Zuma’s vanity is nothing – it’s HIV that counts

Independent on Sunday, 27 May 2012

Ladies and gentlemen, this week I bring you the curious case of the President’s penis. If you haven’t seen the organ in question – sensitive readers might wish to turn away now – I should explain that it appears fully exposed in a satirical portrait of South African President Jacob Zuma. The painting shows Zuma in a pose that recalls Lenin in Soviet propaganda, although I’ve never seen a hero of the USSR exposing his genitalia.

It isn’t something I’d want on my wall but I can see what the artist, Brett Murray, is satirising: a self-aggrandising machismo which is deeply unattractive in the leader of a modern democratic country. Anyway, Zuma is furious about the painting, which recently went on show at a Johannesburg gallery. Murray’s images are a mordant commentary on the country’s political elite but Zuma’s party, the ANC, claims the painting is racist.  Last week they went to court to have it removed from public view, and demanded that a photograph of it be removed from the website of a South African paper, City Press. The hearing descended into farce when Zuma’s lawyer burst into tears and the case was adjourned.

The painting is called The Spear, which sounds like a phallic joke as well as a reference to Spear of the Nation, the ANC’s old armed wing. By the time the case came to court, it had been defaced in two attacks and removed from the gallery, but the saga has opened another round of hostilities over the state of free expression in South Africa. It’s guaranteed by the constitution but Zuma is notoriously litigious, and he’s gone to court several times over cartoons and articles he didn’t like.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he’s been stung by Murray’s jibe. The ANC claims that the painting presents a stereotypical image of black men, but they can’t deny that  the 70-year-old President is a flamboyant polygynist. He’s just married his sixth wife, bringing his current total to four, and he has around 20 children. Polygyny is an  oppressive practice, forcing several women to share one man while denying them the right to more than one husband.

But there’s another important issue here. South Africa has a huge problem with HIV-Aids, and Zuma’s predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, had a dismal record on Aids education and prevention. Zuma was cleared of rape in 2006, but his reputation was damaged by his admission that he did not use a condom with his accuser, whom he knew to be HIV-positive. Zuma’s ludicrous claim that he took a shower afterwards encouraged myths about Aids prevention, and led to his being lampooned in a condom advert.

Zuma’s supporters dismiss criticism about his sexual practices as an attack on Zulu culture, which allows polygyny. Awkwardly for them, his province, KwaZulu-Natal, had the highest rate of HIV infection in women attending prenatal checks in 2010; a staggering two-fifths were HIV-positive. Art has done its job, in other words: the leader obsesses over a harmless painting of a penis, while unprotected sex causes a health crisis.

Oh, for the innocence of Donna Summer’s Hot Love

Independent on Sunday, 20 May 2012

Donna Summer sang about love but what she really meant was sex. Nobody could be in any doubt that the swooning vocals of ‘I Feel Love’ were about something else entirely, and 35 years later the song has lost none of its erotic charge. It’s been played over and over since Summer’s untimely death last week – she was only 63 – and it’s not comfortable to think about that mesmeric voice falling silent.

I’ve always loved dance music. Disco turned up at a moment in the 1970s when rock had become mystical and pretentious – just think of the cover image of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy – and it made pop sexy again. Summer’s timing was brilliant, for a generation of women had just read The Female Eunuch and were demanding the right to enjoy sex without shame. Summer’s first big hit was in 1975, five years after the book was published, and it couldn’t have been more perfect: the 17-minute version of ‘Love to Love You Baby’ contains more than 20 simulated orgasms. Summer said she recorded it lying on the floor in a darkened recording studio, thinking about how Marilyn Monroe might have sung the lyrics.

This black woman with the perfectly-controlled voice was certainly no eunuch, oozing sexuality on stage as dancers in sparkly costumes cavorted behind her. Videos capture the camp exhilaration of the period, when gender-bending was the order of the day, and there’s no denying that Summer’s impact was massive. Feminists and gay men loved her, even when she became a born-again Christian and was reported – she always denied it – to have said something very stupid about Aids. Last week, when the news of
her death was announced, Sir Elton John was one of many performers who paid tribute to her.

