The zombie church has a new leader. So what?

Independent on Sunday, 11 November 2012

As events go, it’s not exactly earth-shaking. A couple of days ago, a pressure group announced the name of its new boss, a white bloke in his 50s who used to work in the oil industry. Admittedly the job couldn’t have gone to a woman – this particular pressure group isn’t up to speed with equality – but did they have to pick an Old Etonian? Even more puzzling has been the reaction, with lots of people rushing around and using words like “daring” and “unexpected”. I even heard a woman on Radio 4 saying she was “excited”. That’s probably because the new Archbishop of Canterbury,  Justin Welby, is replacing Rowan Williams, a cleric who sounded thoughtful but was actually incomprehensible.

Whatever Welby’s qualities, however, the truth is that he’s taking charge of an organisation which doesn’t matter to most of the population. Desperate attempts to make the Church of England sound “relevant” can’t avoid that fact that most of us never set foot in any of its buildings except as tourists. And we hold a wide range of beliefs that include agnosticism, atheism, other forms of religion and devotion to the Jedi. The Anglican church long ago lost any claim to authority, and its special status is an outrageous anachronism. Disestablishment is long overdue and so is the removal of 26 Anglican bishops from the House of Lords. They’re actually just senior officials in an NGO, with no stronger claim to sit in the legislature than the head of Amnesty International or the RSPB.

It’s hard to see why I should care what the new Archbishop thinks about gay marriage, and even harder to see why he should be able to vote on it if and when legislation comes before the second chamber. One of the reasons church leaders are so touchy, I suspect, is that they know that these are extraordinary and indefensible privileges. A former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, gets acres of space to complain about discrimination against Christians, but he doesn’t say much about all the ways in which Anglican clerics continue to enjoy special status.

In a modern democracy, no religion should be treated as part of the state apparatus, dominating public ceremonies and automatically having the ear of the prime minister and monarch. I’m perfectly happy for clerics to lobby on any subject, but they should get in line with all the other organisations that would like the Government to listen to them. By cincidence, the Anglican church announced its new leader in the same week that the re-election of President Obama demonstrated the failure of the religious right in American politics. In a secular society, faith and politics are a combustible but not necessarily winning combination.

When he was Dean of Liverpool, Welby once gave his blessing to a Halloween service entitled Night of the Living Dead, in which a man in Gothic costume leapt from a coffin. The zombie church? It’s a great metaphor for an institution that steadfastly refuses to modernise.

Is £624 the price of a rape victim’s anonymity

The Independent, Wednesday 7 November 2012

Some friends and supporters of Ched Evans wrote the name of the woman he raped on Twitter – all they got was a measly fine.

What merits the more severe penalty – tweeting abuse about an unconscious man who is unaware of it or publicly naming a victim of sexual violence? Two days ago, yet another case involving abuse on social networking sites came to court and the outcome – paltry fines for a group of defendants – demonstrates the jaw-dropping inconsistency of the criminal justice system. The case also speaks volumes about hostile attitudes towards victims of sexual violence in this country.

In March this year, the Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the pitch during an FA Cup match at White Hart Lane. He was rushed to hospital in east London, where medical staff battled for hours to save his life. Muamba eventually recovered though not, sadly, to a point where he was able to return to playing football. On the afternoon of his collapse, a drunken student called Liam Stacey from South Wales mocked Muamba and posted “racially aggravated” abuse on Twitter. In no time, Stacey was arrested, charged and sentenced to 56 days in prison, as well as being banned from his course at Swansea University for the rest of the year. Stacey’s behaviour was callous and unthinking but even at the time the penalty seemed out of proportion to the damage he’d actually done.

The following month, the Wales and Sheffield United footballer Ched Evans was sent to prison for five years for a very nasty rape. His 19-year-old victim showed enormous courage when she reported the assault, which happened in a hotel room in Rhyl at the end of an evening when she had been drinking heavily. According to Nita Dowell, senior crown prosecutor in Wales, Evans “took advantage of a vulnerable woman who was in no fit state to consent to sexual activity. He did so knowingly and with a total disregard for her physical and emotional wellbeing”. Detective Chief Inspector Steve Williams said the victim had shown “a great deal of resilience and strength in difficult circumstances”.

