If Ed Miliband is useless, why are some newspapers so scared of him?

Independent on Sunday, 15 February 2015

As prime minister, the Labour leader would revisit self-regulation, and that terrifies the right-wing press

Why do they hate him so much? If Ed Miliband is as useless as right-wing newspapers want us to believe, why are they so eager to pour buckets of vitriol over him at every opportunity? Not since the 1992 general election and the monstering of Neil Kinnock have I witnessed so vicious and personal a campaign against a Labour leader. It’s almost – perish the thought – as though they’re scared of something.

Every day brings a new smear, whether it’s an attack from a business leader who doesn’t even live (or pay taxes) in this country or a frankly bizarre claim that Miliband once burnt a hole in someone’s carpet. What next? He tripped over a constituent’s labrador? I keep thinking we’ve reached rock bottom but then a new absurdity heaves over the horizon. The latest is a “storm” over one of Miliband’s aides supposedly describing the row about tax avoidance as another “Milly Dowler moment”.

Milly Dowler is the murdered schoolgirl whose mobile was hacked by the News of the World, exposing the phone-hacking scandal. Keep those words “phone-hacking scandal” in mind, for Miliband’s opponents are desperate to divert attention away from the criminal and unethical practices that were habitual in some newsrooms. They accused his aide of exploiting a dead schoolgirl, a claim that fell apart when it became clear that the phrase wasn’t a direct quote from anyone in Miliband’s office. The person who actually used the girl’s name was the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, who included it in a tweet, without inverted commas.

In a febrile pre-election atmosphere, when the urge to damage Miliband has gone way beyond the bounds of reason, even a non-quote is enough to produce gleeful headlines: “Storm over Labour aide who compared tax scandal to Milly Dowler’s murder”, shouted The Times. “Fury after one of Ed’s senior aides calls tax row Milly Dowler moment that could be exploited for political gain”, raged the Daily Mail. In a sentence that should have been prefaced with the words “We hope … ”, The Daily Telegraph claimed that the aide’s comments “could badly damage Mr Miliband”.

Seldom has a politician been attacked so roundly for something neither he nor anyone close to him actually said. That speaks volumes about the corrosive atmosphere of suspicion in which the Labour leader is operating, but it’s also a very good example of wishful thinking; the papers who ran with this story wanted to link it in the public mind to a murdered girl, not to the News of the World’s abuse of power. Press regulation isn’t an issue in the election campaign, but don’t let that fool you: the papers which are attacking the Labour leader mercilessly are also the ones which have the most to fear if he becomes prime minister.

Less than a year into his leadership, Miliband decided to ignore convention and challenge the unfettered power of Rupert Murdoch. In doing so, he broke with his predecessor Tony Blair, and with the received wisdom, that holds that it’s too dangerous for a mainstream politician to criticise the press. Miliband was the first of the party leaders to call for what became the Leveson inquiry, a bold move that marked a high point in his time as leader. It was this decision that one of his aides referred to, reasonably enough, during the row over tax avoidance; standing up to a press baron and confronting tax avoidance by influential people both require guts.

It should not be forgotten that the Murdoch papers, along with the Mail, Mirror, Express and Telegraph titles, are currently defying Parliament by refusing to join an independently audited regulator. That was a key recommendation of the Leveson inquiry, which wanted to see an end to a cosy system in which newspapers were allowed to regulate themselves without independent scrutiny. Instead of complying, some newspaper groups have set up their own regulator, Ipso, which is financed and controlled by the press. (Several newspapers, including the Independent titles, have not yet joined.)

The crunch will come after the general election when, as seems likely, an independently audited regulator is set up and big newspaper groups refuse to join it. Unlike David Cameron, who seems to be taking a back seat on press regulation, Miliband gives every sign of being determined to see the Leveson process through to the end. If Labour forms the next government, on its own or in some form of coalition, there could well be another showdown.

Self-interest is a powerful motivation and I’m sure it explains the seething animosity – sometimes I would describe it as deranged – towards the Labour leader. Clearly the hope is that enough mud will stick to fix the idea in voters’ minds that Miliband is incompetent, unpopular and weird. But the experience of 1992, when the Murdoch press bragged about its supposed role in keeping Kinnock out of No 10, is instructive. Polling evidence from the period suggests that The Sun overestimated its influence; John Major had a higher approval rating than Kinnock, but researchers concluded it “was probably worth no more than one percentage point to the Tory share of the vote”.

This raises the counter-intuitive possibility (for the press, at least) that voters are more interested in policies than personalities. Whether or not that’s true, newspapers should think hard these days before giving an impression of trying to subvert the democratic process. Since the Leveson inquiry, I’m not sure the public has much appetite for editors who boast about their ability to destroy decent politicians. This time it couldn’t be more vicious or personal, dating straight back to the summer of 2011 when Ed Miliband stood up to the world’s most powerful press baron.

Joan Smith is executive director of Hacked Off

The Birth of the Pill: one giant leap for womankind

The Observer, 8 February 2015

It liberated millions worldwide. Now the oral contraceptive gets its own life-affirming history in Jonathan Eig’s vivid account of the four Pill pioneers

In June 1957 something happened that was to change the lives of millions of women. Regulators in this country and the US approved a new drug which appeared to mimic pregnancy in women’s bodies, preventing ovulation. For the first time in history, women would be able to have sex without fear of an unwanted pregnancy. So it is a remarkable fact that the Pill, as it would soon become known, was not licensed as a contraceptive in the first instance.

