mr Eid says "Everyone envies you for your fancy life as you're on the go all year long".

Sure, there are some nice travel perks, but anyone who is serious about the job cares little for the fancy hotel, does not bugger off in the middle of dinner with senior execs from automotive companies because hookers await (I have witnessed this in my time working as an automotive journalist in the Middle East), does not throw a tantrum because a 45-minute flight on a work trip is economy class (I have also witnessed this in my time working as an automotive journalist in the Middle East), does not refuse to go to the airport once they realise the flight is economy class and only calls the PR back three days later with a pathetic excuse (Surprise, surprise, I have witnessed this too...), and often has to file copy from hotel rooms and airports.

But I suspect basic etiquette will be conspicuous by its absence in Mr Eid's course.

And then he concludes his sales pitch for his course in the most startling and unprofessional way imaginable, with this gem:

"It affects your private life. No girlfriend will tolerate you being away most of the time. Wife. That's another bad story too."

Wow. Really? Given you are charging $450 for this course, I assume you are trying to make money, so why the hell would you include in your sales pitch a sexist load of bunkum that excludes half the population? Do you not want to make any money out of women who are interested in becoming automotive journalists? Or did you simply assume that no woman wants to bother her pretty little head with an automotive journalism course?

Do you have any evidence for wives and girlfriends of automotive journalists being unsupportive partners or is it easier to stereotype all women as nagging shrews who don't understand men and their big engines?

Sure, being a journalist, any sort of journalist, can be demanding on personal relationships. We are not necessarily brilliant marriage prospects. We can be grumpy, deadline-driven, obsessive and alcoholic. But there are plenty of jobs that impede on private lives. Doctors, emergency services workers, any job involving anti-social hours...

Is Mr Eid trying to give students a reality check with this advice? Or is it a lame attempt at boys' club comedy? Whatever the hell he was trying to do here, he just comes across as a sexist jerk rather than a professional from whom aspiring automotive journalists can learn great things.

Seriously, it's 2016. Do better.

Your sincerely,

Georgia Lewis, happily married journalist, automotive correspondent for Elite Living Africa and woman.

Picture: Thomas Hawk/Flickr

Sunday, 21 February 2016

It's EU Referendum campaign season! *opens wine*

The date is set! June 23! David Cameron had no choice but to fulfil his election promise of an in-out EU referendum. I'm voting to stay in. There! I said it! It's liberating to come out!

Yes! Dave has done a deal in Brussels! Never mind that everyone there wanted to discuss bigger issues, such as the migrant situation, rather than arguing over Britain's welfare provisions. Never mind that Dave has basically made a mountain out of a mere £30 million molehill of benefits for foreigners. It's all about looking like he is doing something that will appeal to the Daily Mail readers. My response to the deal is "meh". My views on the EU remain the same as they were before he went to Brussels, trying not to look like a virgin at an orgy.

Jeremy Corbyn's column on the referendum in the Guardian yesterday was largely sensible but it is the soundbites that ended up on the news that people will notice and these made him sound ungracious and not entirely convinced that we should stay in the EU. Corbyn's Euroscepticism is not exactly a state secret and this is already undermining his credibility in the campaign.

Labour MP for Exeter, Ben Bradshaw, however, did an excellent job on Sky News yesterday responding to Cameron's deal. It was pitch perfect, just the right mix of class and criticism, while still putting forward a clear and positive case for staying in the EU. He came across like a real leader.

The irony of the Vote Leave campaigners accusing anyone of scaremongering is laughable, given that Nigel Farage's entire schtick is based on fear of anything a bit different and a pathetic yearning for good old days that weren't actually that good at all. That'd be Nigel Farage who could actually do some good for Britain by bothering to turn up to debate on behalf of us all and attend votes once in a while as an MEP instead of just making his vague and pointless claim that he is our eyes and ears in Brussels. He is as much on the gravy train as any Eurocrat.

The Vote Leave campaign also has the dubious presence of Michael Gove, who was an utterly appalling Education Secretary. He wrote a 1,500-word diatribe about why he wants to leave the EU, which starts with five excruciating paragraphs about how his standpoint "pains" him, how he hates ever so much to disagree with David Cameron and is now probably worried about awkward dinner parties in years to come.

George Galloway is an awful pig of a man and a rape apologist so he's clearly a boon to the Vote Leave campaign.

