Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Tides of Bigotry
Richard Littlejohn’s return to television will see him tackling the rise of anti-Semitism in Britain – an admirable stand or just a desperate attempt to put clear water between him and the BNP?

In teaser trailers for his upcoming Channel 4 documentary, ‘The War On Britain’s Jews?‘, iconoclastic columnist Richard Littlejohn dubs anti-Semitism ‘the oldest bigotry of them all’. And when those words are spoken by a man whose biggest career asset has been bigotry, then, naturally, one sits up and listens.

And it’s not a subject matter that should be taken lightly. Most will have found the sight of graves daubed with swastikas to be deeply unsettling. And even the briefest history of anti-Semitism in Britain will send a shiver through any viewer’s spine. Recent
reports will show that, whatever you make of the programme, this is a genuine concern.

But Richard Littlejohn, a man who frequently equates homosexuality with paedophilia and referred to the Palestinian people as the ‘pikeys’ of the Middle East, is not normally one to leap to the defence of minorities. Unless, of course, he has something to gain.

Littlejohn’s most notorious moment came not from something he said, but from something that was said about him – when BNP leader Nick Griffin named Littlejohn as his favourite columnist. Of course, Richard didn’t thank him for the honour, and will maintain that he has continuously opposed the BNP – referring to them as ‘knuckle-scraping scum’.

But to say Richard ‘dismissed’ the BNP as ‘knuckle-scraping scum’ is to be creative with the truth. The remark was actually in made in passing during a full-frontal anti-Palestinian rant. Indeed, scrub out the ‘knuckle-scraping’ line, and Nick would have had another column for his scrapbook.

In the run up to May’s elections, the Daily Mail hosted an online Q&A session with Richard Littlejohn. I was intrigued to see one chat-room patron ask why politicians ‘were so afraid of the BNP’. In response, Littlejohn warned that while the BNP might promise ‘action’ (on what, exactly?), underneath, they were still the same ‘violent, knuckle-scraping, anti-Semitic scum they always have been’.

Allow me to play devil’s advocate, but anti-Semitism doesn’t seem to be a priority for the modern far-right. Nick Griffin’s bile-filled blog makes no complaints about Jewish people, and judging by Iain Cobain’s shocking undercover report into the BNP, anti-Semitism is no longer a vote-winner for the BNP. While I don’t deny that sickening anti-Semitism exists under the surface, it’s hardly the first charge I’d hit the BNP with.

My guess is that those who tune in on Monday will witness Littlejohn desperately splashing and struggling, trying to establish some clear water between him and the BNP. He may succeed, or he may not. Again, I might be wrong, but I don’t think Nick will mind a little paddle anyway.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Stay safe online
Social networking websites give the media unprecedented access to our personal lives – the consequences are terrifying.

You must have noticed the trend by now. If you haven’t, then just pick up a newspaper, flick to any story concerning a person aged under thirty, and it’s a safe bet you’ll find reference to the subject’s online profile. Be it MySpace or Facebook, it’s become the orthodox to line news reports with quotes and snippets from such social networking pages.

For example, take the Daily Mail’s coverage of the arrest of Rekha-Kumari Baker last week. Their report was complete with exerts from the MySpace profile of her eldest daughter, Davina. We were informed that the deceased listed Gandhi among her heroes, and stated she didn’t want children. To say the relevance of this information is dubious would be a gross understatement.

As well as this, the report is headed by a photo of Davina staring seductively into her webcam, with her school shirt frivolously unbuttoned – a picture, of course, taken from her MySpace profile. I have great trouble believing this is how Davina would have wanted to be remembered. Even more preposterous is the idea that, had the paper not found her profile, friends or relatives would have ever considered releasing such a photo.

Case study two: Big Brother exile Emily Parr. As usual, The Sun offered cash for stories involving this year’s Big Brother contestants. Unfortunately, Emily’s friends missed out on their chance to trade their gossip for cash – thanks to an intrepid, net-literate reporter.

Having scoured Emily’s personal profile, the paper printed a ‘digest’ of her MySpace blog. It told us how she would ‘hurt herself’ to get her hands on prescription morphine, and printed photos of her ‘wasted’, tying them to a blog entry bragging of the joys of cocaine.

This raises questions not only of personal privacy, but of sincere journalism. As anyone who sends e-mails knows, the biggest peril of internet communication is the impossibility of adopting a tone. To cyberspacers this is mildly annoying, often leading to IM faux-pas; to scandal-hungry newspapers, this is a gift – a chance to play with the truth. Parr’s remarks may well have been flippant and embellished – but papers are able to frame them anyway they like.

For teenagers, social networking websites are underpinned by freedom – they’re seen as a realm away from the prying eyes of paranoid adults. Clearly the reality is different. By publishing a profile we carelessly toss information and pictures into the public domain. Numbered are the days where news reporters made do with bland interviews with reserved neighbours who would insist the subject ‘was ‘quiet’ and ‘normal’. Tomorrow’s media will enjoy access to quotes which might suggest you weren’t so unremarkable – indeed with the right spin they’ll suggest anything they want them to. And the source of this information – yourself.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Comment: The Kids Are Alright
– The news that parents are unaware what teenagers get up to isn’t surprising – neither is it anything to worry about

According to the Guardian ICM poll there’s a huge gulf between the risks taken by reckless teenagers and the expectations of their clueless parents. But why is this cause for concern? Just what is the fuss about? So the poll confirms teenagers are dabbling in drugs and drink, but surely compared to the gloomy tones of recent reports, this news should come as a relief. After all, shouldn’t what Sue Palmer calls a ‘toxic childhood’ lead to a much more troubled adolescence than this?

