A cultural change we once only dreamt of

Independent on Sunday, 16 February 2014

The sexist culture of the Sixties and Seventies that has been exposed by high-profile sexual assault cases has become an embarrassment

Early in my career, I worked on a radio station where I occasionally had to read the hourly news bulletin. In those days, the kind of behaviour described in court by the former Radio 1 DJ Dave Lee Travis was far from unusual. Even in local radio, some DJs had the status of pop stars, swaggering in and out of the building and sending signed photographs of themselves to fans. Also in those days, there was no one to complain to with any confidence; in a contest between one of the station’s male stars and a female journalist, there could be only one outcome. So when people shrug their shoulders and say “that was the culture” in the Seventies and Eighties, they’re right in a limited sense. But it was regarded by some who hated it as a culture of opportunism, based on an imbalance of power.

Let’s jump forward several decades to Operation Yewtree, the police inquiry prompted by the crimes of Jimmy Savile. Only five years ago, the laddish culture of the Sixties was still being celebrated in Richard Curtis’s dreadful film The Boat That Rocked, which glamorised the compulsive shagging of fictional pirate radio DJs as good clean fun. Now the culture the film was based on finds itself on trial, both in the law courts and in the wider context of radically changed attitudes towards gender.

Inevitably, it is the legal process that has received most attention, with one woman after another – and some men, let’s not forget – coming forward to allege abuse at the hands of a series of household names. Travis, who was cleared last week of 12 charges of indecent assault, described the “different culture” in court, recalling that “people would pat a girl on the bottom or something like that” and the women would be “laughed at” if they complained. He denied touching any of his accusers sexually, but he said he would hug people he liked. “I will hug them and give them a kiss – the whole world needs more of that,” he declared.

Actually, I don’t think the world does need more of that. I don’t know many women who would be relaxed about being hugged and kissed by men they work with – and it’s hard to square such assumptions with modern principles of gender equality. The days when all Radio 1 DJs were men, an inheritance from offshore pirate stations such as Radio Caroline, are long gone.

If we stand back from sensational court cases for a moment, there is a big upside to all this. In the past couple of years, the true nature of behaviour that used to be tolerated or tacitly condoned is finally being recognised. It’s hard to believe that another BBC presenter, the late John Peel, used to boast about getting blowjobs from underage girls when he worked in Texas. With female stars such as Madonna and Lady Gaga calling the shots, the sexist nature of Sixties pop culture has become an embarrassment, to say the least.

All these controversies, whether or not they end up in court, are about a redrawing of boundaries. The Lib Dems have been caught out by the process, leading to an unedifying public row about the behaviour of their former chief executive. Lord Rennard is currently suspended from the party after refusing to apologise when a leading QC concluded that he had invaded the personal space of several women.

What’s happening is an inevitable consequence of women achieving positions of influence and challenging the unwritten rules of a workplace that used to be dominated by men. In the modern world, no one should imagine that being famous bestows a licence to hug, kiss or touch other people without the usual and not very onerous process of obtaining consent. To do anything else may not always breach the law but it is an abuse of power, and creates a climate of impunity in which ruthless predators such as Savile are able to flourish.

Indeed, the Savile case should give pause to anyone who feels like joining the cries of “witch-hunt” which have followed the acquittals of Travis and the Coronation Street star William Roache. Operation Yewtree is a conscious effort on the part of the police to make up for past mistakes, with all the risks that entails.

The former director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer summed up the dilemma after the Travis trial ended: “Every police officer and every prosecutor knows when bringing such a case that, in the event of a conviction, the criticism will be that the case was not brought sooner and more robustly, and that, in the event of an acquittal, there will be charges of a witch-hunt.”

Two celebrity acquittals in the space of a week were bound to create sensational headlines. But they should not be allowed to obscure the fact that we are living through a process of necessary cultural change. A more equal society, which respects the bodily integrity of both sexes, is a better place for everyone.