Even more remarkably, Enovid (Enavid in the UK) was actually approved as a treatment for infertile women who were assured by its manufacturer, Searle, that it would regulate their menstrual cycles and help them get pregnant. Like almost everyone else involved in creating that first Pill, Searle knew perfectly well that Enovid’s most significant effect was to prevent pregnancy, but few dared say so. The company’s calculation was that word would quickly spread among doctors and patients, preparing the ground for the news that the world now had its first oral contraceptive.

One man who didn’t want to wait for a belated announcement was Gregory Pincus, the brilliant but maverick scientist who developed the Pill. Pincus spoke at a conference in Sweden and boasted that he had come up with “an almost 100% effective pill for preventing pregnancy”. His colleague John Rock, a Catholic doctor who had played a key role in testing the new drug, immediately despatched a telegram. “Suggest buttoning up,” Rock warned.

Pincus, Rock, and two remarkable women – the birth control pioneers Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick – are at the heart of this brilliant book by American journalist Jonathan Eig. It opens with a meeting in New York between Sanger and Pincus in 1950, when they discussed developing an oral contraceptive. Pincus was 47 and looked like “a cross between Albert Einstein and Groucho Marx”; Sanger was 71, worn out after spending most of her life campaigning for women’s rights, and convinced that the lack of reliable contraception was the biggest obstacle to equality. She came from a family of 11 and her mother had died of tuberculosis at 50; financial support from two of her elder sisters, who worked as a maid and a governess respectively, had allowed her to get the education they had missed.

Sanger had the arguments and the determination to drive the campaign forward but she needed scientists and a financial backer. The latter came in the shape of McCormick, who was slightly older than Sanger and recently widowed; in a chapter heading Eig characterises the two women ironically as “the socialite and the sex maniac”, reflecting the hostility of the time towards women who argued for birth control. McCormick was one of the first women to graduate with a science degree from MIT, and it was the tragedy of her personal life – her fabulously wealthy husband was diagnosed with a severe mental illness shortly after they married – that turned her towards funding medical research.

This was the 50s: in a traditional division of roles, Sanger was the advocate and McCormick the philanthropist, while men did the science. Pincus was daring, innovative and a self-publicist, a trait which cost him his grant at Harvard early in his career; he did much of his work on hormones at the Worcester Foundation, the laboratory he founded in a factory town 40 miles west of Boston. After their meeting, Sanger wrote to Pincus offering a grant of $2,000 from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which she had helped to found. “The amount was ludicrous,” Pincus recalled later, “but I at once replied, ‘Yes’.’

Pincus accepted because so few people were willing to be associated with his research. In retrospect, it seems an extraordinary failure on the part of mainstream scientific institutions and drug companies that they did not see the Pill’s potential. This was partly because of anxiety about the Catholic church, which – despite John Rock’s sterling efforts to argue that the Pill did not contravene doctrine – would eventually ban it altogether in 1968. But it is also a striking example of the inability of male-dominated institutions to spot what women urgently need and want. Eig quotes heartrending letters from mothers desperate not to get pregnant again, some of whom wrote directly to Pincus. A mother of six from Indianapolis wrote. “When I read this article I couldn’t help but cry, for I thought this is my ray of hope… I beg you please help me if you can.”

Pincus benefited from this neglect, carrying out hair-raising clinical trials that would not have been countenanced in mainstream institutions; he tried out his compounds on inmates of a mental hospital and a group of nursing students, who were told to take it as a requirement of starting their course, before giving it to women in the slums of Puerto Rico. Despite all the setbacks, it took only seven years to develop Enovid and have it approved for menstrual problems; three years later, in 1960, it was licensed for use as a contraceptive, a momentous piece of news which appeared on page 75 of the New York Times. Soon 400,000 American women were using it for birth control, prompting its appearance on the cover of Timemagazine, which claimed it had “liberated the sex and family life of a large and still growing segment of the US population”. The magazine predicted it would one day do the same “for much of the world”, reflecting the long-held view of birth control pioneers that an oral contraceptive would solve the problem of over-population.

In the event, the Pill was adopted most enthusiastically by middle-class women who didn’t mind having to take it every day. I was one of them, taking it for the first time as a student; my generation grew up with the knowledge that we didn’t have to have children if we didn’t want to, a change so massive that Eig rightly calls it a revolution. His book often reads like a thriller as funds runs out, clinical trials stall and politicians, including John F Kennedy, shy away from the hot potato of birth control.

But Sanger never lost sight of her visionary understanding of the possibilities that would be unlocked by oral contraception; Eig’s book shows her constantly chivvying and driving the research forward, even after she suffered a series of heart attacks. For all the criticisms levelled at it in later years, the Pill’s philosophical impact has been as significant as its physical effect. Its advocates deserve this vivid and life-affirming history.

The Birth of the Pill is published by Macmillan, £14.99


Male power and a sense of impunity is at the heart of all child abuse rings

Independent on Sunday, 8 February 2015

Rotherham is high on Ukip’s target list, and it has tried to make political capital out of the scandal

Why have so many men of Pakistani origin been involved in sexual abuse of under-age girls? It’s a fair question, as long as we also ask why sexual abuse flourished among famous men (all of them white) in the entertainment industry in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. In the case of Jimmy Savile – famously photographed with Margaret Thatcher, the Prince of Wales and the Beatles – it took decades for his crimes to be exposed.

In Rotherham, only a handful of men have been convicted of abusing girls despite a report last summer which identified 1,400 victims. Last week, the Government sent in commissioners to run the town, after a second damning report identified a culture of bullying, sexism and cover-ups at the council.

