Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Polly Toynbee, the baroness and the chavs

According to Julian Fellowes, patrician Tory peer and creator of Downton Abbey, "‘poshism’ is the last acceptable form of discrimination". On a recent edition of Loose Women, he explained the other day, one of the panelists said "I hate posh blokes" and the audience cheered. His cause was taken up yesterday morning on the Today programme by James Delingpole, who cited David Cameron as an example of a "posh bloke" who instead of taking pride in his superior eduaction at Eton "has been compelled by our prevailing social mores to behave as if it’s a toxic liability".

Oh well. Cameron's political career hasn't suffered too much from anti-Etonian prejudice, all things considered; nor, ultimately, did background destroy Fellowes' prospect of winning an Oscar. Besides, if "poshism" is an acceptable prejudice, aren't there others even worse? "Chavism", for example. Polly Toynbee, writing in the Guardian this morning, certainly thinks so:

Wrapped inside this little word is the quintessence of Britain's great social fracture. Over the last 30 years the public monstering of a huge slice of the population by luckier, better-paid people has become commonplace. This is language from the Edwardian era of unbridled snobbery. ... The form and style may have changed – but the reality of extreme inequality and self-confident class contempt is back.

In linking "chav jokes" with ruling-class triumphalism and decreasing social mobility, Toynbee takes her cue from Owen Jones. Jones argues in his book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class that displaying open contempt for the tastes, aspirations and culture of what might be called the traditional working class has long since passed Sayeeda Warsi's dinner table test. Conditions that might be expected to evoke pity - poor housing, joblessness, hopelessness, educational failure - instead arouse among some liberal professionals emotions bordering on physical disgust.

Increasingly, he maintains, the phrase "white working class" has become shorthand for an interlinked set of unattractive and backward-looking characteristics: fecklessness, benefit-scrounging, racism, teenage pregnancy, casual violence, alcoholism, over-eating. While such people may exist, Jones's claim - which Toynbee picks up on - is that the caricature has real political bite. It impinges directly on those who, while not well-off, do not embody the Daily Mail stereotype but are nevertheless damaged by it.

Thus the belief that incapacity benefit claimants are cheating the system leads to crackdowns in which genuinely disabled people may lose money. For politicians, it's easier to blame the unemployed for their predicament than to fix a broken economy. They have become "unpeople".

Toynbee points to a recent DWP press release which played into Chav stereotyping with a list of "the 10 top worst excuses used by benefit cheats". In fact, there's twice as much fraud in the finance industry as in the benefits system:

But never mind, benefit stories are eye-catching and they do the job intended: they make us mean and ungenerous, stifling protest at Duncan Smith's monumental £18bn benefits cut. Such tales spread a wider loathing of a whole perceived class, of anyone on benefits. With most of the poor in work, that includes battalions of the low paid whose miserable pay is topped up by tax credits to stop them starving. But a few choice anecdotes are worth a ton of statistics.

So who does Polly single out as the latest egregious manifestation of this ugly prejudice, this "class abuse by people asserting superiority over those they despise"? Some swaggering Tory toff, his boots still muddy from the grouse-moor? A braying banker, perhaps, smug in his sense of entitlement to a vast taxpayer-funded bonus? Mr Justice Cocklecarrot? Prince Harry?

None of the above. In fact, "this time it was a Lib Dem peer on the Equality and Human Rights Commission": Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece, whose offensive Tweet was as follows:

Help. Trapped in a queue in chav land. Woman behind me explaining latest EastEnders plot to mate while eating largest bun I've ever seen.

She maintained that she was just being humorous. But this is no laughing matter.

Lady H-E, as we shall call her, sounds at first sight not entirely unlike Polly herself. Her CV records a smooth ascent through the ranks of Britain's quangocratic elite, a succession of increasingly powerful publicly-funded non-jobs - from a stint working for the borough Race Equality Unit in her native Islington, health service management (as chief officer for Haringey Community Health Council and latterly Chair of the Islington Health Partnership Board) - to become at length a Commissioner at the Equality and Human Rights Commission. In the meantime she served several terms as a local councillor in both Islington and Hackney. She joined the Lords in 2010.

Not, then, the sort of person one would expect to be party to a Right-wing conspiracy to grind down the poor. But then Lady H-E's professional biography is only half the story. She and Polly T may be fellow members of the Liberal Left elite, but while Toynbee's background is impeccably grand (she could give Lord Fellowes a run for his money) Meral H-E is the daughter of impoverished Turkish Cypriot immigrants. One of her great-grandfathers was a Sudanese slave, seized by Ottoman traders at the age of 13. She could undoubtedly teach Polly Toynbee a thing or two about social mobility.

About chavs too, perhaps. Did you know - did Polly - that Lady H-E's second cousin is Tracey Emin? That's Tracey Emin from Margate, who once famously photographed herself stuffing money into her vagina. Tracey Emin, the woman who turned chavdom literally into an artform. Indeed, Emin once appeared on a celebratory documentary by Julie Burchill, entitled Chavs, in which she advanced an early version of the Toynbee-Jones thesis, blaming the poor self-image (and public image) of the white working class on Thatcherism and industrial decline.

Did Toynbee bother to learn anything about her victim before villifying her? Possibly not. "She would presumably never say nigger or Paki," she proclaims. I wonder if she realises that, shortly after her Tweet got picked up and criticised (by Owen Jones, then by the left-wing blog Political Scrapbook, finally as a piece of filler in the Sunday Times) Lady H-E began receiving "anonymous racist hate mail". "Labour whipped it all up," she Tweeted. "My family and I get fallout."

I don't want to second-guess Lady H-E's motivations, but I doubt that partaking in a grand Tory conspiracy to scapegoat the poor and take away their benefits is high on her list of priorities. But that is, of course, the point. "Chavism", that superior shudder at the perceived uncouthness of a section of the population - of a type of person, of a real or imagined lifestyle - is not necessarily, or even mainly, about money. It is about taste and behaviour. It is not the rich laughing at the plight of the poor. Chavs are not essentially poor; indeed, it takes a certain amount of money to maintain a proper chav lifestyle. Stereotypically, chavs wear designer labels and spend large sums of money on alcohol, holidays, oversized jewellery and boob jobs. Not to mention cigarettes, junk food and other "inappropriate" things. Some of them - fooballers, mainly - can even afford their own superinjunctions.

Like middle-class English snobs down the ages, "chavists" are asserting a cultural rather than a financial superiority. A high proportion of them probably read the Guardian.
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Sunday, 29 May 2011

Dominique Strauss-Kahn: the sexual imperative

Dominique Strauss-Kahn faces the prospect, if convicted, of many years in an American prison. For the moment, though, he's managed to secure himself a very commodious $50,000/month mansion cum bail hostel, from where he will no doubt have plenty of leisure to contemplate how exactly he managed to get himself into this mess. Visits from Kirstie Alley permitting.

He denies sexually assaulting an African chambermaid at New York's Sofitel Hotel, and of course he's innocent until proven guilty. But ever since the former IMF chief was hauled off a flight to Paris earlier this month reports - some dating back years - have been circulating about his behaviour toward women. And about a Don Giovanni-sized list of "conquests". There was the porn star who enjoyed a threesome with him in a Paris swingers' club; the New York madam who supplied him with paid-for company; the Spanish muse and author who herself boasted "a pretty colourful love-life"; a young journalist who complained about him on a chat show - how they all laughed; an unnamed actress; a leading Hungarian economist; Michelle Obama.

There's no evidence he actually made a pass at the first lady. Just this photo of him in which he seems to have his tongue hanging out.

What no-one denies - supporters or detractors alike - is that Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a man of gargantuan sexual appetites, the sort of man who walks around with a semi-permanent erection, or a permanent semi-erection, and can't see a woman without making a pass at her. But of course that doesn't make him a rapist, and several women who have enjoyed his attentions have come forward to defend him. "He likes sex. So what?" asks one former mistress, a Spanish writer. "He is not a primitive, cruel, sadistic man, violence is not part of his make-up."

Similarly impressed was the porn-star, codename Natasha Kiss (the Mail, as usual, enjoyed the opportunity this gave them to splash pictures of the pouting brunette over several pages). "Dominique does not need to rape a woman," she said. "He is just a libertine. I know men. He is not violent... I still remember his cuddles."

But against this there are accounts like that of Tristane Banon, who went to interview DSK at the age of 22 year old journalist went to interview him and, she later claimed, narrowly avoided being raped. She compared him to "a rutting chimpanzee". Or the New York madam, whose escorts repeatedly came back complaining of his aggressive behaviour. Or the politician who complained about being groped. Or the suggestion that Air France, and the IMF itself, had a policy of not leaving him alone with female staff. Or the economist who worked at the IMF and "felt coerced into sleeping with him because of his senior position and aggressive advances."

When the DSK scandal erupted, some were quick to point to cultural differences between unreconstructed French libidinism (protected, perhaps, by strict laws of privacy) and Anglo-American prudery and puritanism; or to conflate the accusation of attempted rape with other conspicuously straying alpha males such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, or the dozen top footballers currently sheltering behind injunctions. Because, as everyone knows, money and success often go along with rampant priapism.

Not all powerful, charismatic men are sexually incontinent. Tony Blair isn't, nor by all accounts are Barack Obama or David Cameron or Sir Alex Ferguson (to name one of the few prominent figures in the world of football who hasn't felt the need to take out a superinjunction). And while I come to think of it, the tragedy of Ryan Giggs is that here is someone for whom a dalliance with a reality TV star seems to have been out of character. But plenty are. The list is long and notorious: Lloyd George, JFK, Bill Clinton, Berlusconi. It might be that men in positions of power have more opportunity. It might be that they have more testosterone. It might be a sense of entitlement. Or a propensity for risk-taking. Sexual voracity might be a consequence of, or a driver of, these men's success. But however you explain it, few would deny the correlation.