William Roache is not guilty. Neither is his prosecutor

Independent on Sunday, 9 February 2014

Reputation is a fragile commodity. If things had turned out differently, it’s a safe bet that Nazir Afzal would be reading admiring profiles of himself this weekend. Afzal is the chief crown prosecutor for north-west England and the man who decided to charge the actor, William Roache, with “historic” sex offences. Not so long ago, Afzal was being hailed for his tenacity in going after the British-Asian men who groomed under-age girls for sex in Rochdale; he also secured “guilty” verdicts against the parents of 17-year-old Shafilea Ahmed, who murdered their daughter nine years earlier. Now Afzal stands accused of leading a “celebrity witch-hunt” against elderly actors, DJs and television presenters.

Roache’s statement after his acquittal was dignified but his supporters were angry. They demanded to know why the case was ever brought, claiming that the actor was a victim of the “hysteria” created by revelations about Jimmy Savile. It’s a curious conclusion to draw from a “not guilty” verdict; there are courtrooms where the conviction rate is 100 per cent but they tend to be in totalitarian states. In serious criminal cases in England and Wales, the rate is around 82 per cent, and I would be seriously worried if every defendant were to be found guilty.

Talk of “witch-hunts” conceals an inconvenient fact: men charged with rape stand a better chance of walking free than other defendants. The conviction rate in rape trials – 63 per cent in 2102/13 – is quite a lot lower. Prosecutors are taking a bigger risk when they bring rape cases to court, especially when the alleged offences happened decades ago, leaving no forensic evidence. Afzal took the decision to charge the veteran broadcaster Stuart Hall, who still awaits trial on charges of rape and indecent assault. Other “historic” cases have yet to reach an outcome: the trial of the former Radio 1 DJ Dave Lee Travis on 13 counts of indecent assault and one of sexual assault is drawing to a close, while the entertainer Rolf Harris is due in court in April. He has pleaded “not guilty” to 12 counts of indecent assault.

Roache’s acquittal follows the “not guilty” verdict in the trial of another member of the Coronation Street cast, Michael Le Vell, who was charged with child abuse. Both outcomes have been greeted as though they represent egregious miscarriages of justice, when they might simply offer insights into the special difficulties attendant on trying famous defendants; on Friday, the judge in the Travis trial warned jurors not to be influenced by verdicts in the Roache case.

If the actor had been found guilty, the papers would be full of articles about his claim to have slept with 1,000 women and his sleazy nickname (“Cock Roache”). Instead, a principled prosecutor has been traduced for doing his job: the accusers in this case had a right to have their allegations tested in court, just as much as the young women who accused nine British-Asian men in Rochdale.

Death in the desert, disappearances at sea

The Sunday Times, 2 February 2014
Egypt and Sudan are rarely out of the news these days. Parker Bilal’s crime novels pre-date the current troubles, but offer revealing insights into the recent past; his detective, Makana, is a refugee, an honest policeman driven out of Sudan by political strife, and struggling to make a living in Cairo. The Ghost ­Runner (Bloomsbury £11.99/ebook £7.99) is the third in this fine series written under a pseudonym by the acclaimed novelist Jamal Mahjoub.
Makana has been hired to follow a husband whose wife suspects he is having an affair, only to discover that the man is visiting a young woman horrifically injured in a fire. Makana suspects an “honour” crime, and travels to the girl’s home town on the edge of the Sahara. Not for the first time, a literary novelist uses the crime genre to terrific effect, exposing official complicity in historic crimes against women.
Locked-room mysteries are a  staple of crime fiction. The Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardottir has come up with her own, and it’s a corker. The Silence of the Sea, translated by Victoria Cribb (Hodder £13.99/ebook £7.49), is about a family trip on a luxury yacht that turns into a nightmare. By the time it arrives from Lisbon, crashing into a jetty in Reykjavik, no one is on board.
Among the missing are the captain and a couple with their twin daughters. The children’s distraught grandparents ask a lawyer to investigate their disappearance, and, as she begins making inquiries, events on the yacht are revealed in a series of flashbacks. The novel is gripping and claustrophobic, and ends with one of the most dramatic twists in recent crime fiction.
Thomas Enger’s novels feature Henning Juul, an Oslo newspaper reporter badly scarred in a fire. The first two books in the series, Burned and Pierced, are inter­national bestsellers and the theme continues with Scarred, ­translated by Charlotte Barslund (Faber £7.99/ebook £6.99). Juul is pursuing a story about a sadistic murder in a nursing home when his estranged ­sister, a government minister, is accused of sexually harassing a young male aide. Enger’s portrayal of a ­successful woman targeted by a malicious accusation makes for a very modern plot. But the parallel murder investigation is ­contrived, making this a novel of two poorly connected halves.
Two series of infant deaths, more than a century apart, are the focus of Elly Griffiths’s The Outcast Dead (Quercus £16.99/ebook £10.99). Her forensic archeologist, Ruth Galloway, unearths the body of a woman hanged for murder in 1867. ­Jemima Green was a Victorian “baby farmer”, accused of killing infants in her care, and Ruth is taking part in a ­television documentary about her. At the same time, local police are investigating the deaths of three ­children, in a compassionate novel that raises questions about parental love and guilt.
Allan Massie’s novels set in Vichy France are always a joy. Cold Winter in Bordeaux (Quartet £12) takes place in 1942-43, as the war is turning against the Germans. Massie’s Superintendent Lannes is called to an apartment where he finds a teacher strangled with one of her own silk stockings. It looks like a murder committed at the height of ­passion, but Lannes isn’t convinced. He knows he is using the investigation as a diversion from fears about his sons, who are on opposite sides in the conflict, and the novel becomes a compelling portrait of a family experiencing the privations of war.