Also last week, the former glam rock star Gary Glitter was convicted of sex offences, including the attempted rape of an eight-year-old girl. Savile is the most prolific of the group of celebrity child-abusers, with a list of at least 450 victims. His friend and fellow-DJ Ray Teret is in jail after being convicted last year of assaulting girls as young as 12. Several other famous men from the period, including Rolf Harris, are also serving jail sentences.

It’s clear in retrospect that these men exploited power and treated their victims with contempt, while considering themselves untouchable. Much the same could be said of men of Pakistani origin who abused under-age girls much more recently; they had greater status than their victims and went unchallenged in a political culture which feared accusations of racism. Labour is at fault here for embracing men who manifestly don’t support gender equality, leaving it to Asian women’s organisations to challenge the misogyny endemic in some British-Pakistani communities.

What makes this issue toxic – and some people on the left reluctant to discuss it even now – is the anti-immigration rhetoric of the popular press and Ukip. Nigel Farage turned up at his party’s office in Rotherham on Friday to “cut a ribbon”, which isn’t a ceremony that happens frequently in the town. Rotherham is high on Ukip’s list of target seats and it isn’t the first time the party has sought to make political capital out of the child sex scandal; last year a Ukip poster suggested there were “1,400 reasons why you should not trust Labour again”.

Child sexual abuse used to be hidden but victims (male and female) are now emerging in staggering numbers, along with a realisation that certain conditions allow it to flourish. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed by the inquiry into historic allegations of a Westminster paedophile ring. What unites these men is gender, power and a sense of impunity, a combination that can turn up anywhere. Despite what Ukip wants you to think, sexual abuse is about culture, not race.

Putin is a dangerous psychopath – reason is not going to work with him

Independent on Sunday, 1 February 2015

A secret war in Ukraine, murder in London, incursions into others’ airspace. His behaviour is getting worse

Everyone knows the saying about people who fail to learn the lessons of history being condemned to repeat it. It’s a slight misquotation, but the idea that we should be able to avoid making the same mistakes by studying the past is undeniably attractive. So what does history tell us about the behaviour of Europe’s biggest country, Russia, which is currently fighting an undeclared war with its neighbour, Ukraine?

I’ll come back to that in a moment but Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, singled out Russia’s military ambitions in a speech on Friday, describing 2014 as “a black year” for European security. He revealed that the alliance recorded more than 400 incursions into foreign airspace by Russian warplanes last year, around four times as many as in 2013. The previous day, British fighters were scrambled to intercept two Russian bombers over the English Channel, an episode that resulted in the Russian ambassador being summoned to the Foreign Office.

Around the time Stoltenberg was giving his assessment of the Russian threat to peace, the reality of the situation in Ukraine was brought home by the shelling of a cultural centre in Donetsk, killing at least six people. In theory, the conflict is between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists who have declared a breakaway republic, but no one seriously believes that Russia isn’t behind the fighting. More than 5,000 people are believed to have been killed since April yet public attention, which suddenly turned to Ukraine after the shooting down of a Malaysian passenger plane in July last year, is focused elsewhere.

While the terrorist organisation Islamic State (Isis) is responsible for huge numbers of casualties, it has killed far fewer people in Europe than have died in the Ukrainian conflict. It could be argued that the spectacular type of warfare favoured by Isis has actually done the Russian government a favour, deflecting attention with a series of attention-grabbing atrocities. Russia’s tradition of covert warfare is long-established, and some Kremlin officials visibly enjoy the process of repeating denials which are bare-faced lies.

In a repeat of recent history, dead Russian soldiers are once again being returned to their families without any information about where they were killed. The names of more than 260 have been published on a website run by opponents of President Putin, along with a map of eastern Ukraine showing where they died. The Russian government denies involvement but 10 Russian paratroopers were captured in Ukraine in August. The mother of a Russian soldier, whose body was returned with his legs blown off, said he had phoned her to say his unit was being deployed to Donetsk.

When something similar happened during the second Chechen war, the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya interviewed bereaved mothers and wrote about what was going on. She was assassinated in Moscow on President Putin’s birthday in 2006, a month or so before the Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in London. At a public inquiry last week, Litvinenko’s death was described as “an act of nuclear terrorism on the streets of a major city”. Ben Emmerson, the QC representing Mr Litvinenko’s widow, said the trail led directly to Putin and called for him to be “unmasked by this inquiry as a common criminal dressed up as a head of state”.

This is a staggering statement. Some commentators are reluctant to accept it, arguing that Putin genuinely feels under threat from Nato; Greece’s inexperienced new government, led by the coalition of left-wing parties known as Syriza, is making friendly overtures towards Russia. No one wants a new cold war but the evidence suggests they’re making a mistake of epic proportions: what European leaders are dealing with here is  classic psychopathic behaviour. Putin displays a complete absence of empathy and is painfully thin-skinned; he found being mocked by the punk band Pussy Riot so intolerable that two of the women ended up in penal colonies. Even more alarming is his lack of fear and enjoyment of risk, which means he enjoys baiting people he sees as opponents.

All of this brings me back to the problem with learning from history. The leader-as-psychopath is far from unusual: Saddam Hussein displayed similar characteristics, although a closer parallel in this instance is Stalin. The question is what to do about it, and it would help if people who make excuses for Putin stopped fooling themselves about how dangerous he is. I’ve believed this ever since the assassination of Politkovskaya, whom I knew slightly, and I’ve watched the evidence accumulate: at least 29 journalists have been murdered in direct connection with their work since Putin came to power: opponents have had their assets seized and been sent to harsh prisons in Siberia; neighbouring countries live in fear of cyber-attacks, such as the one on Estonia in 2007, or military invasion.