Ian Duncan Smith, meanwhile, has imposed awful policy on the disabled people of Britain that is as cruel as it is economically illiterate, so it makes perfect sense that he wet his whistle by claiming we're more vulnerable to terrorism if we stay in the EU. Yeah. Because Daesh cares really deeply about EU membership when choosing its targets. And, in any case, it's not as if this government is in any rush to open the borders to refugees in any great numbers - and that is the group to which IDS was referring in his tantrum on the BBC today. Another case of the Tories trying to out-UKIP UKIP for political gain.

And speaking of political gain, Boris Johnson has only formulated his position on the EU based on what he thinks is best for Boris Johnson. If you have seriously formed your view based on what Boris Johnson says he will do, you are, with all due respect, a fucking idiot. Boris is egomaniacal enough to believe his position will have real sway with the electorate and he has taken an educated gamble by backing Vote Leave.

If Britain votes to leave the EU, that is the end of David Cameron's political career and Boris can stick his irritating head over the parapet as a candidate for the Conservative Party leadership. This is obviously his big dream here. And if we vote to stay, Boris can still claim to speak for large, Eurosceptical swathes of the electorate and he will get a nice job in the cabinet based on the notion that he will win UKIP voters back to the Tories.

Nothing Boris has done today has anything to do with what is good for the country or for wider notions of democracy. Nothing.

And then there are the Eurosceptical voices from the left. One of the main objections to staying in the EU is opposition to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). If passed in its current form, it is a free trade agreement that will open up UK government contracts to the US, not just the UK and EU, as is the case at the moment.

But to vote to leave the EU based on TTIP is to then trust the Conservative government to not just go ahead and sign their own free trade deal with the US, with even less safeguards than TTIP and negotiated without the might of other European nations behind us. Indeed, opposition to TTIP is growing across Europe, with Germany being a strong case in point. France, meanwhile, is making it very clear that they will not support the dispute resolution mechanisms of TTIP as things stand right now.

If TTIP loses the support of the two big economies Germany and France, the whole deal is on very shaky ground.

Like it or not, we have a Conservative government in place here until 2020. Do you seriously think a post-Brexit Conservative government will just forget the whole idea of a free trade agreement with the US or negotiate a deal that is in the interests of the people of Britain? After all, one of the big alleged selling points of Brexit is that the UK will be able to make free trade agreements with gay abandon. Nigel Farage loves to bang on about this with tedious frequency. (Never mind that we already trade with the rest of the world and our pandering to China and Saudi Arabia is truly embarrassing. That is another rant for another time...).

Similarly, to vote for Brexit because you hate David Cameron is pathetic, small-minded and intellectually bankrupt. I am no fan of David Cameron but I am not basing my EU referendum vote on this any more than I'd base my vote on what Boris Johnson says. As I just said, we have a Conservative government in place here until 2020. Yes, sure, Cameron will go if we leave the EU but there won't be a change in government. It'll be Prime Minister Johnson, May or Osborne. Yeah, voting to leave the EU really showed those Tories!

And then there is the wild card of Scotland. If the SNP can convince its voters to stay in, that is one huge voting bloc right there. Regardless of what Nicola Sturgeon's motives might be for staying in the EU, it was pretty clear during the Scottish independence referendum that many pro-independence voters were also convinced that an independent Scotland would easily waltz into the EU, a process that can take years. The SNP could skewer the Vote Leave campaign as effectively as it skewered Scottish Labour in last year's general election.

Honestly, on one hand, I say roll on, June 23, because Peak Idiocy cannot be too far away with this campaign. On the other hand, I say it's not enough time for people to get to grips with the issues surrounding such a huge decision.

Personally, I believe we are better off having a seat at the top table of such a huge trading bloc. Even if we leave, decisions will be made without us that will still affect us because we are part of the world. We can't just stop the world and get off, as much as tiny-minded isolationists want for that to happen. We are part of Europe and part of the world.

I believe we get more out of the EU than we put in. I know it can be cumbersome and overly bureaucratic but it needs to be reformed with the UK involved rather than watching from across the channel. Freedom of movement works both ways, which UKIP fans seem to forget. The implications for British expats across Europe will be enormous, the irony of UKIP having branches in Spain notwithstanding. There are medical research projects that UK universities will no longer be a part of, there will be EU funding for roads, for the arts, for infrastructure and so on that will be no more.

I do not want to see Britain become an insular little island, closed off to so many opportunities that we currently enjoy as part of the EU. It is because I love both Britain and Europe that I will vote to stay.

