Debating the anti-capitalism protests

Laurie Penny says we are witnessing a brave challenge to greed and inequity. Joan Smith thinks that the protesters are self-congratulatory and will achieve nothing. So we set the pair to argue the matter out…

Independent on Sunday, 30 October 2011

Dear Joan,

If this isn’t an appropriate time for civil disobedience, I don’t know what is. As the average after-tax income for the top 1 per cent of US households was last week revealed to have almost quadrupled from 1979 to 2007, 24- year-old Iraq veteran Scott Olsen was fighting for his life in a California hospital, shot in the face by police with a tear-gas canister during a demonstration against corporate greed in Oakland. In hundreds of cities, ordinary people are putting their bodies and futures on the line to
challenge the inequities of aggressive market finance.

The Occupy movement has drawn in supporters from across the socio-political spectrum, especially in America, where union backing has lent weight to what began less than a month ago as a gaggle of protesters getting pepper-sprayed on a Manhattan sidewalk. Of course, any movement that is trying to do something so profoundly new and exciting with politics is going to experience teething problems – this is a movement that is complex, and constantly evolving. But the protesters at Occupy London released a communally authored list of demands challenging the secret practices and undemocratic privileges of the City of London Corporation, working out of a tent-city on the flagstones of St Paul’s Churchyard. How’s that for a bunch of naive hippies?

Yours, Laurie

Dear Laurie,

I don’t think there’s any dispute about the unhappy state we’re in. I can’t remember a time when so many people were worried about losing their jobs, paying the mortgage, getting jobs in the first place, having their benefits cut or being left to fend for themselves in hospital. There’s a great deal of anger because most of us feel the global financial crisis isn’t our fault but we’re suffering the consequences, and may go on doing so for years. A society distorted by inequality is being made even more unfair by a
government bent on making reckless cuts. But I’m not sure all this talk of new
and exciting politics is any kind of a solution to the problem. It’s taken two
weeks for Occupy London to come up with a set of demands and now they have, they’re narrow, focused on their own concerns and don’t explain how any of it is to be
achieved.

If we were emerging from years of dictatorship, like Tunisia, I could understand it. But I wonder how many of the protesters have got involved in politics of any description before now. I suspect one of the reasons we’re in this mess is that it’s easier to exchange rants with like-minded people online, set up camps and issue manifestos than do the hard slog of politics – standing for election, knocking on doors, winning people
over. There’s a well-meaning but self-congratulatory atmosphere about these
protests that doesn’t have much to do with real life – caring for elderly
people, creating jobs, improving the outlook for the disabled and children in
care.

Yours, Joan

Dear Joan,

One of the things that fascinates about these protests is how many organisers are young people who have abandoned party politics to camp out under the edifices of global finance – in America, the occupiers are the Obama generation, worn out with asking politely for change that never comes. At St Paul’s, I’ve met a civil servant, former and current Labour Party campaigners, feminist activists, union members and workers for think tanks and NGOs. These are people who have spent countless hours answering phones, stuffing envelopes, knocking on doors and writing press releases for
their party of choice, and everywhere they see representative democracy unable
to rein in corporate excess, and they’ve had enough. They have chosen for now
to focus their hard work and energy elsewhere, and the Occupy movement is
nothing if not hard work. Months of organisation, weeks sleeping on hard stone
paving, cleaning, dealing with the press, as well as looking after the many
hungry, homeless and sick people who turn up at the occupations looking for
shelter – it’s all being done gladly, in order to model the sort of society of
mutual aid and trust that occupiers would like to see.

Coming up with an action plan for a new world order takes time, and two weeks is a remarkably short time frame, especially when you’re having to field questions and attacks from a hostile press while surviving sub-zero temperatures in central London. You and others began by criticising the occupiers for not having any demands; now that they’ve produced some, you’re still not happy.

What is saddening is that where, in America, protests have been bolstered by support from labour unions, public figures, local politicians and NGOs who understand that the Occupy movement represents the beginning of a new direction for social politics, the British left has retained a cynical distance that nudges towards cowardice. What the Occupy movement offers the left is the space and imagination it desperately needs to
envision a world beyond drab deference to financial oligarchy, and the tools to
build it. Anyone can contribute, so if you’re unhappy with the way the demands
have been put together, get down toOccupy London and join in the General
Assembly. Your voice will be heard and respected, and they’ll even give you
free tea and biscuits.