And anyway, where is the evidence that such youthful misadventures are a sure route to self destruction? The news, if anything, suggests the opposite. Look at the two figures who dominated last week’s headlines – Dave Cameron and Britney Spears. While one spent their teenage years puffing on pot, the other was widely celebrated as a symbol of teenage success. Years later and the former has his sights set on Number 10, while the latter is a prime candidate for mental health sectioning.

Of course it would be foolish to deny that many an adolescence is blighted with mental health problems – indeed the National Union of Students estimate that 61% of university students encounter bouts of depression. But rather than drink or drugs, they pinpoint financial worries as the cause. Even where alcohol is involved, it’s a symptom of a wider problem, rather than a cause in itself. Drink and drugs are just a distraction from the debts which have come to define the university experience.

And what’s so worrying about the news that parents are oblivious to their children’s waywardness? That too should come as a relief. Quite simply, if you’re unaware that your child takes drugs, then it’s extremely unlikely that there’s anything to worry about. If their school grades plummet, or their spending rockets, then there may well be something wrong. But how can something qualify as a ‘problem’ when it disappears so easily into the tapestry of teenage life?

That teenagers are living their lives outside of the grasp of their elders is a conclusion which should be welcomed. To be able to freely express oneself is a vital part of a healthy adolescence. This is why websites such as MySpace are so popular – they provide an escape from the adult world; online arenas where teens can express themselves without fear of censure.

Far more problems are caused when adolescence is over-monitored by adults. Take Britney Spears for example. Strip away the cameras and the cat suits, and her teenage years were defined by suffocation – barriers to her personal self-development. The same frustrations were behind the tragic suicide of chess prodigy Jessie Gilbert. Forget what any report says – the worst place to grow up is under the merciless gaze of adults.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Comment: We’re all gangsters now
Rivalries, ruthlessness and an obsession with respect – there’s nothing new about gang culture

Tony Blair is wrong: gun culture is a metaphor for our society. And it’s a poignant one too. The more you look at gun culture, the more familiar it becomes. It's just an extension of our values. An exaggeration of our individualism. It’s like our society is peering into a fairground mirror – it sees itself in the glass, but with slightly different proportions.

Dissect any totem of gang culture, and you’ll find something held dear by the establishment. For example, take 50 Cent's raison d’être – Get rich or die trying. This, we're told, is the mantra of gang culture. Commentators say that this obsession with wealth explains why poverty-stricken children are lured into drug dealing. Or burglary. Or selling weapons.

But doesn’t the phrase fit just as well with the City of London? Does it not explain why city financers risk mental exhaustion and physical burnout? Could it not be the slogan for Dragons' Den? A programme where contestants risk devastation and humiliation, in the hope of getting rich? Or even for the financial gambles which now define the British university experience?

Social scientists have mapped a pattern: when parents’ values are handed down to their children, the children often take these values further than their parents. They say that young Muslims hold their religion dearer than their parents. And Christian children take a more literal interpretation than their elders. Well here we’re seeing the pattern once more: the offspring of eighties individualism are even more ruthless than their forefathers.

The parables of Christ tell us not to point out the splinters in our neighbour’s eye, and think instead about the log in our own. There’s a profound relevance in this teaching – and not least because the UK is one of the world’s major arms dealers (A wonderful image don’t you think? Tony Blair wagging his finger at youths selling a few guns, while behind him officials supply Saudi Arabia with cases of semi-automatics).

But also it reminds us that we ourselves are responsibly for gang culture. Children join gangs because they are afraid of the ruthless world around them. They know the odds are stacked against them, so they construct their own world – a world where they can be predators rather than prey. And until we offer these children a society worth participating it, they’ll continue to do this.

The gang-world is a monster created in our image. It has inherited our values. We were the ones who scripted the 50 Cent philosophy – that you’re either rich or you’re nothing at all. We were the ones who first looked to those around us, and saw competitors rather than neighbours. And we too care more for image than moral integrity. In short, we’re all gangsters now. We just don’t have guns.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Comment: Where the Sun don't shine -
This isn't an anti-rape campaign - it's a disclaimer

Just in case you ever had your doubts (it would be quite reasonable to do so), The Sun opposes rape. Despite what you may think, the raunchy redtop does not condone violence against women. It does not support the spread of violence against women. And that’s why this week the paper has launched its new campaign – exposing the government’s broken promises to provide a 24 hour rape line, and calling for more Sexual Assault Referral Centres.

