Sunday, 8 January 2017


This week's right-wing fauxrage was all about British foreign aid funding Yegna, "the Ethiopian Spice Girls". Unsurprisingly. the hate-fuelled, ill-informed charge was led by the Daily Mail and The Sun, with much smug crowing after Priti Patel, the hard right populist excuse for an International Development Secretary, a woman now leading a department she wanted to abolish, announced the £5.2m grant would be withdrawn.

OK, a few things...

1. The only thing Yegna has in common with the Spice Girls is that it is a five-member, all-female group. The Spice Girls was set up to as a moneymaking venture. Sure, the "girl power" message may well have inspired plenty of girls and women to take an interest in their own empowerment, and it'd be churlish of me to dismiss that, but the "girl power" slogan was a marketing tool, first and foremost.

2. Yegna is part of a bigger project called Girl Effect. Girl Effect works in multiple ways to empower girls and young women in Ethiopia as well as other parts of Africa. Since 2013, Yegna has reached millions of girls through music, drama, a radio talk show and online platforms, discussing issues such as child marriage, forced marriage, violence against girls and women, female genital mutilation and ensuring girls complete their education. Ending child marriage, forced marriage, violence, FGM and girls not completing their education are all essential not only for their own safety and empowerment, but to fight poverty.

3. As well as Yegna, the Girl Effect projects include Ni Nyampinga, which educates girls and their communities on education, sexual health and violence prevention, online youth clubs and mobile platforms allowing girls to communicate with each other and share ideas, job creation in the fields of research and data collection, and a programme to encourage girls to study in the field of technology in Nigeria, soon to expand to Rwanda, Ethiopia, India and Indonesia.

4. Sadly, "UK foreign aid helps a broad-based project that empowers girls and women to finish their education, not marry as children and not be subjected to FGM, all of which helps fight the root causes of poverty in Africa" does not make for as snappy a headline as "ETHIOPIAN SPICE GIRLS AND YOU'RE PAYING FOR IT!".

5. A common howl from the outraged right was "FOREIGN AID SHOULD BE FOOD DROPS!". The problem with limiting aid to food drops is that food gets eaten. And then more food is required. But with food drops, nothing is done to create jobs that enable people to buy food, or to improve agricultural methods so food can be successfully grown, or to ensure kids are going to school so they can go on to work in skilled and professional jobs, or to stop girls from marrying young and never reaching their full potential. Food drops are like putting a sticking plaster on a compound fracture.

6. Anyone who watched TV in the 1980s saw the harrowing scenes of famine in countries such as Ethiopia and this helped create two false narratives. The first was an inaccurate image of Africa as a homogenous blur of parched landscapes full of starving children, when it is a diverse continent of varied landscapes and climates and differing levels of poverty in different nations, many of which have a growing middle class. The second was a mentality that food drops equal effective aid. As per my fifth point, it is not effective in addressing the root causes of poverty. Creative ways to bring people out of poverty need to be explored and supported.

7. It is naive to think all aid funding goes to projects that help people and that none of it ends up in the coffers of corrupt governments. But by directly funding projects such as Girl Effect and Yegna, the money has a much better chance of being used constructively rather than funding some dictator's new Bentley, again another stereotype when democracy is becoming widespread across African countries.

8. There was the additional fauxrage in the last couple of weeks about, according to the increasingly parodic Daily Express, "UK foreign aid spews out of cash machines in Pakistan". This created inaccurate images of every Pakistani simply rocking up to their nearest ATM to greedily hoover up thousands of our British pounds. Again, it was hateful, inaccurate reporting on the Benazir Income Support Programme which helps people living on less than a dollar per day - it has enabled children to stay in school, empowered marginalised women to earn a living, improved healthcare and enabled people to start saving money. Educated, empowered people who are earning an income are less likely to be radicalised. It is a hand-up rather than a hand-out and it is working effectively. The aid is distributed via ATMs as this is a cost-effective, ensures it goes to the people who need it, and prevents fraud.

9. It is also naive to think that the motive for spending money on foreign aid is entirely altruistic. In the long term, there are additional trade and investment benefits for countries that get involved in aid projects. Indeed, foreign investment, when done properly is a win for all parties and often more effective than traditional forms of foreign aid. Multiple African countries, for example, benefit from foreign investment in energy, construction and infrastructure projects, especially in countries such as Nigeria and Ghana where local content laws require employers to hire local people and use local companies and suppliers wherever possible.