The Amanda Knox verdict isn’t justice for Meredith Kercher. It’s a witch-hunt

Independent on Sunday, 2 February 2014

We have seen the fevered imaginings of a rank species of misogyny

The brutal murder of a young woman in her own bedroom by a sexual predator is horrible to imagine. But the case of the British student Meredith Kercher, who was killed in Perugia more than six years ago, has been followed by one of the most protracted and tormenting legal processes in recent history.

Last week, an Italian court reinstated guilty verdicts on the victim’s American flatmate, Amanda Knox, and her former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, and yesterday the president of the Florence appeals court told an Italian newspaper the crime was the result of a series of coincidences. It might not have happened, said Alessandro Nencini, if Knox hadn’t changed her mind about going to work that evening. He admitted this would be the most “controversial” part of the judgment.

It’s worth recalling, at this point, that someone else was convicted of the murder five years ago. Copious amounts of forensic evidence implicated a young man called Rudy Guede, who left Italy after the attack and was arrested in Germany. He was convicted of sexual assault and murder in a fast-track procedure, and his sentence of 30 years was cut to 16 on appeal.

Most sex-attackers are men; Guede had Kercher’s blood on his hands and left other evidence behind; there is no incontrovertible evidence placing Knox or Sollecito in the bedroom; forensic evidence cited by the prosecution was discredited at their successful appeal in 2011. Yet the Italian authorities have stood by an idea formed in the immediate aftermath of the killing, which is that a woman must have been the prime mover. The case long ago become a circus, with some British papers gleefully hailing the return of “Foxy Knoxy” after Thursday’s verdict. At her original trial, this femme fatale supposedly had such power over two men who hadn’t previously met that she was able to persuade them to take part in a murder influenced by black magic.

These were the fevered imaginings of a rank species of misogyny. Their origins lie in the infamous history of Perugia, described as the “epicentre” of 15th-century witch trials. Both sides in the case made the link, with one hostile lawyer describing Knox as a “diabolical she-devil”. Five supposed “witches” were burned to death in Perugia between 1445 and 1501; their male “accomplices” were spared on the grounds that they had been bewitched.

Now the Florence court has replaced the black magic motive favoured in Perugia with a row between Kercher and Knox over a dirty toilet. First it was witchcraft, now it’s personal hygiene; if that seems a leap, the appeal judges haven’t deviated from the prosecutors’ original assumption in one crucial respect. They still seem to believe that a young American woman – not the man who left his DNA all over the scene – bears the greatest responsibility for a savage, sexually-motivated murder.

So what is your party’s line on bottom-pinching, Mr Clegg?