It’s an admirable stand – but the campaign is misleadingly dubbed ‘Stop Rape Now’. This is the first mistake. This isn't an anti-rape campaign - it's much less ambitious than that. While it may highlight the fact that 50,000 women are raped a year, it chooses not to ask why that number is so high, focusing instead on why conviction rates are so low. Isn’t there a horrible complacency about this? Are 50,000 rapes somehow inevitable? Does the problem lie with ineffective prosecutions, rather than those who choose to force women into unwilling sexual activities?

Or is the paper afraid to beckon the real rape debate – to ask why rape is so widely accepted? Is this campaign merely a smokescreen? A disclaimer – as tragically laughable as a ‘How can I be racist, some of my friends are black?’ claim. Do they not realise that they are their ilk are partly to blame for number of rapes?

After all, the fervent feminist won’t find any companionship on the other pages of The Sun. Head over to the gazette’s website and you’re offered the chance of guess the bra-sizes of British babes – ‘Have you got an eyeful for their eyefuls?’ they quip. Or you can watch the ‘My Sun’ girls strip – a perfect present for Valentine’s Day.

Meanwhile the gossip pages berate the behaviour of Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse. They lambaste ‘boozy Britney’ for dancing ‘like a stripper’. Other photos show close-ups of the scars on Amy Winehouse’s arm. There’s a snapshot of a bra-less Victoria Beckham. Does the paper not acknowledge that the rapists they berate are driven by this same scornful disregard for a woman’s integrity?

But then again this is a paper which is synonymous with insincerity. Earlier this month their front-page became a pile-driving polemic against racism. Yet the paper’s resident reactionary columnists carried on poking vicious jibes at asylum seekers and religious minorities. Their stance on rape is just as empty. While their campaign page oozes feminist zeal, the rest of their paper is drenched in objectification. This isn't about protecting women - it's about protecting The Sun.

Robert Jackman at the BBC:

Monday, February 05, 2007

Comment: Integration against the odds
- The biggest barrier to Muslim integration is not radical sects – it’s our unreasonable standards

The word ‘integration’ is used a terrible lot in politics these days. It sums up the social philosophies of each of the three main parties – integration, integration, integration. Indeed the word is used so often, that every now and then I found myself scanning through the pages of the dictionary to check what it means. It’s baffling that such a coy and tentative word could spawn such fiery debates.

My first surprise on turning to the dictionary was that the definition made no allusion to Islam. This is strange: the word is used almost exclusively in the context of British Muslims. But perhaps the meaning of the word is changing too quickly for the dictionary.

After all, the past two years have seen a dramatic change in the word’s meaning. In the months after 7/7, the word carried New Jerusalem-esque significance – it forecasted an age of tolerance, reached by mutual dialogue. Now the word is used to belittle and criticise the progress made by British Islam – as an affront to the multiculturalism it was once used to promote.

This is evident in the burqini debate. An Australian company has launched an innovative design of sportswear. By combining the piety of traditional Islamic dress and the streamlined practicality of swimwear, they’ve designed a garment which Muslim women can wear as they swim. And it’s taken off – the company’s website is rich with testimonies from satisfied customers.

Outside the Muslim community the garment has its critics – and they’re making a lot of noise. Pictures of the garment can be found in vicious viral e-mails. In the blogosphere it has become the subject of scathing jokes. Other commentators try to make their cultural contempt by picking out flaws in the design – “It’s PC gone mad. Can you imagine the water resistance?”, one blogger comments.

But why this abundant cynicism? Surely the burqini represents a high point of integration? Not only is it a radical design – it’s hard to imagine ‘us’ employing such creativity and nonconformity in the name of integration – but the company is run by a devout Muslim woman. If women’s rights in Islam are a concern, then surely such independence and initiative should be celebrated?

The burqini website explains how the suit is carefully designed to facilitate movement in the water – the concern about water resistance turned out to be unfounded. But the image of a fully-clothed person struggling to wade through water is appropriate. That’s how it must feel to be a British Muslim today: the stronger you try to move forward, the stronger the resistance becomes.

The next time politicians demand integration they should pause to think about what the word means. When did we seize this cultural yardstick and use it to beat those who it was intended to guide? And when did we escape from the integration equation, and instead appoint ourselves as the fastidious referee? Integration has become a cruel paradox – it demands active steps from minorities, yet any steps they take are manipulated and used to malign them.

A particularly fashionable demand amongst politicians and commentators is that minorities should learn to speak English. The Oxford English Dictionary defines integration as a gradual process in which multiple elements are brought together – rather than one element being slammed into a wall of submission. Perhaps we should worry less about minorities’ grasp of English, and have a think about our own.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Comment: One Angry Man
The crime of rape needs media exposure, not vicious exploitation

With just a few weeks left until it defiles our screens, teaser trailers for The Verdict have begun. If you watch BBC Two, then chances are you’ve already seen them – they seem to intersperse every evening programme. The camera pans out to show a sombre shot of one of the celebrity jurors. They then proceed to offer a comment on rape.

Stan Collymore reminds the audience that this is not an allegation to be taken lightly – a man’s life is at stake. Patsy Palmer confesses that she has trouble believing any woman who ‘cries’ rape. She admits she doesn’t really know the reason, but she’s always suspicious of those who claim to have been raped. The comments are meant to convey ‘common’ attitudes to rape. It’s as if the fact that they’re commonly held justifies their use. If anything, the fact that these myths are so widespread should increase the determination of the programme makers to shatter them.

