Sunday, January 23, 2011

Misogynistic quote of the week

So, the cover story in Guardian Weekend yesterday (yes, I am that desperately middle class) was an interview with Laura Hall, who apparently 'became the poster-girl for Booze Britain' after getting an alcohol asbo last year.

Having missed that vital bit of news myself, reading this feature over breakfast was really just a way to haul my sleepy brain into the land of the living via a nice cup of tea. But it did yield a good hit of righteous indignation (which, after all, is what your average Guardian reader is going for on a Saturday morning) when I got to this little gem:

“Last year district judge Bruce Morgan said of her 29 drink-fuelled convictions: 'I don't think I have seen a more deplorable record … A female with a record like this – it's absolutely despicable and represents all that is rotten in society nowadays.'”

I'm sorry? I mean, I know your stereotypical judge is a crusty old dinosaur who thinks it's ok to say things like this, but seriously? The quiet misogyny of it was just breathtaking: the idea that violent alcohol abuse might somehow be acceptable from thrusting young men, but when a 'female' starts doing it – not even a woman, mind, but a female – well, then clearly something is very wrong indeed and she should probably be burned as a witch. And these are the people in charge of administering justice in this country! Sigh.

Incidentally, the fact that the journalist was quite happy to blithely quote this remark and move on without further comment really does make me wonder. Apparently, he (or his editors, I suppose) figured we'd all be more interested in gasping at how many pints she could down over lunch, so the article ended up reinforcing those prejudices rather than challenging them. I mean, yes, I get that it was a personal profile and not a piece of political commentary. But you'd think that with 3,000 words to play with on this supposed symbol of 'ladette culture', they could have found just a bit of space to ask why she's achieved such notoriety basically for being female whilst in charge of an alcohol problem.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

In the fight against discrimination, we have to start with ourselves

Today, I did something I never thought I'd do.

I was on the tube coming back from a meeting, at around lunchtime. It was busy – I'd managed to nab the last seat in the carriage – but not packed. Having exhausted the reading potential of the adverts on the opposite wall, my eyes wandered and fell on a man sitting opposite me, of Arab appearance, wearing traditional religious dress and a large, bulky jacket. He was clutching some kind of satchel to his chest and had – or was it my imagination? - a look of concentration on his face.

I started to feel a sense of rising panic, half-expecting the carriage to explode around me at any second. I knew it was ridiculous and I hated myself for it, but there was a tiny part of me that insistently kept saying, 'Yes, but do you really want to bet your life on that?'

I got off at the next stop and waited for another train.

I am now suitably ashamed of myself and would dearly love to forget this ever happened. It's certainly against my better judgement to broadcast it to the internets. Better, surely, to dismiss it as the result of a brain addled by tiredness, poorliness and too much stress.

The main reason I'm not doing that is a conversation I had last week at the choir I sing in. We were discussing a new song that had been written for us to sing on Conscientious Objectors Day, a nice uplifting tune about fighting for peace and resisting hate and bigotry. Some people weren't happy with a line that referred to 'the lies and the distortions / that keep us in our blinkers'. They said they were fed up of self-flagellation: we weren't the blinkered ones, otherwise we wouldn't be singing the song in the first place. They asked if the wording could be changed.

While I wasn't completely convinced, I understood where they were coming from – white middle-class guilt doesn't help anybody – and I didn't give it much further thought. Until today.

This experience has forcefully reminded me of the lessons of social psychology, from the classic experiments of Stanley Milgram to this eye-opening test (which I'd really encourage anyone reading this to take). We are all blinkered. We all make unconscious judgements and hold unconscious prejudices. We all do things that are wildly inconsistent with our better-considered beliefs, things that, if we were surveyed in the abstract, we would confidently assert we'd never do. Judging by appearances, stereotyping, internalising what the media tell us, blindly following authority – these are all things that seem to be hard-wired into our brains.

This isn't a counsel of despair: I do believe that we can and should fight these tendencies. But we can only fight them if we're aware of them. We can only end discrimination if we accept that we're not immune from it. It's not good enough to complacently assume that we're somehow better, that bigotry and closed-mindedness are for other people, less well-informed or less caring than ourselves. Nobody thinks they're a bigot, just as nobody thinks they'd administer lethal electric shocks to a stranger just because a man in a white coat told them to. Maybe you wouldn't; maybe I wouldn't. I've always hoped I wouldn't, ever since I found out about Milgram's experiment. But after today, I'm that little bit less sure.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Mark Kennedy story just confirms what we knew all along

Nearly two years on from the furore over the G20 protests, what many long suspected has finally been confirmed: the police are infiltrating the climate movement. Most of what I'd want to say about the unfolding saga of undercover cop Mark Kennedy is summed up by this very good piece in the New Internationalist, written by Danny Chivers, one of the defendants at the Ratcliffe trial. But, as someone who spent a lot of time in my old job trying to highlight the police's unacceptable attitude to the environmental movement, here for what it's worth is my two pence...