When Strauss-Kahn is discussed in this company, an objection is not far behind. The difference between these men's behaviour and that of the former IMF chairman, after all, is that DSK is accused of sexual assault, near-rape, of repeated sexual harassment. He's accused of treating women habitually as his personal sex toys. Whether they welcome his attentions (and some do) or not. He isn't on trial in New York for having consensual sex with women who are not his wife.

It's about consent, in short. His accusers point to a pattern of behaviour that appears to show repeated abuse of women. His defenders point out that he had no need to assault women, because his Don Juanism never lacked willing accomplices. But this misses the point. Indeed, one of the things the sorry story of Dominique Strauss-Kahn shows up (or ought to) is the simplistic way in which sexual crimes are - for political reasons - so often conceptualised.

Consent makes the difference between permissible sexual intercourse and rape. Violent sex can be consensual. Non-violent sex - if the victim is drugged or asleep - can be rape. This is true legally, morally and from the point of view of the victim. For the rapist, however - that is, the erotically-driven rapist - the presence or absence of consent may be of very little significance. He is jumping on her - or trying to - despite her lack of consent, not because of it. What matters is achieving copulatory consummation, possessing the woman, getting his end away.

The stress on consent may be morally correct, but it does little to account for the behaviour itself. Worse, it tends to go along with a feminist theory of rape that sees the crime as an expression not of sex but of power and misogyny. The rapist violates women, the claim goes, because he hates women, because he has "issues" of anger and resentment against women, because the patriarchy has given him the impression that he enjoys (or ought to enjoy) power over women's bodies. Not because he wants sex. "Rape is not about sex" - or, according to some, is not sex at all.

It's unlikely that a man who behaves like Dominique Strauss-Kahn is alleged to have behaved in that New York hotel room sees it quite that way, however. Perhaps such a man assumes that every woman he meets will want to sleep with him, because so many have in the past. Perhaps at some level the risk of exposure - of embarrassment or worse - adds to the thrill. But it's probably a lot more basic than that. Here's someone of great intelligence, of education and sensitivity, in other areas a paragon of rationality and self-control (to be a successful politician, you have to be) in thrall to an overwhelming, unstoppable, but transient, biological urge. He just can't help himself.

It's no excuse. It isn't even an explanation. Perhaps it just is.
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Friday, 27 May 2011

American values, British values?

Peter Oborne finds all the fawning over Barack Obama from our leaders earlier this week rather nauseating.

It was like teenagers surrounding a pop star, but with very much less excuse: grown men and women, with a long record in public life behind them, abandoned all judgment and propriety.

The face of John Bercow as Obama spoke was a picture: like many other members of the audience (apart from Ken Clarke, who fell asleep) he appeared to be undergoing a profound, mystical experience.

I tend to agree. Oborne puts it down to "a collective act of naked power worship". I don't think the response to George W Bush was ever quite so swooning, however - except from Tony Blair. It's the president's charisma, and the undimmed popularity which he continues to enjoy outside the United States itself, that our own more tarnished politicians want a piece of. They hope the magic will rub off on them.

Oborne's more serious point concerns the Americanisation of British politics - shown for example in the creation of a Supreme Court, the transformation of the prime minister's principal private secretary into a "chief of staff", and proposals for the House of Lords to be replaced by a Senate. "We are losing faith in our institutions," he laments. At the same time he wonders if the US really a model to be emulated. From unpaid congestion charges in London to the legal abomination that is Guantanamo Bay, Obama's White House remains as internationally lawless as it was under Bush.

Oborne also

detected very little sense that Britain is a proud, independent nation with a distinct sense of our own values and traditions, many of which are very sharply different and, in some cases, contradictory to America’s.

Obama's Westminster speech - which Oborne thinks "over-hyped" (and it certainly wasn't one of his best) - attempted to flatter its audience by laying out a Churchillian view of history in which early gains for liberty in Britain were exported first to America and is now in the process of transforming the world. Partly he was making a case for continued American leadership in a world economically dominated by China and other emerging economies, partly he was flattering his hosts. Obama stressed repeatedly the "values and beliefs" that the two countries supposedly have in common: "our free market tradition, fortified by our commitment to basic security for our citizens"; "values of tolerance and self-determination that lead to peace and dignity"; "the rights of individuals".

He began by saying this:

The reason for this close friendship doesn't just have to do with our shared history and heritage; our ties of language and culture; or even the strong partnership between our governments. Our relationship is special because of the values and beliefs that have united our people through the ages.

I suspect that the opposite is, in fact, true. It is the shared history, the language and culture and the diplomatic relationship between the governments (i.e. the perennial British need to feel relevant in Washington) that bind the countries together. The values and beliefs can be strikingly different. Take, for example, this jarring passage from later in the speech:

Unlike most countries in the world, we do not define citizenship based on race or ethnicity. Being American or British is not about belonging to a certain group; it's about believing in a certain set of ideals -- the rights of individuals and the rule of law. That is why we hold incredible diversity within our borders. That is why there are people around the world right now who believe that if they come to America, and work hard, they can pledge allegiance to our flag, and call themselves American. And there are people who believe that if they come to England to make a new life for themselves, they can sing God Save the Queen just like any other citizen.

This is the American ideal, certainly. And - partly as a result of the mass immigration of the past few decades - it has become fashionable to think of it as the British ideal too. Is it, though?

I don't remember the last time I sang God Save the Queen, but I must have been very young. Citizenship may not be based on race or ethnicity, but it is now based on descent. Before 1982 British citizen was conferred automatically by birth in Britain, whatever the status of one's parents. This is no longer the case. More relevantly, before Gordon Brown started emoting about "British values" as part of his campaign to frustrate Scottish independence - or perhaps it was terrorism and the need to do something about all those scary young men in Dewsbury and Luton - it was possible for a sensible, law-abiding Englishperson to go through life without hearing any mention of "British values". Expcept possibly as part of the catchphrase "No sex please, we're British."

American values are freedom, the Constitution, the right to bear arms, pledging allegiance to the flag. One nation under God. E pluribus unum. British values are a nice cup of tea, warm beer, fish and chips, royal weddings, the NHS and, yes, no sex (or sniggering about sex, at any rate). The idea that the nation can be summed up in slogans may have some relevance in France (Liberté! Égalité! Fraternité) but it's historically alien to British sensibilities. The British empire was never about spreading peace and democracy, not really. It was about trade, self-enrichment, finding somewhere to export the underclass (and the Irish) and, to a small extent, Christianity.

The American response to mass immigration was the Melting Pot, with its intense civic nationalism and flag-worship. "American" is a morally loaded adjective, not a neutral descriptor - the United States has always been an ideal as well as a nation. And the British response? Before it became fashionable to encapsulate "Britishness" in a series of abstract nouns (democracy, fairness, justice etc) that ought to apply to anyone anywhere we had multiculturalism. Multiculturalism, of course, has had a bad press recently, partly because it has seemed divisive, partly because of the endless opportunities it has given pressure groups, bureaucrats and self-styled community leaders to enrich themselves. But it probably owes more than is generally supposed to a very traditional British desire not to impose culture from the top down.

Churchill had a war to fight, and he had a sentimental attachment to the United States through his mother, so he could be forgiven for taking the Anglo-American relationship too seriously. But he's responsible for a lot of transatlantic misunderstanding, wishful-thinking and guff we have suffered from ever since.

It's now almost 250 years since the two countries went their separate ways. Before the Second World War, Britain and the USA were not particularly close diplomatically. They were imperial rivals that had several times been on the verge of war and economic rivals competing aggressively for market share. For Americans of Bristish or Irish descent, the United Kingdom was what they, their parents or grandparents had come to the United States to get away from. American presidents throughout the 19th century viewed British leaders and their intentions with deep suspicion and anti-British rhetoric as an easy way of gaining votes.

To the extent that he does "undervalue" the Special Relationship, Barack Obama represents a return to this historic pattern. Except that earlier presidents would have seen very little advantage in being photographed paying court to the Queen.
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Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Schillings - an apology

I must confess to being heartily sick of the whole "superinjunction" business - which is one reason why I'm so grateful to John Hemming MP for bringing the matter to a head yesterday. Otherwise it would have gone on for days. But I feel I owe Schillings an apology. On Sunday I criticised their decision to go after a journalist - identified by Hemming as Giles Coren - on the basis of some Tweets that had apparently identified another footballer (i.e. not Giggs) who had had an affair. I suggested that the predictable result of asking the court to refer the matter to the Attorney General for possible prosecution would be the unmasking - at least on Twitter - of the footballer in question.

That much has come to pass - the player's name was being widely discussed on the network even before Hemming named Giles yesterday, and is now freely available - although the affair has not yet matched the swelling chorus (literally so, in football grounds) that made the Giggs injunction ultimately futile. It did however give Hemming the opportunity to sound off, in Parliament and on the airwaves, on the danger of a secret court sentencing someone to prison without even naming him. Hemming compared the situation to that in "Burma", where it is illegal to criticise the king (he meant Thailand). The Mail, which had broken the story, for its part warned that "for the first time in centuries someone could be sent to prison in Britain and no one would be allowed to know who they were." An alarming prospect, if true.