Independent on Sunday, 26 January 2014

Old assumptions about what is acceptable behaviour no longer hold, as the male-dominated Lib Dems are – painfully and publicly – finding out

Around 20 years ago, I went to see David Mamet’s play Oleanna at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It was causing controversy, first because of the subject-matter – a false accusation of sexual harassment at an American university – and then because of the reaction at the London first night; when the academic beat up his female accuser on stage, some men in the audience cheered. The play was directed by Harold Pinter, who believed it was tough and unflinching. I thought it was a caricature and walked out.

In those days, a mostly male consensus still set the agenda in the arts, media and politics. Like most women, I had been groped at work and even, on one occasion, subjected to sexual assault. There wasn’t anyone to complain to and if you did, colleagues would rush to the man’s defence or suggest you’d mistaken his intentions. I never thought this situation would last once women started entering the workplace in large numbers. It hasn’t, as the Liberal Democrats are discovering in the most public way imaginable.

Whatever the outcome of the allegations against its former chief executive, Lord Rennard, the row which has split the party has a simple cause. Women are still not as widely represented as we should be in some walks of life, but old assumptions about what is acceptable behaviour no longer hold. Nick Clegg’s problem isn’t just the accusations against Rennard, who continues to deny them, or indeed the timing; last week the party also had to suspend one of its MPs, Mike Hancock, who faces civil litigation and much more serious accusations of sexual assault. It’s the impression that leading members of the party, who are almost without exception male, appear to be oblivious of a sea change in relations between men and women.

New rules apply, even in laddish environments such as Parliament, and many men as well as women welcome the change in the working atmosphere. Some even support the campaign to get rid of Page 3, which has become a litmus test of attitudes towards casual sexism. That isn’t to say that suggestive remarks or indeed sexual harassment have been abolished from the workplace, but it is much easier for both sexes to report behaviour that makes them uncomfortable.

Against this background, the failure of a party which has the word “liberal” in its title to embrace equality in its practices is little short of disastrous. The Lib Dems should have had procedures in place years ago to deal swiftly with allegations of sexual harassment. It’s tempting to think they might have done so if the party’s power structure wasn’t so resistant to women; there are only seven women among the party’s 57 MPs (56, now Hancock is suspended) and they haven’t said much about the current scandal.

Meanwhile, like dinosaurs who have not raised their heads for many a year, one Lib Dem bloke after another has lumbered blinking into the unfamiliar territory of gender politics. Clegg, who is a decent man, must have been tearing his hair out when he heard the sexist nonsense they came out with. Chris Davies, who is one of the party’s MEPs, protested that Rennard was accused only of touching women “through clothing” and dismissed the alleged incidents as no more than “an Italian man pinching a woman’s bottom” a few years ago. Davies said a lot of other foolish things as well, and eventually apologised. But he isn’t the only man in the party who has a strange take on groping bits of other people’s bodies. A Lib Dem peer, Lord Greaves, opined that “at least half of the members of the House of Lords have pinched a woman’s bottom”. Did he really mean to suggest that some noble ladies are unable to keep their hands off a shapely pair of female buttocks?

Greaves did at least admit that such behaviour is no longer widespread and said he was not trying to justify it. Rennard’s legal adviser, Lord Carlile, decided to play the victim card, saying that his friend’s treatment “has made the North Korean judicial system seem benign”. Frankly, I find it hard to believe that Kim Jong Un’s unfortunate uncle died with the words “No, anything but the Lib Dem disciplinary procedure!” on his lips.

What’s been fascinating to watch is the change in the way sexual harassment is being discussed. Two decades ago, there was a default assumption that women who complained were over-reacting or had made the whole thing up, but that’s far from the case now. Unlike the Lib Dems, Labour has plenty of high-profile women who are ready to talk knowledgeably on the subject, while newspapers have more women in commissioning roles. A headline in The Daily Telegraph, which recently started a “wonder women” blog, is symptomatic of the change: “You don’t need breasts to know [Rennard] is wrong.”

