Thursday, 18 September 2014

An open letter to the Prime Minister of Thailand

Dear General Prayuth,

Thank you for your helpful travel advice to women planning a trip to your beautiful country. I have visited Thailand in the past and I would love to do so again so it is reassuring to know you are concerned about the safety of female travellers.

It is handy to know that I will not be safe in a bikini in Thailand unless I am, to quote your words, "not beautiful." This may explain an incident that happened to me last time I was in your country.

Let me elaborate. I was in Phuket for a week on my own when a man who was also staying at my hotel broke into my room in the middle of the night, crawled into my bed and pressed his erection against my back. I had been out with him and his friend at a bar that evening but I decided to go home early - the combination of cheap whisky and a bad Bon Jovi cover band wasn't really doing it for me, so I put myself in a tuk-tuk and returned to my hotel room - although not before the tuk-tuk driver grabbed my face and tried to kiss me as I paid, and not before the bellboy with the suspiciously long little fingernail asked me to join him on "motorbike to go to discotheque". 

The tuk-tuk driver was told where to go in no uncertain terms and the bellboy's offer was politely declined. I went to bed alone only to wake up a few hours later with the aforementioned penis rubbing against me. I said: "If you don't get out of my room right now, I will scream so fucking loud, the whole hotel will hear me." He left swiftly and went back to his own room. 

The worst consequence of all this was much awkwardness over the hotel breakfast buffet for the rest of the week. I did not end up being raped or murdered and I appreciate that the situation could have been far more terrible. But I still wasn't safe in your country. I realise that I am not 100% safe from violence in any country but at least you have offered me an explanation as to why this might have happened to me in Thailand.

Clearly, I am beautiful. 

And I wore a bikini by the pool and on the beach in Phuket. 

This powerful combination of my beauty and my bikini - even though it was one of those more modest ones with the big pants - made me a clear target for my fellow hotel guest and the halitosis-ridden tuk-tuk driver.

In order for me to ascertain whether I'd be safe in your country today, General Prayuth, I have included a recent photo of myself in a bikini. My holiday in Thailand was 16 years and a few kilograms ago so it could be that these days I fall short of your standards of assault-causing beauty.

Can I come to your country and wear a bikini with impunity at the ripe old age of 38 or will I still risk being attacked? Am I still looking OK for someone pushing 40? Your opinion on this matter is very important to me. 

Perhaps you can start posting notices at beaches and by hotel pools to specify the maximum standard of beauty a woman can possess before she must put on a neck-to-knee swimsuit and shield her gorgeous face with a large parasol. On what criteria will you create these standards? After all, ideals of beauty vary between cultures, vary over time, vary according to individual opinion, and are not universal. You may have to create a whole new government department to work on this one or a new branch of the police department at the very least. 

Alternatively, General Prayuth, you could give the victim-blaming horseshit a rest and acknowledge that acts of sexual violence can happen to any woman, regardless of whose standard of beauty she does or does not meet. You could show some respect to Hannah Witheridge, who died along with David Miller this week (who has not been accused of being handsome while wearing swimming trunks), and do whatever you can to ensure whoever is responsible is caught. For the person or people who attacked Ms Witheridge and Mr Miller are the ones to blame for these terrible crimes, not bikinis or pulchritude. 

Yours sincerely,

Georgia Lewis

Thursday, 4 September 2014

A draft speech by Jeremy Hunt that *might* have been found on the Cloud...

Good afternoon, everyone. Good to see you all looking so well in spite of it all.

I am here to announce a revamped NHS. In this age of the internet [NOTE TO ASSISTANT: DO WE STILL CALL IT THE INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY OR WILL THAT MAKE ME TREND ON TWITTER FOR THE WRONG REASONS???], we need to harness all the technology we can to save money [NOTE TO ASSISTANT: SHOULD I SAY "IMPROVE PATIENT CARE" HERE???].


I am sure you have all heard about our cutting-edge plans for GPs to do more consultations via email and Skype. This country is the birthplace of the English language, of fine literature that has influenced the world over the centuries, so I know everyone will be able to describe their symptoms to their GPs over email with an almost lyrical level of descriptiveness. Indeed, I fully expect that one day an enterprising GP will compile his or her most eloquent patient emails for a most entertaining book. [NOTE TO ASSISTANT: WOULD THIS REPRESENT AN ENORMOUS BREACH OF PATIENT CONFIDENTIALITY???]