Photo by George Hodan

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Douchebags dancing on the grave of the Independent

It was announced this week that the Independent will shut down its print edition next month and be the first daily newspaper in the UK to be 100% online.

Inevitably, there were cloth-eared dullards who celebrated this downsizing of the Indy's operations because it was all a bit too lefty for their liking. Yeah, because the newspaper landscape in Britain is currently dominated by extreme left-wing journalism and opinion pieces...

Up to 100 jobs are under threat. Again, assorted buffoons will be delighted at the prospect of journalists being out of work. Amol Rajan has been placed in the unenviable position as editor of the Indy of having to defend the move to 100% online and put a positive spin on it all in TV interviews.

But dancing on the grave of unemployed journalists and a defunct newspaper is a dick move. And I say this in regard to the demise of the printed Independent and the News of the World, even though these newspapers ended in very different circumstances.

Obviously, as a journalist myself I get no joy out of seeing fellow journalists lose their jobs, whether I liked the paper or not. Obviously, anything that makes the market harder for both staff jobs and freelance work potentially has an impact on me and my husband, who is also a journalist. That is my vested interest declared.

But on a wider level, when we end up with a smaller media, with a smaller number of journalists reporting the news, with a tighter circle of opinion columnists, with fewer sources of information, everyone loses. We lose diversity, we lose journalism that tells stories from multiple angles, from angles that might not have occurred to many, we have media outlets running on the smell of an oily rag, we have editors having to determine which story gets the airplay and which one doesn't, because of a lack of staff and resources.

And we are all to blame for this sorry state of affairs. All of us, myself included.

I am not about to declare myself Saint Georgia of the Printed Page. While my day job involves editing a magazine for the African market, where print is still king, as a consumer of media, I get vast swathes of my information online now. Sure, I pick up a copy of Metro to read on my commute to work and pick up a copy of the Evening Standard for the ride home, and both newspapers are important in the media landscape, but it'd be daft to get all my information from just those two sources. I am not Sarah Palin. I can actually name multiple newspapers.

The Metro and the Evening Standard rely on advertising sales rather than copy sales and that presents its own editorial challenges for the editorial teams.

And I have fallen out of the habit of buying newspapers, as I suspect many of us have. I fondly remember a time, more than a decade ago, when I shared a house with my best friend in Sydney. Every Sunday, we'd buy both Sunday papers, divvy them up into the sections and line them up on the living room floor. I liked to start with the hard news, business and sport and then read the lighter sections, and my friend preferred to start with the lighter stuff and finish with the news. It was a magnificent system whereby we'd wile away the afternoon, each of us starting at one end of the line of sections, passing each other somewhere in the middle, and finishing at the other end.

The last time I bought a newspaper, it was the i, the Independent's condensed baby brother newspaper. I had an hour to kill between appointments at my local hospital and I fancied reading something that wouldn't make me want to punch a wall and would fit nicely in my handbag, because I was getting the bus home. That was almost two months ago. The paper cost me all of 20p. Twenty of my British pence has been my sole contribution to this country's newspaper industry this year.

And in the end, it is all about economics.

When print sales started to decline and newspapers wised up to the fact that they needed to go online, the conundrum of how to make money out of the internet affected every outlet. Some newspapers are trying paywalls for all their online content, some are offering a limited number of free articles before you have to put your hand in your pocket, and some are hoping that advertising revenue will be enough to fund the operation while keeping the web content free to access.

It is particularly pathetic when someone uses the comments section of an online article to complain about the advertising. It takes all my self-control not to reply to their comment by saying: "THE ADVERTISEMENTS ARE THERE SO YOU DON'T HAVE TO PAY FOR ONLINE CONTENT AND SO THAT THE JOURNALISTS WHO WRITE THE ARTICLES ACTUALLY GET PAID, YOU INTELLECTUALLY MILD COCKWOMBLE!".

I have no time for fools who refuse to understand that someone has to be paid for writing and researching material for the internet. We journalists generally love our jobs and couldn't imagine doing anything else for a living but, just like everyone else, we have bills to pay. Doing something for the sheer love is only an option for the independently wealthy. And do you want a media where only the fabulously wealthy can afford to work in it?

So, we as media consumers, need to take responsibility. If we want good quality journalism but don't want to pay for it, we have to accept that the media outlets will need to find other ways to pay their staff and keep the office lights on, even if that means you have to sit through a 30-second advertisement or having to close an annoying pop-up. That really is the ultimate first world pain.