What’s striking from the standpoint of the 21st century is how innocent that time now seems. The 1970s produced a ferment of ideas about sex and gender, and disco provided an incredibly seductive backing track. At a time when unthinking sexism was rife in the music industry – I still find it hard to believe that the Bee Gees recorded a song called ‘More Than A Woman’ – Summer blazed a trail for Madonna, Whitney Houston and Lady Gaga. It’s also possible to see her influence on the hugely successful TV series Sex and the City, whose female characters live out the sexual freedom embodied in her lyrics.

Yet the fact remains that Summer was an unlikely standard-bearer for the revolution in popular culture she’s most associated with. She grew up in a religious family, singing in a gospel choir, and the tension between her beliefs and her highly eroticised stage persona can’t have been easy to reconcile; in her autobiography, she recalled a suicide attempt in 1976, between two of her biggest chart successes. In effect, she became a symbol of social and political movements – feminism and gay rights – which are profoundly secular, creating a personal conflict that prefigured the ideological battles of our present time.

Summer apparently told friends she believed that the lung cancer which killed her was caused by toxic particles she inhaled in New York after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Those events are a reminder of the harsh world we live in these days, which is pretty far removed from the hedonistic 1970s. I don’t think I’ll ever stop feeling nostalgic for ‘Hot Love’ – or the unashamed orgasmic glory that was disco.


Phone hacking: where will it all end?

Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain

Tom Watson & Martin Hickman

Allen Lane £20

When a News of the World journalist and a private detective went to prison for phone hacking in 2007, I had no idea that the story had anything to do with me. I didn’t know that the Metropolitan Police already had in their possession 11,000 pages of notes compiled by the detective, Glenn Mulcaire, or that several of those pages concerned me. I didn’t find out until April last year when I was contacted by detectives from Operation Weeting, which had been set up to investigate allegations that there might be thousands of victims of phone hacking.

A month later, and almost five years after the police confiscated Mulcaire’s notebooks, I finally got to see his notes about me. They contained personal details, including my home address and phone numbers, a list of the papers I was writing for – which included another Murdoch paper, The Times – and references to a trip I made to Spain. But what immediately jumped out at me was the date the surveillance started: May 2004, just over a month after my then-partner’s eldest daughter was killed in a sky-diving accident in Australia. This, in other words, was another instance of the News of the World getting interested in individuals after one of them had suffered a devastating bereavement.

That was a year ago. Since then, the phone hacking scandal has expanded into areas of public life that none of us could have expected, and it’s by no means finished yet. Victims have given evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, a Parliamentary committee has doggedly pursued leading actors in the drama, and both the police and politicians have been called to account for their closeness to editors and journalists.

At times, the story has unfolded like a thriller, which is exactly the atmosphere Tom Watson and Martin Hickman – a Labour MP and an Independent journalist respectively – have created in Dial M for Murdoch. The book opens with a classic vignette, Rupert Murdoch’s chauffeur-driven black Range Rover heading to the House of Commons in July 2011, which reminds me of the Sunday Times Insight team in its heyday. I worked for Insight at the beginning of my career, and the way we laid out our investigations in those days owed a lot to the thriller genre.

From that starting point, Watson and Hickman trace the scandal back to its origins, providing a guide to how the ‘dark arts’ of phone hacking and covert surveillance began to infest a swathe of tabloid journalism. They show the missed opportunities when these practices could have been exposed and stopped, including the failure of an earlier police investigation into the use of private detectives by newspapers, Operation Motorman, to set alarm bells ringing.

This story is important because a free press is essential if democracy is to function properly. One of the ironies of my own case is that in May 2004 I was in Barcelona, appearing on Spanish television to argue that independent journalists in countries like Morocco and Syria needed more protection, and I had no idea that I was being spied on by a British tabloid. I’ve been a journalist all my working life, covering huge stories like the Iranian embassy siege, and I’ve never even spoken to a private detective.

Once the facts are fully out in the open, we can begin to restore the trust that’s vital if the press is to do its job of holding the powerful to account. It’s important not to forget the role played by classic investigative journalism at the Guardian, the Independent titles and the New York Times in bringing this story into the public domain, and Dial M for Murdoch is a valuable addition to that process. It’s also a gripping read, a reminder that the best journalism isn’t about celebrity gossip - and it certainly isn’t boring.