Coren himself, it must be said, has handled the apparent threat with great style and good humour, Tweeting wittily about his impending spell at Her Majesty's pleasure. When Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General, denied that he had received any request from the courts, Giles even manage to feign disappointment. "As you can probably imagine, I was rather looking forward to being a free speech martyr. Now i'm just a paid pie-eater again."

There was only ever a remote prospect of Coren, or anyone else, being sent to jail for what were, at most, jokey allusions to the existence of an injunction. Now, though, it seems that there was never any truth the original story, splashed across the Mail on Sunday. None whatever. According to Oliver Wright in the Independent - in a report which appeared on the Indy website at 2:42 pm yesterday afternoon, almost two hours before John Hemming got to his feet - the footballer's lawyers have not asked for Coren or anyone else to be prosecuted.

Today comes an email from the grandly named Judicial Communications Office and a statement from Mr Justice Tugendhat (the judge involved in the case). In it he says: “I have not received any request to refer to the Attorney General in this case in which the claimant is referred to as TSE, and I have not referred it to him. At the hearing on 19th May of the case of TSE and another v News Group Newspapers Ltd counsel for the claimant, Mr Caldecott QC did not make any such request.”

For the purpose of comparison, here's what the Mail reported, in a story still available on the website:

In the first case of its kind, lawyers for the soccer star have persuaded a High Court judge to ask Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC to consider a criminal prosecution against the writer for breaching a privacy injunction. If Mr Grieve decides to issue contempt of court proceedings, the individual faces a prison sentence of up to two years.

On Thursday, one of Britain’s leading privacy judges, Mr Justice Tugendhat, was told that an unnamed ‘someone’ had used Twitter to identify the married footballer at the centre of a scandal concerning a sexual relationship with a model. The England footballer, known only by his court codename of TSE, instructed lawyers to ask the judge to pass the case on to the Attorney General’s office. And he agreed.

So again, apologies to Schillings. I assumed that even the Mail on Sunday would forbear from printing a story concerning serious ongoing court proceedings, about a ruling made by a high court judge, which had no factual basis whatsoever. Obviously I was wrong. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 23 May 2011

Lancing the boil

So, John Hemming MP. Publicity whore or principled defender of free speech? In some circles, he is unpopular, partly because of his longstanding campaign against secrecy in the family courts, which has led him onto occasionally treacherous ground. He is not an MP who has exaggerated respect for the courts or for the delicate balance of privileges and conventions that maintain the separation of powers. He has named unnameable people in the past - Fred Goodwin, Vicky Haigh - and had threatened to do so again. So it was predictable that if any MP was going to be the one to name Ryan Giggs, it would be him.

Hemming almost defines the term "loose cannon". But then, in a democracy, that's what you get. It is the presence of John Hemming and his kind that make the difference between a functioning democracy and a technocracy, rule by experts. Or, in this case, lawyers. Hemming was elected. He owes his legitimacy not to his wisdom, his competence or his responsibility, but to the voters of Birmingham Yardley - and to the local Liberal Democrats who made him their candidate. Some MPs are idiots, others are ill-intentioned, self-interested or merely uninspiring. But all are equally elected, and all have an absolute right to represent their constituents as they see fit. That is what democracy is all about.

On PM tonight, Eddie Mair noted the fact that Hemming had been rebuked by the Speaker for using a Parliamentary question to deliberately defy a court order, reaffirmed by Mr Justice Eady not half an hour before. "It's not my job to make the Speaker happy", he replied. Indeed it's not. Nor is it his job to make Schillings happy, or Mr Justice Eady happy, or - for that matter - to make Rupert Murdoch happy. He is a representative of the people, not of the legal or political establishment. If many MPs sometimes forget this, Hemming does not. Perhaps he is a publicity seeker - certainly he seeks publicity for the causes he champions. But you need a few loose cannons, a few publicity seekers, to prove that democracy still subsists. John Hemming is one of the lamps that show that freedom lives.

Today, with malice aforethought, he ended the increasingly farcical situation that forbade the media, though almost no-one else, from naming Ryan Giggs. In doing so he unilaterally invalidated the still-drying ink on Eady's latest ruling, which had upheld the injunction on the grounds - it would appear - that while he couldn't prevent Giggs' name being discussed, he could still help the Man U star avoid the worst excesses of tabloid exposure. It was a principled gesture, but a futile one. And it would have proved counterproductive. As for Speaker Bercow, he must have suspected what was about to happen when he called Hemming to speak. The man has form.

But it was bound to happen eventually. And it was probably going to happen today. Hemming's critics should reflect that he didn't name Giggs last week, or last month. Only after Twitter exploded at the weekend - in response to Schillings' clumsy attempt to draw attention to alleged online breaches of the injunction - and after the Sunday Herald in Scotland had turned the court order into an international joke, did the MP stand up in Parliament and speak a name that almost everyone by then knew.

Does anyone think that the Sun would have obeyed this latest ruling in spirit as well as in letter? Does anyone think that the story would not have continued to circulate online, and in pubs and workplaces, in family homes and in the foreign press? Does anyone imagine that the continuance of the legal ban on naming Giggs would have prevented the taunting chants of fans being even louder at every subsequent football match in which he took part, would have stopped schoolfellows of the Giggs children from knowing all about it - if they didn't know already - and that the forbidden nature of the knowledge would merely encourage the bullies among them to tease and torment? Every day that passed would have piled on more agony for Giggs, for his wife Stacey, for his children. This much is obvious. It might not be obvious to Ryan Giggs or his lawyers - no less motivated by profit than the Murdoch press, be it not forgotten - or to Mr Justice Eady. But it was obvious to everyone else in the country.

John Hemming has lanced the boil. Thanks to his intervention, things are slightly less ridiculous tonight. Someone had to do it. A hundred thousand Tweeters couldn't do it, but a lone rogue MP could. Such is the constitution we live under. Don't blame the messenger.

PS. Perhaps it's not quite over. Tonight Mr Justice Tugendhat, taking over from Eady (not sure why) upheld the injunction for the second time today. The judge said:

"If a court can stop one person or five people – not 50,000 – from naming him, is there not something to be achieved?"

This would seem to be a novel principle, and rather a ludicrous one. Plainly, the answer is No. Previously, courts have acknowledged that when a person has been named in Parliament and that news has been reported, there is no longer any purpose in maintaining anonymity. Indeed, the test applied by Eady J in this very case was whether the name was yet sufficiently in the public domain for the injunction to be unworkable. He concluded last week and earlier today that that point had not been reached. But that was before Giggs was widely and irrevocably named.

Matt Wells writes on Andrew Sparrow's Guardian blog:

We are in the realms of the bizarre. In strict legal terms, I can't name the subject of the injunction that has just been upheld. The injunction prevents that. If I am only reporting details if the injunction, no names can be mentioned. But if I move on, as I am doing in this sentence, to reporting the proceedings of parliament, I can quite legally tell you that an MP today named the footballer Ryan Giggs as the subject of that injunction.

I'm lost for words.
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Sunday, 22 May 2011

Schillings not helping their clients, exactly

Yesterday I had no idea of the identity of the footballer known as TSE, who like so many others had sought an injunction to prevent knowledge of his affair with an unnamed woman reaching the ears of the public or the front pages of the newspapers. That I do now - it was not a name I recognised - is due to the unbelievably self-defeating tactics of lawyers Schillings, who have asked the Attorney General to launch contempt proceedings against a journalist who posted some snarky comments about said footballer on Twitter.

That's the second time in a week that Schillings' legal manoeuvres have backfired. It was their decision to seek a disclosure order against Twitter - to force them to reveal an anonymous Deep Throat whose identity they probably don't even know - that have made another of their clients (still unnamed in English newspapers) into an international laughing stock. Something he doesn't deserve, even if he did shag Imogen Thomas.

Can anyone fathom what these expensive solicitors - among the most sought-after and expert specialists in the law of privacy and libel - thought they were doing? Protecting their clients? A moment's contemplation ought to have informed them that their legal action has all but guaranteed their clients' worldwide notoriety. In neither case, incidentally, did the problem arise from the initial decision to pursue an injunction. After all, there are several footballers with privacy injunction who, while the subject of some online speculation, have not been faced the humiliation being heaped on one player as I write, and sure to be visited upon the other very soon.

There's some safety in numbers, and with so many footballers to choose from, some are bound to be identified correctly, either through leaks or guesswork. But if nothing is confirmed or denied, online rumours remain rumours. What has happened this weekend is not the consequence of online rumours, but of Schillings' farcical attempts to make the rumours stop. The more desperate their attempts become to preserve their clients anonymity, the more inevitable their failure becomes.

Should they have allowed people breaching the injunctions to escape with impunity? If the alternative is to cause these footballers even greater embarrassment, then yes. Obviously. They are supposed to be representing their clients, not some abstract principle of the supremacy of the courts. The purpose of these privacy injunctions, one assumes, is damage limitation - to keep the names of celebrities and the details of their indiscretions, as far as possible, off the front pages and out of the public eye. Turning them into a cause celebre of the internet age is bound to have the opposite effect.

Perhaps Schillings imagine that taking legal sanctions against injunction-busters on Twitter will have a deterrent effect upon others who might be tempted to breach future injunctions. But if that is the case, they have jeopardised their present clients to protect their future ones - and, perhaps, to preserve their own lucrative privacy business, which Twitter has threatened to undermine. For let there be no doubt about it, it is the behaviour of Schillings - not of the anonymous Tweeter, nor of the unnameable journalist, nor of Twitter Inc of California, nor even of the tabloid press - that has turned these footballers into front-page news.