Yours, Laurie

Dear Laurie,

Now you’re romanticising – there haven’t been sub-zero temperatures in central London over the past two weeks. I live in London and it’s been quite balmy for the time of year.

I know plenty of people who work very hard within mainstream parties. I’m not a fan of the Tories or the Lib Dems but I do respect the time they and Labour Party activists put into canvassing, talking to voters and attending council meetings. I also know lots of people who volunteer for NGOs – and I’ve done it for PEN and Amnesty.

Now, what is this General Assembly? From where does it derive its democratic legitimacy? Who voted for it? What about all the people who don’t agree with its decisions? Are 30-something million adults supposed to turn up in St Paul’s churchyard to make their voices heard? You say people involved in the Occupy movement have been involved in politics and trade unions and got fed up with them. Well, I have a problem with that, because what system is better than representative democracy?

I don’t want to live according to a series of referendums, and I’m certainly not keen on government by a self-selecting group of people who’ve chosen not to work within existing democratic structures – that’s just oligarchy by another name. I’ve seen the updated manifesto: there’s nothing wrong with proposing changes to the City but is that it? I have to say I’m still not convinced that this is new, democratic or effective. But if
you’re offering biscuits, I like chocolate-chip cookies.

Yours, Joan

Dear Joan,

It’s the wind-chill factor in the man-made air funnel of St Paul’s churchyard that has made temperatures on the skin so arctic, something you’d have experienced if you had bothered to spend time at the Occupation before this debate. This is precisely the problem. It’s all very well for members of the commentariat in their cosy living rooms to pour scorn on people trying to change the system, but if you have a better plan for
getting the whole world talking about financial injustice, I’d like to see it.

I don’t think any of the occupiers at St Paul’s expect the work they are doing so suddenly to entirely replace everything being done more traditionally on the left – nobody is trying to confiscate your membership of Amnesty International. But when the mainstream commentariat cannot tell the difference between an attack on Labour organisers and an attack on free-market capitalism, it’s worth considering the robustness of its existing narratives.

General Assembly is the decision-making body of any given occupation, and it uses a system of consensus-based direct democracy to work out everything from what demands to levy on the City of London to who takes out the rubbish. Nobody votes for its leaders, because it doesn’t have leaders – everyone is an equal participant in the process, and all voices are supposed to be heard equally. Unfortunately, it’s a system that can often mean that the simplest housekeeping questions take ages to finalise. I’ve been to a meeting that took four hours to decide whether we should be allowed to smoke indoors. But it’s miles better than the microcosmic Soviet Union that you seem, rather unimaginatively, to envisage as the end-point of all radical politics.

Nobody is asking you to live according to a series of referendums, Joan. They are just asking for democracy that does what it says on the tin. These occupations are an attempt to change the political conversation, in Britain and across the developed world. They have already been successful; whether they continue to be so will depend in part on whether commentators such as you are prepared to listen to them.

Yours, Laurie

Dear Laurie,

Interestingly, I don’t recall the Greenham Common women ever complaining to me about the cold, and they camped for years. When I chaired the PEN Writers in Prison committee, I travelled frequently and met people who’d undergone dreadful torture in Syria and Iran, as well as observing Orhan Pamuk’s trial in Istanbul. I’ve also been involved in a literacy project in Sierra Leone, although it’s true that I’d do almost anything to avoid that terrifying boat trip from Lungi airport to Freetown.

I’ve always wanted to change the world. But I think the world’s problems – from the financial crisis to evidence that war crimes have been committed in Libya – are too pressing to waste four hours on “housekeeping”. I don’t think traditional democratic structures are to blame, but the small numbers of people who are prepared to use them, in contrast to newly democratic countries such as Tunisia. But I’m happy to give
you the benefit of the doubt. Let’s see what happens in five years. If I’m wrong, the biscuits are on me.

Yours, Joan

 

Joanna Yeates, the tabloid press, and the grim truth about sexual violence

Saturday 29 October 2011

The Joanna Yeates trial has ended with her killer, Vincent Tabak, in prison for murder. But it leaves a dreadful reckoning: a vital young woman has lost her life, the people who were close to her will go on mourning for years, and her image will forever be associated in the public mind with the grim circumstances of her death. Women in Bristol were advised by the police not to walk home alone, even though it transpired that
the fatal assault on Ms Yeates happened in her own flat. Her landlord, Chris
Jefferies, endured the torment of being wrongly accused of involvement in Ms
Yeates’s death, and had his private life written about in the most lurid terms.