But footballers are celebrities, and the court’s  view of Evans’s criminal behaviour was certainly not shared by his friends and supporters. They rushed on to Twitter and Facebook to vent their rage, not against the man who’d let them and his club down so badly but against his victim. Unlike Muamba, who was in hospital and receiving the best medical care when Stacey abused him, the young woman in the Evans case was trying to recover from the gruelling experience of a rape trial. She was obviously vulnerable but the defendants didn’t care, using social networking sites to name her and abuse her as a “slut”, a “tramp” and a “whore”.

Rape victims are entitled to lifelong anonymity and nine individuals appeared in court on Monday, accused of publishing material likely to lead members of the public to identify the complainant in a rape case. District judge Andrew Shaw did not mince his words, telling the defendants at Prestatyn magistrates court that they had acted with “deliberate
malice”. He said: “Your actions have revictimised this woman.” He imposed the maximum penalty on each of them, but that’s only a £624 fine.

If Stacey’s behaviour towards an unconscious Muamba merits a prison sentence, why is this offence treated so leniently? One of the tweets, posted by 26-year-old Paul Devine from Sheffield, not only named the woman but urged strangers to find her address. Surely, that’s intimidation? In court, Devine said he was angry because his team Sheffield United had just lost to MK Dons. Presumably, he thought the team would have played better with a convicted rapist in its ranks, but it’s hardly an excuse for what he did.

Holly Price, a 25-year-old biology teacher from Prestatyn, is another of the individuals who named the victim on Twitter. She retweeted a message which revealed the woman’s identity and added her own comment: “money-grabbing slut. poor little victim. WTF?” The defendants were sheepish in court and apologised, claiming they had no idea that naming a rape victim was a criminal offence. That doesn’t address the obvious point that it’s morally indefensible, whatever the law says.

What were these people thinking of? At a moment when the country is reeling under a torrent of accusations about child sexual abuse linked to Jimmy Savile, it’s instructive to get a glimpse into the thought processes of members of the public reacting to the outcome of a rape trial. Convictions are not easy to secure, as campaigners against sexual violence know very well, and, in this case, Evans had been found guilty and given a condign sentence. Yet blaming the complainant is so reflexive that the defendants simply ignored the verdict.

This is not the only instance of this kind of behaviour in recent history. The two women who have accused Julian Assange of rape and sexual assault have been hounded on the internet. Something similar happened to the woman who accused the former head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, of attempted rape in a New York hotel. The charges were dropped and the politician is now back in France, where he faces charges relating to a prostitution ring in Lille.

Abuse of women who say they’ve been raped is habitual, in other words, and the effect of social networking sites is to make it more overt. Over and over again, research shows that fear of being blamed acts as a deterrent when women are deciding whether to seek help or go to the police. In a survey carried out this year by the website Mumsnet, more than four-fifths of respondents who said they’d been raped did not report the attack, and over half gave embarrassment or shame as the reason. Another
report, compiled for The Haven service for victims of assault in London, found that more than half of respondents would be too ashamed or embarrassed to go to the police.

This is why the offences committed in the Ched Evans case are worse, in my view, than Liam Stacey’s drunken abuse of Fabrice Muamba. I’m not in favour of sending more people to prison but I’d like to see heavier penalties for naming rape victims, perhaps in the form of community service with organisations that help victims of sexual violence. This “naming and shaming” of women who say they’ve been raped is a form of terrorism, and it has to stop.



It’s only rock’n'roll…or is it?