All material on this site (c) Joan Smith 2010-2012

Is this really how people should treat their pets?

The Independent, Wednesday 16 May 2012

Dr Johnson was famously sniffy about dogs walking on their hind legs. So I’m not sure he’d have been entranced by Pudsey, the mop-haired pooch whose owner swept up a £500,000 prize at the weekend. Ashleigh Butler, who’s 17, has trained her collie-cross to dance on his hind legs, and their barn-storming performance took them to victory in the final of Britain’s Got Talent.

It’s not long, either, since a lovable Jack Russell called Uggie tugged the heart-strings of movie-goers who saw the Oscar-winning French film The Artist. Uggie has received almost as much attention as the movie’s human stars, so I guess that I – and Dr Johnson, were he still alive – have no choice but to acknowledge the public’s continuing love affair with performing animals.

I like animals myself. A cat is asleep on my desk as I write, and over several decades I’ve shared my home with a nervous ginger tom, a couple of rescue tabbies, and a series of talkative Burmese. I’m conscious of the temptation to anthropomorphise them but, luckily, cats are just about impossible to train. They do what they like – Freud developed his theory of narcissism after observing a cat – and that’s one of the things I
most enjoy about them.

Dogs are a different matter. The affection between Ashleigh and Pudsey is obvious but I can’t help feeling unsettled by the reaction to what is basically a novelty animal act. hat bothers me, I think, is that dogs trust their owners and want to please them. The relationship is akin to that between an adult and a human toddler, and as such it belongs in the private sphere.

I’m uncomfortable about animals as entertainment, and I wonder how many times people want to watch a dog prancing around on stage. I also wonder whether there’s much of a difference between novelty dog acts and the circus animals I saw as a child: elephants balancing on stools and chimps mimicking human behaviour. Thankfully, a growing awareness of the need to treat animals with dignity has changed the public mood. Circus animals still exist – the RSPCA says there are between 150 and 200 performing animals in this country – but they feel like an anachronism.

In the past couple of days, I’ve seen interview after interview with Ashleigh and Pudsey, alongside speculation that they’re “on their way to Hollywood”. Simon Cowell, whose influence on public taste is a thing to behold – not in a good way, I hasten to add – says the pair are one of his “favourite ever acts”. Maybe we’re about to see a revival in movies starring animals, with Lassie and Rin Tin Tin coming to mind.

But I can’t help remembering Juvenal’s acerbic remark about the Roman populace’s taste for panem et circenses – bread and circuses. In hard economic times, people tend to be cruel and sentimental by turns, and it seems that performing dogs have hit the spot. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you – canem et circenses.

When the bath is your office

Working from home can be a bit of a shock if you’ve never done it. So I have some timely advice for the thousands of civil servants who’ve been told they needn’t go intothe office for seven weeks during the Olympics.

It’s absolutely fine to work in your pyjamas. I often spend two or three hours at the computer in my nightie before I even think about getting dressed, which is one of the reasons I’m not keen on camera phones. Oh, and people who call from offices can be surprised if you answer from the bath, so keep splashing noises at a minimum.

On occasion, I work in bed, which has its own pitfalls. I once spotted my iPhone bumping round in the washing machine, where I’d accidentally bundled it with a heap of dirty sheets. Even the smartest of smartphones is liable to emerge dumb from a 40C environmentally friendly washcycle.

Yep – same dress, different parties

Another survey, another opportunity to wonder why I’m not like other women – the ones that take part in surveys, that is. The latest suggests that four-fifths of women think their wardrobe is incomplete without an LBD (or little black dress), but few wear it more than twice. They don’t want their friends to see them wearing the same dress, apparently, so they leave it in the cupboard for up to 11 years. By which time, of course, it doesn’t fit.

This may explain why I’ve found so many bargains, including a divine LBD by Gucci, in charity shops. But, then, I’m not afraid of wearing the same dress several times. I’ve even – gulp – worn the same outfit on consecutive evenings. Real women don’t care about such things, or so I tell myself until I come across the next survey.