So I am fully confident that the people of this country will be able to describe such complex conditions as motor neurone disease and cardiac dysrhythmia with effortless ease!

And what could be better than only going as far as your webcam for a cheeky Skype consultation. In keeping with our fine tradition of saucy comedy, I am sure everyone is as excited as I am at the hilarious prospect of a friend or family member walking in just as you are bent over the iPad showing your doctor a particularly tricky anal boil or a booming yeast infection. Benny Hill would be so proud.

But, make no mistake, we are not stopping at email and Skype with the National Health Syberspace.

We will save millions of pounds [IMPROVE PATIENT CARE???] by launching a hashtag. Why should you be limited to seeing just one trained medical professional at a time when you can ask the opinion of millions of Twitter users across the world. Yes, tomorrow we will get #WhatIsWrongWithMe trending worldwide. This way, it will be easy to send your symptoms out to the whole world for easy diagnosis. Be sure to attach a photo for maximum retweets.

Send your photos of irritating rashes out to the Twitterverse! You will know in no time if it is a heat rash, measles, acne, chicken pox or shingles.

And who doesn't love a good Facebook video? The ice bucket challenge has been a jolly jape and we can't get enough of videos of someone else's kids dancing on the kitchen table to a middle-of-the-road radio station. So we will also be saving millions of pounds [IMPROVING PATIENT CARE??? HELP!] by simply urging you all to post videos of yourself, your family and your ailments.

We know there are some things that cannot be properly captured in a photograph or email so if you have a wheezy cough, a weeping sore or you are having a suspected heart attack or bipolar episode, just video it, post it on Facebook and tag the friends whose opinions you value the most. I am pleased to report this has already been happening to a certain extent, whether it is a clueless parent updating their status to inform the world their baby is running a temperature of 39ยบ rather than going to straight to one of the A&E departments we have closed down, or an attention-seeking idiot posting something about a terrible headache in the hope of getting a lot of "u ok hun?" comments.

So why not go one step further and share fun videos of your symptoms on your Facebook page? Your friends and family care about you so they are best placed to advise on whether you really need to see a GP or go to hospital.

We want to embrace the internet as the NHS's main diagnostic tool. After all, who hasn't turned to Doctor Google in the middle of the night to self-diagnose a potentially life-threatening condition? And we can save even more money [DO I MEAN TO SAY "IMPROVE PATIENT CARE" AGAIN HERE? THIS IS TRICKY] by hoping and praying that more people's health-related Googling leads them to homeopathy websites where they will simply spend loads of money on insecure websites buying useless potions or discovering the healing power of rainbows.

It is an exciting new future for the new, improved National Health Syberspace. If you have any questions about this state-of-the-art initiative, please tweet me and I will not bother to respond because, frankly, I am too busy tweeting patronising bunkum about how I spent an afternoon with the "hardworking staff" of an A&E department in a safe Tory seat at its least busiest time.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

The great NHS game of whack-a-mole...

Yesterday was a somewhat astounding day. I'd been interviewed by the Sutton Guardian as part of a campaign I am involved in to keep the services of St Helier Hospital, a hospital which has been serving my community since 1938. A local Liberal Democrat MP, Tom Brake, blocked the Twitter account, @Save_St_Helier, which I manage as part of the campaign. Apparently, this strategy seemed like a more reasonable course of action for Brake in lieu of answering our questions about his online petition and his voting record in the House of Commons.

The media loves a good Twitter spat these days and the Sutton Guardian ran an article with a rather unfortunate headline - a throwaway line I'd uttered in which I likened Brake's behaviour to that of a schoolgirl became the lead. Cue an angry mob who clearly wanted to burn me as a sexist witch. Sigh... Thankfully, there are enough sensible people out there who joined in the comments at the end of the article and were able to steer the discussion back to real issues about Brake's lack of accountability.