A solicitor's first duty is supposed to be to act in the best interests of his client. On that basis, Schillings are very bad lawyers indeed.

As for the footballers, they would have been better off hiring Max Clifford.
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Friday, 20 May 2011

Is this the end for Twitter?

Today's big news on superinjunctions was supposed to be the report by Lord Neuberger's committee into the facility with which the things are granted. But Neuberger basically said that everything was working fine, the number of actual superinjunctions is very small (only two being "known" - although the whole point about a superinjunction is supposed to be that it isn't known) and that perhaps newspapers could be invited along to pre-injunction hearings if they promised not to write about it. There was an interesting discussion about the extent to which the media were protected by Parliamentary privilege if they reported on injunction-breaches by MPs and peers, but it's unlikely the report presages any major changes in the way the system operates. It's useful, though, if you want a primer on the difference between a superinjunction and an anonymised privacy injunction. (pdf)

In the event, the story broke around teatime. The footballer known as CTB - the same CTB, presumably, who took out the injunction in the first place - is suing Twitter and "persons unknown" for breach of the order banning anyone from naming him as the man who slept with Imogen Thomas. It's a well-known case (and if you haven't already done so, check out the devastating ruling by Mr Justice Eady, a real page-turner even by his standards).

The footballer has not been named in the pages of any newspaper, yet his name appears to be widely known, at least to users of Twitter who have the slightest interest in such things (and even many who don't). Indeed, for weeks it has been something of a running joke. So whatever happens it's too late to put this particular cat back into the bag. But while the action may seem futile, even counterproductive, it nevertheless has potentially huge repercussions.

Little is known about the case against Twitter. However, a press release put out by solicitors Charles Russell seems to confirm that the CTB who made the application is the same CTB who knew Imogen Thomas. The statement also reveals:

The action was commenced on 18 May. The “persons unknown” are described as those “responsible for the publication of information on the Twitter accounts” but the latter are listed in confidential appendices. It relates to the widely-reported posting on May 8 of a series of “tweets” purporting to name a number of celebrities who had obtained so-called super-injunctions, and describe the activities covered by the injunctions.

The other night I asked privacy law supremo Hugh Tomlinson QC over dinner (as you do) my big epistemological question: are you breaching the injunction if you haven't been formally notified of its existence, but merely suspect that there is one? Yes, he replied. I imagine that's what the vast majority of people "naming" the footballer on Twitter are doing - going with the group. As Greta Christina explains:

The human brain is wired with a number of cognitive biases and errors in thinking: biases and errors that have good evolutionary reasons to be there, that have helped our ancestors survive and reproduce, but that do get in the way when we're trying to carefully figure out what is and isn't true in the world. And of all these biases, one of the trickiest is communal reinforcement -- otherwise known as the argument from popularity. "If lots of other people think this," our mammalian hindbrain tells us, "it must be true!"

It's a bias that does have real evolutionary value. If everyone in your tribe is screaming "Tiger!", and you don't see one, it still makes sense to run. And I would argue that this bias has some genuine philosophical value as well. Other people can, in fact, be a useful reality check. After all, it's not like I'm always right about everything. If everyone I know is telling me I'm wrong about something... well, that's not automatically a reason to change my mind, but it is a reason to stop and think for a moment about whether I might want to.

In this case, everyone on the internet is not screaming "Tiger!" (as they might be if Mr Woods had committed his marital indiscretions in Britain). They're screaming "Giggs!" The vast majority of them do not know the details of the injunction - any more than I do - they are merely repeating a rumour. A rumour that has now created its own truth. Whether the rumour is true or not, its existence is a fact that exists independently of the case to which it allegedly refers. A fact which is now as fully in the public domain as any fact can be that has not appeared in a British newspaper.

True or false, it is information I do not want to know. I have no interest in football or reality TV. In the good old days of tabloid kiss'n'tell, I would have been spared these dreary "revelations". As it is, thanks to Twitter, thanks to the injunctions, thanks solely to the fact that I'm not officially allowed to know any of this (if it's true, of course; perhaps it isn't) I will never be able to get these dull people and their duller alleged sexcapades out of my head. I would forget it if I could. I can't, and probably never will.


It's not yet clear how Twitter will respond to the lawsuit. Their terms of service specify that "international users agree to comply with all local laws regarding online conduct and acceptable content", but the most notorious of the Twitter accounts listing alleged injunctions (@InjunctionSuper, which posted details of six supposed cases on 8th May and then went quiet), which seems to be the main target of the litigation, has not been taken down. The company is based in the United States and has little to fear from the English courts - although any assets they have in this country might be vulnerable.

In the short term, however, two things are clear. It is impossible for Twitter to delete all references to the alleged affair from their website. It has long since gone viral. It had gone viral even before the @InjunctionSuper account was set up, which is one reason why (unlike David Allen Green) I don't think there are good grounds for assuming that the account must have been a deliberate leak by someone in the know. (At least, if there are such grounds they do not lie in the content of the Tweets themselves, but rather in the immediate and disproportionate attention they attracted.) Predictably, the main result of today's news on Twitter itself has been the proliferation of the name Ryan Giggs. Twitter, as a company, is powerless to shut this one down, except by shutting down Twitter itself.

Secondly, there are now so many thousand "persons unknown" that they cannot all be sued, or even identified (the more likely intention). And even if CTB's lawyers were able to track them all down and serve them with injunctions, the self-defeating effect would be to confirm the facts. Suspicion would become actual knowledge.

So how can Twitter satisfy the demands of the English courts - assuming, that is, that CTB's case is found to have merit? The obvious way would be to block Twitter in the UK, putting it permanently out of the reach of British judges. It could happen. Already some US-based news and gossip sites, including National Enquirer, are unviewable in Britain without use of a proxy server, so alarmed are the publishers by English libel law. If CTB's case succeeds, or inspires others, Twitter's bosses might begin to see such a course of action as preferable to fighting costly legal battles on foreign soil.

I don't think I could live without Twitter. I'm frightened.

UPDATE: A few more details have emerged since I wrote this, the most important being that - according to BBC news - an order was granted against Twitter on 18th May requiring them to disclose the identity of @InjunctionSuper. It remains to be seen how the company will respond.
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Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Ken Clarke's ignorance of the law

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke got himself into trouble on the radio this morning with his remarks about rape, which appeared to suggest (oh the heresy) that not all rapes were of equal severity and that some rapes might therefore attract different levels of sentencing.

When pressed to justify his comments, he produced this example:

If an 18-year-old has sex with a 15-year-old and she is perfectly willing that is rape, because she is under age, she can’t consent, anybody who has sex with a 15 year old it’s rape.

Now this is legally incorrect. While the age of consent in the UK is 16, non-coercive sex in which one (or both) partners is 15 is not rape. It is unlawful sexual intercourse. Under s9 of the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, if one party is over 18 - the situation Ken Clarke described - it is defined as "sexual activity with a child". Under s5 it IS rape if the child is under thirteen.

It might be said that the distinction is a purely technical one, in that the American expression "statutory rape" - meaning consensual sex with a minor - is now widely used here. But Clarke did not say "statutory rape"; he said "rape". Moreover, he produced his example when challenged about low sentences in some instances of rape. The presenter, Victoria Derbyshire, referred to statistics suggesting an average sentence for rape of five years. Clarke replied that the statistics "include the 18 year old having sex with a 15 year old and they include date rapes, date rapes sometimes can be very confusing." Now this is clearly not the case. While below-age-of-consent cases would be included in general statistics for sex offences, they would be a fairly small percentage of the whole. And since such cases are not rape, they would not be included in rape statistics. They are entirely separate offences.

Clarke was either blustering, or ignorant of the law. Since he is a barrister by training, as well as having ministerial responsibility for the area, it's hard to believe that he can be so ignorant - and more than a little worrying if he is. A few hours later, he turned up on Sky TV to "clarify" his remarks. He told Adam Boulton that he didn't know whether sex where one party was over 18 and the other was 15 was rape or not.

You have an age of consent, and below that age, whether the girl has consented or not, it is a criminal offence ... It may be 13. I will check. What I was pointing out was that under age, you cannot consent and it is a serious criminal offence to have sex with a girl under the age of consent.

Puzzling. He now appears not to know what the age of consent is! It's not difficult, Ken. The age of legal consent is 16, but if there is actual consent it only counts as rape if the child is under 13. You were not wrong about sex with a teenager under 16 being illegal, you were wrong about it being rape.

It would appear that Ken Clarke is not just ignorant of the law that, as justice secretary, he is responsible for upholding; he is also badly briefed. Several hours passed between his interview with Victoria Derbyshire and that with Adam Boulton, more than enough time for his officials to remind him of the difference between rape and unlawful sex. Instead he appeared more confused than ever. Later still, he was interviewed by Jon Snow on Channel 4 News. Again he claimed that sex with a 15 year old "is rape". Astonishing.

While most attention today has been on Clarke's belief that some rapes deserve longer prison sentences than others (and does anyone really not think that, however politically difficult it may be these days to say so?) what I find just as troubling is his casual approach to the facts, his sheer unprofessionalism. A couple of years ago, Norman Tebbit said that Clarke's "biggest defect... is that he is lazy". A bit like Boris Johnson, though less stylishly, he assumes he can wing it, turning up to interviews underbriefed and sometimes plain ill-informed, relying on bluster to get him out of awkward questions. This is just about acceptable in an Opposition spokesman, but can be disastrous in a minister.