For every columnist who’s demanded to know why a woman doesn’t slap a man’s face if he touches her in a way she doesn’t like, someone else has asked why women should be expected to resort to violence. It’s a welcome shift away from questioning the accuser’s behaviour – traditional in cases of alleged rape as well as sexual harassment – towards asking instead why some men still try to take advantage of their status.

Of course this is about power, which is the only thing Mamet got right in Oleanna. In the past, many of us felt disbelief and anger when a colleague’s hand brushed our breasts, but there weren’t enough of us to do anything about it. That’s no longer the case and Nick Clegg needs to get his party’s line on bottom-pinching sorted, pronto.

 

Can the European Parliament call a halt to prostitution as we know it?

Today a report has been voted through by MEPs propounding the view that prostitution is a fundamental violation of women’s rights. Now it will go to a full European Parliament vote next month. Mary Honeyball, MEP and writer Joan Smith explain all

Daily Telegraph, 23 January 2014

Will MEPs vote to end the age-old practice of men paying to use women’s bodies for sex? A ground-breaking report has today been accepted by one of the Parliament’s more influential bodies. Just a few hours ago, the committee on women’s rights and gender equality voted through a report arguing that prostitution is a fundamental violation of women’s rights. This means it will go to a full Parliament vote in Feburary.

The report is couched in the formal language used by legislators, but what it is proposing is a massive cultural change. For centuries, supporters of prostitution have argued that it’s the oldest profession and has to be tolerated, if not legalised. We believe that this is patently untrue – selling sex isn’t a profession and agriculture came first – but it has been an effective part of the propaganda of the commercial sex trade. Now we’re seeing it challenged across Europe, as one country after another comes to the conclusion that allowing the sale of women’s bodies isn’t compatible with modern notions of equality between the sexes.

In December, we were delighted to see French MPs vote to outlaw paying for sex, and Ireland is now thinking about following suit. The French vote has to be ratified by the Senate but three European countries – Sweden, Norway and Iceland – have already made buying sex a criminal offence while decriminalising women who sell it. Legislators in those countries have learned from what’s happened in Germany, which legalised prostitution in 2002; the country now has so many women in the commercial sex trade that it’s been called ‘Europe’s biggest brothel’.

According to a documentary shown on German TV last year, more than one million men pay for sex in the country every single day. Since the law was relaxed, the number of women selling sex in Germany is believed to have risen to around 400,000, and two-thirds of them are foreign. It’s becoming clear that the German experiment has failed, producing the opposite effect of what was intended; there’s been a huge expansion in the commercial sex trade and no reduction in the crime associated with it. On the contrary, a third of German prosecutors say that legalising prostitution has made it harder for them to go after pimps and traffickers.

There are similar misgivings about what has happened in the Netherlands, where a relaxation of the law has been linked to a big rise in trafficking; the country is now listed by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime as one of the top destinations for victims of sex trafficking. Indeed the report argues that legalising prostitution actually encourages trafficking in women and girls, as the legal trade acts as a cover for pimps who offer cheaper sex with trafficked women and girls.

Supporters of the commercial sex trade furiously contest the idea that there’s a link between ‘voluntary’ prostitution and sex trafficking. But a study published last year looked at 116 countries and found that states where prostitution is legal tend to experience higher levels of trafficking, and that legalisation appears to ‘boost the market for this fast-growing global criminal industry’. The notion of a link is logical, because legalising prostitution reduces stigma, encouraging demand from men who might otherwise think twice about paying for sex.

At the same time, selling your body is such a horrible way of life that there will never be enough women to meet demand. The report highlights the involvement of organised crime, pointing out that it is ‘a major player’ wherever procuring is legal. Denmark, which decriminalised prostitution in 1999, has four times as many trafficking victims as Sweden, where buying sex became a criminal offence in the same year.

For us, as feminists and passionate believers in equality, the true nature of prostitution is exposed by the gender imbalance at its heart. The vast majority of people who sell sex are women and girls, and almost all of those who buy it are men. If it’s just another job, why aren’t millions of men and boys rushing to do it? Why isn’t the ring road in Madrid or Milan packed by young men in hot pants, waving down cars to offer sex?