Only a small proportion of the murders committed in the UK each year attract publicity on this scale. Those that do are often atypical, involving young, attractive, middle-class women even though the majority of homicide victims – around 70 per cent – are male. Among the remaining 30 per cent, only one woman in eight is killed by a stranger; women have more reason to fear assailants who are known to them than a random
encounter in the street.

In that sense, Ms Yeates was doubly a victim: first of a composed, calculating killer who collected pornographic images of men having sex with bound and gagged women, and then of a media obsession with certain categories of victims. There is no question that
prosecutors need to be able to set out the medical evidence during a trial but
the press reported it in excruciating detail, dwelling on her suffering in a
manner that verged on pornographic. ‘She fought to her last breath’ said the Daily
Mirror, while the Daily Mail was even more graphic: ‘He squeezed the life out of
her: Jo Yeates suffered slow and painful death as she fought desperately for her
life’.

An obsession with violent crimes has produced a style of reporting that is frantic, prurient and detached from normal human emotions. Friends and family can decide whether to listen when distressing evidence is being given in court, but they can hardly avoid headlines spelling out the victim’s suffering. There has seldom been a stronger case for the popular press to examine its behaviour, and recognise the damage done by
its relentless appetite for stories – and its chronic lack of empathy.

But there is another point that needs to be made here. Even though the prosecution was not allowed to tell the jury about Tabak’s obsession with bondage porn or evidence suggesting he paid for sex with women working as prostitutes, they didn’t believe his version of events and he was convicted of murder. If this had been a rape trial,
however, things might have been very different. In court, Tabak used a classic
rape defence: that the victim invited him into her flat where he misunderstood
her behaviour and tried to kiss her.

Tabak used this defence, I suspect, because in rape trials it is often successful. There is a widely-held belief that the ‘problem’ of rape is one of false accusation, in which innocent men misconstrue situations and find themselves facing trumped-up charges. In
case after case, juries are willing to believe that women invite men they don’t
know into their homes and have sex with them, only to change their minds
afterwards and claim to have been raped.

It now looks likely that, far from inviting Tabak into her flat, Ms Yeates was the victim of a ruse which he used to gain entry with the purpose of strangling her. This is what the judge, Mr Justice Field, told Tabak after his conviction at Bristol Crown Court: ‘When
you entered her flat…you did not even know her name and had had virtually
nothing to do with each other. You proceeded to strangle her intending, in my
judgement, to kill her, a dreadful evil act committed against a vulnerable, unsuspecting
young woman’.

Tabak is a pitiless sexual predator, who thoroughly deserves the life sentence he is now serving. But as well as the tragedy of a young woman losing her life, this dreadful case is a warning about the cold cunning of such men – and the continuing danger they pose to women.

 

Libya update

Monday 24 October 2011

During a speech on Sunday 23 October, Libya’s transitional leader announced that the country’s law would be based on sharia in future. The specific example he gave was the repeal of a secular law banning polygamy in Libya. Here’s a report of the relevant section of his speech from the Daily Telegraph:

“We as a Muslim nation have taken Islamic sharia as the source of legislation, therefore any law that contradicts the principles of Islam is legally nullified,” said the NTC leader, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, adding that Libya would set up an Islamic banking system.

 

It isn’t just China where strangers are reluctant to intervene

Independent on Sunday, 23 October 2011

A couple of days ago, a little girl died in hospital in China after being run over a week earlier by two vans. Two-year-old Wang Yue, known as Yueyue, wandered into the street and was hit by the first van, which left her bleeding in the road. In the next seven minutes, around a dozen people walked or cycled past without stopping to help, until Yueyue was run over by a second van. It  was then that a woman pulled the toddler to the side of the road, where her mother found her shortly afterwards.

These events were captured on CCTV in the city of Foshan, and images of the child lying crumpled in the street are almost unbearable to watch. They’ve sparked a debate in China, with some arguing that the incident is a consequence of the Cultural Revolution, when people learned to avoid getting involved in anyone else’s business.
There’s even been a suggestion that the country needs a law compelling
strangers to offer assistance, as though that would turn bystanders into Good
Samaritans.