Hence today's embarrassment - because whatever one thinks of the proper punishment for rape, any switched-on politician would appreciate that it is a subject laden with booby-traps, one in which it is necessary to speak very carefully indeed, because whatever you say is liable to be twisted and used in evidence against you. Crass tautologies such as "forcible rape" - like Whoopi Goldberg's suggestion that Roman Polanski was not guilty of "rape-rape" - only damage those who utter them. Clarke gave the impression of airy unconcern with such niceties. Perhaps he's showing his age. He may genuinely be unaware of just how ideologically-charged a crime rape has become, how much anger it arouses, and thus how easy a target a politician who "misspeaks" on the issue becomes. But if so, one does wonder why he is still in the cabinet.
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Sunday, 15 May 2011

Should Dawkins be scared of William Lane Craig?

Is Richard Dawkins a scaredy-cat?

The renowned evolutionist and professor, it is reported, has declined no fewer than four invitations to debate with a prominent American theologian, William Lane Craig (also a professor) during the latter's forthcoming visit to Britain this autumn. Dawkins claims that he has better things to do than "assisting Craig in his relentless drive for self-promotion". But an Oxonian philosopher, Dr Daniel Came of Worcester College, has written to Dawkins that "the absence of a debate with the foremost apologist for Christian theism is a glaring omission on your CV and is of course apt to be interpreted as cowardice on your part."

Dr Came - described as an atheist - adds, sarcastically, that Dawkins shows no such reluctance when it comes to having discussions with "intellectual heavyweights like Pastor Ted Haggard". In a personal communication, he tells me that he has no connection with Craig or his tour, but as someone who studies the philosophy of religion "finds Dawkins' dabbling in this area infantile". He accuses him of superficiality and lack of intellectual rigour, adding that The God Delusion "could be used as a handbook of logical fallacies". Cranmer meanwhile suggests that "It speaks volumes for Richard Dawkins’ character (and academic priorities) that he only appears to debate with those who will somehow enhance his own career."

Clearly, Dawkins is under no obligation to support Craig in his promotional tour (if that is what it is) but could there be any truth in the allegations of cowardice? The American has a formidable reputation as the one Christian apologist that atheists really fear. Luke Muehlhauser of Common Sense Atheism has called him "the best debater – on any topic – that I’ve ever heard". He warns fellow atheists that if they are foolhardy enough to enter into debate with him, they will almost certainly lose. Even Christopher Hitchens has come seriously unstuck.

Atheists underestimate Craig. They think it will be easy to win an argument with anyone who has a wish-granting invisible friend. Atheists do not properly prepare for Craig’s arguments, and they do not prepare for his remarkable skill and experience in live debates.

Muehlhauser offers a list of debates involving Craig and various atheists, most of which Craig apparently won - even though "he uses the same arguments all the time". The chemist Peter Atkins - who will be taking on Craig this time - fared badly, we learn, because he seemed "more interested in lecturing about the nature and glory of science than in debating the existence of God. Atkins also does himself no favors by speaking with condescension." As for the Hitch, he fell short by failing to read up on the science, offering paltry "common-sense" objections to Craig's impressive-sounding appeals to theoretical physics. Craig is no more a cosmologist than Hitchens is, but he has mastered the art of sounding as though he knows what he's talking about. It's a trick that most public atheists, especially perhaps those with a genuine scientific background, are just too honest to pull off.

If Craig really is that good - at least when it comes to swaying an audience - then Richard Dawkins might be forgiven for running scared. He has his own reputation to keep up, his own books to sell, and no interest in being a stooge in Craig's stage show. Muelheuser suggests that it's worthwhile for atheists to debate Craig, even if they lose, because his high profile will at least offer a prospect of bringing atheist arguments to a public that might not otherwise hear them. But while that may be true of the United States, in Britain Craig is hardly a household name. Dawkins is. It is clearly much more in Craig's interests than Dawkins' that the debate takes place.

But is Craig actually all that he's cracked up to be?

A scientist who was seemingly bested by Craig, Lawrence Krauss, took to the Richard Dawkins website to complain about the "self-congratulatory hype" from the theologian and his supporters that followed a debate between the two in North Carolina in March. He writes that

Any effort I made to show nuance and actually explain facts was systematically distorted in Craig’s continual effort to demonstrate how high school syllogisms apparently demonstrated definitive evidence for God.

And he bemoans the

disingenuous distortions, simplifications, and outright lies that I regard Craig as having spouted. I was very disappointed because I had heard that Craig was more of a philosopher than a proselytizer, but that was not evident the other evening.

I find it hard not to feel sympathy for Krauss's anguish as he admits his failure:

What I hoped I could convey to the truly open minded intellects in the audience, of which of course Craig was not one, was that the amazing effort to understand how the universe works reveals wonders far more remarkable than those presented by Bronze age myths, developed before we had any clear understanding of how the universe works. Simply arguing that one doesn’t understand the results, or doesn’t like the results and therefore one has to resort to supernatural explanations, which was the crux of Craig’s rather monotonous repetition of his syllogisms, is indeed intellectually lazy, as I did say at the time.

Responding, Dawkins himself expressed scepticism about Craig's performance:

I can't think why some people say Craig is a skilled debater. It is true that he seems to do nothing else with his life EXCEPT travel around debating, so he has had plenty of practice at debating against people who have better things to do. But the only time I have been in a debate with him (in Mexico) I found him pedantic and surprisingly unimpressive. He seemed to think he had scored points of logic when, to anyone of any intelligence, he obviously had done nothing of the kind.

On a previous occasion, (YouTube) Dawkins has said that "I will debate a bishop, a cardinal, a pope, an archbishop... but I don't take on creationists and I don't take on people whose only claim to fame is that they are professional debaters. They've got to have more than that. I'm busy."

Now at first glance, William Lane Craig IS more than that. He's the author of numerous books and academic articles, a trained philosopher and holder of a professorship in philosophy at Talbot School of Theology. He presents himself as the world's foremost Christian apologist - and as we've seen he has apparently convinced an Oxford philosophy lecturer to back up the claim. Greta Christina notes that "when believers accuse atheists of ignoring sophisticated modern theology, Craig is one of the people they're talking about."

There's no doubt that he is a highly intelligent man, and an intellectually sophisticated one. If nothing else, Craig is a good example of the phenomenon I mentioned some while back, that the mental flexibility required to be a serious religious believer in the modern world is much greater than that needed to justify atheism. But there probably is nothing else. Having read a few of his online essays, I find it hard not to conclude that Craig is much more of a Ted Haggard than a Rowan Williams.

As quickly becomes obvious if you trouble yourself to find out what they are, Craig's views verge on fundamentalism. Indeed, there's enough old rope on his website for any atheist prepared to stoop low enough to build the theologian a fully-functioning gallows. In one online article picked apart by Greta Christina, Craig defends a notorious Old Testament story in which God commanded the children of Israel to smite the Canaanites (every last man, woman and child) by arguing - seriously - that the Canaanites were wicked and so had it coming.

She writes: "If I were trying to make up a more blatant example of ethical contortionism, of morality so twisted by its need to defend the indefensible that it has blinded itself to its own contradictions and grotesqueries, I couldn't have done a better job."

I've read Craig's original article, and I can confirm that it's even more bone-headed than Greta Christina says it is. He argues, for example, that God is the source of all morality ("If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist") and that therefore "since God doesn’t issue commands to Himself, He has no moral duties to fulfil." Problem solved! God can just excuse himself from the demands he imposes on others. Do as I say, says God, not as I do; except when I'm expressly ordering you to exterminate rival tribes, in which case you'll be in trouble if you don't. (I seem to remember Saul's great crime, for which he was stripped of the Kingdom of Israel, was not being quite as tough on the Amalekites as God had demanded.) As Craig writes: "the act was morally obligatory for the Israeli soldiers in virtue of God’s command, even though, had they undertaken it on their on initiative, it would have been wrong." (Why does he write "Israeli" rather than "Israelite", by the way? Is it a Freudian slip?)

It would be hard to think of a clearer example of the dark places to which theodicy can take you. Craig is aware of the alternative offered by more liberal theologians - that the Bible, in this instance, is not to be relied upon either as an historical source or as a guide to what God commanded. But he prefers, if possible, to stick to "inerrancy" and play pseudo-intellectual games. He claims that, since life is hard and God's mercy is infinite, the Canaanite children were probably better off dead (but in that case, isn't everyone better off dead?). Taking at face value the Bible's uncomplimentary remarks about the Canaanites (including allegations of cultic prostitution and child sacrifice) and ignoring archaelogical evidence suggesting a sophisticated and literate culture, he asserts that God let them off lightly by permitting them to survive for as long as they did:

Think of it! God stays His judgement of the Canaanite clans 400 years because their wickedness had not reached the point of intolerability! This is the long-suffering God we know in the Hebrew Scriptures. He even allows his own chosen people to languish in slavery for four centuries before determining that the Canaanite peoples are ripe for judgement and calling His people forth from Egypt.

If Craig has any moral qualms about the episode, it's not for the slaughtered Caananites but for the "Israeli soldiers" who must have been traumatised by having to carry out the righteous commands of their God. "Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children?" he asks, chillingly. But of course it would have been sinful not to, they were "just following orders", and you can't blame God, because God is good. This man calls himself a philosopher!

There follows a highly troublesome passage in which Craig discourses upon the superior sanctity and chosenness of Israel, the need for them to separate absolutely from the surrounding tribes just as kosher law separates meat from milk and wool from linen fabric. ("These serve as daily, tangible reminders that Israel is a special people set apart for God Himself.") And it gets worse. He claims that "the Eastern mind" has "a tendency towards amalgamation" - using as evidence a concept from Hinduism - and thus the Jews, being Oriental, needed teaching the "Law of Contradiction" in particularly stark terms. Go massacre the Canaanites, saith the Lord. That'll put some basic understanding of logic into your slipshod oriental minds.