If selling your body were a free choice, the current situation would make no sense, but of course it isn’t. Study after study shows that most girls who go into prostitution have been abused in childhood, and are often victims of domestic violence, incest and paedophilia. They also show that more than half of prostituted women have been raped, while more than two-thirds display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

In books, films and popular culture, prostitution is routinely glamourised. Popular accounts of prostitution focus on a tiny minority who insist they’ve chosen the lifestyle and find it empowering, and ‘sex workers’ respond with vicious personal attacks when we point out that they aren’t typical. But Catherine Deneuve volunteering to work in an upmarket brothel in Bunuel’s Belle de Jour is a far cry from the lives of the young women murdered by Steve Wright in Ipswich.

Verbal and physical abuse isn’t confined to street prostitution, with one academic study concluding that women who work indoors still face ‘physical, economic and sexual violence from their clients, including serious assaults’. That’s not surprising, given that research on men who pay for sex show that they tend to have a ‘degrading image’ of women.

Most women working as prostitutes would like to stop but find it difficult to get out because of drug dependency, lack of other ways of making a living and threats from pimps. If you accept the harm it does, the notion of ‘regulating’ prostitution, which became popular in Europe after the sexual revolution of the 1960s, reveals itself in its true guise: regulating the exploitation of women. Laws are meant to protect vulnerable people, not ensure that they are damaged in slightly pleasanter circumstances. And that’s why there’s been a move away from the failed legalisation experiment to one which tackles demand, instead of women who are victims of poverty, violence and coercion

Under the ‘Swedish model’ of dealing with prostitution, the person breaking the law isn’t the person selling sex but the client. It’s a dramatic re-appraisal of the burden of harm, which traditionally assumed that men were the ones who needed to be protected from disease and ‘corruption’; in the 19th century, British MPs actually passed laws allowing women suspected of working as prostitutes in garrison towns to be forcibly examined for sexually transmitted diseases. In the 21st century, buying women’s bodies is rightly being seen as one of the ways in which men exploit their greater economic and social power.

Equality is at the heart of this argument. If you accept that all human beings are entitled to be treated with dignity, it’s impossible to support a trade which treats women’s bodies as disposable. That’s why we’re thrilled that the MEPs on the European Parliament’s women’s committee have accepted this report on today, and support the extension of the ‘Swedish model’ across Europe.

If the vote is passed in February, the view that prostitution is a fundamental violation of women’s rights, will become the formal European Parliament position. It won’t have any legal impact on the UK but it will put pressure on the member states to reassess their prostitution policies. Prostitution is a symptom of deep-seated misogyny, and totally incompatible with the principles enshrined in the EU’s charter of fundamental rights.

Mary Honeyball is MEP for London since 2000, and Labour spokesperson for women in Europe. She sits on the European Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality committee and is the author of the report approved today regarding prostitution

Joan Smith is a novelist, columnist and the author of Misogynies. Her latest book is The Public Woman. She is co-chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Panel, although she writes in a personal capacity

Why do homosexuals worry you so much, Mr Putin?

Independent on Sunday, 19 January 2014

Gay people will not be harassed at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, he declared, as long as they stay away from children

In his annual state of the nation speech last month, Vladimir Putin talked about defending traditional values. One phrase stood out, revealing the deep-seated fear and prejudice which lie behind the country’s anti-gay legislation. Family values, said the Russian President, are the foundation of the country’s greatness and a bulwark against “genderless and infertile” Western tolerance. He didn’t mention homosexuality but it was clearly what he had in mind, and he added another slur a couple of days ago. Gay people will not be harassed at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, he declared, as long as they stay away from children.

The conflation of adult homosexual love and paedophilia has long been used as a tactic against gay people. Putin claimed he was merely clarifying Russia’s law in advance of the Olympics, pointing out that “the propaganda of  homosexuality and paedophilia” is banned, not gay relationships. But his phrasing – “Leave children alone, please” – will inflame  anti-gay sentiment in Russia, where a poll carried out last year suggested almost half the population believe homosexuality is a consequence of “being subjected to perversion”. Three-quarters support the law banning gay “propaganda” and Moscow has outlawed gay pride marches for 100 years.