The programme will follow the twelve celebrity jurors as they contemplate the facts of a fictional rape case. The rape case, which involves accusations against two professional footballers, will be argued by real barristers, and presided over by a real judge. The BBC warns that it’s an ugly case involving an alleged violent attack. And there’s an appropriately ugly jury to match – main offenders being wife-beater Stan Collymore and Jeffrey Archer, a man who knows a lot about lying in court.

After reality television’s recent hearing – with Celebrity Big Brother and The Baby Borrowers both spawning worldwide debates – you’d expect more objections to this vulgar venture of reality television. If the BBC conducted a mock inquest into the death of Princess Diana or a mock law suit borne from the facts of the Hillsborough disaster, then there would be outrage.

So why can rape be used as television tool? After all, the Home Office estimates that each year 50,000 women are raped. Rape has ruined more lives than every terrorist attack and natural disaster of the last century added together. But for some reason the public lack compassion for the victims of rape. Rape remains a crime in the abstract – an assault on a hypothetical woman. An attack on the outline of an already submissive entity.

The BBC insists that the programme does not stray from their tripartite goal – to inform, educate and entertain. They claim that each of the jurors is chosen because they have characteristics or past-experiences which will affect their response to the rape. But what purpose does this fulfil? Will we really benefit from seeing whether Stan Collymore feels pity for a fellow footballer? Does it matter what Megaman’s first-hand experiences of prison bring to the experience?

There’s only one perspective which could ever be defended as being enlightening or insightful – and that’s the view of the victim. As it stands, The Verdict goes further than ignoring the thoughts and feelings of rape victims – it positively mocks them.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Comment: It Will Only Get Worse For Jade

They say that publicity is the currency of the celebrity. Try telling that to Jade Goody. Yesterday she was scorned by the front page of every national newspaper. Carphone Warehouse dropped their sponsorship of Big Brother because of her. Over in India protestors burnt effigies of her. And now her elimination from Celebrity Big Brother seems imminent. A week in the limelight admittedly, but a dreadful one by anyone’s standards.

And it can only get worse for Jade – much worse. Which may seem strange: after all, Jade and her poisonous allies are merely the latest names penned on a long list of celebrities who have stumbled into the troublesome terrain of racism. It didn’t stall Ron Atkinson for long. And Cheryl Cole was back in the pop charts before the ink had dried. Even Kilroy got off pretty lightly with just a single bucket of manure tossed over him.

Crucially, however, Jade is the first of the celebrity-for-celebrity’s-sake celebrities to paddle in the waters of bigotry. So why will this matter? Well think of Simone Clark – no doubt better known as ‘the BNP Ballerina’. Clark was part of a production of Giselle when was exposed as a member of the vile British National Party, but this exposure didn’t stop her performing.

And nor did it stop the ballet goers. Thousands turned out to see the production. But none of the audience were condoning Clark’s racism – they were there to see her dance. Their attitude was ‘Yes, she may be prejudiced, but she’s a splendid dancer’.

Jade won’t enjoy the same loyalty. What possible excuse could one formulate? Try it: ‘Yes, she may be ignorant, but she’s a good…’ – it’s impossible. Unlike Clark, Jade is absolutely without flair or forte. That’s the characteristic of Goody and her idiotic – they’re famous for doing nothing. Indeed, not only is Jade not good at doing anything, but she’s positively famous for being bad at things – spelling, marathon running, forming sentences… - the list goes on.

Simone Clark may never shake off the name ‘the BNP Ballerina’, but Jade will be left wishing she could be as lucky. Having no talent or profession to lend its name to a suffix, Jade will simply be known simply as ‘the racist’.

So what’s the moral of the story? Well, we live in an age when it’s possible to become famous without having skill or savvy in anything. But Jade’s case will show that while you may well be able to get on television without a talent, indeed you may even win, it’s still worth having one – even if you only use it as insurance.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Comment: The Bimbo, the Bitch and the Breasts
With the same old stereotypes onboard, is it any wonder Britain is bored of Big Brother?

It’s no secret – Britain is bored of Big Brother; ratings are in freefall. But is it any surprise? The show has become pitifully predictable. And there’s nothing more typical than the show’s female contestants. Once again, the viewer is treated to a parade of pernicious female caricatures, each engineered to enforce stereotypes and evoke the viewers’ contempt.

First of all, there’s Carole Malone; the wicked stepmother of the house. Loaded with jealousy, her bitching has become a blood-sport for Big Brother and his noxious fraternity. She’s a vindictive falcon who loves to leave the other birds with ruffled feathers and dripping wounds. Davina delights in playing the matador – “Who will suffer the wrath of your poisonous pen?” she asks with sadistic glee.

And it’s that bubbling cauldron of a column which causes me the most distress. Perhaps it’s the way that a contempt for her fellow females has seeped into her writing. Her language is barbaric – she likes to refer to make-up as ‘slap’, a knowing nod to her misogynist puppet masters. Without her ‘slap’ she describes Mel B as “a dead ringer for one of the Village People” (even ‘slapped’ she’s “a loud-mouthed yob”) while the slap-less Jocelyn Wildenstein “makes Pete Burns look like Miss World”.