Craig isn't just a Biblical literalist, he also espouses a fairly hardline form of predestination. This leads him to a neat reconciliation of scriptural inerrancy with the obvious fact that the text of any Biblical book is the work of a particular individual writing at a particular place and time. "God knows under just what circumstances Paul would, for example, freely write his letter to the Romans. By creating Paul in those circumstances, God can bring it about that Romans is just the message He wants to convey to us." But - as a smartarse on his website points out - in that case you could claim that the atheistic outpourings of Christopher Hitchens are divinely inspired, since God presumably also created Hitchens. I find his response to that very pertinent question somewhat lacking. Perhaps you disagree:

The essential difference lies in God's attitude toward what is written. In the one case, God wills to communicate via the author His message to us. He intends that the letter to the Romans be His Word to us. Romans is therefore a case of appropriated or delegated speech, much as a boss makes a letter composed by his secretary his own by affixing his signature to it. By contrast, God merely allows Hitchens to write what he does without endorsing its truth or adopting it as His own. God lets Hitchens put forth his falsehoods because in His providence Hitchens' books have their part to play in God's overall plan for human history. But God does not see Hitchens' books as His Word to us, to be trusted and obeyed.

I mean really, is this "the foremost apologist for Christian theism"? Bad news for Christian theism if it is. Even worse news, though, for atheists if they are regularly defeated in debate by someone like that.
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Saturday, 14 May 2011

Have I Got News For You, Greg

If you saw last night's Have I Got News For You, you may have noticed that co-host Greg Wallace (on the right) looked slightly uncomfortable during the inevitable discussion of Max Mosley's latest legal battle at the European Court of Human Rights. Nothing was said - at least, not in the edited broadcast version - but no superinjunction forbids me from revealing that Wallace is no stranger himself to the world of sadomasochism and spanking.

Back in August 2008, the News of the World carried an interview with Greg's ex-wife Denise in which she described his large collection of spanking magazines. "It was his thing," she is quoted as saying. "They were in the garage piled up in banana boxes. There was loads of it, absolutely loads." She also claimed that when the pair divorced, the porn was the only thing he insisted on taking with him.

Wallace seems to have taken the story - which included allegations of affairs and regular use of prostitutes - in relatively good part. A spokesman quoted at the bottom described the failed marriage as "well and truly in the past". But the disclosures, especially the infidelity, were embarrassing and none of the story can be said to have been in the public interest (or even, it must be said, particularly interesting to the public). Almost anything involving sex now attracts s8 protection as being subject to "a reasonable expectation of privacy". Had Greg Wallace got wind of his ex-wife's intention to speak to the Screws he would almost certainly have been granted an injunction, as was another prominent media personality whose ex-wife was recently gagged from describing their life together. Had Max Mosley been successful at Strasbourg he would have had a right to be informed. It is not unreasonable to speculate that such a thought passed through his mind during the show.

Incidentally, given the tradition on HIGNFY of Ian Hislop and Paul Merton ambushing their guest hosts with tawdry incidents from their pasts, the absence of any allusion last night to Wallace's private passion is slightly surprising. Why have him on - this week of all weeks - if not to administer the show's trademark version of retributive justice? Perhaps there was some prior agreement, but I'd love to have been a fly on the wall in the editing suite.

Two points. First, despite the unsavoury nature of some of his indiscretions - Denise described an occasion on which he arrived home "drunk and dishevelled" at 4 am one morning and announced "I've been with a prostitute" - Greg Wallace's career was not significantly disrupted by the News of the World story. Perhaps it was not entirely out of keeping with his laddish public persona. The same might well be true of many of the footballers who have been queuing outside Mr Justice Tugendhat's chamber door. Of course, potential career damage itself is not a consideration of privacy law - the point is that sex is private - but tabloid apologists frequently claim that celebrities depend on a public image whose hypocrisies they wish to expose, while the celebrities probably do fear for their careers.

Second, why should someone in Denise's position - a betrayed ex-partner - not have the right to tell intimate details of her own life simply because it touches on someone else's "privacy"? Presumably she did it for money - the NOTW mentions that she is "living in a two-bed flat and working at Tesco for £180 a month" - but why should she not be entitled to get some financial return for her years of marital unhappiness? It seems to be established law now that sex is inherently private and thus entitled to protection, and there are certainly very strong arguments against third party intrusion like that to which Max Mosley was subjected. But while private, sex is not (preferably) a solitary activity. It is shared with at least one other person, and it questionable on what basis the law can impose a duty of silence on someone regarding their own private life simply because it necessarily trespasses upon the private life of someone else. It has certainly never been properly debated ("freedom of expression" being mainly used as a euphemism for freedom of the press).

To talk openly about such matters might be considered tasteless or even immoral (althought the confessional culture we now live in has made it much less shocking that it used to be). But to make it effectively illegal - at least where an ex-partner objects - is to impose a much greater burden than social opprobrium on those who would kiss and tell. I've no sympathy for the sleazy culture of the News of the World and its notion of "news", but this aspect does worry me.
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Thursday, 12 May 2011

Why privacy isn't just for the rich

The Daily Mail - along with several other respectable news outlets - brings us the story of Faith-Anne Lesbirel, primary schoolmistress by day and "kinky dominatrix" by night, whose unconventional second job has now led to a dressing down from the General Teaching Council. Found guilty of "unacceptable professional misconduct" (is there such a thing as acceptable professional misconduct?) she has received a two-year reprimand. She has, however - as the Mail was forced to report - "escaped being struck off." The panel also displayed a perhaps unexpected - and welcome - degree of enlightenment when it concluded that her essentially private activities did not make her a danger to children.

By most accounts, indeed, she was an excellent and well-loved teacher, working at a school in Milton Keynes. But she was also into things like domination and sploshing, and as "Mistress Saffron" advertised her services online, both on her own website and on a forum for like-minded people called "Informed Consent". It was this advertising, we are led believe, that got her into trouble. The report quotes the tribunal's ruling that "the reputation and public standing of the profession was placed at risk by your choosing to initiate and run such a website and indeed the exposure of this did in the event damage the school and the profession." The clear implication is that the "publicly accessible" nature of both her website and the online forum was responsible for bringing her activities to the notice of local parents, who complained to the school. And that her exposure was therefore her own fault.

That isn't really what happened.

Faith-Anne Lesbirel - who was also known as Faith Hamilton - carried out her BDSM activities for a long time without any of the parents or children finding out. And there was little reason why they should have found out. Informed Consent might be "publicly accessible", in the sense that anyone can view its contents without registering as a member, but it unlikely that many people would come across it without at least having a pre-existing interest in the subject. The same goes for her Mistress Saffron website. This is a niche area of the web, inhabited mainly by mistresses, their clients, and the odd tabloid journalist. Her two identities should have remained quite separate, as long as she observed a certain degree of cicumspection.

Faith may have been a victim of the Max Mosley scandal. Those who are in a position to know believe that she was betrayed by "Woman E" - also known as Mistress Abi, "Michelle" and latterly Mistress Kiera - the dominatrix who secretly recorded the goings-on in that notorious Chelsea basement as part of the News of the World sting operation. You may recall that the relationship between "Abi" and the newspaper went sour after she was unable to provide Neville Thurlbeck with cast-iron proof that Mosley's party had had a "Nazi theme". In an interview with Sky News, she said that she had never claimed that there was a Nazi theme - it was all a product of Thurlbeck's lurid imagination. Whatever the truth, it seems that the Screws pressed her to provide some additional titillating information to justify their payments to her. And so she gave them Mistress Saffron the kinky schoolteacher. Who was supposed to be a friend of hers, as well as a fellow member of the Milton Keynes dungeon sorority.

The story appeared under the headline "Miss gets strict with PVC punters" and was illustrated with pictures taken from her website. The paper predicted, not as is happened inaccurately, that "parents of the kids she teaches would go ballistic. While they’re reading their youngsters Winnie the Pooh at bedtime, their teacher is hard at it as a Miss Whiplash hooker."

The involvement of Woman E has never been officially confirmed, I should say (though the coincidence of time - May 2008 - and place - Milton Keynes - is striking). What is beyond doubt is that it was the exposure of Ms Hamilton/Lesbirel in the News of the World, not her website, that led to her departure from the school - leaving her out of a job and the children, to whom she was devoted, confused and upset. To the News of the World, it was all in a day's work, of course. As Clair Lewis - longstanding friend of this blog - says in a statement released today by the campaigning organisation CAAN, "some media people remain unconcerned about smearing people and the dangers this poses. Shame on them."

With Mosley's lawyers breathing down their neck, ruining the career of an unknown schoolteacher represented a much safer strategy than continuing to pursue that increasingly threadbare scoop. Faith-Anne Lesbirel wasn't going to sue them for invasion of privacy. She was in no position to get a super-injunction from Mr Justice Eady. She certainly didn't stand ready to petition the European Court of Human Rights to demand prior notification of embarrassing revelations. The most someone like her can hope for is a positive ruling from the largely toothless Press Complaints Commission.

