Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Enough with the "random nutter" narrative


We reached peak desperation from the right-leaning media last week when the Daily Mail website ran the following headline in relation to Thomas Mair, the man convicted and sentenced to a whole life term for the senseless murder of Labour Party MP Jo Cox: "Did Neo-Nazi murder Jo over fear he'd lose council house he grew up in? Terrorist thought property could end up being occupied by an immigrant family - and the MP wouldn't help him."

Firstly, fear of losing your council house does not justify shooting and stabbing a woman in the street in broad daylight. Secondly, the headline is nothing but vile speculation. Thirdly, it is stunning that we are meant to feel sorry for a man who is a textbook terrorist. He embodies the definition of a terrorist as someone who uses violence in pursuit of political aims.

We didn't find out until his trial that he repeatedly yelled: "Britain First!" and "This is for Britain! Britain will always come first!" as he murdered Jo Cox. It is disingenuous at best to think he was merely expressing a desire to put British interests first. As he killed a 41-year-old mother of two in cold blood.

Britain First is an extreme right political party that has been very successful on social media, but not at the ballot box, because of people unwittingly sharing their Facebook posts about issues most people largely agree on, such as opposing animal cruelty or helping homeless veterans, without realising they are a racist organisation. And there are enough people out there who agree with their bullshit and give it traction online.

The fact that he appears to have acted alone, that he was a lonely man, has softened the hard right narrative about Mair. But terrorism is not defined by the number of people involved in the act. It is about the motivations and Mair's motivations were political.

Because he did not kill Jo Cox while shouting "Allahu Akhbar!", because he is a socially awkward white man, he is more easily dismissed as a lone wolf, a random nutter.

The "random nutter" narrative is appalling. It is deeply insulting to all the people in Britain who struggle daily with mental health issues and manage to get through each day without committing murder. It minimises the seriousness of Mair's crime, it is a sly and repulsive distraction from his true motivations.

Just because he was a man of few friends, it does not mean his actions happened in a vacuum.

When Mair's house was searched, police discovered books on Nazi Germany, Nazi memorabilia, newspaper cuttings about Jo Cox. In the days and weeks before he committed his sickening act of terror, he searched online for information on whether a .22 bullet could kill someone if they were shot in the head, the human liver and vertabrae, political prisoners, serial killers, Nazi Germany, murders committed by the Ku Klux Klan, Jo Cox's Twitter page, coffins, paupers' funerals, lying in state, the anti-semitic and white nationalist Occidental Observer, former Conservative MP William Hague, and Ian Gow, who was the last MP to be murdered.

Mair is part of the extreme right and his views came about in the midst of anti-immigrant sentiments screaming from newspaper front pages. Sure, he took this to extremes with a house of Nazi paraphenalia but he is a product of a culture where it is perfectly OK to demonise all immigrants without question, to quote poorly extrapolated statistics about issues such as "health tourism" and refugees.

Welcome to the post-fact world! And the post-fact mentality, so beloved of ridiculous, hate-filled caricatures such as Milo Yiannopolous, has led to a post-responsibility mentality. The likes of the Daily Mail would sooner concoct a load of tripe about a family of imaginary immigrants threatening to move into poor little Thomas Mair's council house than take any responsibility for the messages they spew out that contribute to racism in this country and reduce constructive debate to a load of ill-informed noise.

But if we are quick to dismiss Mair as a random nutter, as someone whose obsession with Nazism is reduced to a cute eccentricity, we do ourselves no favours as a society. Mair, and people like Mair, are dangerous, hate-fuelled people.

I know this because I am related to one such person. My uncle, Stephen Lewis, died of cancer in Australia last year. It was a tragic death for its pitiful loneliness even if I do not miss his presence in my life. But while he was alive, I would tell people that if he went on a rampage with one of his guns, I would not be at all surprised.

Like Mair, Stephen had a house full of books on Nazism. They were stored in an orderly manner on his bookcase, with labels about their specific topics written on masking tape and stuck to the shelves. He dressed in army camouflage. He lived alone for most of his adult life. When he did speak, it was often to say something misogynistic or racist or homophobic. He was, most likely, a closeted, self-loathing gay man who felt like he could not come out, despite one of his cousins coming out as a lesbian without negative repercussions in my family.

He used to write bizarre letters to my grandfather when he was living in a nursing home, suffering from dementia. My grandfather never opened his mail so it was usually my father or I who would take a look. His letters described me as a "mongrel bitch", he told my grandfather I was working as a prostitute in the family home and, chillingly, said I'd be a "good target for his new gun".

And, like Mair, he was a man who had no real friends. In a sad way, this gives me hope for both Australian and British societies. It is darkly reassuring that I live in and hail from a society where the man who dresses in army camouflage, hoards Nazi books and memorabilia, owns guns, and whose conversation veers constantly to the racist, the sexist and the homophobic is a lonely man.

Bu while Mair and Stephen live on the fringes of society, never quite fitting in, struggling to hold down a job or form meaningful relationships, it has become quite clear by some of the revolting reactions to the murder of Jo Cox that such men have their sympathisers, their apologists and their defenders.

When the hatred boils over into acts of deadly violence against innocent people and people excuse this hatred and violence, we have a real problem. To pretend it's not political is to solve nothing.









Photography by Garry Knight/Flickr

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Why I won't join the Fidel Castro grief orgy


Fidel Castro is dead. And I, for one, will not be shedding a single tear for his passing.

As a journalist, I cannot mourn the passing of a man who on the day of his death left behind a country ranked at just 171 on the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. Cuba is ranked 171 out of 180 countries. It is dwelling at the bottom with other press freedom dumpster fires such as North Korea, Eritrea and Syria. It rates lower than Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Turkey.

Just last month, Cuba arrested journalists who were attempting to cover the Hurricane Matthew disaster. Equipment was confiscated, and in the wake of harassment in recent months, some journalists have fled the country.