10. The UK spends 0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid. We can afford this and we should continue to ensure our money is being spent responsibly on projects that address the root causes of poverty across the world. Unfortunately, Priti Patel is the wrong person to be in charge of this budget as she demonstrated this week by letting inaccurate, hateful headlines that pander to racists sway her decision-making. She has thrown girls and young women in poverty under a bus with her latest hard right populist stunt. Yes, this is where we are in 2017 and it is shameful.

Photography: US Embassy Addis Ababa/Flickr

Monday, 2 January 2017

A right royal Brexit mess

Reports emerged around Christmas that Queen Elizabeth II said she was in favour of Brexit but BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg did not report it at the time. This news story got lost in the speculation as to whether she was actually alive and not spending the festive season getting embalmed when she was meant to be at a church service.

In the meantime, Buckingham Palace confirmed that the Queen is indeed still alive, but there were some shrill voices screaming about BBC bias because Laura Kuenssberg did not report the story before the referendum. She did not report the story because she only had the one source and, for a story as potentially explosive as the Queen expressing a clear view on such a contentious issue, this was quite simply not enough to run it.

Without a second source, the story was on very shaky ground. Laura Kuenssberg followed good journalistic practice but she was still slagged off, particularly by those who favour leaving the EU. Brexiters were whining that she didn't report it because the BBC is pro-remain and if people knew the Queen supported Britain leaving the EU, that would tip the vote in favour of voting out.

For a pro-remain broadcaster, the BBC sure as hell gives Nigel Farage a lot of airplay... But I digress.

I trust every Brexiter who got a bit excited because the Queen might favour leaving the EU is a republican. After all, pesky "unelected" people seemed to be a cornerstone of every pro-leave argument and a post-Brexit republic would mean the unelected Queen would become a private citizen and vote like the rest of us can. Or she could run for office herself and her popularity and world view could be put to the test at the ballot box. And how about some House of Lords reform with an elected upper chamber while we're at it, eh? Wouldn't that be just lovely?

Of course the "unelected people in Brussels" argument is bunkum because we do vote for MEPs. But we are now in a post-fact, post-expert idiocracy.

And it is a post-responsibility idiocracy if low voter turnout in Britain for European elections is any indication. God forbid anyone take an interest in voting for those who represent us in Brussels. As a result, we ended up with gravy-train-riding UKIP MEPs not turning up for important votes despite these self-serving hypocrites telling us at every opportunity that they were our "eyes and ears in Brussels". It would seem our eyes and ears did not very often extend to being bums on seats.

In the meantime, MEPs from other parties did plenty of good work that was seldom reported in the British press and engagement with constituents by MEPs was poor. If the hounds of Article 50 are released, we won't get a chance to forge closer links with our MEPs or demand better media coverage of their work, or, I dunno, take some bloody responsibility and seek out information on what our MEPs are doing - it's actually not that hard to find if you have an internet connection and a functioning brain stem.

But back to the Queen...

If you're a monarchist Brexiter, is one of your pro-monarchy arguments that the Queen is above politics? If so, you might want to really think hard before getting too excited about a Brexit-loving monarch on the throne. If she did express a view on the referendum, she is clearly not apolitical so that's that pro-monarchy argument shot to pieces. If Laura Kuenssberg had a second source, it would certainly be in the public interest to report it.

Kuenssberg's source claimed the Queen said: "I don't see why we can't just get out. What's the problem?". Good Lord. The problem is that this is exactly the kind of ignorant, simplistic statement that helped a bullshit-ridden, cynical leave campaign win against a complacent remain campaign in the first place. If the Queen really said such a stupid thing, she is like millions of other people in this country who seem to think leaving the EU will be easy-peasy and that trade deals can be easily done over a cup of tea and a slice of Victoria sponge.

Whatever the hell Theresa May meant by a "red, white and blue Brexit", one thing is clear. We are gearing up for another year of extreme levels of stupidity, possibly starting at Buckingham Palace. The other certainty is that Laura Kuenssberg will continue to be a responsible journalist but that won't stop elements of the left and the right criticising her without ever bothering to do a proper content analysis of her work.

2017: my expectations are very low indeed.