Then there’s Jade Goody. When she first stepped onto the stage of celebrity the public rejoiced, keeping her in the limelight with a playful blend of irony and sympathy. There was something charming about her ignorance. We laughed with her. And we celebrated with her too – celebrated her rise from bottom-of-the-class to top-of-the-world.

Soon the atmosphere curdled. The irony became fetid and sympathy evaporated, giving way to vicious contempt. The media began to take a brutal delight in jester Jade’s humiliation, repeatedly deflating her before setting her up for another fall. The routine became so familiar, that she began to pull the strings herself – pulling out of the London Marathon before blaming her slovenly lifestyle of lager and curries.

Finally there’s the fragrant and feminine Danielle Lloyd. She’s the beauty to Malone’s beast; the princess to Jade’s Miss Piggy. But make no mistake – the peacock has mistaken her perch for a throne and her chains for jewelry. She is Big Brother’s concubine, and no doubt her ‘assets’ will be used in a desperate bid to attract ratings.

And we should be worried. Very worried. Last year the Learning Skills Council warned that 11% of girls saw themselves as ‘waiting to be discovered’ by reality television. Big Brother is seen as the easiest route to celebrity. After all, it’s become a modern morality play – a familiar story for our times. The characters may change but the roles remain the same. So girls, take your pick – the bitch, the bimbo or the breasts.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Comment: The Penthouse Paradox
A new image for Penthouse as it sets it sights on an older audience – but one thing remains the same

She’s been the twinkle of the Daily Star, she was a prize exhibit in Zoo, and now Lauren Pope is Penthouse’s first ‘pet’ since its 2007 relaunch. And it may prove a good career move for the topless temptress –the raunchy rag has been relaunched with a more cultured audience in mind. Worldly, sophisticated and confident with his sexuality – meet the mantellectual.

But while the magazine may have been radically rebranded, Lauren certainly hasn’t. It’s a familiar façade for her. Her arms strewn suggestively across her breasts, inviting her captor to pin them down by her sides. Her lips perched in a prurient pout. Her bottom protruding towards the reader – her new owner.

But surely the scholarly urbane mantellectual will be repelled by Lauren’s easiness – her undiscriminating offer. We’re told he has confidence in his sexuality – is he not confident enough to buy a broadside without such licentious flesh on the cover? Although come to think of it, if he’s so sexually confident, what does he want with a magazine whose cover promises ‘8 ways to last longer in bed’?

Or is the magazine really aimed at the lad born before his time? A lonely bohemian who missed out on the liberation of all things lad. The man who spent his stag night in his local rather than with the prostitutes of Prague. The man who hung up his dancing-shoes long before the chain lapdancing clubs came to town. Who courted in the age when it wasn’t acceptance to buy your partner poledancing lessons for Valentine’s Day.

Such a ladult would have had a troublesome time of late. He’s too prudish for the top-shelf treats (although he’d been pressed to find much difference between their content and Penthouse’s) and feels out of rhythm with the teenage kicks of Nuts. But now thanks to Penthouse he can leer over Lauren in comfortable surroundings – in his own habitat.

Yes, peer into its page and Penthouse is exposed as familiar filth with a new camouflage. The same thrills, with different fills. For pornography is the tonic in these crude cocktails. Mix 40% pornography with splashes of Playstation and you’ve got a lads’ mag. While 40% pornography topped up with Sunday supplement makes the perfect treat for the mantellectual – serve on ice.

Smut is no longer the doting darling of the adolescent. Now new eyes scan the contours of Lauren’s body – a maiden voyage across tides of vulgarity. But if Lauren could see back from that gaudy gloss she’d see something familiar in those eyes: that same predatory focus, those same inhuman desires, that same emotional vacuum. Men are all the same, she might say. And she’d have a point. Swap gadgets for golf, trade 50 Cent for Forty Licks, and their magazines certainly look suspiciously similar.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Comment: The Baby Borrowers backlash isn’t just foolish – it’s offensive.

Weeks into 2007 and we’re already mourning the first Parliamentary casualty – our old friend proportionality. Speechmakers have deserted rigour and reason, putting their faith instead in the random and the ridiculous. Take Gordon Brown for example, and his claim that Iraq policy is ‘in a rut’. 655,000 have died and the Chancellor describes it as ‘in a rut?! 655,000 ≠ a rut. It seems the master of numbers has fumbled his figures.

The ludicrous exaggeration is in fashion as well. And nowhere more so than amongst the cavalcade of Norfolk MPs who expressed their disproportionate disdain over BBC’s The Baby Borrowers, a reality television programme which teaches a pack of preening teenage prima donnas that a baby needs more attention than the average Tamagotchi. According to Norman Lamb the programme amounted to an ‘abuse of children’, while Beccles backbencher Richard Bacon branded the show a ‘grotesque display of human misery’.