Raul Castro's calls for reforms in 2010 have been meaningless. The regime has almost 100 per cent ownership of all media outlets. Access to the internet for citizens is severely limited. Only around 5 per cent of Cubans have internet at home, all internet comes via the government-owned telco Etecsa. Opposition websites are blocked. There is no real editorial independence in Cuba. Censorship and threats to journalists trying to do their job are par for the course.

We will never know for certain how many people have been murdered under Fidel Castro's regime. The Cuba Archive has documented 3,615 firing squad executions since 1959. It's not on the same scale as the deaths under Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot or Mao but the mentality is the same - wipe out opposition and dissent through executions, a legal system without due process and labour camps.

Why would anyone who claims to chreish freedom, who is appalled by capital punishment, who believes in free and open political debate be OK with such repression, regardless of the scale?

"BUT FREE HEALTHCARE AND EDUCATION!" scream Castro's apologists.

Yeah, that's great as long as the educated, healthy people can actually fulfill their potential, travel freely, express their views freely, and enjoy access to a free press and a polling station once in a while. Have the apologists not noticed that plenty of countries have great educational and healthcare options and democracy? It should not be an either/or situation.

"BUT WHAT ABOUT THE US?!" the apologists yell.

It is precisely this non-nuanced, binary thinking that is turning the world into an idiocracy. It is possible to be angry about more than one thing. There is plenty to criticise the US over, especially in terms of foreign policy over multiple decades. But none of this will bring back the people who were on the receiving end of Castro's firing squads, or reunite families who have been separated, or bring peace to those who want to practice their faith without state repression.

People have risked their lives in dangerous sea voyages to escape the Castro regime. Yet it is stunning how many people who, I am certain, are quite rightly sympathetic to refugees escaping brutality, economic hardship and repression by sea in other parts of the world are seemingly unbothered by the plight of those who felt they had no choice but to leave Cuba. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

Instead, I stand with the people who are dancing on the streets this weekend. The mere fact that I can sit here in London and criticise both the US and Cuba, and indeed Britain, without fearing for my life speaks volumes. Make mine a Cuba libre.



Photography by Kevin Burkett/Flickr

Sunday, 13 November 2016

The simple conclusion from Brexit and Trump


As anyone who either didn't vote for Britain to leave the European Union, or didn't vote for President-Elect Donald Trump, or was not a fan of either one or both these notions tries to process what has happened in 2016, there is one very simple conclusion.

A lot of us are more conservative than we think, and people in general are, quite simply pretty damn conservative. These results are largely about inherent conservatism.

Of course, this should have become obvious during last year's poll-defying general election in Britain. The predicted knife-edge result in a David Cameron versus Ed Milliband contest turned into a pretty comfortable win for Cameron's Conservatives. The phenomenon of secret Tories was born, the people who could really only express their true beliefs in the privacy of the polling booth.

And then it happened again when Brexit triumphed. Secret Brexiters were also in our midst, people who again dared not mention their intention to put their cross in the "leave" box or even to tell this to a pollster, but did so when nobody was looking.

And then, just as Trump promised when he said his victory would be "Brexit plus plus plus", the polls turned out to be utter bunkum, and typing the words "President-Elect Donald Trump" still feels weird to many a journalist's fingers, my own included.

Of course, "conservative" is a broad term. There are social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, some people fit into both categories, others are one or the other. But, if we are going to be honest, there is an element of conservatism in a lot of us. 

It takes many forms. Some of them you may recognise in yourself, some you may not. This is the part of us that claims to be a feminist yet fervently checks the Daily Mail's sidebar of shame to mock a famous woman who has had the temerity to put on weight or wear an unflattering dress. This is the person who claims to be socially liberal but still makes fun of the guests on Jeremy Kyle. This is the old school, hard left trade union type who is also a fervent anti-abortionist. This is anyone who likes the security of a monogamous marriage. This is the eyeroll when one sees how much tax comes out of their salary and mutters to oneself that they hope everyone on benefits appreciates their hard-earned. This is the reason why TV programmes such as Benefits Street and Geordie Shore keep getting made. It is the maintaining of a sexist, racist, classist double standard that allows Trump, with his five children to three wives to run for president, but such a marital track record would have denied Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton the same opportunity. It is the part of us that thanks the troops for their service, gets their kids christened despite being agnostic at best, and judges people's sex lives.

And it is this inherent conservatism that leads people to say things like: "Give Trump/Brexit a chance. It might be OK, after all." and "We need to accept the result and move on." Even if they didn't vote for the winning outcome. But for everyone who tells the world to take a chill pill, to calm down, that everything will be fine, there are people fearful in the wake of both the EU referendum and the ascension of Donald Trump. The inherent conservatism that leads to glib calls for calm is almost always based in privilege, from the people who genuinely don't think the referendum or election result will adversely affect them in any way at all.

While there are certainly people from the black, Asian, Hispanic, LGBT and Muslim communities - oh, and women - who voted for Donald Trump, there are plenty of people from these communities who are fearful as to what the future holds. Based on Trump's awful rhetoric, these are not irrational fears. If any of these fears come true, such as mass deportations, travel bans for an entire religion despite it being made up of 72 sects, a rollback of reproductive rights, a daft wall, more inter-racial violence, a society where it is even harder to be take seriously as a sexual assault victim, and so on and so forth, will those who voted for Trump take responsibility? Equally, will everyone who voted Brexit take responsibility if everything truly does turn to shit after the hounds of Article 50 are released?

After all, personal responsibility is a popular principle among conservatives. Will the conservatives who voted for Trump or Brexit take responsibility if their desired utopia does not materialise? 

And it all makes a mockery of left versus right. The lines between the left and the right are now blurred but the inherent conservatism is still there.

The Trump vote was not, as much as Jeremy Corbyn would like to think so, a massive anti-globalist, anti-establishment wake-up call. Donald Trump, in sending jobs to China (and now his daughter, Ivanka, the only woman on his transition team, in sending jobs from China to the even cheaper workforces of Ethiopia) has benefited enormously from globalisation. Plenty of people, stereotypical establishment types, figured they'd do well under Trump and voted accordingly. Conversely, there was certainly an element of anti-globalisation feeling among many a Brexiter, from the hard left to the protectionist right as well. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn are all apologists for Putin's Russia, even though it is a profoundly undemocratic, anti-freedom regime. 