Photography by Maxwell Hamilton/Flickr

Sunday, 18 December 2016

An oath for oafs

Sajid Javid simply loves the idea of an oath of allegiance to British values! He is all excited after reading Dame Louise Casey's report on social cohesion because it recommends public office-holders take such an oath. Elected officials, civil servants and council workers would be expected to take this oath, should it ever become a requirement, according to the report.

But Sajid has taken an already scarily Orwellian idea one step further and said that all migrants, not just those seeking UK citizenship, should take the oath. 

Yep, he is mad about the oath. Sajid would rather talk about this oath instead of, oh, I dunno, his own decision to vote against landlords requiring their properties to be fit for human habitation while he is an actual landlord. But, hey, letting hard-working people pay through the nose to live in squalor is clearly a British value! Am I right, Sajid? Jolly good show, old chap! 

Hell, he is so keen to advocate for an oath that he has even started spitballing a few ideas for it. What a guy! I am so glad that as a permanent resident of Britain, owner of property in Britain, married to a British citizen, working, paying my taxes and voting in Britain, that Sajid is here to tell me how I can best direct my loyalty.

Sajid said the oath might include phrases such as "tolerating the views of others even if you disagree with them" as well as "believing in freedom of speech". OK, fine. So I have the freedom to say I find the vile and racist rantings of, say, Anjem Choudary or Jayda Fransen are utterly repulsive but I still must "tolerate their views"? I have zero tolerance for racism. If I had to take this oath, would I really mean it? What would happen to me if I publicly said I didn't tolerate the crap people like Choudary and Fransen come out with it? I'd be exercising my freedom of speech, as per the oath, but breaking the bit about tolerance.

"Freedom of religion" was another of Sajid's helpful suggestions. Yep, you can believe in whatever deity you like but what about freedom from religion? I am unimpressed, for example, that certain politicians voted against marriage equality with their religious beliefs being a factor in their decision. I find that sort of church-state crossover hard to tolerate - whoops, there I go again, being intolerant! Indeed, while we're talking about religion, would I be breaking the oath if I dared suggest that it is high time the Church of England was disestablished? If I say so, am I breaking the bit in Sajid's imaginary oath about believing in freedom of religion?

Sajid also suggested "freedom from abuse". If he means physical abuse, we already have laws against assault, rape and murder. These are laws everyone is expected to obey, whether or not they are a public official or not, and regardless of whether they were born here or came here from somewhere else. 

Or does he mean verbal abuse? If so, there are already laws against hate speech and death threats? Do the anti-hate speech laws contravene the "freedom of speech" part of the oath? Honestly, Sajid, this is a minefield! It's almost as if you're making this up as you're going along rather than thinking it through rationally.

Then Sajid said "a belief in equality, democracy and the democratic process" should be chucked into the oath which, the more I think about it, the more it starts looking like having about as much credibility as a pinky promise. Sajid, we currently have an openly misogynistic homophobe on the Commons Women and Equalities Committee in the form of Conservative MP Philip Davies. This is a man who this week tried to filibuster a bill to ratify the Istanbul Convention because men are victims of domestic violence too - even though the convention covers violence against men and women. If only there was a senior woman in the Conservative Party with the power to prevent ridiculous appointments to committees...

As for a belief in "democracy and the democratic process", sure, I can get on board with that. My belief in democracy extends to believing that the monarchy is undemocratic and has no real place in a modern society and that the House of Lords needs urgent reform. I am, apparently, free to say this but does the oath cover democracy and the democratic process as it currently exists or is there some wiggle room on that one, Sajid?

And finally, he suggested "respect for the law, even if you think the law is an ass". So this oath would mean that we must respect all laws at all times, no matter what? Blind loyalty for the win, eh Sajid? What if a public official who had to swear this oath found that stupid laws made their job impossible or compromised safety or would put a vulnerable person at risk? How would swearing to this part of the oath help whistleblowers who expose things that may well be legal but are morally wrong or dangerous or just plain ineffective? 

Sorry, Sajid, you're going to have to work much harder to convince me that this idea for an oath is not just creepy and chilling, but also that it is not completely and utterly useless. Would this sort of lip service really help different groups in communities come together or get along better? Would this prevent a single act of terrorism? Nope. And nope. 