Viewed on its own, this upheaval seems foolish, but place it in a wider context and it’s plain offensive. The trials and tribulations of parenthood are a daily reality for many teenagers – many of whom face a bitter battle with poverty. If anything The Baby Borrowers should have made us despair at the cruel expectations we placed on teenage parents, and how little the state helps them.

Over at Channel 4 a similarly impotent moral debate churns on. “You’re treating them like slaves” yelps Jade Goody. Her adversary, Ken Russell, indifferently reiterates the facts – “That’s what they are, my girl”. “But they’re real people – they’re human beings” cries Jade with desperate sincerity.

Again, Miss Goody’s emotional convictions seem rather foolish, but one cannot dispute the genuine anger behind them. So aren’t her passionate protests a little wasted in this virtual vacuum of reality television? Couldn’t Jade’s “they’re real people” battlecry be put to better use outside of this lewd laboratory of swelling egos and hidden cameras? In the real world – a world blighted with injustices like Guantanamo Bay and sweatshop labour.

Or are we so engrossed by television that we’ve forgotten that world (It was of course Orwell’s biggest error – Big Brother isn’t watching everyone; everyone is watching Big Brother). Or was this a deliberate choice? Have we forsaken reality? Have we adopted reality television as our celebrity-littered snow-globe world? Has the rule of the red button and the text-vote referendum satisfied our yearning G-d complexes?

From Big Brother to beyond, the decisions are ours – who stays? Who goes? What’s right? What’s wrong? Reality television has made everyone a judge. But it’s time to think outside of the (idiot) box. Let’s look not to Big Brother, but to the bigger picture. Let’s lament not for babies borrowed, but for perspective lost.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Comment: Alcohol doesn’t rape women. Men do.

‘Drunken consent is still consent’, stated the judge as he dismissed the prosecution of Ryairi Dougal for rape. And at first glance it seems a sensible statement – we should be held responsible for the decisions we make after mild alcohol intake – but contrast it with the case facts (in which a security guard at Aberystwyth University took advantage of an unconscious student) and it becomes a little more sinister.

More sickening, however, was the media’s response to the case. Perhaps the words of Justice Evans were subject to a Fleet Street version of Chinese whispers, or maybe they were drowned in a sea of shorthand swirls, but when they reached the press, any mention of ‘drunken consent’ had vanished – instead the papers treated drunkenness itself as consent.

But one has to suspect that this was a deliberate manipulation; after all, this sneering misogyny is commonplace in our media. Think back to November, when an APCO report revealed that most of the victims of suspected ‘drug rapes’ had never in fact had their drinks spiked with sedatives – they were just drunk, and voluntarily drunk at that.

With that report the reactionary press exhaled a putrid sigh of relief. Columnists turned Columbo as they pieced together the evidence – this was the girls’ fault all along. ‘The truth about date rape’ screamed the headlines. The image of the drink-spiking predator was banished to the terrain of urban myth – and with him went the virginal golden-locked maiden sipping her fizzy mineral water. In reality this was a case of loud-mouthed cocktail-chugging ladettes. It was, according to the press, a case of six of one and half a dozen of the other.

But subtract the ‘drug’ from drug rape, and surely ‘rape’ remains? Or has our demented obsession with the behaviour of young women let young men escape the equation? That would explain why Nuts’ magazine, the lewd lifestyle guide pitched at adolescent men, published recipes for ‘Alcodisiacs’ – ‘cocktails guaranteed to get ladies in the mood’.

The drunken woman gets similar treatment elsewhere in the media. While tonight she’s slumped across our pavements; tomorrow she’ll be spread across our newspaper for a double-page ‘Binge Britain’ feature. If she’s already fair game for the Daily Mail, then why will the testosterone-sodden male think any different?

The words of Justice Evans have become a sickening slogan for this repugnant climate of misogyny. It’s a snide warning – break free from the straitjacket of femininity and you’re on your own. Once you’ve guzzled too many vodka and cokes we’ll hold you responsible for whatever befalls you – be it lost keys, handbag theft or rape. It’s time for a new slogan to conquer this plague – alcohol doesn’t rape women; men do.
Review: Children Of Men

‘What will survive of us is love’, predicted the ever-morose poet Philip Larkin. Alfonso Cuarón, it seems, has different ideas about the end of it all. And with his splendid film adaptation of P.D James’s apocalyptic allegory Children Of Men, the acclaimed director offers a less fuzzy picture of the demise of mankind. Or to be more precise, the demise of Britain – the only nation which ‘soldiers on’ in a grisly age of chemical conflict and climate chaos.

And it was not just love which survived the nuclear onslaught, but the very things that we loved. Yes, while the war-scarred planet weeps, Albion-in-apocalypse spends its miserable spluttering hours in grotty boozers or at the dog races. Forget biological protection suits; the essential wear for the age of war is the British stiff upper lip.

But as the film opens with a terrifying tour of the panic-stricken capital, such emotional restraint proves impossible. Cuarón taunts us by skipping between nightmarish scenes of terrorist turmoil and shots of London landmarks. It is hideously disorientating – one minute you’re struggling to get your bearings; the next minute the whole street is engulfed in explosions.