I spent a lot of yesterday regretting that I'd put my mouth into gear before engaging my brain but I certainly do not regret calling out Tom Brake on his avoidance of perfectly reasonable questions. And, frankly, if me likening him to a schoolgirl is enough to get open, uncensored conversations happening about the questions he refuses to answer properly and publicly then so be it.

Brake has been running his online save-the-hospital petition for such a long time now that it is addressed to a group that now has a new name but he hasn't updated it. Brake has not answered our questions about exactly who will receive the petition, when this might happen, where it might happen or what he does with the data of people who have signed in good faith.

Likewise, he has not explained why he believes voting for the Health and Social Care Act 2012 or Clause 119, both of which have led to St Helier Hospital's services being under threat as part of the top-down reorganisation of the NHS which represents yet another broken election promise by David Cameron.

If you truly believe that a Conservative-led coalition is a win for smaller government and less bureaucracy, you are deluded - the NHS is now more bureaucratic than ever and, as a result, my tireless but tired band of campaigners in South West London are fighting to make people aware of Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), because they hold the aces here when it comes to closing or downgrading services such as A&E, maternity, renal and children's intensive care.

It is really damn hard to make people concerned about CCGs and the powers they have.

And trying to get straight answers out of CCGs, not to mention hospital trusts, about our services and how they are spending/wasting our money is frequently akin to getting blood from a stone. And then there is the challenge of trying to distill the information they put out into plain English so we can raise awareness as to what is going on.

Then there is the narrative of austerity - that the only way we can afford the NHS is to make cuts - and, in the meantime, hospitals are being run into the ground. Your local hospital may not be cleaned as often or as thoroughly as it was before because cleaning contracts have been outsourced to companies that are more concerned with making a profit than preventing MRSA outbreaks. You may not be served by nurses who work full-time at your local hospital because they may have been supplied by agencies. And, even when staff are working hard and trying their best, they may be overstretched.

And then people complain. They don't necessarily complain via the official channels because these days many people would much rather just whine on social media instead. And in the meantime, it creates a public appetite for closing hospitals. Or merely apathy. And apathy is all that is required for essential services to be slashed without resistance.

You might not notice at first. But the system is being chipped away. The easiest way to do this - and for government to wash their hands of accountability - is to outsource services to the private sector. This has led to the awful G4S - the company whose attempt to run security at the 2012 Olympics was embarrassing and led to thousands of British Army soldiers being drafted - nabbing millions of pounds worth of NHS contracts. After the G4S Olympics debacle, I have no idea why this company would be trusted to run a pub raffle, let alone anything as important as healthcare services. Indeed, G4S is running the non-emergency ambulance service at St Helier Hospital and this has already led to an unnecessary death.

And private companies are exempt from Freedom of Information requests, so this adds another brick wall for anyone trying to find out how our money is being spent.

The CCGs in my end of London used the services 20/20 Delivery, a consultancy firm, when they were involved in the wasteful Better Service, Better Value (BSBV) review of local healthcare provision. BSBV cost taxpayers at least £8m and more than £1m went to 20/20 Delivery but when I tried to find out exactly what 20/20 Delivery did that cost so much public money, I could not get any answers.

Congratulations if you've read this far. Are you wondering why I am telling you all this if you don't live anywhere near St Helier Hospital? It is because the same story of CCGs proposing cuts and downgrades is probably happening near you too.

I have been in touch with other campaigning groups across the country and the same stories keep cropping up - unaccountable CCGs, childish Twitter blocking, very real threats to cut A&E and maternity services, cuts that will result in people spending longer in ambulances, cuts that will result in women in labour having to travel further to give birth, services being outsourced to substandard private companies, private companies that make political donations winning contracts, private companies in which either politicians or CCG members have vested interests winning contracts...

Across the country, campaigners are dealing with the same convoluted mountain of nonsense - it is deliberately convoluted because the powers-that-be do not want people to be aware of what is happening. It can be hard to know where to direct your wrath when the Health Secretary is a remote figure in Whitehall, unless the failed marmalade entrepreneur decides to activate Clause 119 and close your local hospital within 40 days.

It is a giant game of whack-a-mole and it is being played with our health services.