The Conservative MP Rory Stewart, who chairs the Defence Select Committee, described last week’s incident over the Channel as “a symptom of a much bigger pattern which means we got Russia wrong”. I think it’s more accurate to say that world leaders got Putin wrong, treating him as an authoritarian who would nevertheless keep his behaviour within recognisable boundaries. Remember when George W Bush gave him the affectionate nickname Pootie-Poot? If history teaches us anything, it is that treating unstable psychopaths as if they are normal, reasonable people doesn’t work.

Psychopaths love attention, so allowing Putin to host big sporting events such as the Winter Olympics and the World Cup is a mistake. They like to feel important, so he shouldn’t be invited to attend summits with other world leaders. His behaviour is escalating as economic sanctions start to bite, which is why he is sending military aircraft to test the air defences of other countries. He isn’t going to give up power of his own accord, which means that keeping open  back-channels to people around him is vital. Europe didn’t pick this fight, but we should be in no doubt that Russia under Putin is an unpredictable rogue state.

Stop all the clocks, a tyrant is dead

Independent on Sunday, 25 January 2015

What do you call the unelected leader of a state which beheads people in public, permits only one faith and exports an extreme form of Islam to other countries? If he happens to be Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, self-appointed caliph of the Islamic State, the answer is one of the world’s most wanted terrorists. If he is King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the proper form of address is ‘Your Majesty’. Are we all clear about that? Me neither.

Yesterday the Prince of Wales and the prime minister turned up in Riyadh to pay their respects to Salman’s half-brother, King Abdullah, whose death was announced on Friday. Abdullah’s demise, at the age of 90, unleashed a nauseating display of hypocrisy among world leaders. Flags flew at half-mast in Whitehall while David Cameron – sorry, pass-the-sick-bag moment coming up – praised the deceased despot’s efforts towards ‘strengthening understanding between faiths’. I wonder if the prime minister could show me any evidence that the Saudi regime, which does not allow distribution of non-Muslim texts and regards apostasy as a capital crime, is remotely interested in understanding other faiths?

This is the same David Cameron who joined a march in Paris two weeks in solidarity with the victims of al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism. On that occasion, there was much talk about human rights and free expression, both of which get short shrift in Saudi Arabia. Barack Obama, who was a conspicuous no-show in Paris, found the time to praise the absolute monarch and hailed the US-Saudi relationship ‘as a force for stability and security in the Middle East’. His Secretary of State, John Kerry, tweeted that the dead tyrant was ‘a man of wisdom & vision’. He even – I’m sorry, but that sick bag is about to overflow – claimed that the world ‘has lost a revered leader’.

Funnily enough, none of these busy men had time to mention Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger whose flogging was postponed on the day Abdullah’s death was announced because he hadn’t recovered from the 50 lashes he received two weeks earlier. Badawi’s monstrous sentence has come to symbolise everything that is wrong with the democratic world’s response to the kingdom. Prince Charles never misses an opportunity to cosy up to the Saudi royals, making a complete fool of himself last February when he dressed up in traditional robes and took part in a sword dance in Riyadh. Six months later, Charles did not utter a squeak of protest when his Saudi mates executed more than 20 people in three weeks. Most were beheaded – not, I hope, with the sword Charles used for his little dance.

Few of the people hailing Abdullah as a ‘reformer’ said anything about the kingdom’s truly horrifying record of human rights abuses. Don’t they know that a video recently emerged of a Saudi police officer chopping off the head of a screaming Burmese woman in the street? In a symbol of the regime’s profound misogyny, two Saudi women who broke the bizarre ban on female drivers have had their cases transferred to a terrorism court. So what the hell was the IMF boss, Christine Largarde, thinking about when she described Abdullah as a ‘strong advocate of women’? Lagarde added ‘in a very discreet way’ – so discreet, in the view of most human rights campaigners, as to make no material difference.

Amid all these effusions, the most egregious omission was the absence of any acknowledgement that the Saudi royal family actively promoted the puritanical ideology that created al-Qaeda and its offshoots. The kingdom is the cradle of Wahhabism, the extreme form of Islam which put the Saud family in power and keeps them there. The Saudis are almost as enthusiastic about public beheadings as their mortal enemy IS, which shocked the world last year with a series of videos showing Western hostages about to suffer this awful fate. Where do people think IS got the idea? Both al-Qaeda and IS want to restore a mostly-imaginary caliphate which would be in many respects indistinguishable from Saudi Arabia.

‘Without us it would be worse,’ the Saudi royals warn, while systematically terrorising anybody who represents a legitimate form of opposition. They’ve spent years quietly assuring foreign allies that they’d love to bring in reforms, but the country isn’t ready for it. I don’t know why this isn’t challenged more often, given that the royal family maintains an iron grip on the armed forces and intelligence service.

The new king has been minister of defence and a member of the national security council; the crown prince, Muqrin, held senior positions in the air force before he was appointed head of Saudi intelligence; the deputy crown prince, Muhmmad bin Nayef, is the interior minister. In effect, the family uses the threat of a conservative backlash to scare Western democracies into putting up with an ally they should be ashamed to be associated with. It’s an unsubtle trick played on foreign leaders by the Saudi royal family.

Guys, it isn’t working. The rest of us know that Saudi Arabia sent Osama bin Laden and other young Saudi men to fight in Afghanistan, creating a worldwide jihadist movement. Since then, Wahhabist ideology has inspired horrific attacks on civilians in the Middle East, Africa, the US and a string of European capitals. Sucking up to the Saudis didn’t stop the 9/11 attacks, Madrid, the 7/7 bombings, the kidnapping of the Chibok girls or the massacre at Charlie Hebdo. Wahhabism is the problem and Saudi Arabia, with its two-faced royal family, is where it all started.