Disturbingly - and elements of the left and right are equally appalling here - there are calls for censorship of journalists and of all manner of media outlets, as well as stifling of peaceful protests. Like the post-Brexit slanging matches, there are gloating Trump voters taking the "we won, get over it" line, as if democracy begins and ends at the ballot box. These people don't want to be challenged by protesters or by the media. And there are plenty on the left these days who are also mad about censorship and won't rest until the BBC morphs into Pravda, Laura Kuenssberg is replaced by Naomi Klein, and the Morning Star is the only newspaper available.

And when you look at who voted for Trump, and realise that there are plenty of educated, wealthy people among them, and when you realise that large swathes of England and Wales voted to leave the EU, even in areas that have benefited enormously from EU membership, it is clear that generalisations about every person who voted in these directions are grossly unhelpful if there is to be constructive dialogue about any of these issues any time soon. 

But there is certainly an undercurrent of inherent conservatism out there and it tells me that a populist leftist movement won't necessarily win out on either side of the pond. 

Elections are won on the centre ground - or the perceived centre ground - in the UK. Right now, the Tories have convinced broad swathes of the electorate that they hold the middle ground. Hell, there are still people who think the NHS is perfectly safe under this government, despite another £700m of our money going to Virgin Care in Somerset while remaining free from the accountability of freedom of information requirements. Indeed, the NHS is a solid example of inherent conservatism again rearing its head. There is no shortage of people who claim to support the NHS but still blame immigrants if they cannot get a GP appointment, have no issue with unchecked outsourcing of health services to the private sector "as long as it remains free at the point of use" and would not bat an eyelid if services such as IVF, transgender healthcare, abortion and birth control, were not covered by the NHS. 

Meanwhile, it's not quite apples and oranges when you compare it all with the US - there would be a political home in America for many a British Conservative MP in the Democrats, for example. David Cameron, Anna Soubry and Justine Greening, for example, would not look out of place as US Democrats, and it is actually not too hard to imagine Hillary Clinton sitting on the green leather benches of Theresa May's Conservative government. On top of all this, I am unconvinced that an ageing, Jewish-often-perceived-as-atheist, self-proclaimed socialist, such as Bernie Sanders would win over enough of America to lead a government. 

None of this points to either Britain or the US crying out for a hard left alternative, as disappointing as many will find that conclusion. While there are certainly differences between British and American societies, both nations are, at heart, conservative. And this is what the opponents of Brexit and Donald Trump need to address if they are to make a real impact.


Picture by Chris/Flickr







Sunday, 16 October 2016

Ched Evans' conviction is overturned. Where do we go from here?


Girls and women who have been raped need to report rape. They need to feel safe, they need to be taken seriously, they need to be treated with dignity and respect. And, at the same time, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty is an essential pillar of the criminal justice system of any civilised society.

When it comes to rape statistics, we will never know for sure how many women are raped each year. It is well established that the crime of rape is underreported and, in many cases, girls and women do not realise they have been raped until a long time after the event and, because of the nature of the crime, the physical evidence is long gone and convictions are difficult.

Today, the headlines in relation to the terrible, thoroughly unedifying Ched Evans case, and subsequent overturning of the guilty verdict for rape, focus on the court admitting evidence about the woman's sexual history.

Section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act allows for evidence of this nature to be used in rape trials if strict criteria are met, where the evidence pertains to issues of consent and when the sexual behaviour of the complainant is so similar to the events of the trial that the similarity cannot be described as a coincidence.

In the Evans case, two witnesses came forward to testify that the complainant used the words "Fuck me harder" while adopting a position where she was penetrated from behind. One witness said he had sex with her in this manner the night before the incident took place and the other said this happened two weeks after the incident. Evans testified during the retrial that this reflects his experience on the night in question.

What is disturbing is that in the first trial, Evans told the court that he did not speak to the complainant before, during or after sex, yet in the retrial, the wordless encounter suddenly changes to one where she told him to fuck her harder.

There can be no further trials in relation to the events of 29 May 2011 in a Rhyll Premier Inn. And there have been calls to change Section 41 because it might deter future rape victims from coming forward. Given this has been splashed all over the papers, even though Section 41 is seldom applied, it is easy to see how rape victims who have led anything other than a life of saintly chastity may well be put off from coming forward.

But what is truly depressing here is that even if Section 41 did not exist, the treatment of the woman at the centre of the appalling saga is already more than enough to stop girls and women reporting rape. Personally, I find aspects of the text of Section 41 uncomfortable to read but even if it was repealed, I don't think complainants in high profile rape cases will be treated with any more respect.

Trolls have revealed the identity of the complainant in the Ched Evans case online on multiple occasions. Five times now, she has had to change her identity and move away. Twitter has become a particularly repulsive cesspit of misogyny, of loose interpretations of consent and of rape apology. At best, the complainant, waking up as she did with a vile hangover and, according to her testimony, having no recollection of the previous night's events, experience what Katie Roiphe described in her controversial 1994 book, The Morning After, as "regrettable sex".

And a night of regrettable sex, the kind of sex where you are not sure what happened, whether it was at all pleasurable and where you wake up in a pool of your own urine, should not be something that haunts you for the rest of your life. Even if you then make a rape complaint that ends up being overturned at retrial, you do not deserve to be constantly outed online, to be forever on the run, to be hiding your true identity whenever you make new friends or attempt to start a new relationship. The complainant in the Evans case has suffered and will continue to suffer. Anyone who is baying for her blood and demanding she be punished can rest easy. She is being punished on a daily basis.

And she is not alone.

The crime of rape is unique in the way victims are often aggressively targeted in a way that does happen with other crimes. If someone is robbed by someone they know, they're not likely to be asked what they were thinking recklessly letting that person into their house previously so they could see what was worth nicking and where it was kept. But if you're raped by someone you know, especially if you've consented to sex with them before or you're in a relationship with them, you could easily be made to feel as if you were somehow asking for it.