Then there is the big distraction of health tourism outrage. It makes for lovely Daily Mail headlines even though it only costs 0.06% of the total NHS budget. Sure, there is a case for ensuring people who are not entitled to NHS care pay for it but some perspective is needed.

And as long as the health tourism drum is beaten on front pages as if there is a queue of illegal immigrants demanding free breast implants at every hospital, that takes the focus off the real financial drain on the NHS - PFI contracts. These Private Finance Initiative contracts were introduced under John Major, their inking went nuclear under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and the current government is in no rush to stop them being signed. These result in the public footing the bill for one hospital for the price of many, over and over again, across the country. This, in turn, renders PFI hospitals too big to fail and other nearby hospitals end up facing cuts.  A full public inquiry into these rotten contracts is the only way forward here. Do we dare to dream of this appearing in the manifesto of any of the major parties?

But I suspect the powers-that-be know that it is hard to maintain the energy for campaigners to fight for their local services while maintaining the rage about the bigger, wider issues, such as expensive PFI contracts. The little battle going on in my backyard is one of many across the country and those who are still raging that I likened Tom Brake to a schoolgirl need to get a grip. There are bigger fish to fry and if Tom Brake's apologists cannot see that he is trying to stop the fish even making it to the pan in the first place, we are going to lose vital services.

Photography by George Hodan

Monday, 11 August 2014

The BoJo juggernaut rolls on...

Last week's news from the No Shit, Sherlock files concerned Boris Johnson announcing that he plans to run for election as an MP next year. Previously, Boris said had the best job in the world as Mayor of London. Previously, Boris said he had no intention to run as an MP in the 2015 elections. Previously, in his past life as an MP, he was an inconsequential Shadow Minister for the Arts before being sacked from the front bench after lying about an affair with Petronella Wyatt.

Personally, I don't care who Boris sleeps with. None of my damn business. But if Boris intends to complete his term as Mayor of London and be an MP at the same time (presuming he is a shoo-in for a safe Tory seat), it is my business. And it is the business of everyone who lives in London as well as the people who live in his future constituency which, at the time of writing, could be Uxbridge.

Quite simply, he cannot do both jobs properly. He is not doing the job of Mayor of London properly.

If the people of Uxbridge elect him as their MP and only then realise he is a self-serving career politician, they only have themselves to blame. If people in Uxbridge discover this time next year that they cannot get an appointment with him to discuss local issues, why the hell would they be at all surprised? Just as Labour parachutes candidates from elsewhere into safe seats in the north of England, it is equally lazy politics (and lazy voting...) for the Conservatives to drop Boris into Uxbridge or similar.

He is, according to David Cameron, a "star player" and, as such, Boris Johnson MP will no doubt be expecting a cabinet position if the Conservatives win next year. And that should worry everyone in Britain.

Boris's track record as Mayor of London has been awful - he has presided over increased tube and bus fares, the wasteful Emirates Airline cable car that provides public transport for a handful of people on any given day and involved a seriously dodgy contract that should have been anathema to anyone who supports either free trade or free speech (but it's OK because he apparently didn't know about the finer details of the contract when it was signed), increased homelessness (but it's OK because he thought the anti-homeless person spikes were stupid...), stupid buses that are a fare evader's delight, a failed plan to glue pollution to the roads, the imposition of the Congestion Charge on hybrid cars, the exemption of affluent parts of London from the Congestion Charge, a mindless crusade against all diesel-powered cars that ignores the latest cleaner diesel technology from leading automakers such as BMW and Volkswagen, and the purchase of a secondhand water cannon that Theresa May has not yet let him use...

Still, we really must forget about all that waffle and piffle, as Boris might say when he is being oh-so-hilarious (in the same way that a booming yeast infection is hilarious...).  He does like to trumpet London's continuing economic success as something he has done and of which he is very proud indeed.

Except that London is too big to fail. It will always be here, attracting higher average salaries, higher house prices than the rest of the country, ambitious people, creativity and innovation - and people desperate for a break or even a basic wage. The capital is a giant economic force and not even Boris can bugger that up entirely.

And that is, in a nutshell, why the rest of Britain should fear Boris in the House of Commons. If he is elected and the Conservatives win the next election and Boris ends up, inevitably, in the cabinet, he will not do a damn thing to try and rectify one of the biggest social and economic challenges facing Britain - the obsession with London at the expense of regional development and job creation beyond the M25.