The sexual revolution made Page 3 possible. A feminist revolution ended it

The Guardian, 21 January 2015

The Sun claimed it was a pioneer when in fact it was reprising ancient gender roles. The trick couldn’t last

In November 1970, American troops were still in Vietnam, Salvador Allende was inaugurated as president of Chile, and former Beatle George Harrison released a triple album. It feels like a different world, an impression confirmed by another event from the same year and month, namely the introduction of bare breasts on Page 3 of the Sun. I don’t suppose anyone imagined that the pictures would become a cultural phenomenon – or that it would take 44 years to get rid of them.

Over the decades, Page 3 became the symbol of a culture that growing numbers of people no longer wanted to live in, and that is why its demise (in printed editions at least) is so significant. The problem with Page 3 isn’t just the sexism inherent in publishing photographs of the same type of woman – young, slender, large-breasted – every day. I’ve often wondered how men would feel, sitting on a bus next to someone staring at a photograph of a good-looking 20-something cradling his testicles.

My guess is that Page 3 is such a weird phenomenon, encouraging young women to display their breasts like something that doesn’t quite belong to them, that it will soon seem strange that it existed for so long. While it was always presented by the paper as a piece of harmless fun, the nasty assumptions underlying Page 3 became evident as soon as one or two brave women began campaigning against it. The Labour MP Clare Short was vilified in the most cruel and hurtful way, with the paper encouraging its “top glamour girls” to describe her as “fat and ugly”. The attacks may have been a reflection of the commercial importance of Page 3 to the Sun’s brand, but they also signalled the extent to which the paper had appropriated – and perverted – the ideology of sexual liberation.

Anyone who opposed Page 3 was characterised as sexually repressed and a “killjoy” (the word used about Short when  Rebekah Brooks edited the Sun), as though the only arguments against it belonged in a puritan tradition. In that sense, the paper was shamelessly trying to link itself to a social revolution from which it had long parted company.

Page 3 began only three years after the summer of love, when thousands of young people descended on San Francisco to celebrate a whole series of messages, including “free love” and opposition to the Vietnam war. Suddenly, newspapers were full of pictures of women in their 20s with long hair and bell bottoms, astonishing an older generation which remembered Christian Dior’s New Look.

There is no evidence that anyone actually burned a bra, but a year after the summer of love, at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, around 400 protesters threw bras, corsets, make-up and copies of Playboy magazine into a dustbin in a symbolic rejection of traditional femininity. It was an exhilarating gesture for young women who didn’t want lives like their mothers. Crucially, access to the contraceptive pill was becoming widespread, placing the possibility of having sex on the same terms as men within their grasp for the first time. These young women threw away their bras and embraced sexual liberation, even if the continuing inequality of the sexes would one day be the cause of bitter disillusionment.

An unintended beneficiary of this upheaval, for a short time at least, was Page 3: if rejecting bras was a political act, how could anyone object to photographs of women who seemed to be proud of their (almost) unclothed bodies?

Thus Page 3 was able to bask, for the briefest of moments, in its almost accidental association with hippie culture and the sexual revolution. It soon became evident, however, that it was part of an old patriarchal trick, just like Playboy magazine and its flagship club in London’s Mayfair. Playboy and Page 3 piggybacked the sexual revolution, persuading women that they were sexual pioneers when they were actually reprising ancient gender roles. One of the reasons they got away with it was the almost total exclusion of women from senior roles on newspapers and boards, allowing a chummy male atmosphere to flourish.

The message of Page 3 was never “strong” and “assertive”. It was “available” and “passive”. Short and her Labour colleague Harriet Harman weren’t afraid to say so, but the scare tactics worked on other women. Many remained silent, fearing they wouldn’t appear “fun-loving” if they objected to “topless” pictures. (Perhaps the end of Page 3 means we can also get rid of that euphemism, which deliberately desexualises pictures of women’s bodies.)

What made the difference was the internet, which allowed a new generation of women to articulate their opposition to Page 3 and support each other in the face of a backlash. It also seems likely that the numbers signing up to the No More Page 3 campaign had an effect, creating bad publicity for a newspaper group which had already been rocked by the phone-hacking scandal.

Page 3 always had a sell-by date, a fact reluctantly acknowledged by Rupert Murdoch in a tweet in which he called it ‘old-fashioned’. The reality is that a society evolving towards greater equality could never tolerate Page 3 in the long term, especially now we know so much more about the extent of violence against women and girls.

Rape and domestic abuse are widespread, and it is clear that boys’ ideas about sex are being warped while they are still at school; their fathers and elder brothers may like Page 3 but they can no longer pretend it exists in a vacuum. The presence of what is effectively soft porn in popular newspapers was singled out for criticism in Lord Justice Leveson’s report on the culture and ethics of the press.

In a little-noticed irony, Page 3 was not the only cultural phenomenon that made its entrance in 1970. In the same year, an Australian academic called Germaine Greer published a surprise bestseller called The Female Eunuch. Greer’s argument that women had become separated from their libido and sexuality was confirmed every day by the smiling, eager-to-please mannequins who appeared in the pages of the Sun. At the time, feminism seemed even more shocking to some people than Page 3 – but feminism won in the end.


How can a girl of 16 ‘groom’ a teacher?

Independent on Sunday, 18 January 2015

The judge who spared a deputy head from jail after he had sex with a pupil condoned the male fantasy eulogised in ‘Lolita’

It was like being transported back to the 1980s, though not in a good way. I’m sure there were some admirable things about that decade, but attitudes to rape and underage sex weren’t among them. I remember the judge who told a 17-year-old rape victim that she was guilty of “contributory negligence” because she had been hitch-hiking, and fined her attacker £2,000 instead of sending him to prison. Then there was the judge who told a girl of 12 that she had been “asking for trouble” when she was raped after going to a man’s flat for coffee. He didn’t go to prison, either.