Putin’s sneering homophobia is shared by the Russian Orthodox church. His friend and confidant, the Patriarch Kirill, has said that recognising gay relationships would be “a sign of the Apocalypse”. The church is believed to have encouraged the prosecution of members of the punk band Pussy Riot, who support equal rights for gay people. At their trial, witnesses described the group’s performance as “demonic”. When I spoke to Pussy Riot last summer, they talked about homophobia in Russia and linked it to the government’s support for “traditional” gender roles. “The atmosphere in Moscow is very conservative. People don’t understand the LGBT community,” one of them told me.

She added that the idea of “Russian motherhood” is very important under Putin’s presidency. “In former times women were active and followed careers. Now a woman has to give birth to a child before the age of 23. She needs her husband’s permission to use contraception.”

Her words were prescient in view of Putin’s recent attack on blurred gender boundaries. In a dreadful confluence of interests, the Orthodox Church’s conservative outlook has found a match in the President’s identity crisis. Putin is mocked abroad for his Action Man stunts, staged events in which he rides bareback. They do not suggest a man at ease with himself.

Weak egos and repressive states require scapegoats and, tragically, gay people in Russia have been chosen as targets. The Olympic Games, which celebrate human achievement, are being used as a rabble-rousing tool by a leader who hankers after an imaginary past when men were straight – and women were mothers.

The Lib Dems’ trouble with women will not go away

The report into the behaviour of Lord Rennard has left a question mark over the party’s commitment to gender equality

The Guardian, 15 January 2014

Once again, the Liberal Democrats are having trouble with women. The party has decided not to take disciplinary action against its former chief executive, Lord Rennard, who has always denied allegations that he sexually harassed female colleagues. But the findings of Alistair Webster QC, who looked at the evidence as part of a disciplinary process, make uncomfortable reading for senior Lib Dems. To outsiders, the episode appears to confirm the impression that the party remains a boys’ club, and one that doesn’t know where to draw boundaries in questions relating to power and gender.

Senior Lib Dems are without exception male, and they’ve been accused of failing to act promptly when female members bring allegations of sexual misconduct to their attention. Now they have to deal with the fallout from an investigation that makes highly critical observations about someone who was one of the party’s most senior employees, yet stops short of recommending any formal sanction. How will the complainants feel after being told that their evidence was not unreliable, yet no action is to be taken against Rennard?

Webster accepts that the peer’s behaviour may have caused distress to the women who made the allegations. He found “broadly credible” evidence of “behaviour which violated the personal space and autonomy of the complainants”. He thinks that Rennard should apologise and commit to changing his behaviour.

But then he offers the peer a get-out: because he could not establish beyond reasonable doubt that Rennard intended to act in an indecent or sexually inappropriate manner, Webster does not think he should face a disciplinary charge of bringing the party into disrepute. That decision seems more appropriate to a criminal court, which has the power to deprive someone of their liberty, than a disciplinary procedure.

These events are all the more damaging because the Lib Dems are perceived to have a wider problem with women. After almost four years in coalition with the Conservatives, Nick Clegg hasn’t put a single Lib Dem woman in the cabinet. Only seven of the party’s MPs are female, and the Labour MP Angela Eagle pointed out last summer that it has as many knights on its benches as women. Few of its female MPs are household names and one of them, Sarah Teather, has already said she won’t fight the next general election.

Now the outcome of the Rennard investigation has left a question mark over the party’s commitment to gender equality. A previous report by a businesswoman, Helena Morrissey, found that the deputy prime minister was wrong not to launch a formal inquiry in 2008. Similar complaints have been made about the way the party has handled allegations of indecent assault against one of its MPs, Mike Hancock, who denies the accusations but has resigned the parliamentary whip while he faces a civil action.

The party’s president, Tim Farron, has embarked on a damage limitation exercise, saying that it will look again at its disciplinary procedures. He has also acknowledged that Rennard did not behave in an appropriate way for a chief executive. But senior Lib Dems cannot shrug off the impression that they acted too late, and have ended up with a report that raises as many questions as it answers.