The parable has featured in Western reports of Yueyue’s death, implying that such indifference to suffering is somehow specific to China. But while it is true that China is an authoritarian society, it is far from being the only place where people are
reluctant to help others. On Christmas Day last year, a Brighton woman told
1,048 Facebook “friends” she had taken a fatal overdose, yet no one went
to her flat or contacted the police until it was too late.

The reasons people don’t respond in a crisis vary from outright callousness to not knowing what to do. I once emerged from the cinema to find a man lying on the pavement, totally ignored by people coming out of nearby pubs and restaurants. When I knelt beside him, trying to figure out whether he was unconscious or drunk (the
latter, as it happens), strangers rushed to offer their mobile phones. They were willing to
help, but only if someone else took charge of the situation.

This reaction is so well known in psychology that it’s called the “bystander effect”. It’s
counterintuitive: the more people who witness a traumatic event, the less
likely they are to intervene, leaving it to someone else to take the initiative.
The case that gave rise to the theory is that of Kitty Genovese, a young woman
murdered in New York in 1964; initial reports suggested that 38 people
witnessed Genovese being attacked over a half-hour period, but none went to
help or called the police. It prompted a great deal of soul-searching, as well
as theories about the alienating effect of urban living.

Years later, it transpired that far fewer people witnessed the murder and Genovese’s assailant returned after initially being scared off by a man who shouted from a window. Nothing can excuse the small number who realised what was happening and did nothing, but the case became an urban myth that confirmed pre-existing prejudices. Now the death of Yueyue is in danger of becoming a moral fable about contemporary
China, leaving the most important question unaddressed.

How can we encourage more people to intervene in such events? Teaching first aid in schools is an obvious place to start, given how few of us know even the basics. But fear of interfering in other people’s business is a powerful inhibitor that raises
another counterintuitive suggestion. Life might be pleasanter, not to mention
safer, if we all stopped worrying about being too nosy.

Fear and Lothian

The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin, Orion £18.99

Rankin’s latest gives a second outing to Inspector Rebus’s successor — new detective, Inspector Malcolm Fox

Sunday Times, 23 October 2011

It is four years since Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus — working-class,
hard-drinking, contemptuous of authority — became an improbable candidate for
retirement, depriving Lothian and Borders police of one of its most colourful
characters. Rankin’s latest novel, The Impossible Dead, is a second outing for
his new detective, Inspector Malcolm Fox, against the familiar background of
Edinburgh and its environs.

Fox is a generation younger than Rebus and he’s given up the booze. If
there’s any danger of his seeming too nice, Rankin has cleverly given him a job
that creates plenty of conflict; Fox works for Internal Affairs, universally
known as the Complaints, and his job is investigating other cops. It’s a task
that ensures a frosty welcome whenever Fox arrives at a police station with his
sidekicks Tony Kaye and Joe Naysmith. The ­Complaints, Rankin’s first novel
with Fox as the main character, was at pains to explain what the team does;
with that out of the way, Rankin is able to give his characters free rein, using
an investigation into a corrupt detective constable in Fife as the starting
point.

Fox has been asked to find out whether other officers covered up for the
detective, Paul Carter, who has been found guilty of misconduct after demanding
sexual favours from women he arrested. A curious feature of the case is that
Carter was shopped by his own uncle, a retired police officer. Fox visits the
uncle in his out-of-the-way cottage and finds him surrounded by old newspapers
and documents dating back to 1985. Fox instinctively likes Alan Carter, an
old-fashioned copper with a ruddy face and bushy sideburns, and when the man is
murdered a few days later his nephew is the obvious suspect.

It isn’t Fox’s case, strictly speaking, but the murder weapon turns out
to be a gun that had been seized by the police years ago and supposedly
destroyed. Fox starts asking questions about the events Alan Carter was
researching at the time of his murder, and stumbles on the mysterious death of
a firebrand Scottish nationalist lawyer more than 25 years earlier.

Rankin has always been interested in Scottish nationalism, and the plot
reaches back to a decade when some groups turned to terrorist tactics. His
portrait of these young idealists and their descent into violence is finely drawn,
and his point that yesterday’s terrorists become today’s respected public
figures is well made. Fox is a less rumbustious but more likeable character
than Rebus, doggedly pursuing each clue as it takes him into the highest
echelons of Scotland’s devolved government.