I was sexually assaulted in Dubai in 2006 when I was walking home from a film festival at an art gallery. I couldn't find a taxi so I started to walk, foolishly buying into the myth that it's a completely safe city for women. A man, who was sitting at a bus stop long after the buses had stopped for the night, pulled me off the footpath, put one hand down my neckline, the other up my dress, tore my tights and made a scratch on my chest. I managed to get away by elbowing him in the chest, throwing the burger I was eating at him and ducking under his arm.

I decided to report the crime, partly because I was not actually raped. Thus I knew I'd be safe from facing an adultery charge if the case was ever disproved in a court of law, which is a particularly terrible aspect of UAE law. When I made the initial call to the police, it was answered by an amateur, misogynistic Perry Mason wannabe who asked me what I was wearing, whether I was drunk, why I was walking alone at night and if I was making it all up. Luckily, a friend referred me to a very senior office in Dubai Police who took the case very seriously and was entirely respectful.

My attacker was never caught but I was glad that the incident did not simply wither away as yet another unreported sex attack in Dubai, where I am quite certain the sexual assault and rape statistics are artificially low. And friends who did not live in the UAE scoffed at how backwards it all was, how the Perry Mason wannabe was a disgrace, and asked if it was time I left the country, even though I'd been living there less than a year.

But in wake of the reactions to the Ched Evans case, and of people from across the world apologising for Donald Trump, it is clear there are very few places where girls and women are not made to feel ashamed for reporting sex crimes. There are still plenty of people out there with a very poor grasp of how consent works and are happy to dismiss vile behaviour of men towards girls and women as "locker room banter" or simply boys being boys, alpha men being alpha men.

Alpha men like Ched Evans who is still playing football for a living, is still planning to marry the woman on whom he cheated in a Rhyll hotel room, and is still hailed by many as hero...






Photography by Hessam/Flickr. Posed by a model in no way connected to the Ched Evans trial. 

Sunday, 9 October 2016

An open letter to left-leaning Brexiters


Dear left-leaning Brexiters,

I understand why right-leaning Brexiters voted to leave the EU in May, even if I fundamentally disagree with them. But this letter is not for them. This letter is for the left-of-centre people - in many cases, the hardcore, far-left-let's-destroy-capitalism people - who voted to leave the EU.

What the everloving fuck were you hoping to achieve? What the everloving fuck did you think would happen if the majority actually did vote to leave the EU? Did you really think leaving the EU would amount to some sort of socialist victory? Why could you not see that it was a choice between two forms of capitalism? Are you really so dim as to believe that leaving the EU was going to herald some sort of workers' revolution?

"But this means we're free from TTIP!", I hear you whine.

TTIP has been killed, largely by France. France has been against TTIP from the get-go and in August, President Hollande stalled negotiations again. Couple this with growing opposition in Germany and Angela Merkel desperate to retain power, and there you have it - the two big hitters of the EU in no position to proceed.

But it isn't just French obstruction or a strong German protest movement that is halting TTIP. Labour and Green MEPs were doing excellent behind-the-scenes work to negotiate terms, going through TTIP with a fine toothed comb. Unfortunately, "behind-the-scenes" are the operative words here - nobody bothered to find out about what our MEPs were doing for us. And soon we will have no MEPs, no power of veto in Brussels, and we will be wide open to a US-UK trade deal, regardless of who wins the US election. If anyone thinks that will be a win for Britain, they're deluded.

"But I wanted to kick Cameron out!", I hear you moan.

Yeah, about that. How is that working out for you, dear lefties? When Cameron quit, the glee was palpable on the left, even though at the time, it seemed to herald an inevitable Boris Johnson move to 10 Downing Street. When that fell through, and Andrea Leadsom revealed herself to be awful and inept all at once, Theresa May became prime minister by default. And she is embracing hard Brexit and pandering to the hard right Brexiters like a long lost lover. So much for the safe pair of hands. It is more like a stampeding pair of jackboots at the moment.

And if you are Lexiter who claims to care about the NHS or scientific research or access to the latest medicines, please hang your head in shame. You are part of the problem, contributing to a vote that will probably end freedom of movement and further compound NHS staffing woes, could cost us our European Health Insurance Card for medical treatment in the EU, the risk of lost research funding as part of the EU, and missing out on being part of clinical trials as part of the harmonised approach to medicines regulation. And you have pretty well lost the right to berate Jeremy Hunt about his ridiculous plan to grow more British doctors, despite making the medical profession less attractive than it has ever been to bright students.

Feel free to wave placards about hospital closures and cuts if you like, it's allegedly a free country, but do know that your vote to leave the EU will make whatever we have left of our health system even more precarious. You are just as absurd as anyone who voted to leave the EU because they genuinely believed Boris' bus of bullshit with the stupid "£350 million for the NHS" claim.

Sorry, Lexiters, but you have dropped a bollock. You have helped the hard right usher in a new era of awful policy and there are plenty of aspects of the Theresa May-led hard Brexit that are appealing to a wide number of people. On top of this, we're left with a hapless opposition with which the hard left is enamoured, even though peak Corbyn has been reached with a stacked and skewed inflated membership. Sorry, but this does not actually reflect what the wider electorate is thinking or wants for Britain. Theresa May is currently on a mission to out-UKIP UKIP and it is working. She is being very careful to find just the right level of UKIP-ness for the electorate to tolerate to keep the Tories in power for a very long time.

For those who voted Brexit because they wanted a hard Brexit with no access to the common market and no freedom of movement, congratulations on getting what you signed up for on 23 June. For everyone else who voted out with a completely different idea of what Brexit might look like, you've made your bed and now we all must lie in it. And for those who voted Brexit because they genuinely thought it would result in some sort of socialist revolution, you are genuinely dangerous and stupid.

If I have offended anyone, I really don't care.