If you don't like ads with your news, you'll have to pay for your news.

Few of us are prepared to go back to the pre-internet days. After all, it is now so much easier not only to read an article but to share it as well. A few clicks and you can post a story on your Facebook page, tweet it, or email it to your entire address book. Gone are the days when my mother would cut out a newspaper article and post it to me. These days, she will email me the link. It is so much easier and more efficient to share an article online than it is to call everyone you know and tell them to go out and buy a newspaper and turn to a certain page.

This is how we get our information now. And nobody wants to give that up. But before you get excited about unemployed journalists or whine about advertising or paywalls, at least try to understand the simple economics.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Random rants from a busy Rant Mistress...

I've started a new job, I've been in and out of the country, I'll be out of the country and back again soon, I've been busy, I've neglected to rant. Here, in no particular order, are some random thoughts that I have not gotten around to committing to paper, or indeed the internet.

- Frankly, if the junior doctors' strike was only about pay, so fucking what? I want to live in a country that respects doctors enough to pay them properly. The race-to-the-bottom nonsense of wanting everyone to live in penury is pathetic.

- Richard Dawkins' absurd (and now deleted) tweet saying Queen Rania of Jordan is a good Muslim, showing off her lovely hair, is merely another tragic example of the fetishising of said queen. Sure, she is an attractive, articulate woman with good hair. But, thanks to her position of privilege, she has the luxury of being outspoken in a way that many in her country, particularly journalists do not.

- I don't think Jeremy Corbyn will ever win a general election.

- Trying to get people to understand that PFI and the cost of administering the marketised NHS are the two main cost pressures is bloody exhausting.

- The world will need fossil fuels for a while longer. If you own anything made of plastic or a T-shirt that is not 100% cotton, or you'd prefer to abseil using nylon ropes instead of hemp ropes, then you are using petrochemicals. Sorry.

- Stop asking stupid questions of women over 35 who do not have any children. If she wants to discuss the reasons behind her child-free life in detail, regardless of whether she is childless through choice or circumstance, she will volunteer the information. If not, butt out of her uterus.

- The Revenant is a completely overrated film.

- It is tiresome and ridiculous that the Zika virus outbreak is once again dragging non-scientific anti-vaxx arguments out of the woodwork yet again. Give it a rest. Learn some science. You are embarrassing yourselves.

- Hillary Clinton will be the next president of the United States of America.

- The UK will vote to stay in the EU - and I suspect the vote won't be as close as people think it will be.

- If you seriously think the homeopathy-mad, failed marmalade mogul, Jeremy Hunt, is a good Health Secretary, you are deluded and I am not sure I can help you.

- Does anyone find Keith Lemon funny?

- It was really moving to see the Stade de France full of spectators watching the France vs Italy Six Nations match yesterday.

- David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are all pathetic negotiators and I refuse to take any of them seriously.

- It is time for long-standing refugee camps in the Middle East to be turned into proper towns with proper schools, hospitals and economic activity, such as businesses and industry.

- Deutschland 83 is excellent television and should cure people of Ostalgie, even if it is a fictitious account. If not, read Stasiland by Anna Funder instead. Romanticising East Germany is ridiculous and makes elements of the left look completely stupid.

Photography by Kim Rempel

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Clean for the Queen: A load of rubbish

If anyone spots me putting rubbish in a bin, ensuring my rubbish and recycling are separated, or not throwing crisp packets and banana skins out of car windows, I would like to make it perfectly clear that I am not doing it for Queen Elizabeth II.

I do it because I really hate littering and I believe in taking responsibility for my small role in keeping Britain tidy. As far as I can remember, I've only littered twice in the almost-40 years I've been alive. A plastic wine glass blew out of my hand when I was on a boat off the coast of Cyprus in 2014. I still feel awful about that. And one night in 2006, I was walking home from a film screening in Dubai while eating Burger King. A man attacked me, tearing my tights and putting his hand down the neckline of my dress, leaving scratches on my decolletage. I got away by elbowing him in the chest, throwing my burger at him, ducking under his arm and running away, leaving a trail of meat, bun, lettuce, tomato, onion and sauce in my wake. I don't feel quite so bad about that one.

The reason why I am making this bizarre statement about not being motivated by the Queen in my quest for cleanliness is the pathetic, embarrassing, forelock-tugging load of toss that is Clean for the Queen.