If Rankin’s fiction has a flaw, it’s a tendency towards baroque plots
and improbable conspiracies. Here, it seems far-fetched that so many important
people have successfully concealed secret pasts for a quarter of a century. But
Fox remains a worthy successor to Rebus, retaining his outsider status and
incorruptibility but

operating in a much more modern context.

Even Gaddafi deserves justice

Saturday 22 October 2011

No matter where it happens, summary execution of unarmed prisoners is a war crime

The spectacle of young men queuing at a meat store in Misrata, eager to photograph the dead body of Muammar Gaddafi, is sickening. So is the mobile phone footage that’s emerged over the last two days, showing a dazed and increasingly bloody Gaddafi in the hands of a mob – a lynch mob, judging by the way the injured dictator was handled by his captors. Conflicting versions of Gaddafi’s final moments have been offered by members of the National Transitional Council, but the most likely account came from an anonymous member of the NTC: ‘They beat him very harshly and then they killed him. This is a war.’   

This is a war, and if this is what happened it is a war crime. So is the murder of Gaddafi’s son Mutassim, who was pictured relatively uninjured after his capture on Thursday, only to die shortly afterwards with a gaping wound in his throat. There is no ambiguity about the legal status of summary execution of unarmed prisoners, which demands an urgent investigation by an impartial body such as the UN. David Cameron’s claim that it is a matter for the Libyans to investigate is a shameful abdication of responsibility and we can expect no better from the Obama administration, with its own disgraceful record of extra-judicial executions.

Gaddafi was a horrible man. He was the subject of an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court, which was ready and willing to try him for war crimes, along with his son Saif al-Islam. Saif is the only significant member of the regime still at large and the NTC should immediately acknowledge its responsibility to ensure that he is captured alive and delivered to The Hague. Many Libyans have died in the struggle for freedom and human rights, and the fact that the old regime has ended in this brutal manner is a denial of what they believed in.

Human rights are not an add-on, a luxury that people are granted when everything else is in place. They are the foundation of civil society, but the pictures coming out of Libya suggest that great numbers of adrenaline-fuelled young men have little understanding of that. The NTC urgently needs to emphasise two things: the importance of the rule of law and the absolute necessity that Libya’s new settlement is founded on values very different from the previous regime. There’s no doubt that Gaddafi and his followers would have behaved like this to unarmed prisoners, which is all the more reason for their captors to exercise restraint.

The Obama administration set an appalling example with its assassinations of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, two equally horrible men who should have faced trials at The Hague. A few days after the summary execution of bin Laden, British politicians including our present and past prime ministers flocked to Westminster Hall and listened raptly as Obama talked about shared values. No one asked how state-sponsored murder fits into those values, even though this country long ago abandoned capital punishment.

It’s not enough to talk about our commitment to human rights. We have to demonstrate our support for them, even if it upsets our allies in countries as far afield as the US and Libya. In the last 48 hours, we have witnessed a catastrophic failure of human decency, recorded without any apparent sense of shame on mobile phones. It will be nothing short of a tragedy if the new Libya is founded on savage acts of revenge reminiscent of the worst behaviour of the old.

A man who does his thinking in the park is not all bad

Independent on Sunday, 16 October 2011

To find a British politician comparable to Letwin you have to go back to the late Sir Keith Joseph

I know I should think it’s absolutely dreadful and call for an inquiry. But I love the idea of a government minister ambling through St James’s Park on his way to work in Downing Street, discarding a memo here and a letter there. Even my elderly mother has a shredder these days, so the sight of Oliver Letwin tearing up pieces of paper in the old-fashioned way is curiously charming.

Yes, I’m aware of the risk of identity theft and I can imagine that an MP’s constituents might not be very pleased if their correspondence turned up in a Westminster litter bin. But it’s not exactly a hanging offence, is it?

Letwin is the Cabinet Office minister for policy, which means he’s in the happy position of being paid to think. He’s an intellectual, which is rare in public life these days, and I expect he takes a balanced view of the usefulness of most official documents to al-Qa’ida, always assuming that they have operatives sifting through litter in royal parks. It’s hard to imagine David Cameron making such a gaffe, but then he’s a PR man, who used to go in for man-of-the-people stunts like cycling to work from Notting Hill (the briefcase followed in an official car, remember).