Yours sincerely,

Georgia Lewis, militant remain voter







Photography by threefishsleeping/Flickr

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Kim Kardashian bound and robbed at gunpoint. The hilarity.


It is one thing to be nonplussed by the story this week that reality TV star Kim Kardashian was bound and robbed at gunpoint in Paris. But it is quite another to be openly gleeful about this turn of events and to publicly express one's joy at a wife and mother of two young children becoming the victim of violent crime.

"But she was asking for it, tweeting all those photos of her jewellery, flashing her wealth around like that..."

People who wouldn't dream of blaming rape victims for their own rape have blamed Kim Kardashian for her own robbery. But the most she is guilty of is bad taste and ostentation when she tweets another fabulous gemstone. You may find this obscene when there are people starving, but it's not justification for violent crime. Hell, people who wouldn't know one end of Twitter from the other get robbed of their valuables. Quiet people get robbed. Discreet people get robbed. Anyone who an opportunistic thief might suspect as having stuff they want can get robbed.

Jodi Foster, for example, would probably sooner drive a clown car to Mars than tweet a picture of her jewellery but it is well-known that she is a wealthy woman. Yet if she was bound and robbed at gunpoint, she would probably elicit more sympathy than a Kardashian.

My husband has expressed concern for me when I wear my engagement ring on public transport. The ring is not necessarily worth much financially but sentimentally, it is priceless. It is my grandmother's ruby and it is not a subtle ring. If some lunatic cut my ruby-clad ring finger off or made me hand it over at gunpoint while I was minding my own business on the tube, people would probably have plenty of sympathy for me. I've tweeted pictures of this ring. I wear it in public most days. Would I too be asking for it?

"She is just another useless reality TV star. Who cares?"

Welcome to fame in the modern world. This is a world where high school students view "reality TV star" or "YouTube sensation" as valid career choices. We have fed the beast by watching the TV shows, clicking on the YouTube link, reading about these people in newspapers and magazines and online, talking about them as if we know them personally. We have created the public interest for this sort of thing.

"But people get robbed all the time and it isn't front page news!"

Do you even understand how the media works? Stories that are considered to be of interest to the readers, viewers and listeners will get airplay. See the above point for why Kim Kardashian's robbery is more newsworthy than the bloke down the pub who had his mower nicked from the garden shed.

There are limits to how many stories any given news outlet can cover and it is up to news editors worldwide to make judgement calls on what will be published or broadcast, what gets priority, what the balance of subjects will be on any given day. Naturally people get upset if their pet cause doesn't get the attention they think it deserves but these people don't work as news editors and have no idea what the job entails or the competing pressures that are involved.

And the onus is also on everyone else, the consumers, to choose what media outlets we go to for our information. Don't want to read about Kim Kardashian? There are plenty of places to go where you will never see a Kardashian story. And guess what? Thanks to the miracle of the internet, you can usually share stories you deem more worthwhile really easily.

Take some responsibility for your choices rather than passively whining about "the mainstream media".

And the Kim Kardashian robbery is newsworthy, especially if you live in Paris. If I lived in Paris, I might want to know that there is a gang of audaciously violent thieves out there.

Yes, there are people out there suffering more than Kim Kardashian probably ever will. But the outpouring of joy over an incident that could have ended in her death is gross. It has degenerated into people publicly wishing she was raped or murdered. Where the hell is our basic humanity?

Sometimes I wonder if we have evolved that much from the days of throwing Christians to the lions for entertainment.


Photography by George Hodan


Monday, 5 September 2016

Keith Vaz and the veneer of respectability


Everything old is new again. There is a Conservative woman at 10 Downing Street. The opposition leader is reminiscent of Michael Foot. I keep seeing teenaged girls in jeans similar to the ones I wore in about 1986. And, thanks to Keith Vaz, we have a good old-fashioned MP sex scandal all over the front pages once again.

Vaz has a long history of slipperiness. Time and again, he has remained in politics despite multiple scandals and became the Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee. But this latest scandal, exposed by The Mirror, involving male escorts, may well be the one that brings him down.

Based on the available evidence, Vaz has not broken any laws in relation to prostitution. It is not illegal to pay for sex. Soliciting is only illegal if it happens in a public place. It is not illegal for the escorts involved to accept payment for sex when it takes place in private or if they visit clients on outcalls. It does not appear that anyone involved in the party was underage. As far as we know, nobody was coerced or trafficked, although plenty of people have been disturbed by the text message exchange published by The Mirror in which the group plans to get a fourth man involved and Vaz texts: "Someone will need to break him tonight."

The poppers he took were not illegal. In fact, Vaz helped see to that when poppers were left off the list of banned once-legal highs in the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 and commented on their usefulness in facilitating anal sex. In the Mirror's sting, Vaz offered to pay for cocaine for two of the escorts but said he didn't want any himself. He could have been charged for carrying or buying the Class A drug if he had been caught handing over the cash in exchange for it or it was found on his person or in a bag he was carrying. But this does not appear to be the case either.

In short, most people are shocked because he has sold himself to the public as a married family man, a father of two who married his wife in a white wedding in a Roman Catholic church. Vaz himself is the one who created the veneer of supposed respectability.

Are we at a place in British society where the family man with a couple of kids is considered more respectable than an openly gay man? For the most part, most people probably don't give that much of a damn. Crispin Blunt, the openly gay Conservative MP for Reigate, outed himself as a user of poppers and this has not affected his political career. He is the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Ben Bradshaw is the popular, openly gay Labour MP for Exeter and his name is regularly cited as a potential leader, someone who might help steer Labour away from the hard left.

Coming out may not be considered an easy thing to do for a Roman Catholic man of Goan heritage. In India, homosexuality is still an offence and can be punished by a life sentence. It is unclear whether Vaz is gay, bisexual, likes men for sex but not necessarily for a relationship or whether sex with men is something he has started doing recently. We don't know if his wife knew any of this before the story broke, whether she was happy to help Vaz maintain his veneer of respectability (after all, she was heavily implicated in relation to interference with a citizenship application and a financial relationship with the Hinduja brothers at the centre of that particular Vaz scandal), or whether her inevitable embarrassment is now being compounded by complete and utter shock.