The biggest shocks, however, come when we’re introduced to one of the film’s central characters, Kee – a foul-mouthed swelling-bellied illegal immigrant. Eight months pregnant and the surly teenager remains clueless to the parentage of the baby – ‘I don’t even remember half of the wankers’ names!’ she spits.

So how does Britain respond to this adolescent single-mother-to-be? With that all-too-familiar snooty loathing? No – it welcomes as her as a messiah. For after years of chemical conflict and reckless pollution, earth’s entire female population is now infertile. Kee is the world’s only hope. So now it’s up to spirit-swigging pen-pusher Theo Faron (Clive Owen) to smuggle the teenager from the grasp of Britain’s totalitarian government, and to the sanctuary of the mythical Human Project.

With outstanding acting, harrowing dialogue and exceptional cinematography, every moment of this hellish prophecy is depicted perfectly. It is a fantastic paradox: when it comes to global politics, Children Of Men casts a brutally bleak forecast, but when it comes to British cinema, it suggests a very rosy future indeed.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Review: Dirty Pretty Things

With their corkscrew curls and tattered jeans, Dirty Pretty Things don’t really stand out in a university bar. But despite the camouflage they’re not hard to spot – the screaming mobs of fans are a bit of a giveaway.

To understand the hysteria one has to look to the haphazard history of the band – a journey which inevitably leads back to The Libertines. This was the band in which Dirty Pretty Things’ front-man Carl Barat partnered with Pete Doherty to produce an iconic album – rebellious and raw yet stylishly nonchalant.

But indie’s new dawn was soiled by ceaseless feuds and copious fallouts. The band ruptured, propelling Doherty and Barat into opposite directions – and straight into new bands.

But there’s one big difference between the bands. Mention Doherty’s name on campus and one can expect the sort of hostile sneer normally reserved for top up fees or coursework deadlines. After a cluster of no-shows and a stumbling shambles of a gig, Doherty is pitifully unpopular in Norwich.

Barat, on the other hand, is Norwich’s man of the moment. And tonight the packed venue delights in his presence, joining him in bass-drum driven sing-alongs and hollering their appreciation between songs.

And it’s no surprise, for every song sounds magnificent. While Doherty was in The Priory ironing out his problems, Dirty Pretty Things were busy in the shadow polishing their sound – and my goodness it shows. As the scrawny boys strum strident powerchords there’s a feeling of ecstasy in the air – this is what indie fans have longed for.

After a hectic encore Dirty Pretty Things turn to leave the stage. The fans bellow their praises and in return drummer Gary Powell tosses his drumsticks onto the dancefloor.

If this performance shows one thing, it’s how foolish it would be to write Barat et all off as the residue left behind after the breakdown of The Libertines – if anything these boys were the backbone of the band.

Yes, tonight marks a new chapter in this hackneyed saga. A tale of brit-pop’s blood brothers, countless quarrels, the bastard birth of two new bands and, finally, a happy ending – well, for one of them at least.

A kind of self-flaggelating rambling apology for not posting for a month

Oh dear, a whole month without blogging...

It's not like it's been a particularly quiet month. Infact it's been quite the opposite.

There's already been a revoluting age of political revenge. The disgusting and degrading killing of a US-made tyrant. The puppet may be gone, but the pupper masters remain. Within hours of the killing, violence had already broke out in regions of Iraq not known for sectarian conflict. Now the video is being banded around youtube and blogs with the sort of vengeful glee which shows that many of us have more in common with the executors of Ken Bigley than we once thought.

When it comes to horrendous hypocrisy, this was possibly knocked into second place by the BAE arms scandal. Yet another vile reminder that rather than governments controlling the arms trade - the arms trade controls government. Yes, while the invasion of Iraq was carried out on the off-chance that there may be weapons of mass distraction there, we can speak with aboslute certainty that there was weapons of mass distraction in Saudi Arabia - because we sold them to them.
Then there was the Ipswich serial killer. A thoroughoughly disgusting affair, and not least because it exposed Britain's deep-rooted misogyny towards sex workers. The press covered the story as not a murder of women, but as the murder of prostitutes. The term 'prostitute' was used as it were a gender or race of its own.
Much the same way, strangely, as Davina McCall used the word 'celebrity' on last night's inaugural offering of Celebrity Big Brother. The first half an hour was particularly surreal - Davina walking around the house and garden examining the environment where the celebrities would be living like some kind of demented David Attenbrough. 'This bench is perfect for them to sit their celebrity bottoms on...' ... 'the celebrities will be eating dinner around this table...' it was all a bit nauseating.


So, 2007. And there less than than 365 legacy-making days left, with the Queen's Speech being a depressing indicator of what's to come. But already two glimmers of optimism this week from two men who are increasing resembling Prime-Ministers-to-be. Gordon Brown has admitted that Iraq is in a mess. Showing that he is perhaps not as enarmoured as Tony Blair by the incompetent and immoral neo-con crusade in the Middle East. Meanwhile David Cameron has criticised the government for not signing a charter for victims of trafficking. So while he remains pitifully confused about the Human Rights Act, he does at least acknowledge what human rights are. Maybe that was his plan all along: to repeal the Act and replace it with a more just and ethical Act...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Comment: The Quiet Revolution
- Of course Brown could be greener, but let's not underestimate the power of green taxes

It’s easy to dismiss the pre-budget report. When it comes to the environment the heavyweight chancellor offers light measures. The planet features, but it is prosperity which takes priority. There’s a mention of biofuels, but there’s still nothing to change the perception of Brown as the business-friendly chancellor who abandoned the landfill tax.