Bye-Bye Mr Bombastic, bienvenue to Mr Normal

Independent on Sunday, 13 May 2012

Exactly a year ago, an event took place which would have a sensational impact on politics in France: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the IMF, was arrested in New York on suspicion of rape. At the time, Strauss-Kahn was supremely confident, a former inister and widely regarded as the Socialist Party’s best hope of defeating Nicolas Sarkozy in this year’s presidential election. Twelve months later, the fortunes of both men have taken a dramatic turn for the worse, while a relative unknown, François Hollande, has seized the top job.

Nobody would describe the President-elect as showy, like his predecessor, or a libertine in the DSK mould. I once met Hollande at the Socialist Party HQ in Paris and I certainly couldn’t argue with his presentation of himself as “Mr Normal”. Sarkozy began his term as president by embarking on a very public relationship with a supermodel – remember when he whisked Carla Bruni on a tour of world-famous burial sites? – but his defeat last weekend confirmed that the country had had enough of his bombastic style.

Hollande shows signs that he’s ready to break with the past in another way. For years he lived with the Socialist politician Ségolène Royal – they said they didn’t believe in marriage – and they have four children. They parted acrimoniously but Royal is confident of getting, and deserves, a big job in his administration. She ran against Sarkozy five years ago and lost; in 2007, before the economic crisis, voters were beguiled by Sarkozy’s brashness but it wasn’t long before his extravagance and sexual boasting began to grate. He appointed women ministers but they failed to impress and one of them, Rachida Dati, was so insecure that she returned to work only five days after giving birth.

For decades, the French knew next to nothing about their politicians’ private lives. François Mitterrand maintained a second family, ignored by the press while he was president, and an atmosphere of excessive secrecy allowed politicians such as DSK to thrive. The rape charges in New York were finally dropped but a French journalist accused him of trying to rape her in Paris in 2003, and the case was thrown out only on grounds of time. He’s now been charged with “aggravated pimping” in a separate investigation in France.

Rumours about DSK had circulated in Paris for years, but most people outside politics were astounded by his arrest. Sarkozy went to the opposite extreme, letting the French public know much more than they ever wanted about his courtship and marriage, while his new wife posed for the photographer Annie Leibovitz on the roof of the Elysée Palace. One of his ministers, Frédéric Mitterrand, turned out to have boasted in a book about his activities as a sex tourist.

For five years, sexual reticence was replaced by macho display, and voters didn’t like it (or Sarkozy’s handling of the economy) at all. Hollande’s choice of a younger woman as his new partner is conventional but he seems genuinely committed to the principle of equality in public life. That, and the fact that he and Royal are willing to work together politically, promises a new era in terms of gender. The ousting of Sarkozy’s bling-bling presidency by Mr Normal could be very good news for women in France.

Why are we paying for the PM’s lawyers?

Many of the questions Cameron faces are about a personal relationship

The Independent, 10 May 2012

Last summer, as a storm over phone hacking raged around Rebekah Brooks, a friend texted her with consoling advice. Not long afterwards, she resigned from her job as the  chief executive of News International and was almost immediately arrested and bailed by detectives investigating allegations of phone hacking. The friend who texted, according to a new biography by James Hanning and Francis Elliott, was David Cameron. The authors say that Brooks’s husband Charlie told friends about the essage, which urged her to “keep her head up and she’d get through her difficulties”. That doesn’t say much for Cameron’s judgement, but it’s an insight into the close relationship with Brooks.

Their friendship will come under the spotlight tomorrow when Brooks appears before the Leveson Inquiry. In an eventful week, the inquiry heard yesterday that the News of the World did hack Milly Dowler’s phone, but the truth about voicemail deletions might never be known; and Cameron’s former communications chief, Andy Coulson, is due to give evidence today.

Last week, Cameron was one of eight Cabinet ministers who made a late application to become “core participants” in the inquiry, allowing them to see key witness statements in advance. After Jeremy Hunt’s mauling last month, when the Culture Secretary had no notice of emails handed to the inquiry by James Murdoch, I can see why they were keen to acquire this status. But there’s an important question about which parts of their involvement can be funded at public expense.

Last week’s application was made by James Eadie QC; as First Treasury Counsel, he has appeared for ministers on government business such as the proposed extradition of Abu Hamza. Yet many of the questions that Cameron faces are about a personal friendship which pre-dates his period in government. And other ministers are likely to be asked about events, such as Hunt’s visit to News Corp in 2009, which took place while in Opposition.