Actors do better in politics than intellectuals, a circumstance proved by the contrasting fates of Ronald Reagan and Michael Ignatieff. While Reagan graduated from starring in not-very-good films to become president, the undeniably clever Ignatieff resigned as Leader of the Opposition in Canada after a catastrophic election defeat earlier this year.

I know diehard Brownites who swear that Gordon Brown’s really a frustrated intellectual, but my view is that his judgement is too clouded by emotion to qualify. Robin Cook is the nearest thing Labour’s had in recent years, displaying an independence of mind and enviable grasp of detail, but that didn’t make him popular in the House of Commons.

To find a British politician comparable to Letwin you have to go back to Margaret Thatcher’s mentor, the late Sir Keith Joseph, who attracted a similar reputation for being not entirely practical, shall we say. To be fair, I don’t think either of them is as unworldly as the well-known historian who once sat on me at a party, apparently failing to notice I was already occupying the point he coveted on a sofa. But what Letwin and Joseph have in common is intellectual curiosity and a lack of concern about how they look to other people, which stands out at a time when politicians live in fear of upsetting constituents.

Joseph described himself as a “convenient madman” but today he’d be stuck with that dreadful label “blue skies thinker”, and get the PM into no end of trouble. According to a former researcher, Joseph once commissioned a paper on the moral case for child labour, not because he approved of it but as an intellectual exercise. I also heard a story about someone inviting him to an editorial lunch and contacting his office to ask if he had any dietary requirements; the unexpected answer was that “the minister eats only boiled eggs”.

Members of the public often complain that MPs are insincere and afraid of speaking their minds. But they don’t much like it when politicians tell them they’re wrong or come up with unorthodox ideas. Even a walk in the park can be dangerous, although David Cameron is probably wishing his erstwhile defence secretary had taken a morning stroll weeks ago and discarded his unofficial adviser in the nearest bin.

Press freedom and decent values can go together

Phone hacking is a symptom of a bullying aggressive newsroom culture

The Independent, Friday 14 October 2011

The British press is the finest in the world. The British press has gone a bit wrong, but all that’s needed is a few tweaks to sort the whole thing out. Alternatively, the real fault lies with the Prime Minister, who set up a public inquiry to divert attention from his own bad judgement in hiring Andy Coulson.

I’m not endorsing any of these arguments, you understand. I’m summarising what I’ve heard during two days of seminars organised by Lord Justice Leveson, before his inquiry gets properly under way. To give you a flavour of the proceedings, here’s former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie: “God help me that free speech comes down to the thought process of a judge who couldn’t win when prosecuting counsel against Ken Dodd for tax evasion… It’s that bad.”

Free speech. Ah yes, we all believe in that, don’t we? I certainly do, and I know plenty of journalists who’ve suffered at the hands of repressive foreign regimes while trying to exercise their right to free expression; for four years I chaired the English PEN Writers in Prison Committee, which allowed me to hear harrowing stories of beatings and torture in Iran, Syria, Vietnam and too many other countries to mention.

If you had arrived at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in Westminster from Mars to take part in the Leveson seminars, what I’ve just said might surprise you. The outbreak of high-mindedness marks a sensational change in the priorities of the popular press; suddenly everyone is talking about the horrors endured by journalists in Zimbabwe, as though those of us who are the least bit critical of tabloid culture are itching to impose a regulatory regime as oppressive as Robert Mugabe’s. Actually, I’m delighted the Daily Mail occasionally writes about Zimbabwe but I don’t think I’m about to see a rash of stories in the popular press about forced labour camps in Uzbekistan.

Back on planet Earth, matters look a little different. It’s not just that MacKenzie’s throwaway remark about free speech comes from a man whose paper had to apologise for its shameful coverage of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. Let’s not forget that led to a condemnation by the Press Complaints Commission, a boycott of The Sun on Merseyside, and a belated front-page apology for “the most terrible mistake” in its history. It’s that all the impassioned talk about free expression, condemnations of “criminality” at the News of the World and debates aboutmedia regulation have been a diversion from the real story.

Phone hacking is bad enough in itself, whether it happened in one “rogue” newsroom – the current red-top defence – or was a great deal more widespread. But it’s also a symptom of a wider malaise in certain sections of the press: the existence of a bullying, aggressive newsroom culture that’s forgotten that stories are about living, breathing and sometimes vulnerable people. I made this point at the first Leveson seminar and since then two distinguished tabloid journalists have told me my anxieties are shared in the popular press. A former tabloid reporter, Richard Peppiatt, told the Leveson inquiry that tabloid newsrooms “are often bullying and aggressive environments”. I suspect they’re also very macho, and that women have to subscribe to the prevailing insensitivity if they want to get on in that world.