The Times, Tuesday 6 November 2012

‘Lips like cherries and the brow of a queen… said you dug me since you were 13′. In the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal, it is time we reappraised the music of our rock’n'roll heroes, asks Joan Smith

When the Rolling Stones play the O2 arena this month, it will be a milestone in the history of rock. The band has  been together for 50 years and die-hard fans will pay between £300 and £400 a  ticket to hear some of their best-known songs. But one track they won’t be  playing, I suspect, is the Stones’ classic Stray  Cat Blues. The song, which was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, is about having sex with a teenage girl and includes the lines: ‘I can see that  you’re fifteen years old/ No I don’t want your ID.’

These days, Jagger is 69 and a grandfather. When the band recorded the song for their 1968 album Beggars Banquet, he was 25 and happy to sing about taking upstairs  a girl younger than, currently, his eldest grand-child. A couple of years later, on the live album Get Your Ya Ya’s  Out!, he reduced her age to 13. That seems to have been the age of some of Jimmy Savile’s alleged victims when the DJ sexually abused them, and I doubt whether either version would go down well  with parents in the O2 audience. ‘It’s no capital crime,’ Jagger sings on Stray Cat Blues, but sex with under-age  girls was – and is – a criminal offence.

I’m sure some die-hard Stones fans may  now be asking themselves why they didn’t baulk at these sentiments years ago. But it isn’t just the Stones whose back catalogue makes for uncomfortable listening.  I’ve never been a Stones fan but I absolutely adored Led Zeppelin, playing Led Zeppelin II over and over again as I  did my Latin homework. When a boyfriend got tickets for one of their gigs, I  couldn’t believe my luck. I hadn’t been to many concerts and I have to admit I was bemused by the live pigs – male chauvinist pigs, I wonder now? – which appeared on stage in the interval. I had no idea that the band’s lead  guitarist, Jimmy Page, was interested in girls who were even younger than me, and my main memory of the night is the magical moment when Robert Plant began singing Stairway to Heaven. The following year, on the band’s US tour, Page started a relationship with 14-year-old girl,  Lori Maddox. The 1975 Led Zeppelin album Physical Graffiti includes a song, Sick Again, about teenage ‘groupies’: ‘Lips like cherries and the brow of a queen/ Come on, flash it in my eyes/ Said you dug me since you were thirteen.’

How do I feel about the band now?  Pretty much the same as I do about those Roxy Music album covers where women in satin basques crawl across rocks or sprawl in forests like rape victims. Somehow I have to put the entrenched sexism in the back of my mind so I can still enjoy the music. Of course the background to all this is that attitudes –  and knowledge – have changed. Who knew, before the arrival of celebrity
magazines and gossip websites, that some of the world’s biggest rock stars had a reputation for liking young girls? In the 1960s, the spectacle of teenage girls screaming at concerts and outside dressing-rooms seemed perfectly benign. It wasn’t that people believed under-age sex was acceptable, any more than we do now, but rock music was a new phenomenon. Looking back at those days, we now understand that famous men who sexually abused very young girls hid in plain sight.

The disturbing thing about Stray Cat Blues is the way it appears to have predicted real life. When the  track appeared on Beggars Banquet, a girl called Mandy Smith wasn’t even born, and she was still only 13 when she met the Stones’ bass player Bill Wyman in 1983. Wyman was 47 but that didn’t stop him pursuing Smith, who later said she was 14 when she slept with him for the first time. They married when she was 18 and quickly divorced, but it’s hard to see Wyman’s behaviour as anything other than child sex abuse.

Wyman left the Stones some 20 years ago but the remaining band members are still playing another classic from that early period, Midnight Rambler. It’s rumoured that it might be the closing song at the O2 gigs but if ever a single track could be considered an indictment of the dark side of the 1960s, this must be it. Midnight Rambler is from the 1969 Stones album Let It Bleed and it describes a rapist breaking into a woman’s apartment: ‘Did ya see me jump the bedroom door…/ I’m called a hit-n-run raper, in anger…’ The lyrics deny a link with the Boston Strangler, Albert De Salvo, who murdered 13 women in the Boston area between 1962 and 1964. But the feminist writer Susan Brownmiller has pointed out that a line in which the woman pleads for her life – ‘Oh, don’t do that, oh don’t do that’ – is what DeSalvo claimed his victim Beverley Samans cried out as she died from a knife wound to the throat. I covered the Yorkshire
Ripper murders as a young reporter, interviewing several of the surviving victims, and I’ve never remotely been amused by the song.