And the male escort sting may well be this scandal that finally ends his political career.

His backing of 42 days of detention without charge for terrorism suspects would not lose him too much support in these paranoid times. Like both Jeremy Hunt and Jeremy Corbyn, he has supported funding homeopathy on the NHS. This makes his an anti-science bunkum pedlar but it won't affect his career. He helped Anglo-Iraqi billionaire Nadhmi Auchi in his bid to avoid extradition to France to face fraud charges and he was a director of the British arm of Auchi's company, General Mediterranean Holdings. He has been suspended from the House of Commons for making false allegations about a former policewoman. He has been investigated by the Parliamentary standards watchdog over failing to declare several thousand pounds received from a solicitor. Shortly after being elected in 1989, he joined a march of Muslims in Leicester calling for Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses to be banned. So he is also a pro-censorship buffoon.

But he has censored his own life, edited his public persona and now he may finally come undone.

And here is where it gets interesting, here is where we find out what really shocks the British public or, more accurately, what attitudes still bubble below the surface. If he was more open about his sexuality, there probably wouldn't be the same level of vitriol and shock.

The Mirror's revelations have revived calls for Vaz to step down for helping shut down a probe in the 1990s into allegations of child sex abuse by Lord Janner, the former Leicester MP who died last December. In April last year, it was decided that because of his advanced dementia, he was unfit to stand trial on 22 counts of child sex abuse. But to link a scandal involving gay sex to a paedophile scandal that is entirely unrelated to Vaz's personal life is to perpetuate the harmful, awful lie that all male paedophiles are gay or to consistently link homosexuality to paedophilia. If Vaz really did stop justice being properly served in relation to Lord Janner in the 1990s, he should have stepped down a long time ago, regardless of what he gets up to private.

To bring up Lord Janner now, tying it to Vaz's latest scandal, is bogus, it builds yet another pathetic veneer of respectability that is as hollow as the one Vaz created for himself.

Vaz is also being accused of hypocrisy in relation to the Home Affairs Select Committee's recommendation that laws on soliciting and brothel-keeping be relaxed. The report found that while there was no clear evidence that decriminalising sex work reduced demand, it would make it easier for sex workers to report crimes such as assault and make it easier for sex workers seeking to quit the industry to change jobs. The report also recommended zero tolerance on exploitation. Vaz was quoted as saying it is wrong to penalise and stigmatise sex workers.

Is his own use of prostitutes enough to constitute a conflict of interest? After all, if there was a parliamentary committee into the effectiveness of, say, the NHS, something we've all used in this country, it would be nigh-on impossible to find someone whose views on the state of the nation's healthcare had not been coloured one way or another by their own experiences, either positive or negative.

Perhaps Vaz would have been more useful to the inquiry as a witness rather than the Chair?

Will the unearthed disgust at unfaithful husbands, at using multiple male prostitutes at the same time, at the lurid details involving a cavalier attitude to condom use, and even deep-seated homophobia mean the end of Keith Vaz? He may well be a hypocrite but, as far as we know, he has not actually broken any laws.

His political career should have come to an end years ago. He has developed a startling ability to climb down from his mountain of scandals and to thrive. But I suspect this one may be a bridge too far in the court of public opinion. We'll see.















Photography by George Hodan

Monday, 29 August 2016

Reflections on a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau


"For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity..." These are the opening words on the inscription at the memorial to people murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz-Birkenau. And despair is the operative word for it is hard to imagine anyone leaving this place without a pall of despair hanging over them.

A visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau is a visit to a place where the banal and the horrific intersect at every turn. At the Auschwitz site, my first thought was that the infamous "Arbeit macht frei" sign over the gate, a grotesque misrepresentation of what it means to work for living, was not as imposing as it appeared in my high school textbooks. Indeed, the whole Auschwitz site, at first glance, was not particularly terrifying and it is easy to imagine why countless innocent people may have been lulled into a false sense of security upon arrival. I felt a sense of guilt when I noted the stylishness of the art deco exterior lights on the buildings, which were formerly army barracks. But it somehow compounds the horror, that a place with elegant 1930s architectural detail still intact was also a place so unspeakably awful.

And once inside, it becomes clear that the buildings, which served as prisons, offices, laundries, execution facilities and even a brothel are very close together. The mundaneness of the laundry was being done next to a building where people died in starvation cells or were punished by spending all night in a standing cell, measuring just 90cm by 90cm, with three other people, before having to work all day the next day. The vile inventiveness of such inhumanity was overwhelming.

The display of thousands of shoes confiscated from prisoners on arrival was another incidence of the banal meeting the horrific. The sheer range of shoes piled high behind glass on either side of a darkened corridor was astounding - shoes in every size, men's shoes, women's shoes, children's shoes., boots, bedroom slippers, shoes that were meant to be worn to parties - along with all the household items people brought with them to Auschwitz-Birkenau, it becomes clear very quickly that these helpless people thought they were going to be resettled rather than sent to be summarily executed or worked to death.

Again, I felt guilty when I spotted a pair of shoes in that tragic pile that I would choose for myself. But then that's the whole point of this sort of display. In different circumstances, it could one day be any one of us forced from our homes, gathering whatever possessions we could in the pitiful hope that our oppressors might just let us live peacefully somewhere with the people we love. The room full of household objects the prisoners took with them is heartbreaking testimony to the fact that, despite what the Nazi regime had already done, many still thought they were simply being resettled.

If I had been rounded up into a ghetto then bundled onto a cattle train in the early 1940s, then had to face selection - to be sent to the right to be sent to gruelling work or to the left for extermination - I'm pretty sure the guards would take one look at the scars on my club feet, and note that my feet were swollen from days of standing in the train and I was struggling to stand, let alone walk, and send me to the left. At the Birkenau site, a few minutes drive away, we traced the terrible path so many people took from the train to the gas chambers.