But let’s sample the delights of optimism for a short moment – this is the first time the green tax rhetoric has transformed into substance. Yes, the tough talk has been left diluted in translation, but the glass remains half full. And above all, it would be a mistake to underestimate the power of green taxes.

Taxes are unrivalled in their ability to alter public attitudes. The Chancellor knows this. His Tory processor Nigel Lawson certainly knew this – it was he utilised the carrot-and-stick approach to taxation to encourage a public divergence to the safer unleaded petrol. The precedent is there – but can Gordon’s budget have the same affect on the public’s behaviour?

The budget aims to use the persuasive powers of taxation to encourage responsibility towards environmentally friendly living. It is hoped that the allure of incentives can be used to promote low energy lightbulbs; the power of penalties can be used to deter those who leave televisions on standby.

Budget flights are confronted as well. Indeed the measures may result in a 7% increase in the cost of short haul air tickets. This is much needed in the age of ‘Because You’re Worth It’ – the age in which petit-bourgeois luxuries are advertised as being without complication or consequence. The economic consequences will make consumers think twice before they flippantly indulge in weekend New York shop hops or budget breaks to Benadorm.
Over at commentisfree.co.uk, Polly Toynbee demonstrates the power of green taxes by highlighting the decline in sales of 4x4 vehicles. A perception of 4 x 4s being targeted by local authorities has meant that sales have dropped 15% and second hand value has plummeted.

Of course the possibility remains that the green in Brown’s report is a mere gesture – but even this will be beneficial. It is the perception of a tax vendetta against 4x4s and budget flying (no doubt one which will be grossly exaggerated by the Daily Mail), rather than the existence of a vendetta, which will be effective.

The reactionary objection to green taxes has been that they penalise the poor. This is a dilemma which will vex each of the parties, for different reasons. Cameron’s compassionate Conservatives are terrified as being seen as the party who favoured the poor over the rich. And across the benches, John Cruddas warns that New Labour’s agenda has alienated the working class – Labour will no doubt fear that a green tax program will further this.

But while the question may trouble the parties for different reasons, the solution is the same for each of them. Yes, green taxes may be to the detriment of poor (assuming there’s some smidgen of necessity in wide screen televisions and ludicrously cheap flights) – but climate change will devastate the poor.

The quiet revolution is underway – parties of every colour propose green taxes. Of course there’s a long way to go – but for now environmentalists should concentrate on making sure this consensus does not crumble.
Comment: Fear And Loathing On Campus
- The Department of Higher Education should forget 'extremism' and wake up to Islamophobia

For some it marks the end of their education - a final stretch of studying before they’re catapulted into the unpredictable adult world; for others it’s an academic wonderland - an intellectual Eden where debates flourish and creativity flows; for some it’s the biggest party of their lives – three years of hedonistic bliss; but for Bill Rammell, New Labour’s Higher Education Minister, university is a hotbed for extremism and a fertile breeding ground for terrorists.

That’s why his department has sent guidelines to every university in Britain on tackling ‘extremism’. The document urges universities to monitor the activities of Islamic societies and describes signs of ‘radicalisation’ in students – hints of which should be brought to the attention of the police. Universities have been dragged into the elusive war on terror – and Rammell is providing the weapons.

Students of every creed and colour are left flummoxed by this move. There’s no denying that university can be a worrying ordeal (as I write this my mind is plagued by looming essay deadlines, the exponential growth of my library fines and skyscraping student debts) but the fear of being recruited into a genocidal terrorist operation does not rank highly in most students’ worries.

But that’s a risk you take when you draft a document on senseless suspicion and uninspired guesswork. Indeed had the government have spoken to Muslim students about their experiences they would have found something much more alarming – the problem of Islamophobia at university.

Unlike ‘extremism’, the evidence of Islamophobia is clear and tangible: from the number of female students who said they feared racist remarks when they wore the hijab on campus to the Imam who was victim to a sickening racist attack at Glasgow University – the deplorable presence of Islamophobia taints many students’ experiences at university.

Although these guidelines aim to promote ‘community relations’, they make no mention of this poisonous tide of Islamophobia. One can only assume that the guidelines were concerned less with the welfare of students and more with a fear of being seen as ‘soft’ on terrorism. The guidelines are less about ‘community relations’ than ‘public relations’.

The hardships and discrimination that Islamic students face are a harrowing reality of university life. Muslim students deserve to have their concerns heard without the anxiety of being seen as ‘radical’; they must be free to speak without being dogged by paranoid patrols checking their every word for hints of ‘extremism’.

Visit any campus and the message is clear – students are more worried about Islamophobia than ‘radicalisation’. Earlier this month Bill Rammell applauded Britain’s university students as being among the brightest in the world – perhaps it’s about time that he listened to them.