According to the absurd Clean for the Queen website, the campaign aims to "clear up Britain" in time for June 2016, when apparently it is compulsory to celebrate Liz's 90th birthday or else risk being sent to the tower for high treason.

The website is urging schools, local councils, community groups, businesses and individuals to "do their bit" and clean up the country. Without a trace of irony, the website asks us: "What better way could we show our gratitude to Her Majesty than to clean up our country?".

Oh, I dunno. How about we let her retire, declare a British republic, have an elected upper chamber instead of the bloated farce that is the House of Lords, and grow the hell up?

Or how about instead of just keeping Britain tidy for a few days in June, why don't we ensure that local councils are properly resourced and people are educated so that we can keep Britain tidy at all times?

And while we're on the subject of keeping the place spick and span, perhaps the Queen herself can show a bit of damn gratitude herself and pay her cleaning staff a living wage? The arse-kissing sycophants will say it's an honour to clean Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, and it's great experience (always the excuse of apologists for poverty line wages or, worse, working for free). But if you clean places such as Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, not only are you expected to do more than a cursory turn with a feather duster, you will also need to live in commuting distance of your place of employment - and neither place is renowned for cheap rental properties.

Another look at the laughable website reveals the weird claim that when the Queen came to the throne in 1952, "litter was not the problem that it is today" and goes on to blame "food packaging, plastic bottles, takeaway meals and cigarette butts".

Did people really only start dropping fag ends after 1952? Before plastic bottles, did everyone in Britain really dispose of all their rubbish responsibly? And even if 1950s Britain was a litter-free utopia, it was also a time of coal fires and cars powered by leaded petrol. Fifty-five new coal-fired or oil-fired power stations were opened after Elizabeth II ascended to the throne.

But the mentality behind Clean for the Queen is about rose-tinted nostalgia, of harking back to the so-called good old days, even if there were plenty of things about the good old days that were actually pretty crap, and even if things that have improved since 1952, such as literacy levels, life expectancy and child mortality rates, have precisely nothing to do with the existence of the Queen.

Instead, we have a Clean for the Queen campaign that unsurprisingly, is robustly supported by the government. The Environment Minister, Rory Stewart, is admittedly one of the more sensible people on the government's side of the House of Commons but he still said, in support of Clean for the Queen: "Her Majesty The Queen is an inspiration to all of us. Her 90th birthday is a unique opportunity for people to come together in celebration of Her Majesty's long service and dedication to this country."

Yes! What an opportunity! To pick up litter that litterers should have put in the bin in the first place! To do for free what people should be employed to do! It's scarily similar to businesses such as Tesco taking advantage of work-for-unemployment benefits as a source of free labour instead of being the job creators they profess to be! Well, fancy that!

As a bonus, Clean for the Queen is supported by the Countryside Alliance, those champions of hunting foxes in the most cruel way possible. Let's forget that these people think setting dogs onto foxes is an actual sport and instead congratulate them on picking up some litter.

No. Just no. Clean for the Queen? I'll settle for my local council collecting my rubbish, food waste and recycling every week regardless of who's on the throne.

Photo by Circe Denyer.

Time for Oliver Letwin to come out of the shadows

Two days ago, the Mirror newspaper "revealed" that Oliver Letwin wrote the blueprint for the privatisation of the NHS. Except this has been known by plenty of people for quite some time now. The Mirror made no mention of a book on privatising everything that he wrote back in 1988. It was called Privatising The World: A Study of International Privatisation in Theory and Practice and it has had enormous influence on Conservative party policy ever since.

But who the hell is Oliver Letwin and why should anyone care about him and his 28-year-old book?

Oliver Letwin usually only appears in the public eye when he fucks up. He, like many of his colleagues on both sides of the House of Commons, has been caught up like the vile hypocrites many of them are, in expenses scandals. And he is probably best remembered for being the colossal bellend who threw important papers in a London park bin. It turned out they were letters from his constituents. Apparently, in the minds of his apologists, this somehow made it OK, not quite as bad as tossing official business out with the rubbish.

And, pitifully, apart from a few dissenters, his constituents didn't seem to mind their views being treated with such utter contempt by the man they pay to represent them, because he is still, like a smug and brattish barnacle, their MP. He has been the MP for West Dorset for 19 years, a seat which has been held continuously by the Conservative Party since 1885.

Because he is such a gaffe-prone car crash of a man, he is not trotted out during election campaigns, he does not appear much on telly, and the fact he has written a book, even though it has been a blueprint for Tory policy for more than 20 years, is certainly kept quiet on purpose.