Firstly, this really does expose the emptiness of the Met's justifications for its aggressive approach to Climate Camp. Back in 2009, days before the G20, I was involved in organising last-minute talks in parliament between the camp legal team and the Met. Then, as in previous years, the police put heavy emphasis on how problematic the camp's secretive approach was: how it forced them to over-react because they didn't know what protesters were going to do and so had to assume a worst-case scenario. We now know, of course, that this was utter bollocks: they knew exactly what Climate Camp were planning, every step of the way, because they had a deep mole in the movement right from the start.

Secondly, it's very interesting that information about the shadowy National Public Order Intelligence Unit is finally, slowly, coming to light. Together with some brilliantly tenacious and committed journalists from the Guardian, I spent a while trying to dig up information about what this body was actually spending its money on. The government always said they couldn't tell us - although it turns out this was also technically bollocks, since they seem to have been quite happy to tell someone else who asked the same question a few months later. And since they're under the auspices of ACPO, the NPOIU isn't subject to FOI (yet) – along with the National Domestic Extremism Team and National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit, which seem to classify climate campaigners right up there with Al-Qaeda in terms of worthiness of their attentions. Now, at last, information is trickling into the public domain – confirming everyone's long-held suspicions about the amount of money the police are throwing at spying on protesters.

On which note, I think the Guardian deserves an awful lot of credit for plugging away at this issue when nobody else gave two shits. If it weren't for Paul Lewis' determination, we'd never have found out what really happened to Ian Tomlinson. Two years later, he, Matthew Taylor and Rob Evans are still on the case. This is real investigative journalism, a hugely important public service, and full credit to the Guardian for giving them free rein to do it.

At the other end of the media scale, the wooden spoon goes to the Evening Standard, which duly devoted Thursday's front page to what seems to be the Met's public relations backlash: video footage of a student protester apparently running with a petrol bomb, along with hysterical copy about how many yobs they've arrested so far in 'Operation Malone'. Apparently, it's going to be a hugely long and expensive process ploughing through all those thousands of hours of CCTV footage. In the spirit of public sector efficiency, maybe while they're at it they can keep an eye out for number-less policemen bashing kids over the head with sticks? Just a thought.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Why the Telegraph's hubris is bad for British politics

Over Christmas I tried to avoid looking at newspapers as far as possible, feeling I needed a break from the unremitting hideousness of it all. Generally this succeeded quite well - the one exception being the morning I wandered bleary-eyed into the kitchen and was ambushed by the Guardian informing me that Vince Cable had been subjected to Death by Telegraph.

This is the latest in a string of dubious political character assassinations by the Daily Telegraph, and their seeming ability to radically change the course of British politics by engineering 'scandals' is starting to bother me.

With the expenses scandal, at least they were publishing information that was of legitimate public interest – although I never found their constant boasting about what a brilliant public service they were doing all that convincing. The public interest would have surely been better served by making everything they knew public up front. Selectively drip-feeding it over the course of several agonising weeks did a pretty good impression of serving, um, the Telegraph's interests.

Worse than that, they seemed to target MPs based on how much they loathed them rather than the gravity of what they'd done. The Tories, despite being many of the worst offenders, seemed to get off astonishingly lightly, with the bizarre result that come the election, people actually seemed to be voting Tory as a protest against the expenses scandal. Towards the end, the Telegraph really started scraping the barrel – I remember one MP being 'exposed' claiming for bananas, and the local opposition protesting outside his office in banana outfits, regardless of the fact that they turned out to be his intern's lunch expenses. It was at roughly this point that I started to feel like I was in The Thick of It.

Anyway. Fast forward to just after the general election, when the Telegraph apparently decided to take down David Laws. Again, arguably over something of legitimate public interest, but outing someone in that way is not really the classiest of moves. And, thanks to the Telegraph, we now have a Chief Secretary to the Treasury appointed on the basis of party seniority rather than, you know, relevant knowledge and experience. From a public interest perspective, not exactly an open and shut case.

And now Vince. To me, this was not investigative journalism, and it was not the behaviour of a media outlet defending the public interest. They weren't nobly digging to uncover some outrage or misdemeanour. It was a fishing expedition. It's a fairly safe bet that if you lie your way into an MP's surgery by posing as constituency activists and ask a few well-directed questions, they are going to say something scandal-mongers can work with. And that's clearly what they were banking on. Because, let's be honest, they just don't like Vince Cable.

Personally, I have a problem with that. Whatever you think of Vince, his diminished political stature has real implications for what is clearly quite a delicate balance of power within the coalition, at a truly terrifying time in British politics. The Telegraph did that. Just for a laugh. And, if I was trying to systematically undermine any moderating influence the Lib Dems might have on government policy, this is exactly how I'd go about it.

Yes, they got their fingers burned – getting responsibility for the BSkyB takeover handed to Jeremy Hunt was clearly a spectacular own goal. And I really hope they'll be chastened by that experience, because this was a real act of hubris: it's as if they feel they can just take politicians out on a whim whenever they feel like it. The very fact that this particular episode ended up having consequences they didn't intend just highlights the cavalier attitude they must have had to the consequences when embarking on the sting in the first place.

Many and varied as the reasons to hate Rupert Murdoch are, I'm not aware of any media outlet other than the Telegraph trying to interfere in politics in such a brazen way, and succeeding so well. Maybe the public's anger about media megalomaniacs needs to be spread around a bit more?