The phone-hacking scandal shows how easy it has become for unscrupulous reporters to assemble stories at arm’s length; some victims of phone hacking by the News of the World had no idea they were under surveillance, or that their voicemails had been intercepted, until they were approached by officers from the Metropolitan Police this year.

How extensive this spying operation has turned out to be is illustrated by my own experience: I’m hardly a major public figure but in May I met two officers from Operation Weeting and was shown photocopies of pages Glenn Mulcaire compiled about me and my then boyfriend as long ago as 2004. I can recall the symptoms of shock as I realised the surveillance had begun shortly after a devastating tragedy in my partner’s family. Lord Leveson has designated me a “core participant” in his inquiry, and I’ve begun proceedings against the News of the World’s parent company for breach of privacy.

The scandal goes way beyond interception of voicemail messages. I suspect that psychologists would describe what happens in some newsrooms as “depersonalisation”, an attitude that strips crime victims, celebrities and people like myself of humanity. Technology has undoubtedly made it easier to collect personal information from social networking sites where the unwary – Amanda Knox, for instance, who has lived to regret mentioning her nickname “Foxy Knoxy” – place trivial but damaging snippets about themselves. But the result is that popular newspapers are full of caricatures, two-dimensional figures whose own mothers would barely recognise them.

This isn’t an argument for state regulation or licensing of the press; it’s about the need for a change in the values that inform the behaviour of too many reporters and editors. Listening to Kelvin MacKenzie this week, I couldn’t help thinking he embodies everything that’s wrong with tabloid newsrooms. This is a big ask for Leveson, but I just hope his inquiry can restore some of the compassion and ethics that brought many of us into journalism in the first place.

Is Tristane Banon’s novel of a fictionalised DSK a wise move?

The Guardian, Friday 14 October 2011

Such romans-a-clef have a chequered history – Lady Caroline Lamb’s Glenarvon only succeeded in boosting Byron’s reputation

When the courts fail to deliver justice, an angry man or woman can always turn to fiction – but is it wise? On Thursday, the writer Tristane Banon heard that the man she had accused of attempted rape, the Socialist politician Dominique Strauss-Khan, would not have to answer charges in a French court. On the same day, Banon’s fictionalised account of the episode, entitled The Hypocrites’ Ball, went on sale across France.

The short novel suggests that Banon’s fear and loathing of the man she calls “the pig” have not diminished in the eight years since he allegedly attacked her in a Paris flat; catching sight of him on TV, the protagonist feels that the screen cannot protect her and she throws up her lunch. The “novelised” version of their encounter is clearly a roman-a-clef, belonging to a tradition in which writers of widely varying ability have tried to influence the historical record.

What’s odd about Banon’s decision to publish is that she’s already achieved a victory over Strauss-Kahn after French prosecutors took the view that there was evidence he committed a sexual assault in 2003, and decided not to proceed with the case only because it fell outside the three-year statutory limit. Her intervention has also put paid to Strauss-Kahn’s ambition to be his party’s presidential candidate, which he briefly hoped to revive after American prosecutors dropped charges of alleged rape in a New York hotel room. Banon and the other alleged victim, Nafissatou Diallo, are both pursuing civil cases which promise to tie up Strauss-Kahn in court proceedings for months if not years.

So why get involved in a venture that carries a high risk of back-firing on its author? This isn’t always the case, as the success of Carrie Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge attests; the book is informed by Fisher’s experience of growing up in Hollywood, recovering from substance abuse, and her relationship with her mother Debbie Reynolds. But anyone contemplating such a course should take a look at  Lady Caroline Lamb’s Gothic novel Glenarvon, which she published in 1816 after the end of her stormy affair with Lord Byron. The book contained an unflattering portrait of Byron but is credited with adding to his growing reputation as a romantic hero.