I am also a core participant, along with other victims of phone hacking, and we’ve had to find private sources of funding for legal representation. Yesterday, a Cabinet Office spokesperson told me that “Government is providing legal support for ministers for the  parts of their evidence that relate to government business”. I’m not sure the distinction is clear-cut, but the Cabinet Office confirmed that it is up to ministers to arrange their own legal representation for evidence relating to the period when they were in Opposition.

Shortly after last summer’s text message, Cameron cooled towards Brooks. She didn’t want to embarrass him, according to Hanning and Elliott, and he wanted to be able to  say they hadn’t been in touch. Embarrassment now seems inevitable, along with the intriguing prospect of Cabinet ministers having to urgently consult lawyers about what is and isn’t “government business”.

Welcome to the home life of OBL, mass murderer and shameless polygynist

Independent on Sunday, 6 May 2012

You know that moment when you’re with your current partner and one of your exes turns up? Imagine what it’s like when the ex turns out not to be an ex at all, and wants to move in with you. That’s what happened to Osama bin Laden last year when a wife he hadn’t seen for years, Khairiah,turned up at his compound in Pakistan.

Bin Laden, who was 54, had enough problems in Abbottabad even before Khairiah showed up. According to documents seized during the raid on his compound last year, he spent his final years struggling to control various international terrorist groups which desperately wanted to be associated with the al-Qa’ida franchise, but kept tarnishing the brand by blowing up other Muslims. Bin Laden liked to regard himself as being involved in “general jihadi work” – it sounds so much more routine than planning mass murder – and he got increasingly irritated by the unruly behaviour of AQ’s affiliates.

One of his closest associates complains in the documents, which have just been analysed by the Combating Terrorism Centre in the US, about jihadi websites distorting the image of al-Qa’ida”. They weren’t selling ice cream, for god’s sake, but bin Laden was keen to centralise the business of sending out jihadi press releases. At one point he even remonstrates with one of AQ’s Pakistani affiliates, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, complaining about “vile mistakes” and warning that he might be forced to take “firm legal steps from our side”.

What he had in mind is hard to fathom, given that he was in hiding, but after years on the run it’s perhaps not surprising that his threats sound empty. In what may be another sign of his uncertain status, bin Laden politely declines a request from Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr, leader of the Somali terrorist organisation Al Shabab, to be allowed to join AQ. Al Shabab is a notoriously dreadful organisation but analysts who’ve read the originals say bin Laden’s letter ‘has echoes of the “it’s not you, it’s me” excuse’.

One of Bin Laden’s thorniest problems was Iran, which held several members of his family hostage after they fled Afghanistan in 2001. The Iranians hung on to his adult daughter, Fatima, and her husband for years, and in 2010 Bin Laden insists that the couple must be released together. “It is not fair to separate women from their husbands,” he writes, adding that he also wants the release – you’ll need to pay attention to this bit – of his daughter’s husband’s second wife.

Bin Laden though of himself as a family man and by the time 62-year-old Khairiah turned up at the compound from Iran, he had an awful lot of it with him. Khairiah didn’t get on with bin Laden’s youngest wife, Amal, who was less than half her age, and I can’t help feeling sorry for a third wife, Siham, who had to sleep in the computer room. I don’t normally use phrases like “hen-pecked”, but these shameless polygynists set women against each other and they richly deserve the bad atmosphere it causes. I just hope that trying to placate all of them – three wives, eight children, five grandchildren, not to mention the leader of Al Shabab - was as much a nightmare as it sounds.

I’m not even surprised that the world’s most wanted man resorted to using Just for Men hair dye and a vegetable-based aphrodisiac. This jihadi business is a slog, especially when the missuses keep giving you grief.

Ignorance by Michele Roberts

Occupied France provides the backdrop for a novel of friendship, complicity and courage.

The Independent, Saturday 05 May 2012

The streets of the village of Ste Madeleine are steep and cobbled, with a château and a school run by nuns perched at the top. Jeanne and Marie-Angele attend the school, playing together but not close friends. Marie-Angele comes from a respectable family, Catholic and middle-class, while Jeanne’s mother is a widow who takes in washing. She is also Jewish, a fact widely known even though she has converted to Catholicism.