Sadly, with celebrity exposés now threatened by the advance of privacy law we may see more stories like hers, with the press attempting to justify their prurient interest in people's private lives because they happen to be teachers, nurses, social workers or police officers. And while professional bodies continue to have widely-drafted - some would say discriminatory - policies against "bringing the profession into dispute", anyone falling foul of a tabloid "outing" may well face much more devastating personal reperpercussions than the fleeting embarrassment of some footballer who has visited a hooker.
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Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The Clegg Conundrum

Nick Clegg has not been looking happy lately. Yet in the Telegraph, Ed West hails him as the most successful Liberal politician since Lloyd George. He points out - as does Tim Montgomerie - that the Lib Dems seem to have been able to implement more of their manifesto commitments than the Tories. An amazing 75% of their agenda has to some extent become government policy, against just 60% of Conservative pledges. Given the relative size of the two parties both at Westminster and (even before the Lib Dems' recent collapse in the local elections) in the country, this is quite a remarkable achievement. An impartial observer might even think that Clegg had David Cameron over a barrel and was using his small but decisive Commons troops to exert a disproportionate influence over the shape of government policy.

If true, this ought to make Nick Clegg the object of envy and wonder, the darling of his party and possessor of an aura of political potency rivalling that of Tony Blair in his late 90s pomp. Instead, he cuts a pitiful figure, reviled by "progressive" opinion, hanged in effigy by the very people who cheered him to the rafters a mere twelve months ago, increasingly unloved by the rank and file of his own party. He is widely seen as a busted flush, and his party as an impotent appendage of the resurgent ranks of Conservatism. If Cameron is Flashman, Clegg is his fag.

In a speech today, Clegg even appears to have accepted the truth of this caricature - saying, for example, that the Lib Dems must be more distinctive, their voice louder and more independent, that they must come out of the Tories' "shadow". In future, the Coalition will become less symbiotic and more fractured. The price of the Coalition's survival may be the loss of its public image as a truly joint enterprise. The Lib Dems will be happier, and so will many Conservatives. But where will this leave the Liberal impression on government?

If West and Montgomerie are right - and many senior Lib Dems also insist on their success in translating their manifesto commitments into reality - then we're faced with a paradox. Nick Clegg appears like a failure, yet in reality he is a stonking success. His party appears to have been smothered by the Tories while his policies have regularly prevailed over theirs. Practical success has been bought, perhaps, at the cost of political eclipse - an eclipse that threatens to become something close to extinction if present trends continue.

What, then, will the new, assertive, semi-detached Lib Dem ministers achieve? Will a Conservative party so readily embrace policies calculated to please a partner which treats it as radioactive? It seems unlikely. If Lib Dem policy success has come at the price of political failure - if it had depended on hard work behind the scenes and a public facade of inter-party harmony - then a more assertive Clegg may well be a less effective political operator. He may save his leadership at the expense of ceasing to exercise it.

I hope not. I like Nick Clegg. He's a decent man and an asset to his country. Sadly for him, he was fated to lead the Liberal Democrats.
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Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Legal jeopardy and an epistemological quagmire

It is being suggested today that legal retribution will be had on the person responsible for the InjunctionSuper Twitter account, which the other day revealed - or at least claimed to reveal - details of various celebrities and their superinjunctions. So legally toxic is the whole matter that the mainstream press is apparently unable to name the account. In a video featured by the Independent privacy lawyer Duncan Lamont warns that whoever was responsible for the Tweets "may not have realised the consequences for them" of putting the information online.
Lamont goes on:

The person who did this Tweet is talking of superinjunctions, so this person knows that this is prohibited material. That that that it's true or not, bizarrely, isn't really the point. The point is that they are, knowingly, breaking the criminal law. This isn't the deathknell of injunctions. Perhaps, and unfortunately for one or two individuals it may prove the exact opposite. The very power of injunctions may be about to fall on someone's head.

Mark Stephens, quoted in the Independent's text, makes a similar point:

The person who has committed this contempt of court will be best advised to take their toothbrush because they will probably be going to Pentonville jail. Their emails used to upload this information are being traced, I imagine, as we speak.

Yet Charlotte Harris, a solicitor who used to represent Max Clifford, reassures Twitter users that they were not liable to legal action unless they "directly or indirectly" worked for media organisations which are party to the injunction.

The idea that someone who's taken out an injunction against a newspaper would take action against somebody who is innocently discussing and disseminating what they've heard would be wrong and simply isn't what's happening.

The question is an interesting one. It is easy to discover which names are being bandied about on Twitter (and other online forums) as being people with injunctions. But it is difficult to know which people making the claims have access to the actual facts, which are good at reading between the lines, which are making things up, and which are merely repeating what others have written.

The notorious InjunctionSuper Tweeter is a case in point. The account holder might be in considerable jeopardy, as Lamont and Stephens claim, if he or she is knowingly breaching the injunctions - if the person responsible is a journalist working for a national newspaper, for example. But the inclusion of at least one false statement - the claim that one injunction concerns compromising photographs of Jemima Khan and Jeremy Clarkson - suggests that this may not be the case, and the mystery Tweeter was merely collating and re-broadcasting earlier online rumours.

The false information might have been a double-bluff. On the other hand, none of the names will have come as a surprise to anyone who had been following the #superinjunction hashtag during the previous week. No-one has officially (or indeed unofficially) told me the content of any of these rumoured injunctions. Yet had I been minded to I could have set up a very similar Twitter stream myself. So was the InjunctionSuper leaking privileged information (thereby arguably putting it in the public domain) or merely amplifying rumours that were already out there? And how relevant is it to that question what InjunctionSuper actually knows? Does InjunctionSuper's status as an insider (in the know) or an outsider (making educated guesses) make the difference between whether or not their Tweets - if true - breach the injunctions?

And a related question. By refusing to name the Twitter account - InjunctionSuper - the national press appear to be covering themselves legally. Yet at the same time, their reticence hints strongly (and is perhaps intended to) that the majority of the information being disseminated is true. By this means - and also by publishing a number of ostensibly unrelated and oddly trivial reports - they are inviting people to join the dots. To anyone outside the charmed circle media folk in the know, but who uses Twitter, it is now possible (apparently) to deduce the existence of an injunction covering the people named by InjunctionSuper who are not Jemima Khan and Jeremy Clarkson. It is arguably possible to be "constructively" aware of the existence of an injunction - and of the facts injuncted - by combining these two sources of information: the names on Twitter (put there by someone who may or may not be in a position to know) and the allusions the mainstream press (made by journalists who certainly are in a position to know).

So even if the Tweets were originally made from a position of ignorance - and even though it is impossible to tell from them alone whether or not they are true - the media's attitude towards them seems to confirm their truth. Does this mean that anyone who thus becomes "aware" of an injunction becomes bound by its terms, despite not having been notified either of its existence or of the facts that it is intended to suppress?

Joshua Rozenberg told Judith Townend of Inforrm that you cannot breach an injunction if you are unaware of its contents. "If you tell me that someone is having an affair and I publish this fact on my personal website or on Twitter," he said, "I cannot be in contempt of court if I did not know that a court order existed." Moreover, while interested parties can warn the main media outlets of the content of injunctions, they could scarcely serve notice on the millions of users of Twitter. It would be rather self-defeating if they did.

Rozenberg also writes on his Guardian blog that

the individual who tweeted the names of celebrities who have supposedly obtained privacy injunctions could face contempt of court proceedings if he can be identified - and if he knew that the information he published was restricted by court orders. So, in theory, could those who draw attention to the site - which is why I have not retweeted from it or linked to it from this piece.

But that might not cover the case of the mystery Tweeter - assuming that the mystery Tweeter is not an insider, but has merely put two and two together. Does he "know" if no-one told him? Do I "know", even if he doesn't, because I have accurately read between the lines of newspaper websites? And is either of us legally liable as a result?

The whole area of privacy injunctions - at least for anyone outside the media magic circle - is now deep in Donald Rumsfeld territory. There are known knowns - it is known, for example, that Gabby Logan, Jemima Khan and Ewan McGregor have all publicly denied taking out superinjunctions to protect their private lives. There are also known unknowns, such as the name of the actor that ex-prostitute Helen Wood claims paid her £195 for sex, and who took out an injunction against her and against the press to prevent his name coming out. A name is out there, but most of us have no means of confirming - definitively - whether the name that is out there is the correct one. And there are unknown unknowns, injunctions whose subjects have not yet featured on the Twitter rumour mill. Estimates of the number of such injunctions range from around thirty to several hundred: either way, as Joshua Rozenberg says, "the belief that you can find everything out on the internet is a myth." This fact has two consequences. One is that innocent (by which I mean uninvolved) people are liable to be put in the frame, as happened to Gabby Logan. The other is that it becomes eminently possible to breach an injunction innocently, by repeating information that one knows to be true but does not realise has been injuncted.

The line between known and unknown unknowns is also a slippery one. According to the Telegraph, one injunction being revealed on Twitter "is so strict that the individual cannot be described even anonymously". Someone has taken out an injunction about something: that is all we are told, and all we can be told. Is this someone perhaps the person, named on Twitter, who allegedly "is into BDSM and visits spanking establishments to engage in the whipping of women"? Conceivably it might be. But equally it might not. How could anyone possibly judge?
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Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Princess and the Penny

Laurie Penny hates princesses: new princesses, old princesses, Disney princesses, pop princesses, above all the princess that lurks inside every female head, even perhaps her own. The fairytale princess is for her what Carthage was for Porcius Cato the Elder: the source of all moral contagion, something that "must be destroyed". That little girls enjoy dressing up in pink and fantasise about marrying a handsome prince (rather than, say, throwing paint at the local branch of Barclays) is to her mind an outrage and a conundrum, explainable only by a grand conspiracy of big business and monarchical Tory reaction.