And Letwin was back in the news the other week because he did something embarrassing and made a non-apology apology. He revealed his contempt for black people in a memo when he was a policy adviser to Margaret Thatcher in 1985, saying that assistance for black communities would help the "disco and drug trade" and Rastafarian crafts. Frankly, Oliver, you may as well legalise the drugs so people can make money there as well as encouraging disco and Rastafarian craft businesses, if you are truly the free market libertarian you claim to be.

Except that for Letwin and many of his colleagues in this current wretched government, they are only interested in money-making opportunities for themselves and Conservative Party donors. There is certainly an ideological drive towards this government's drive towards privatising everything but we are also being governed by a party whose MPs are up to their eyeballs in vested interests and serve the needs of their party donors rather than their constituents.

Letwin's 1988 book, Privatising The World: A Study of International Privatisation in Theory and Practice has an interesting title, to be sure. "Theory" rather than "practice" is the operative word for Letwin when it comes to his career. From childhood until he was 26, he was at Eton and then Cambridge University. Academically, he is clearly no fool. Morally, he is a vacuum.

After Cambridge, despite zero experience in the real world, he joined Margaret Thatcher's policy unit. He has also been a bank director, written a few other things, and from 1997 onwards, he has been a constantly promoted MP, albeit one who is not given much media prominence by the party. This is clearly deliberate.

In particular, Letwin has advocated for the privatisation of the NHS. But this is not happening in any blatantly obvious way. It's not even happening in a vaguely competent way. If that were the case, we'd be on a clear path towards the mixed public-private system of Australia - it's not a perfect system, it is currently being messed around with by the current Australian government, but it does not generally leave people in terrible debt, as happens in the US.

It is happening in a way that is far more insidious than that and the incompetence is deliberate. The Health and Social Care Act 2012 paved the way for Clinical Commissioning Groups across the country to make decisions for their local areas. Local people making local decisions sounds great in theory, but in practice, we have CCGs in many parts of the country stacked with members with vested interests in private healthcare and it is not uncommon for them to commission these companies.

Additionally, the administration of the private tenders for the NHS marketplace is one of the biggest cost pressures on the health system. It is difficult to get an exact figure on how much the added bureaucracy costs but estimates vary between £5 billion and £20 billion per year. The other big cost pressure is PFI debt which, unless all the contracts are renegotiated or declared null and void through some excellent lawyering, will probably never be paid off.  In short, PFI (private finance initiative) debts on construction work for hospitals mean British taxpayers are getting such crap deals as one hospital for the price of nine. The billions and billions of pounds that PFI and the marketised NHS cost the system means the "health tourists", women undergoing IVF, and New Year's Eve drunks, and anyone else that the Daily Mail, the Sun, and Daily Express uses as scapegoats, are drops in the financial ocean.

Even when incompetent (but Tory-donating) companies such as G4S get NHS contracts and do things such as kill patients in "never" events, they tend to keep the contracts, even though in the private sector, that kind of thing might well lead to a contract being torn up. Virgin has been running vast chunks of Croydon University Hospital very poorly too, but this has not been the front page news it should be either. A woman died in agony at Croydon after being triaged by a receptionist.

But it doesn't matter to Letwin et al because these fuck-ups, even when a private company is at fault, all serve to whet the public appetite for cuts, closures of essential services and entire hospitals, and selling stuff off, usually to private companies who make vast donations to the Conservative Party.

This government quite literally does not care if people live or die as long as they can continue with their agenda.

And other privatisations are completely cack-handed. Atos has done an abysmal and expensive job of fitness-for-work assessments for the Department of Work and Pensions, for example. All this should be a gift for Labour. But it seems "kinder politics" may be getting in the way. After Letwin's racist gaffe was revealed a few weeks ago, the only real resistance from Labour was to trot out Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, to make a few comments and that was it.

If Labour is at all serious about winning the middle ground back - and winning the middle ground means winning elections - an attack dog approach to Oliver Letwin is essential. Instead of embarrassing, backfiring stunts like throwing Mao's Little Red Book around the House of Commons, Privatising The World needs to be thrown at the government benches. The major news channels and newspapers should request interviews with Oliver Letwin and tell the readers and viewers if he refuses to be interviewed/is not given permission from Tory spin doctors to be interviewed.

We need to see more of Oliver Letwin's Alfred E. Neumann-like face in the media, as a constant reminder of what this government is really up to.

Photography by Peter Griffin

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.