Michèle Roberts’s new novel opens in provincial France just before the Second World War. The girls’ ages temporarily obscure the differences between them, allowing Jeanne to take the lead in tempting Marie-Angele into scrapes. “Little Miss Mealy-Mouth, little Miss  Preachy, little Miss Prim”, she teases when Marie-Angele hangs back, little knowing how true her words will turn out to be.

Anti-Semitism is present from the  beginning. The different fortunes of the girls are reflected in the locations  of their families: Jeanne and her mother live at the bottom of the village,  near the smithy, while Marie-Angele’s parents own a grocer’s shop halfway up  the hill. Such gradations assume greater significance when German troops  arrive.

Marie-Angele’s parents have a key position in the village and soon they’re working with Maurice, a black marketeer. Marie-Angele’s true character begins to emerge when she  finds the cobbler’s  wife and two of her children hiding in the garden shed, stowed there by Maurice while he acquires forged papers for them. Marie-Angele demands to know why Maurice has got involved with “these people” – she means Jews – without giving a thought to the fact that Jeanne is Jewish and as much at risk.

The paths of the two young women diverge radically as the war progresses. In Marie-Angele’s eyes, her family is entitled to do whatever it has to in order to survive, and clandestine trips with Maurice to pick up contraband are an opportunity to seduce a man who knows where he’s  going. Soon Marie-Angele is pregnant, a calculated strategy to get Maurice to  marry her, and they’re moving into the château whose Jewish owner is in hiding.

Marie-Angele looks down her nose at Jeanne, who has moved to a nearby village where she’s rumoured to be working as a prostitute. Marie-Angele has little sympathy when Jeanne returns home unmarried and pregnant – or at the end of the war when women accused of collaboration are paraded through the streets.

Ignorance is a novel about moral choices. It’s also about the chances in life that make some people comfortable even as they fail to comprehend their good fortune. Different characters tell the same story, moving backwards and forwards in time. Sometimes  Jeanne’s voice, with its imaginative flights, sounds more like Roberts’s than a young woman of her time. But Marie-Angele’s boundless complacency hides a gripping story of fear, arrests and personal tragedy.

Bloomsbury £14.99


How funny is a speech defect?

The Independent, Thursday 3 May 2012

When the Labour peer Lord Ashley died last month, warm tributes were paid to his work on behalf of disabled people. Ashley became profoundly deaf in the middle of his career, when he was already an MP, and learned to make speeches in Parliament even though he could no longer hear his own voice. No one would dream of mocking a deaf politician’s distinctive delivery, but The Sun thinks it’s hilarious that the new England football manager has a speech impediment.

Roy Hodgson has an impediment known as rhotacism, or an inability to pronounce the letter R. This seems to have caused an outburst of uncontrollable mirth at the tabloid, which mocked Hodgson yesterday in childish headlines: “Woy gets England job. Bwing on the Euwos! (We’ll see you in Ukwaine against Fwance).”

Now, I can well imagine that the paper’s staff were in dire need of diversion after this week’s damning select committee verdict on their proprietor. But it might just have crossed their minds that the Hodgson front page was in a tradition of offensive Sun headlines leading back to the infamous occasion when it described Frank Bruno as bonkers”. The boxer had just been admitted to a psychiatric hospital and the then editor, Rebekah Wade – now Brooks – faced a storm of protest.

I don’t know whether there’s a subliminal suggestion of effeminacy here, but Hodgson wasn’t The Sun’s choice for the job. That was Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp, who used to write a column for the paper despite a mysterious episode during his recent trial for tax evasion – he was acquitted – when he claimed to write like a two-year-old. Hodgson, by contrast, is a Renaissance man in the world of football,  fluent in several languages and an admirer of the novels of Milan Kundera.

Given how poor the English are at foreign languages, it seems all the odder to mock someone who’s overcome a speech impediment with such success. Yet it’s still acceptable in some quarters to make fun of how someone speaks, as both David Beckham and the BBC’s business editor, Robert Peston, have found to their cost.

As for the new England manager, he seems decent, well-educated and grown-up. That’s more than I can say for yesterday’s heartless headlines.