And so, from her New Statesman platform she takes aim at the nearest available princess, the inoffensive new Duchess of Cambridge, and lets her have it with both barrels:

Kate Middleton is the perfect modern-day princess, in that she appears essentially void of personality; a dress-up dolly for the age of austerity. The new royal facial muscles seem to be fixed with such permanence into that lipglossed rictus of demure compliance that when she opened her mouth to speak during the televised ceremony, I actually jumped. As it transpired, all she eventually said was "I will," as if someone had tugged a cord through the back of that custom McQueen gown to activate a voicebox of ritual acquiescence.


This comes straight from the Glenda Slagg/Amanda Platell school of journalism; and, as regards Kate Middleton, ("pretty, unobtrusive and fashionably underweight") it is both patronising and unfair. As well as being quite staggeringly sexist.

Nonsense, too, in terms of William and Kate. The couple themselves are clearly not selling a fairytale; their narrative (regardless of whether or not one believes it) is of an ordinary, down-to-earth couple who are getting married because that is what people who have lived together for almost ten years tend to do. This is not 1981. Laurie can damn Kate for being "essentially void of personality" because that is what she - like her husband - aspires to be. And, if the monarchy is to survive, such a strategy is wise. Royals with personalities - Prince Charles with his eccentric beliefs, Prince Andrew with his dubious business connections, Diana with her theatricalities, even Harry with his boisterousness - are liabilities in an institution whose protagonists exist to be rather than to do. William and Kate show every sign of replicating the taciturn opacity of the Queen and her mother while discarding the regal airs.

Tellingly, a photo-opportunity was arranged a couple of days after the wedding in which a dressed-down Kate pushed a shopping trolley round her local branch of Waitrose. The banality of the resulting story was striking, and very much to the point. "It looked like she was stocking up on the basics," one local is quoted as saying, "but she also bought a few special items, so perhaps she was preparing their first romantic meal as a married couple."

Alright, so it wasn't Tesco (that would have given Laurie another opening), but the message was clear. Stunt it may have been (I particularly relished the Mail's line that "the only clues to Kate’s royal status were three police bodyguards") but if this is a fantasy, it is a fantasy of normality. It is the mirror image of Laurie Penny's imagined "fantasy of class treachery whereby good little girls grow up to have their own maids and a butler". This is a Cinderella who goes to the ball, marries the prince, and then goes back to the kitchen.

Such subtleties are lost on the Voice of her Generation. The New Statesman piece is typical, indeed archetypal Laurie: not so much a triumph of style over substance as the use of style to obliterate substance's very possibility. Once she gets away from what she knows - the demi-monde inhabited by her radical friends, of which she remains the peerless interpreter - she struggles to comprehend a world whose lineaments are distorted out of all recognition by her prose. She can produce a good phrase, can our Laurie: "dress up dolly for the age of austerity"; "lipglossed rictus of demure compliance". But beneath the surface shimmer, what is her message? That the "cult of the princess" is a commercial con-trick designed to promote a stereotypical, conformist model of feminity. That in a contemporary twist to the ancient virgin/whore dichotomy modern girls are forced to chose between two equally pink life-roles, the princess and the porn-star. That the princess fantasy represents "a failure of society as a whole to respect and treasure its young women". The entire article is no more than a banal recapitulation of a few tired feminist tropes, taken as read, a string assertions untroubled by evidence or fact. The worst thing is, she probably believes that she is bringing a complacent world some profound revelation.

Her argument is wholly dependent on a Blank Slate model of psychology, in which children - and indeed adults - are socially constructed, powerless to shape their lives, mere automata following patterns of behaviour and even thought laid down by commercial conglomerates, the conservative state, the patriarchy, or whoever. It might as well be David Icke's cosmic lizards.
Nor is she above what looks like blatant self-contradiction. Just what is the point being made here?

Today's spectrum of feminine aspiration is a short colour run from sickly, pastel pink to hot, sexy pink, with the occasional detour into bridal white. But there is a whole rainbow of experience out there for girls to choose from.

So is the problem that girls are offered only a narrow choice? Or is it, rather, that despite being offered "a whole rainbow" of images to choose from, so many little girls still want to be princesses? As to why that might be the case, Laurie Penny has no thoughts to offer beyond despairing condemnation. She complains that the princess stereotype represents:

...the ultimate makeover fantasy, a fairytale of frilly, sequin-encrusted self-improvement that just happens to involve rigid conformity to the rules of contemporary femininity: smile and be silent, be beautiful and rise through the ranks, and you will be rewarded.

The key word here is "contemporary", implying as it does that there is something new and sinister that requires little girls to be quiet and obedient if they want to succeed. But this is the old paradigm. The facts on the ground are somewhat different. As even Laurie must surely be aware, the last thirty or forty years have seen an unprecedented, and unanticipated, revolution in opportunities and life-chances for women in the West (and not just in the West). The cult of celebrity (and the cult of the royal family is a subset of the cult of celebrity) may be vacuous, but the vast majority of girls who buy into it are fully aware of this. They attend university in ever-greater numbers, they go on to do proper jobs in the real world, they also get married and raise children. None of this stops them reading Hello! or watching the royal wedding.

There is today no shortage of "positive" female role-models in the media; the lack, if there is one, is of positive male role-models. As recently as the 1960s, the best prospect Gene Roddenberry could persuade his producers to imagine for the women of three centuries hence was Lt Uhuru, a glorified telephonist. By the 1990s the Voyager had a female captain. These days, even Disney princesses are expected to be feminists: compare and contrast the insipid Snow White of the 1930s with 2010's Rapunzel, who behaves more like one of Quentin Tarantino's action heroines. As one would expect of any good Darwinian meme, the princess paradigm has had to adapt to survive.

Ironically, the pervasive popularity of the princess (and her close cousin, the even soppier fairy) may be part of this wider feminist (or at least feminine) triumph. Diane Purkiss, for example, has written, apropos the cult of fairies:

The fact that these games are so exclusively for girls perhaps says something about why we as a culture so desperately prefer girls. The very association of little girls with quietness, diligence, academic prowess, stillness, bodily control - their distance from the noisy, savage, violent harum-scarum boys - is the very reason why so many middle-class parents breathe a sigh of relief when they learn they are expecting one...
(Troublesome things: a history of fairies and fairy tales)

Put it another way: society wants little girls to identify with princesses, not because it expects them to aspire no higher than matrimony, but because the "conformist" qualities belittled by Laurie Penny are the very ones that promote success in life. "Princess" culture, far from encouraging passivity, inculcates the self-possession and independence that is now, as never before, being required of young women as it has always been required of young men.

What is certainly true is that the upsurge in princess-worship that Laurie complains about is a product of the age of feminism. Here, once again, one is stunned by her ability so completely to miss the point. She condemns the "saccharine tide of glittery pink kitsch" that has engulfed girlhood since the 1980s, omitting to notice that this apparently retrogressive tide has accompanied the workplace and educational revolution in the role of women. Now this is surely significant. If the purpose of all the princess frippery was to keep women imprisoned in an antiquated gender-role, it clearly hasn't worked.

Two things are going on here. One I have already mentioned: the protean nature of the princess archetype, its ability to absorb newer, and more active models of womanhood. The other is its essentially escapist nature. It is a fantasy. It is popular precisely because it is unrealistic. Insomuch as it harks back to a largly obsolete notion of feminity, it is ironically its very obsolescence that has rendered it controversial, that enables the idea to enter into Laurie Penny's head that it must be destroyed in order to liberate womankind.

The view that the princess myth is something foisted upon unwilling or helpless little girls who would otherwise play at being deep-sea divers or radical journalists is simplistic in the extreme. Of course, it has become a highly commercial enterprise. But there were fairy tales before Walt Disney came along. At a time when marriage to a wealthy man was the best women could hope for in terms of social advancement (the only other routes available being via the brothel and the nunnery) a story like Cinderella needed little explanation. Its persistence in an era of unprecedented female success seems more surprising: hence the need Penny feels to resort to conspiracy theory or to some notion of false consciousness in order to explain it.

But in fact there's no mystery. The Disney Corporation is pushing at an open door. Little girls want to be princesses, or fairies, or fairy princesses. Some deep-seated biological urge propels them to dress up in sparkly, floaty pastel-shades. The pink is culturally determined, of course: blue, with its association with the Virgin Mary, used to be the quintessence of the eternal feminine, while pink shared in the masculine, martial associations of red. But princesshood itself transcends and precedes culture. I suppose it must be, at some level, sexual: the princess in the story is invariably nubile, and her adventure is the prelude to a life of domesticity and childbearing in which "they all lived happily ever after". But wherever the appeal of the princess comes from it is deep-seated and real.

What really irritates those of Laurie Penny's sociological persuasion about the princess fantasy - especially its resurgence today - is the challenge it poses to the idea that there are no innate gender differences, nothing beyond mere social construction. Yet it is plainly absurd to suggest that unwilling girls are force-fed fairytales. All too often, it is the parents who are unwilling - especially if those parents are Guardian-reading liberals, their heads full of politically correct platitudes. There are few sights funnier, or more tragic, than a mother's doomed attempts to turn her daughter's thoughts away from Cinderella or to frustrate her son's interest in guns. Nature always returns, even if the Guardian is your pitchfork. Not every girl is a Cinderella, of course, nor every boy a Tarzan. They are individuals, and many of them will reject the stereotype. But that fact doesn't negate the appeal of the traditional images, nor does it mean that those who do embrace them are brainwashed victims of consumerist manipulation.
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