The breath-taking misogyny of rock was easily overlooked in the 1960s and 70s but it’s harder to ignore these days, when child abuse and sexual harassment are constantly in the news. People in middle age, who’ve grown up with rock music and think of it as the soundtrack of their lives, now have to grapple with the dilemma that’s troubled me for
years: how to respond to music they love, produced by bands whose then attitudes to girls, sex and women belong in the ark. It’s a question that isn’t applicable only to sexism and rock; some opera-lovers refuse to listen to Wagner because his music was appropriated by Hitler after his death, while there have been endless debates about authors whose work is evidently more congenial than their personalities.The more I read about Philip Larkin, the less I think I would have liked him, but that has never prevented my enjoying his poetry. But there are other writers – Norman Mailer comes to mind – whose work I find so infused with misogyny that it is unreadable.

After more than a decade of a rock elite dominated by all-male bands – the Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Kinks, the Doors – I was hugely relieved when punk rock came along. The Sex Pistols outraged the establishment with God Save the Queen but behind the lurid headlines something even more interesting was going on. Punk women seized guitars, picked up drum sticks and formed their own bands. If men believed sex was all women were good for, it might as well be out in the open, and female punk bands deliberately chose ironic  names like The Raincoats – as in ‘dirty’ – and of course The Slits. In the US, bands like Bikini Kill led the Riot Grrrl movement, which would later be cited as an influence by a group of young Russian women who call themselves Pussy Riot.

Even when punk took off in the UK, mainstream rock didn’t mend its ways. At the height of the Yorkshire Ripper inquiry, the Irish band Thin Lizzy issued a single glorifying Jack the Ripper. In Killer on the Loose, the band’s lead singer, Phil Lynott, adopted the
persona of a man stalking and butchering women. For once the lyrics – ‘I’m a
mad sexual rapist’ – did cause outrage.Even disco was not immune from casual
misogyny; I couldn’t understand why no one else was irritated by More Than A Woman, which appeared twice on the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever in versions by the Bee Gees, who wrote it, and Tavares. I’ve danced to that song in discos, gritting my teeth and wondering if the singer loves his girlfriend as much as, say, his dog or his motor bike. A couple of years later, in 1980, Robin Gibb was using the amphetamine methedrine heavily and involved in an acrimonious divorce from his first wife. After his death earlier this year, the FBI released files revealing he had issued death threats against his then wife’s lawyers, and it was even suggested that he had hired a hit man to kill her.

The problem with rock music, from the standpoint of 2012, is that its heyday was so infused with misogyny. I still listen to Led Zeppelin and would take one of their early albums to a desert island, if I had the choice. I just wish some of those bands were more willing to distance themselves from the appalling attitudes to women expressed in their music of the 1960s and 70s, and the influence it had on their male fans. I still love rock, but I’m tired of squirming when I hear ‘classic’ tracks about sex with very young girls.

You can’t run a fair society from the Gents’

Independent on Sunday, 4 November 2012

David Cameron has nothing against women, I imagine, in the right place. He’s married to one, and he’s got a couple of daughters, although he did once leave one of them behind in a pub. I don’t suppose he gives much thought to the other women in his life – or rather their absence. He is leader of a political party which has woefully few women MPs, he has a poor record of promoting women to Cabinet and he’s notorious for patronising Labour women during Prime Minister’s Questions. Remember when he told a Shadow Cabinet minister, Angela Eagle, to “calm down, dear”?

Now he’s been criticised by the first female head of the Home Office, the kind of person who very rarely speaks out, for excluding women from top government posts. Dame Helen Ghosh, who left her job as permanent secretary last month to run the National Trust, told students at a Cambridge college that Westminster is run by powerful networks of men which are hard for women to break into. She pointed out that there was a “magical moment” six years ago when half the heads of government departments were women, but now there are only three female permanent secretaries.