Like other genocidal regimes, the Nazis were fond of getting rid of educated people, the people they considered the "elite" - the writers, the teachers, the people who might question the brutality, the anti-semitism. Eliminating such people eliminating press freedom was essential for the enforcement of a cruel statist regime where conformity and mindless obedience would help ensure survival or even promotion.

When people today, from the left or the right, slag off the "elite" but actually mean educated people, it seems facile to cry "Godwin's law!". But visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau throws the whole notion of Godwin's law - the internet adage that the longer an online discussion takes place, the higher the likelihood of someone making a comparison to Hitler or Nazism becomes - into a tailspin.

Dark, gruesome extremes kept reminding me of things that are obviously not nearly as bad as Hitler or Nazism. The standing cells denied workers even the basic right to sleep and, absurdly, this made me think about what might happen if UK workers lose the protection of the European Working Time Directive. The whole place made me think about what a post-Brexit Britain may mean for human rights.

Hitler's effective censorship played a big role in keeping the media to his message, with little room for deviation or dissent. Our guide at Auschwitz-Birkenau spoke about Nazi control of the media. I kept thinking about all the people, especially those on the left, who constantly make attacks on a free media. Calling for the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg to be sacked (which I think is an utterly appalling thing to do) or the more unworkable bits of Leveson's recommendations are not quite the same as the Editors Law of 1933, where registries of "racially pure" journalist were kept, journalists had to register with the Reich Press Chamber and editors were legally bound to redact anything "calculated to weaken the strength of the Reich abroad or at home". But the obsession with an ideologically "pure" media - as in a media that never dares print anything you might disagree with - is dangerous and anti-freedom. It is still a mentality that has at its heart a desire to control what newspapers print and what radio and TV broadcasts to suit a single agenda.

It also made me think a lot about how a united Europe is surely better than one that is fragmented and, as is the case now, moving in multiple places towards the far right. Incidences of people being singled out on the basis of their race or religion are still happening, and seem to be happening more at the moment, with police stats bearing this out across parts of the UK.

On a global scale, ending the atrocities of Nazi Germany did not mean an end to genocide. Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia all happened since 1945. Human rights abuses didn't come to an end. Racism didn't stop. Singling out people on the basis of race and religion carries on unabated. There are still anti-semitic morons who deny or downplay the holocaust.

The cry of despair on the memorial's inscription remains, utterly depressingly, a cry in the dark that has, in many corners of the world gone unheeded in many ways. And that is the biggest tragedy of all.



Photography by Paul McMillan

Sunday, 24 July 2016

We need to talk about Jeremy


The NHS should be a gift for Labour right about now. The opposition should be scoring points left, right and centre given the sorry state of the NHS at the moment. Jeremy Hunt is still the Health Secretary, clinging to the post like an incompetent, gurning barnacle, there is no end in sight to the junior doctors' dispute, and the little-reported Sustainable Transformation Plans threaten the future of hospitals across the land.

So naturally, in his first question time facing the new Prime Minister this week, Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn didn't mention any of these things and opened the session with a question about the Orgreave Inquiry. Don't get me wrong - the events of 1984 involving a violent confrontation between miners and South Yorkshire police deserve scrutiny and bereaved families deserve justice and closure - but as far as opening gambits go on one of the most-watched sessions of Prime Minister's questions for 2016, it was not ever going to dominate the headlines. That is the harsh reality of modern politics. Dominate the news cycle or die. It's a shame Seamus Milne does not seem to understand this.

Theresa May didn't really give a straight answer to any of the questions anyone asked her but she didn't really have to. She just did an obviously rehearsed Diet Coke Thatcher routine and got away with it. Corbyn could have kicked off with an excoriating NHS question but he didn't. Instead, Labour MP Jamie Reed and Liberal-Democrat leader Tim Farron were the only members to mention the NHS. Reed invited Theresa May to visit a hospital in his constituency.

Corbyn - and his Labour leadership challenger, Owen Smith - are saying the same NHS soundbites that every NHS defender wants to hear. That it should be publicly funded, publicly run and free at the point of use (although this caveat leads to multiple interpretations on how the services should be provided and by whom). And it is only right that over the course of the Labour leadership campaign, both Corbyn and Smith are vigorously questioned on NHS policy and how it will be funded. Of course, if a journalist dares ask Corbyn a hard question on pretty much anything, the Corbynistas come out, pitchforks aloft, crying: "MAINSTREAM MEDIA BIAS! BLAIRITE MEDIA! RED TORY JOURNALISTS!". And then daft e-petitions do the rounds demanding journalists be sacked and that nobody rest until the BBC morphs into Pravda.

It's pathetic and it demeans democracy.

Owen Smith has been called out because he used to work for pharmaceutical company, Pfizer. And, if he is a potential future Prime Minister, he should expect his entire CV to be scrutinised with the same forensic brutality Andrea Leadsom was subject to before she stepped aside for Theresa May.

But the understandable desire to criticise Smith's previous employment turned into something utterly ridiculous under Corbyn's leadership this week. The desperation to slag off Smith and, as a bonus, big pharma, led to pitiful back-of-a-fag-packet policy formed on the hoof.

Jeremy Corbyn said: "I hope Owen will fully agree with me that our NHS should be free at the point of use, should be run by publicly employed workers working for the NHS not for private contractors, and medical research shouldn't be farmed out to big pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and others but should be funded through the Medical Research Council".

Not only did Corbyn fail to make it clear exactly who is "farming out" research to pharmaceutical companies, but he clearly advocated full nationalisation of all medical research. How else could this statement be interpreted?

This morning on Marr on the BBC, shadow chancellor John McDonnell was asked about this statement. He insisted that Corbyn was "misrepresented". McDonnell said medical research needs to be "better managed and more effective" and that we should be "increasing our resources". Fine. Fair enough. That all sounds great but one would expect the shadow chancellor to be able to explain how this would be funded.