Fast forward three decades, and grown men are still having trouble with teenage girls, according to a judge whose remarks rightly caused outrage last week. Mrs Justice Greenberg was passing sentence in a case involving a teacher who had sex with a 16-year-old pupil, who counts as under age in terms of the law governing sexual relationships when the adult is in a position of trust.

The law is quite right in this respect, no matter how much some men may protest; an adult has a duty not to act on inappropriate sexual feelings, because he (or she) understands the potential damage in a way the child does not.

Greenberg seems not to have caught up with contemporary attitudes towards child sexual abuse, which is all the more surprising in the wake of Operation Yewtree, the inquiry into the crimes of Jimmy Savile and others.

Many of the victims targeted by Savile and other adult men, including the entertainers Rolf Harris and Stuart Hall, were very young when the abuse happened. The pernicious assumption that underage girls could “consent” to sex with older men played a role in the failure to expose widespread sexual abuse in Rochdale and other northern towns.

Where, I wonder, was Greenberg when all this was happening? Her observations in the sentencing hearing had more in common with the theories expressed in Lolita, Nabokov’s appalling novel romanticising child sexual abuse, than with contemporary research on abusive relationships. In one of the novel’s most notorious passages, Lolita eventually seduces the narrator, Humbert Humbert, reflecting a popular fantasy among men who want to avoid responsibility for having sex with young girls.

The defendant in last week’s case, a teacher called Stuart Kerner, did exactly that, running a defence in which he claimed to have been stalked by an obsessive pupil before giving in and having sex with her. Kerner, who is 44 and used to be vice-principal at Bexleyheath Academy in south-east London, had been found guilty at an earlier hearing of two counts of sexual activity with a child.

What makes this particular case all the more shocking is that Kerner taught RE and ethics, yet the latter subject seems to have offered him no pointers on how to respond to the situation he claims to have found himself in. Teenage girls are sometimes attracted to older men, but the duty of the teacher in such cases is crystal clear: he should report the matter to the school and take steps to avoid being alone with the pupil in question.

Instead, Kerner did something rather astonishing: he started carrying a condom around with him in case the girl became “too irresistible”. (Frankly, that sounds like premeditation to me.) The first time they had sex, Kerner barricaded himself and the girl in a school store cupboard, jamming the door with a chair. A few months later, he invited the girl to his house and had sex with her again before giving her a lift home. At the time she thought the relationship was “special” but the girl, who is now 19, realises with hindsight that it was anything but.

You might think that a teacher who fears he won’t be able to resist having sex with a teenage pupil needs to reset his moral compass. The judge took a very different view, accusing the victim of “grooming” Kerner and placing all the blame on her shoulders.

“I saw no sign that you had encouraged [the victim] in any way,” she assured him, raising an interesting question about how the two of them ever got into that cupboard. “Were it not for her obsession with you, the offence would never have occurred.” She said Kerner had given in to temptation while he was “vulnerable” and described the case as a tragedy.

If anyone was vulnerable in this case it was surely the victim, who came from a “troubled” background and had a history of attention-seeking behaviour. Fixating on a teacher, if that is what happened, should have been a signal that she needed help, not an excuse for a middle-aged man to indulge his fantasies about teenage girls.

Campaigners against sexual abuse have criticised not just the judge’s remarks but the fact that Kerner’s 18-month suspended sentence means he has avoided going to prison. (I said it was like the 1980s all over again.) The tariff prompted complaints to the Attorney General’s office, where officials initially said they would consider reviewing it under the “unduly lenient sentence review scheme”, but later admitted that it doesn’t fall within the remit.

That’s a shame, but at least the case has caused shockwaves. In 2015, who would have imagined that a judge could seriously suggest that a deputy head had been “groomed” by a 16-year-old girl?

The Ched Evans case shows rape victim-blamers are getting scared

The footballer’s supporters are vitriolic in his defence because a shift in public attitudes to rape myths appears to be under way

The Guardian, 16 January 2015

Three years ago, few people outside the world of professional football had heard of Ched Evans. When the Sheffield United player was convicted of rape, in April 2012, the identity of his victim should have remained a secret, protected by a law that gives lifelong anonymity to complainants. Instead, she has repeatedly been named on the internet and forced to move home five times. It is one of the worst instances of victim-blaming ever seen in this country.

The attacks on the character of this young woman, who was only 19 when Evans raped her, have been cruel and shameful. Ten people, including Evans’s cousin, have been charged and convicted of naming her on social media.

Neither those cases, nor a decision by the court of appeal to turn down Evans’s attempt to challenge his conviction and sentence, have prevented further slurs. On the contrary, a man whose name now appears on the sex offenders’ register is being presented by his supporters as the victim in the case.

A website set up by Evans’s family and friends is currently under investigation by the attorney general and the Crown Prosecution Service for posting CCTV footage of the victim entering the hotel where the rape took place. Even though her features are blurred, the risk of further identification is obvious and an offence may have been committed.

In the latest twist, a man described on the site as a “true friend and supporter” of Evans turns out to have made abusive comments about the victim and posted a link to a separate site that names her. Until last week the Evans family site displayed a photograph of the man, Ciaran Goggins, wearing a “Ched Evans is innocent” T-shirt at an Amnesty International event in Ireland.