But regional development isn't sexy. The next election will not be won or lost on some random regional development policy from any of the major parties. And, for Boris, the concerns of the people of Uxbridge probably won't be sexy either. If they vote for him and the result is yet another clown in the house, they'll get the MP they deserve - but the rest of the country will have to put up with his ridiculousness too.

On the upside, it might stop people who don't live in London from saying they love Boris because he is "good comedy value", but that's not much consolation for the possible consequences of terminally gullible and lazy giving this wasteful man yet another ill-deserved opportunity.

Photography: Steve Linster 

Sunday, 10 August 2014

One state? Two states? ISIS? IS? What's going on in Syria? It's never simple in the Middle East...

Another day, another broken ceasefire, another attempt to get Israeli and Palestinian leaders around the table, another round of futile arguments on social media... And so it goes on and on. It all reminds me of a Facebook argument that broke out on my Facebook page in about 2008 about Israel and Palestine which led to me defriending someone after he started out arguing eloquently for Israel but ended up throwing an ugly racist insult at another friend. Six years on, the same arguments are cropping up on social media and it seems just as pointlessly circular this time around.

But what is interesting is that I have observed with the 2014 round of social media debates is that many people from across the political spectrum are advocating a one-state solution rather than the well-worn "we support a two-state solution" rhetoric that politicians, safely away from the threat of either Israeli or Hamas rockets, like to trot out in a weedy attempt to look fair and balanced.

The obvious problem with a two-state solution is that no matter how borders are drawn, yet again, there will be angry, unhappy people, there will be more displaced people, there will be people left homeless and possibly stateless too. Any attempts to draw boundaries for two states will highlight that this conflict goes beyond religion because everyone will want their land to include the fertile parts, the pretty tourist draw cards, the bits with natural gas reserves and so on...

As the images of death and destruction from Gaza have become part of our living room furniture yet again, it is clear that the constant retaliation from both sides is not doing anything to get the Middle East anywhere near a lasting peace. The hatred is palpable and it not concentrated to the battered shred of land that is the Gaza strip.

Horrible outbreaks of anti-semitic and anti-Islamic sentiments, all of which reduce religions to stereotypes and ignore the diversity that exists within both faiths, are not helping anyone. So many ridiculous and awful things have happened that it is hard to know where to start with calling out the bullshit behaviour - Hamas hiding weapons in supposed places of safety, images of Israelis getting comfortable with a few brewksis to watch attacks on Gaza, George Galloway declaring Bradford an Israeli-free zone, Joan Rivers declaring that Palestinians deserve to die, the banning of a Jewish film festival in London, and the banning of an Edinburgh Fringe Festival show by an Israeli group that promotes Jewish-Arab co-existence, IDF soldiers leaving racist graffiti, urine and bowel movements in Palestinian homes... All these things are terrible and moronic and it just goes on and on and there doesn't appear to be any end in sight.

Today, we have a lack of enthusiasm for Egypt-mediated peace talks which, given they are about as neutral as Liberace's living room, is entirely understandable from all sides. But if a one-state solution emerges from this mess as a more realistic prospect, it is interesting to speculate on what this might look like. It'd be amazing if everyone around the negotiating table could even agree on a name for this new state, and even if they did, its citizens would probably refer to themselves as hyphenated nationalities, like Italian-Americans, but I digress. We are not even close to that level of nitty-gritty detail today.

Do we dare to dream of a secular state where everyone is free to practice their religion in safety, where churches, mosques and synagogues can exist in the same street without violence erupting, where atheists are allowed to get on with their lives without interference from any religion, where your sexuality is not a criminal offence, where tourists can visit and roam the whole country in total safety, where children are not raised to hate anyone, where my friends with Palestinian passports but have never set foot in Palestine can finally return home, where everyone has equal access to education and opportunity, where women can dress as they please, where there is no need to conscript young people in an army and imprison them if they conscientiously object?