Romans-a-clef have a chequered history. Joe Klein’s Primary Colors, a fictionalised account of the 1992 Democratic presidential primary, was originally published anonymously and did its author no harm at all when his identity was revealed. Klein is a political journalist, he did a good job of fictionalising his material and he didn’t write as though he had a huge emotional investment in the book. Banon has a track record as a journalist and novelist and she’s used personal material in a previous book, a semi-autobiographical novel about a young girl who suffers neglect and abuse. She describes herself as psychologically fragile and excerpts from her new novel feel raw, even if they are revealing about Strauss-Kahn’s assumptions about his power over women.

It isn’t just the roman-a-clef that raises the problem of undigested emotion. Margaux Fragoso’s memoir Tiger, Tiger is an account of an abused child’s relationship with a 51-year-old paedophile, and it prompted queasy reactions when it appeared earlier this year. By Fragoso’s own account, the book has an element of writing-as-therapy as she tries to break “the old, deeply-rooted patterns of suffering and abuse that have dogged my family through the generations”. Whether the book succeeds or suggests its author is suffering from delayed shock is a question that’s divided critics, with one reader describing the book as “a truly horrible read”.

It may be unfair, but there’s an impression that romans-a-clef are something women produce because they feel powerless in the world. Banon would probably say she wrote her book because she has not been served well by the criminal justice system, but her publishers have made a very revealing statement about the “six weeks that changed her life”. Obviously they’re thinking about the furore that followed her attempted-rape accusation, which placed Banon in the spotlight as never before. But the most likely effect of the book will be to ensure that this brave yet fragile woman remains forever associated with her alleged attacker in the public mind.

Nature Notes from, er, Hollywood

Independent on Sunday, 9 October 2011

The short life cycle of the female of the species might be summarised as follows: smokin’ hot, strips for glossy mag, dates younger man, covers up cellulite, knees give away true age, dumped for younger model. Even the choicest specimen of sidus umbraculi argentei – the greater-crested movie star – cannot prevent her decline, although there’s room for debate about whether she’s reached the final stage. Now it’s the turn of Demi Moore, who’s approaching the dangerous age of 50.

In recent days, speculation about the state of the star’s marriage to the 33-year-old actor Ashton Kutcher has reached fever pitch – I suppose it does at least offer a momentary reprieve from “Is muscly Madonna spending too long in the gym?”. The 15-year age gap between Moore and Kutcher is, in celeb-watching terms, even more of a delicious disaster-in-waiting than was Madonna’s now defunct marriage to Guy Ritchie. Moore looks in pretty good shape to me, and I’m not sure why she’s cruelly mocked for following the prescriptions – teeth whitening, manicures, pelvic floor exercises, sun block – that readers of women’s magazines are urged to adopt.

Why would anyone go to such lengths to stay young – “viable and fresh, like a lovely frosted cupcake in the bakery of life”, in the breathless language of the Daily Mail – if she hadn’t been fed a relentless diet of stories about the horrors of getting old? I loathe cupcakes. They leave a nasty taste in the mouth, as does the idea of comparing an adult woman to an infantile, sugary confection.

What’s particularly unpleasant about the constant carping about Moore is that she works in an industry where taking care of her appearance is part of her job. (I don’t know about her ex-husband Bruce Willis, but I bet lots of male actors quietly use moisturiser.) Even worse is the gleeful biological determinism unleashed by reports of Kutcher’s partying in Las Vegas on the weekend of the couple’s sixth wedding anniversary, which was supposedly followed by a “torrid sexual liaison” with a 23-year-old.

The age difference between Kutcher and Moore is as nothing compared with the 37-year gap between Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng, but the rules are tougher for women. The Mail for one has waited quite long enough for Moore’s marriage to fall apart: “Some will say ‘cougar’ Demi was asking for trouble in romancing a much younger toyboy who is likely to forsake his partner, sooner or – as seems to be the case here – later, for a younger woman in her physical peak.”

You don’t often see disgust towards older women expressed so frankly. Yet if Moore’s marriage is in trouble, the fact that she and Kutcher are celebrities probably has more to do with it than age; Hollywood isn’t exactly famous for enduring relationships. The subliminal message that even a woman as beautiful as Moore can’t hold on to a younger man is a way of making other women anxious, even though most of us know couples where the age difference doesn’t matter. Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, has been married for three decades to a woman who’s 17 years older than him, and I haven’t read a single article describing Moira Salmond as a cougar.

Wrinkly or predatory? Is that really the choice for older women? I don’t think so. And I doubt if comparisons with the animal kingdom tell us anything about the female of our species.