What I do know is that I have lived here long enough to know this sort of forced patriotism, this ridiculous, ill-thought-out jingoism is just a stupid distraction by Sajid Javid and if it ever happened, it would not do a damn thing to improve anything.


Photography by Karen Arnold

Sunday, 11 December 2016

The lynch mob mentality is back. But did it ever really go away?

Gina Miller has received death threats, rape threats and utterly appalling sexist and racist abuse. This week a 55-year-old man from Swindon has been arrested over threats he is alleged to have made towards her.

And some people who disagree with Miller's role in using the court system to challenge the government on the way Article 50 should be triggered for Britain to the leave the European Union are actually apologising for the people who have made these threats. 

"What did she expect? She was asking for it!" has been the tone of the apologists. The same mentality that blames rape victims for their own attacks is now being applied to a woman who has every right to mount this challenge to Theresa May's increasingly useless government in regard to how we should leave the EU. 

Bear in mind the court challenge is not about keeping Britain in the EU, it is about putting the vote before parliament before triggering Article 50. Many Brexiters, despite banging on for months about sovereignty before the referendum, are now terrified of a ruling by Britain's independent judiciary that would mean our democratically elected members of parliament vote on how we should best proceed with the most monumental change to Britain's place in the world in our lifetimes. Miller and her fellow challengers are calling for the very model of British sovereignty to be used to start proceedings. Therefore it would appear that for many Brexiters, they only like sovereignty when it suits them, or they don't actually know what sovereignty means. 

In short, Gina Miller has - for making the case for Britain's exit from the EU to go through parliament - received death and rape threats. And people are saying she should have expected this.

No. Nobody should expect death and rape threats for having a different point of view. Miller should expect robust debate, certainly, but never death or rape threats. That is absolutely disgusting. In the year when Jo Cox MP was murdered for having a different political opinion to her killer, it is quite right that death and rape threats are taken seriously. We now know there are people out there who are barbaric enough to act on such threats.

Over in the United States, Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump's campaign manager, has also received death threats. And I have seen people with similar political views to my own take the same line elements of the political right have taken in the UK, that Conway is also deserving of death threats.

No. She is not. I am pretty sure I disagree with Conway on most issues, I do not see her a a feminist role model for helping get a self-confessed sexual predator into power, but do I think she deserves death threats? Absolutely not. She should expect to be challenged on everything she says, she should expect to be pilloried on Saturday Night Live, but she should not expect anyone to express an interest in killing her. 

When you know someone might want to kill you, it is absolutely terrifying. It is distressing, it erodes your trust in other people, it means you never quite feel safe. It is an awful punishment, a cruel psychological torture, and certainly not a punishment to fit the crime of having a different point of view. It is quite right that any civilised legal system takes death threats seriously.

The referendum result and the Trump victory in the US seem to have emboldened pitchfork wavers on both sides of the Atlantic.

But I am now starting to wonder if the pitchfork wavers ever went away. Are human beings in general even as civilised as we like to think we are? Multiple genocides have taken place since the world was shocked by the events under Adolf Hitler in WWII. And death penalty abolition is a relatively recent phenomenon in the context of centuries of history.

In Saudi Arabia and Iran, people are still executed in public, creating a repugnant spectacle. Thirty-one US states still have the death penalty. Nearly two-thirds of the world's countries still have the death penalty. The last person to be executed by guillotine in France was in 1977. In Britain, the death penalty was abolished in 1965, and in 1973 for Northern Ireland. 

When the death penalty was abolished in Britain, it took immense courage for members of parliament to do so in the face of much public opposition. After centuries of British history, in which so many people were lost to hangings, burnings at the stake, beheadings and obscenely imaginative torture, 1965 and 1973 marked a new era of modern civilisation. Our EU membership depends on not having the death penalty. Once we leave the EU, I would not be at all surprised to see renewed calls for a return to capital punishment. The possibility, no matter how remote, of Britain enjoying the civilising factor of no capital punishment for less than 100 years before it is swept back into the law books on a tide generated by a lynch mob mentality is sickening. 

And when we start accepting that outspoken people, and particularly right now, outspoken women, should expect death threats for daring to express polarising opinions in public, we regress as a society. We start picking away at the threads that hold society together, the threads that keep us civilised, that prevent us from turning into brutes and savages. 

Right now, those threads are more delicate than ever before.

Photo by Dan Lipinski/Flickr

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