But who should try and negotiate such a solution? For starters, probably not any of the nearby Arabian Gulf nations. The combined economic might of the Arabian Gulf nations could pay for a Palestinian Iron Dome and then some, but these states instead pay lip service to supporting Palestine and send aid such as blankets and medical supplies. The leaders of the UAE, as well as Saudi Arabia, choose their words very carefully when it comes to speaking out on behalf of Palestine. After all, there are alliances with the US that they do not want to jeopardise. And if their leaders were seen to be calling for a new secular state with democratic elections and freedom of religion, that would reignite the pro-democracy campaigners who stuck their heads over the parapet during the Arab Spring only to find themselves silenced or imprisoned or lashed. It has been suggested by many analysts that Qatar, among others in the region, supports Hamas (and the US sells billions of bucks worth of weaponry to Qatar so, once again, the moral high ground turns to quicksand...).

I could muse on who the hell can fix this this all day long but it would only be a matter of time before someone chimes in with: "OK, Gaza is a bad situation but what about ISIS?". ISIS, or IS as they are now being called in today's new bulletins, is completely appalling. Horrific. Beyond vile. A tragedy for Iraq and beyond. They are all about a ruthless land grab achieved through the mass killing of Muslims who don't strictly adhere to their narrow interpretation of a faith that has 72 sects, and of Christians, of children, babies, anyone who gets in their way, basically.

IS is such a revolting organisation that it doesn't actually matter that the stories of forced, mass FGM were never proven - their heinousness is such that there is no shortage of appetite for airstrikes to blast them off the face of the Earth. Of course, nobody is saying the the Kurds, who as I write this, have, with the help of the US, managed a victory over IS fighters in two Iraqi towns, have one of the biggest problems with FGM in the region. But nothing is ever simple, nothing is ever black and white in the Middle East. Equally, the situation in Syria has created unholy alliances as intervening nations try to decide what group is the least dreadful.

And while all this is going on, while my Twitter and Facebook feeds continue to fill up with more and more arguments that will never be seen by Benjamin Netanyahu, Khaled Mashal, Mousa Abu Marzouq, Mahmoud Abbas, Tzipi Livni, Moshe Ya'alon, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Bashar al-Assad, Zahran Alloush, or anyone else who can actually do something about any of this crap, innocents continue to be killed, families separated, people displaced, and, hey presto, we have another refugee crisis on our hands.

Perhaps a one-state solution could honour the original spirit of the creation of the state of Israel and be a safe haven for refugees displaced by these latest Middle Eastern conflicts, regardless of religion. There is a long way to go before that idea is even remotely feasible but, as far as aims go, it sure beats the aim of obliteration in anyone's name.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Fracking and feminism...

Zara is a 10-year-old girl growing up in a developing country. She does not go to school very often because she has to help her mother gather firewood for fuel. In Zara's country, "keeping the home fires burning" is still literally what has to be done to keep the household running. There is no electricity so even if she does make it to school, she won't have any light by which to do her homework at night. She can't access the internet and she has to help her mother do laundry, a labourious task without a washing machine or iron. Keeping floors clean and cooking meals in their basic shelter are not easy tasks for Zara and her mother. They don't have a vacuum cleaner, a dishwasher is an impossible dream, and meals are cooked on a wood-burning stove. This is the reality of an impoverished life without electricity. Zara will go to bed exhausted. If she gets sick, her demise may well be hastened by a substandard hospital with a sporadic electricity supply.

The next day, Zara might make it to school, she might not. It depends on the household fuel situation. Her 12-year-old brother is excused from household chores because that is just the way it is in a traditional, patriarchal society. He gets to school most days - it depends on whether the school bus is running in an area where fuel for transport is at a premium - and he will probably stay in school for longer than his sister will and he might have a few more opportunities in this world. Of course, he won't always get his homework done because of the lack of electricity but he does get to class more often than not.

But Zara will miss out, marry young and have children young because this is the only real prospect for an uneducated girl who is costing her family money to keep alive.

I made Zara up but the details of the story are played out in multiple developing countries all over the world. Last year, I attended a conference in Paris organised by the United Nations and the International Gas Union. It had a strong focus on issues affecting girls and women in the developing world related to fuel poverty. Stories like Zara's were shared by frustrated speakers, by women who work as gas engineers as well as in the arenas of government and development. There are still way more girls than boys who miss out on even a basic education and one of the biggest contributing factors in this injustice is lack of access to energy, something we take for granted in the developed world.