It is hard to think of another case in which the reaction of the convicted man’s friends has been so vindictive and hysterical. There is a reason for this: although it is the last thing any woman would choose, the victim in this case has become the symbol of a successful fightback against rape culture.

Evans’s conviction is a sign of changing attitudes in the criminal justice system, which is now prepared to prosecute ‘difficult’ and historic cases that would not have got to court in the past.

It also demonstrates that some, though by no means all, jurors are willing to put aside rape myths about how victims should behave. The impact on defendants who have in the past relied on those myths to escape conviction cannot be overstated.

Evans’s victim was drunk. When he went to the hotel in Rhyl where one of his friends had taken her, she was in no state to consent to have sex with a total stranger who had just walked into the room. The judge at Evans’s trial, Merfyn Hughes QC, was clear on this point: ‘The complainant was extremely intoxicated … She was in no condition to have sexual intercourse.”

In the harsh lexicon of victim-blaming, having sex with a drunk woman could not possibly be rape. It is up there in the top five excuses used by rape apologists, along with the idea that women “invite” attacks through their choice of clothes or behaviour. The whole point of victim-blaming is to draw attention away from perpetrators, whose behaviour has only very recently begun to be scrutinised as closely as it deserves.

Why would a man like Evans, with a promising career to lose, risk having sex with a woman who is too inebriated to give consent? The probable answer is, because so many men have done so in the past, laughing with their mates over what is actually a criminal assault.

Two developments – this case and the convictions of a series of well-known men accused of historic sex abuse – provide dramatic evidence that attitudes are changing. Rolf Harris, Max Clifford and Stuart Hall didn’t think anyone would believe their victims, some of whom were under the age of consent. It turns out they were wrong. And while there are still too few rape convictions in this country, the old excuses are being chipped away.

The consequences for men who refuse to modify their behaviour are terrifying. That is why they and their supporters are so angry: if this vile spasm of victim-blaming proves one thing, it is that they are finally losing the argument.

Paris attacks: these troubled men who project their self-hatred on others

Independent on Sunday, 11 January 2015

Murderers, like the Paris terrorists, are drawn to a toxic identity which equates masculinity with violence

In December 2012, a young man called Adam Lanza walked into an elementary school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, and murdered 26 people. The killings ended when Lanza shot himself in the head, prompting an impassioned debate in the US about gun ownsership. But the feminist magazine Ms was struck by the absence of any analysis of the fact that mass shooters are almost always angry men. ‘Why won’t we talk about violence and masculinity in America?’ a headline asked.

I had a similar thought last week as I tried to make sense of the cold-blooded murders at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris. It never occurred to me that the killers of 12 people would turn out to be women; sure enough, they were quickly identified as two brothers, Said abd Cherif Kouachi. The brothers claimed allegiance to al-Qaeda in Yemen and talked a lot of nonsense about ‘avenging’ the Prophet. But I couldn’t help feeling that they were doing this to feel important. They flattered themselves that they were adhering to some kind of military code, claiming: “We don’t kill women”, while ignoring the fact that they’d just murdered a female columnist in the Charlie Hebdo office.

Insignificant for most of their lives, unemployed or doing menial jobs, the only way these angry men could get attention was by picking up guns. It may be that we simply take for granted the fact that mass killings are almost always carried out by men, whether they’re jihadists or unpopular high-school students, but that is strange in itself. Is it based on an assumption that men are inherently violent? If it isn’t – and I don’t think we should assume any such thing – why aren’t we asking what factors disinhibit the social prohibitions against violence? Most men don’t go out and kill people, except in war, and we urgently need to know why these men are different.

One evening last week, a friend from a Middle Eastern country described to me how her nephew became involved with Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist organisation. He felt rejected by his family after his father took two more wives, marginalising his mother. He drifted to Lebanon, started attending a mosque and listened to radical preachers. “I had no one,” he told my friend when she remonstrated with him. “They were my family.” Perhaps Islamist networks perform this role for men like the Kouachi brothers, who grew up in children’s homes.

Chérif Kouachi delivered pizzas and wanted to be a rap star before he was radicalised and ended up in prison. That seems to be where he met Amedy Coulibaly, the terrorist who died after a horrific siege in a Jewish supermarket in Paris on Friday. Coulibaly was a petty criminal before he adopted radical Islam, with a psychiatric report describing him as having an “immature and psychopathic personality”. After their release from prison, Coulibaly and Kouachi visited a well-known Islamist, Djamel Beghal, who was under house arrest in southern France. Beghal used to be based at the Finsbury Park mosque in north London when it was controlled by the notorious preacher Abu Hamza, who is alleged to have radicalised the petty criminal and would-be shoe-bomber Richard Reid.

During the two sieges on Friday, Coulibaly said he “synchronised” his operation with the brothers (that military fantasy again) but they evidently forgot to synchronise their stories; in a phone call to a TV station, Coulibaly claimed allegiance to al-Qaeda’s rival terror organisation, the Islamic State.

The French authorities are looking for a woman described as Coulibaly’s former partner, Hayat Boumeddiene, who is a suspect in the shooting of a policewoman, Clarissa Jean-Philippe, in Paris on Thursday. But many mass killers are uncomfortable around assertive females, preferring to spend time with other men, and quite a few of them harbour resentful feelings towards women. Elliot Rodger, son of a second assistant director on The Hunger Games, murdered six people in California last May after making a video in which he ranted about his inability to get a girlfriend.

There is a pattern here of troubled men projecting their self-hatred on to other people: fellow students, women, novelists, journalists, Jews, Muslims. They display a sense of aggrieved entitlement which over-rides any possibility of empathy with their victims; acquiring an arsenal of Kalashnikovs and grenade-launchers offers a feeling of power which they seldom experience in their everyday lives. “Consider your man card re-issued”, read a sinister advertisement for a semi-automatic rifle used in the Sandy Hook massacre.