Last year, the Medical Research Council spent £506 million on research grants. It's one of those figures that sounds like a lot of money to most of us because it's a figure we'll probably never see when we pull a mini statement out of an ATM. But Pfizer spent £4.8 billion. One company alone had a research budget to dwarf that of the MRC. If Corbyn and McDonnell are serious about implementing such a policy if they ever manage to take hold of the levers of power, they had better explain how it will be funded. That is their job as an alternative government, to explain how they would alternatively govern.

On the BBC, Andrew Marr pointed out that the policy of cutting back tax breaks on research for pharmaceutical companies would only save around £200 million per year. McDonnell floundered again, saying Corbyn was not about taking money away from companies but he was about "managing it more effectively so it's better used". Marr went on to add that the MRC has a budget of less than a billion pounds per year and that it costs more than that to bring one single drug to market.

Naturally, Twitter exploded with frothing Corbynistas fulminating on "BBC right wing bias". No. It was merely a case of Andrew Marr doing his damn job. We still have no idea how the Labour Party would pay for all this medical research if the MRC was to take over. When medical research is currently under a large, Brexit-shaped cloud, the policy Corbyn announced is reckless, irresponsible and unaffordable.

There is plenty wrong with private sector involvement in the NHS as it stands at the moment, as a result of the Health and Social Care Act 2012. In my area alone, Croydon University Hospital's urgent care facilities are being run into the ground by Virgin Care and led to an unnecessary death, G4S still has the patient transport contract for St Helier Hospital despite killing an amputee who was not properly secured, and I have been unable to get a straight answer from the Epsom-St Helier Trust as to whether there is any link between an alarming spike in MRSA infections and hospital cleaning being farmed out to a private company.

But the NHS will still have to procure things. Many, many things. It is unrealistic to nationalise production of every single thing the NHS needs to function, from bed linen to brain scanners. They need to be bought from companies and the NHS has a responsibility to taxpayers to use its enormous purchasing power effectively.

Hell, why didn't Corbyn mention the NHS Reinstatement Bill in question time this week? After all, he is one of the supporters of the bill but how many people out there have actually heard of it?

On top of all this, Jeremy Corbyn has, like Jeremy Hunt, indicated he would support NHS-funded homeopathy. The two Jeremys would like to see our taxes fund non-evidence based bunkum. So that's awkward.

You'll have to forgive me if I'm not exactly confident that a Corbyn government would effectively run the NHS. But what would I know? I'm just a red Tory scum journo...









Image by DonkeyHotey

Sunday, 17 July 2016

The death of Ataturk's vision




Ataturk's brilliant post WWI vision of a democratic, secular Turkey is in tatters today.

We went to bed on Friday night in the UK as a coup attempt by sections of the Turkish military was underway. Amid the chaos, there was an element of high farce as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a big fan of censorship and shutting down social media, was trying to speak to the nation on TV via Facetime, until the call dropped out. There were claims he was seeking asylum in Germany but Angela Merkel wouldn't have it. 

And, most hypocritically of all, Erdogan was calling for his supporters to take to the streets. Late at night. During a military coup. This is the same man who responds to people publicly protesting against his awful government with tear gas and rubber bullets. 

But he was more than happy to let his fans loose on the streets on Friday night. According to Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, 265 people were killed in the coup attempt, including civilians.

Boris Johnson, our new Foreign Secretary (yes, I know...), said he spoke to his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu to express support for the country's "democratically elected government and instititions".

However, there is evidence that the November 2015 elections were affected by fraud. These are the elections which President Erdogan's AKP Party won after losing an election in June 2015 and forcing a caretaker government rather than forming a coalition. He is a man who does not want to relinquish his grip on power. The Washington Post used an electronic electoral forensics toolkit to conclude that the results were most likely not above board. It could well be that, amazingly, voters in Istanbul cast 1.66 votes each as an email was leaked that appeared to show 10,316,871 voters cast 17,104,607. And then the official election results website went out of service. Incredible!

In any case, it is just another example of how democracy should not simply start and end at the ballot box. Gloating Brexiters telling Remainers to get over it, take note. 

As well as police routinely opening fire and tear-gassing anti-government protests in Turkey, internet censorship laws were passed in 2007 and amended in 2014 to broaden the scope of government blocking and to make it easier for the authorities to access data without a warrant, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were temporarily blocked in April 2015 until they complied with severe restrictions, social media was blocked during the coup attempt, dozens of Turkish citizens have faced charges for criticising the government online, the Homeland Security Act 2015 increased the amount of time for which investigators can conduct wire taps and similar operations without a court order from 24 to 48 hours, and Turkey currently sits at a dismal 151 on the World Press Freedom Index out of 180 countries, dropping two places from last year.

It should come as no great surprise to anyone who has been observing Turkish politics for any extended period of time that a coup attempt happened over the weekend. The methods employed by the coup leaders will be debated for years to come but there are plenty of people in Turkey who may not be a fan of the methods yet they still agree with the stated aims of returning their beloved country to a proper, functional secular democracy.

We will never know if the coup leaders would have paved the way for a return to Ataturk's vision but we do know that dark days lie ahead for Turkey. Six thousand people have been arrested. There is serious talk of a return to capital punishment. It is a barbaric slippery slope to say it will be reintroduced simply for coup leaders. Does anyone trust Erdogan not to reintroduce it on a wider scale? For dissenters or journalists perhaps? They've already jailed two prominent journalists this year in outrageous circumstances.

Are we witnessing the birth of Erdogan's Islamist dictatorship?

None of this will help Turkey's bid to join the EU. Anyone who scaremongered about Turkey during the referendum campaign should feel pretty stupid today, although these people seem to be impossible to embarrass. And Turkey's role in the refugee crisis is now up in the air and this could have tragic consequences. The only positive would be for this to force the EU to work together properly on constructive solutions instead of member states taking simplistic, hardline approaches usually in a bid to appease rising far right groups across the continent.

It is a mess and, because of Turkey's fulcrum-like geographical location, it is a mess that will not be contained within its borders.





Photo by Faruk/Flickr