Imagine then, if shale gas or oil was discovered in Zara's community. Do we get our Sarah Palin on and drill, baby, drill?

This would lead to jobs being created, access to energy for towns and villages so families would have light at night, there would be money to buy labour-saving devices such as vacuum cleaners and electricity to power them, refrigeration would mean food would keep for longer, Zara would not miss out on going to school, Zara's mother would be able to cook dinner in a fraction of the time, Zara's mother may even have time to get her first job because her life is not revolving around finding fuel and trying to cook and clean without electricity, the school bus might run every day so boys and girls can all get to school, there may be enough money kicking around to buy a better bus or more buses, reliable access to energy would transform the experience of going to school as well as the lives of people in their homes.

These hydrocarbons would prove to be a great liberator of girls and women.

But to get them out of the ground, fracking would be required.

If you want equal opportunities for girls and women and you disagree with fracking, even if it is the only way to unleash fuel in some places, you have a conundrum. You are essentially opposing access to the one resource that could offer immense freedoms to girls and women. If you are sitting in a developed country reading this and freaking out about fracking, you are opposing access to a resource which probably played an immense part in you being able to complete your education.

So, what do we do?

We could look at best practice in fracking from around the globe and see what could be best applied to Zara's community. Germany has just declared a seven-year moratorium on shale gas fracking but is still allowing tight gas fracking - and Germany has several decades of successful fracking behind it so there are some good lessons to be learnt there. If Germany were to frack some more, they could end their dependency on Russian gas and that'd be a political game-changer. And it is important to know that fracking may not have the same environmental impact on a wide open space with nothing in sight as it would around, say, Blackpool. Not all shale gas sites are created equal.

Or do we say no to all fracking?

OK, fine. Let's say no to all fracking then. But that won't change the fact that fuel poverty is holding many developing countries back - and the resulting disadvantages this creates affect girls and women horrifically and disproportionately.

That fuel needs to come from somewhere.

So, how about we look at our foreign aid allocations? The notion of foreign aid is not a bad one but its implementation is frequently dreadful. How about we look seriously and constructively at ways to help bring energy to developing countries as part of our foreign aid programmes? This obviously raises new questions about whether aid recipients want a nationalised energy supply or to open it up to the free market. But even developing countries have the right to decide on what sort of energy economy they'd prefer and it is arrogant imperialism to suggest otherwise - and it would require sensitive negotiations about whether public-private partnerships would be involved.

If we are not keen to send fuel extracted by fracking to developing countries, or to frack such countries if unconventional oil and gas is found there, but we are serious about alleviating fuel poverty, we need plans B, C, D and E.

Could developed countries that are serious producers and consumers of renewable energy bring their knowledge and technology to the places where aid is needed? Bringing energy production to the developing world is a far better way to spend aid money that to send money directly into government coffers. I realise this is all very utopian, and helping a developing country produce energy could end up being a new way for a corrupt government to line its own pockets, but ending fuel poverty is an essential factor in ending all poverty.

Yet as we sit on our hands, non-fictitious Zaras are not going to school across the world and poor access to energy is a big part of this problem. Access to energy in homes, schools, shops, hospitals and communities - just as many of us have taken for granted for our entire lives - has the potential to be an incredible liberator of girls and women.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Get angry about jailed journalists in Egypt - but look in your own backyard too...

There is global anger at the jailing of journalists in Egypt. Three Al Jazeera journalists - an Australian, a Canadian and an Egyptian - have been sent down for seven years on absurd "terrorism" charges. Two British journalists and a Dutch journalist were tried in absentia and each sentenced to 10 years.

The whole case is completely appalling. In a world where news can break on Twitter, it is ridiculous that an Egyptian judge tries to silence journalists who are doing their job. And it is absolutely horrendous that the censorship is attempted via prison sentences.