Did the Kouachi brothers delude themselves that they were proving their manhood when they burst out of the print works on Friday afternoon, guns blazing, and died in a hail of bullets? The striking thing about such men is that they are drawn to a toxic form of identity which equates masculinity with violence.

At first sight, the puritanical form of Islam the Kouachis claimed as their motivation appears wildly at odds with popular culture, which encourages the consumption of alcohol, sex and consumer goods. But you don’t have to look far to see the link between masculinity and violence in rap music, movies and computer games; the mass killer Anders Breivik, who claimed to have been motivated by hatred of Muslims, claimed at his trial in Norway that he “trained” for the murders by playing violent computer games.

Angry men nurture grievances and look for causes. They are attracted to guns, a fact too many Americans refuse to recognise. In Europe, de-radicalisation programmes challenge Islamist ideology, but I suspect that inner rage, and a lack of stable masculine identity, come first. So it’s all the more astonishing that in the debates about the role played in the French attacks by Islam, colonialism and the Iraq war, I have yet to hear anyone talk about gender.

The message that urgently needs to emerge from this tragedy is that there’s nothing “manly” about shooting cartoonists, shoppers or a wounded police officer.

Men accused of rape musn’t be granted anonymity

Daily Telegraph, 7 January 2015

What is the truth about rape in this country? If you listen to some campaigners, you’d believe that innocent men live in fear of false accusations which will ruin their lives, even if charges are eventually dropped. They argue that men who face rape allegations should enjoy the same anonymity as the women or men who accuse them – a demand repeated, this week, after a Conservative MP, Mark Pritchard, was told that there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed with the case against him.

Pritchard was arrested last month after a woman went to the police and claimed that he’d raped her. Speaking outside Parliament yesterday, he complained about ‘false’ and ‘vindictive’ allegations made against him and insisted that his identity should have been kept anonymous (he also hinted at the identity of his accuser, drawing criticism from the charity Rape Crisis).

His stance has received support from another Conservative MP, Nigel Evans, who was acquitted last year after a trial on charges of rape and sexual assault.

But these accounts – given by well-known men with easy access to the media – overshadow the untold stories of thousands of women (and some men) whose traumatic experiences you will never hear about. They should be viewed in the context of a study published last year by the Crown Prosecution Service, which showed that false accusations of rape are ‘very rare’. The real story, far from being about unfairness to a small number of accused men, is about the denial of justice to thousands of victims of sexual violence every single year.

The truth is that our criminal justice system is failing to protect victims. And the reasons for that failure present a very powerful case against anonymity for those accused.

Most people have very little idea of how many women are raped in this country each year – or how few of these attacks result in convictions. In my role as Co-chair of the Mayor London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Panel – and during a career spent writing about the abuse of women – I have had access to those on the frontline and faced the stark reality of how rape victims are treated in Britain.

Last autumn, at a meeting with senior officers from the Metropolitan Police, I was told that more than 2,000 rapes and serious sexual offences had already been reported in London for 2014. One of the officers present said he believed that only a fifth of rapes are actually reported to the police; women’s organisations, who see many victims who dare not report their experience, think that the number is much higher. Few people working at a senior level in the criminal justice system believe that the number of convictions for rape – 2,333 in the year 2012-2013 – bears much relation to the actual incidence in this country.

Even if a case gets to court (and the vast majority don’t), defendants in rape trials stand a better chance of being acquitted than those facing other criminal charges. That is because the public perception of rape – that it is a crime committed by a stranger in a dark alley – is both wrong and stubbornly hard to shift. Most victims know the men who rape them; they are targeted by acquaintances, and current and former partners. It is a shocking fact, confirmed by senior officers I have spoken to. There is a 70 per cent overlap in cases of rape and domestic violence.

Many women fear that they simply will not believed if they go to the police, although attitudes at senior levels are slowly changing. But even victims tend not to realise one crucial fact: rape is usually a serial offence – and that is crucial when it comes to securing convictions. Prosecutions often fail because of a lack of witnesses, which means that the case turns on two people giving conflicting evidence. It’s one person’s word against another’s. What changes all that? The existence of other victims, often completely unknown to each other, whose evidence establishes a pattern of offending behaviour.

When a man (for it is usually a man) is first arrested and charged, it may be on the word of a single complainant. Publicity about the case, including the identity of the accused, gives other victims the courage to come forward. Take one of the most dramatic examples in recent history: police in London had no idea of the extent of the crimes of John Worboys, the ‘black cab’ rapist, until his arrest became public and more than a hundred women came forward.

A senior officer who worked on Operation Yewtree, the investigation into the crimes of Jimmy Savile and others, told me about his shock as the tally of Savile’s likely victims mounted, eventually rising to more than 450.

Even five years ago, the idea that the entertainers Stuart Hall and Rolf Harris would go to prison for sexual offences would have been unthinkable – in each case, the presence of multiple accusers made a conviction more likely. Hall initially faced three historical counts of sexual assault; after he furiously denied the allegations, more victims came forward, including one who accused him of rape. These cases are a very good example of the way in which publicity about charges can lead to a more serious legacy of crime being uncovered.

There is a scandal around rape in this country. But it isn’t about a handful of men who have been wrongly accused, no matter how justifiably angry they are. Compared to the number of cases that never see the light of day, their experience is, I’m afraid, a drop in the ocean. It is about the many thousands of victims who don’t get justice at all – and the main effect of giving anonymity to accused men would be to make that situation even worse.