Her remarks touched a raw nerve in Downing Street, which responded that Cameron’s press secretary and the official who organises his public appearances are both women. But the wider question is whether the Prime Minister’s background is having an impact on the appointment and promotion of women in public life. Although he makes an effort to look modern, Cameron comes from a class whose habits are quite peculiar, compared with the rest of us. It isn’t just that he’s posh, and married to a baronet’s daughter to boot. He went to a single-sex boarding school, where learning to network is second nature, and kept up the tradition at Oxford by joining the all-male Bullingdon Club. Cameron doesn’t strike me as reflective and it may not even have occurred to him that these masculine environments are neither normal nor desirable. But they undeniably exclude women: “Women don’t network. It is actually quite difficult for a woman to get in as part of an Old Etonian clique,” Ghosh is reported to have said.

It isn’t just politics where it’s hard for women to make informal contacts. In one of my first jobs, I worked in an office next to the men’s lavatory and quickly realised how many decisions were made by blokes chatting to each other in a space closed to women. The problem with someone like Cameron, I suspect, is that wealth and class have combined to make male elites familiar and comfortable. It’s actually weird that there were a dozen
Old Etonians in the government last year, if we include government spokesmen in the House of Lords, but I bet it didn’t seem so to the Prime Minister. When the country is run by an upper-middle-class white man, diversity and equality go out of the window.



Dave picks a Euro fight, and society is the loser

Independent on Sunday, 28 October 2012

It’s so obvious it shouldn’t need saying: all prisoners are not the same. Some are in jail because they’ve committed motoring offences or fraud, and they’re hardly in the same league as serial killers and rapists. That’s why the criminal justice system has different categories of prisons, from open prisons to high-security establishments, and I’ve never heard anyone argue that all inmates should be treated exactly the same. That, though, is the Prime Minister’s assumption when it comes to the question of prisoner voting, which he got on his high horse about last week.

“No one should be in any doubt – prisoners are not getting the right to vote under this government,” he thundered in the House of Commons. Go, Dave! Stand up for Britain and tell those ghastly Eurocrats where to go! Backbench Tories hate the European Court of Human Rights, which has ruled against the UK’s blanket ban on prisoner voting, as much as the European Union. They’re wrong, but a weak prime minister needs to throw them a bone. He did it even though it meant humiliating the Government’s senior legal advisor, the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, who had just said that Britain’s reputation would be damaged if it did not adhere to the court

Most Scandinavian governments allow prisoners to vote, while Ireland has allowed them to register for postal votes since 2006. But in this country, prisoner voting is one of those totemic issues on which the Daily Mail and Tory MPs speak with one voice. They behave as though the Government is on the verge of being forced to give the vote to the worst serial killers, even though the court has made it clear that it’s up to individual governments to decide which prisoners – people serving sentences of less than two years, for example – would be able to vote. What governments can’t do is maintain a blanket ban, and the reasons for that are quite compelling.

By definition, anyone who ends up in prison has broken the social contract between the state and the citizen, and one of the shortcomings of the current system is that it fails to address that problem. I’m not excusing minor offenders, but I don’t think that removing a right they probably don’t value very much is a reliable means of inculcating a sense of rights and responsibilities. There are staggering illiteracy rates in British prisons, and it wouldn’t surprise me if many prisoners haven’t ever used the vote and don’t understand its significance.

Some convicted criminals have inflicted such terrible damage on other people that they should forfeit some of their civil rights, but I’d like to see the rest encouraged to think of themselves as part of society rather than outside it. One minute Cameron says he’s keen on rehabilitation to cut re-offending rates, the next he’s sucking up to his party’s Europhobes. Don’t expect consistency or principle from an embattled prime minister who’s spotted an opportunity to pick a fight with the hated judges of Strasbourg.