But in the midst of the outrage, we should all stop to look at what is going on in our own backyards. On the weekend, thousands of people marched in London to protest the government's austerity measures. Regardless of your point of view on the current government's policies, a march of this magnitude is a news story. Of course, if the march descended into violence, if people were arrested, if anyone was kettled, if Boris Johnson could use it as justification for his stupid water cannons, if Nigel Farage spoke at the march, it would be guaranteed widespread media coverage. But a peaceful mass movement with numbers that have increased year on year? Tumbleweeds. It lurked on the fringes with a bit of Russell Brand-obsessed coverage in the Independent and Huffington Post. There was a wee bit in the largely unread Morning Star.

Oh, and a mere three sentences on the BBC news website for a protest that happened on their doorstep so it wasn't as if they would have even needed to pay for a reporter's cab fare. Not sure how those who keep banging on about "BBC lefty bias" will spin that one.

The Guardian did a slightly better job but, predictably, focused on Russell Brand for clickbait which led to a mea culpa piece to explain that the whole thing wasn't just about Katy Perry's ex-husband.

Yet today both the Guardian (which has confused media morals as it both covered much of the Leveson inquiry, apart from the few hours given to the portrayal of women in the media, and championed the ridiculous report) and the BBC news site have gone big with the Egyptian story today.

It is easy to wring one's hands about something happening in a foreign land far away.

Of course, the locking up of western journalists adds the much-needed proximity for media outlets in Canada, Britain, Australia and the Netherlands to ramp up the coverage. The Sydney Morning Herald has been diligently giving live updates. It's a shame Fairfax, the company that owns the SMH, has not been quite so diligent about preserving staff jobs or maintaining quality across the board. Murdoch's is also leading with the Egypt story - that'd be the same stable of journalists that are so deeply in bed with Prime Minister Tony Abbott that they were photographed after the last election toasting his victory.

Like I said, we all need to look in our own backyards because even if our countries are not jailing journalists for doing their job, they're not necessarily being conducive to giving people the free press they deserve either. Just ask any Australian journalist who has tried to get a visa to visit the detention centre for asylum-seekers on Manus Island about jumping through ridiculous hoops.

And then there is the elephant in the room - these journalists work for Qatar-based Al Jazeera and it is pretty clear that this is politically motivated. I don't think President Sisi will be sending warm Ramadan greetings to the Emir of Qatar next month. Indeed, tensions between Al Jazeera, the Egyptian government and Al Jazeera journalists working in Egypt are not new. And while Al Jazeera is obviously and rightfully reporting this outrage loud and clear, their journalists based in Qatar need to be constantly on their guard when reporting on local issues. On top of all this, Al Jazeera has been censored in the US, an act which deserves a slow hand clap.

Then there has been outrage expressed over the jailed journalists by expats in the Middle East. But a quick look at the today's homepages for newspapers in Qatar's neighbours in the UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain reveals that none of these countries, all of which have heavily state-controlled media, are keen to make a song and dance about Egypt shitting all over press freedom today. It might give people in those countries ideas and all four governments are terrified of any dissent. All four countries have imprisoned journalists and bloggers. In the UAE, when bloggers went on trial, the ban on freedom of assembly was conveniently ignored by the police when a group of stooges gathered outside the court house to show their support for the government.

As such, lead stories on news sites for these countries include such groundbreaking stuff as Ferrari World opening a new ride in a mall, Ramadan working hours announced for the UAE private sector and Bahrainis being urged to commit to national unity, Interestingly,  the most hard-hitting lead today is from the Kuwait Times, with a call for action over an anti-Shi'ite article in light of horrific events in Iraq but there is nothing on today's news out of Egypt. The Saudi Gazette, meanwhile, leads with a two-steps-forward-one-step-back story on gender equality with a ban on visas for male tailors who make women's clothing and an unintentionally ironic story about the second Saudi woman to qualify as a pilot - except she won't be able to drive herself to the airport... But nowt on Egypt imprisoning journalists.

Who has the cojones to call out these newspapers on their ongoing commitment to peddling a government-approved line?

A terrible, terrible thing has happened in Egypt today. But as well as demanding the immediate and unconditional release of the three Al Jazeera journalists, we all need to be vigilant about calling out the assorted bullfuckery that goes on in the media we consume on a daily basis.

Nobody's backyard is full of roses.

Image by Dawn Hudson.