Thursday, 28 August 2014

Kitchen Sink Drama

By now, people all around the world are familiar with Patronising BT Lady. M&C Saatchi have done it again - they have created a viral advert distributed even by those in opposition to the cause they are supporting. The theory behind advertising strategies like this is that they raise the profile of a movement and help it connect with new people, so that even if initial impressions are unfavourable, those connections can be productively exploited in future. It has, however, misfired for Saatchi clients in the past, and it looks like it's doing so again.

In the case of Better Together, which has just three weeks in which to try and persuade the Scottish populace not to vote for independence, the adage that all publicity is good publicity really doesn't apply. People who switch allegiance or make up their minds at this point are very unlikely to switch back. A number of women of my own acquaintance have told me that they have moved from an undecided position or even an outright unionist position to a pro-independence position because of this advert, and I have not met any who have moved in the other direction. I have also talked with women who were already intending to vote Yes but were not very assertive about their politics who have started speaking out and trying to change the minds of those around them specifically because this has made them so angry; and I have met firm No-voting women who feel deeply embarrassed that they have been represented in this way.

Why do they feel like this? The message is pretty consistent, regardless of political position. Women feel that they are being treated (a) as if they're idiots, (b) as if they don't respect other members of their families, (c) as if they're expected to exist in a domestic space that eschews politics, and (d) as if their sincere voting intentions must be based on gut feelings rather than reason. Many of those who are or recently were undecided are far from apolitical - if anything, it's their awareness of political nuance that has kept them from taking firm decisions earlier in the campaign, though most of them do intend to vote. No voting women who thought they were part of something are now wondering if, all along, they've been thought of as pawns.

It is of course worth noting that there are some very capable women involved in the No campaign, and one can only conclude that they lacked the marketing savvy - or confidence therein - to prevent this advert from going ahead. The Saatchis have long had a bad reputation when it comes to the representation of women, so arguably something has been imposed on Better Together that doesn't fairly reflect what's going on inside it (I'm happy to attest that I have friends within the campaign who have done solid work on women's rights in the past).

Desperate attempts to justify the advert haven't really helped, however. "The woman [in the advert] is of course not representative of all women – no one woman is – and I think it has been unfairly distorted into an illustration of what the campaign thinks of women. I can confidently say that is not the case. I wouldn't be involved in such a campaign," Talat Yaqoob told the Guardian - which, of course, is tantamount to an admission that she finds the character objectionable. It has also been argued that the representation is fair because "all the quotes are verbatim from women we've met on the doorsteps." Well, sure, I can see how that might seem like it makes it okay, but whilst any one woman feeling confused about one or two issues is understandable (and a sensible reason to seek advice), combining all that confusion in one woman creates an idiot, and to have her decide how to vote on the basis of her confusion is still more deeply problematic. it's the antithesis of political argument.

How could Better Together miss something so fundamental? Some have argued that they couldn't - that they contain a fifth column secretly working for Yes, or that this is pat of a more sophisticated Saatchi strategy yet to be revealed. Well, possibly - but then there's Hanlon's razor to consider.

There's also a worse possibility - and that's that the advert genuinely reflects what influential people in the No campaign think of women. One can only hope that such attitudes are not widespread. Whatever position one takes in the great debate, it ought to be apparent that hoping people don't exercise thought before they vote is loathsomely anti-democratic. The best thing about the past two years has been the political awakening taking place in Scotland, where people with diverse political perspectives have been engaging in debate like never before. it's opening up new possibilities for us as a nation - whichever way the big vote goes - by contributing fresh insight and energy into our political system and reviving our democracy. Women must be a part of that, and their contributions must be respected. It is way past time to get out of the kitchen. Scotland may choose to be independent or it may choose to stay in the union, but whatever it decides, there will be no place in it for those seeking to deny women a political voice.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Making the news

Early in the morning of the 23rd of May this year, I contacted the BBC to raise my concern about its coverage of the local elections in England and Northern Ireland. Now, I'm not a party political person (I tried that at one point and it didn't work out), but I wouldn't have needed my research degree either to identify the bias in this coverage: the Green Party, despite making impressive gains throughout the night, was almost completely ignored. I counted just three mentions of the party before midnight, there were a couple of minutes devoted to their story later on, and there was an interview with leader Natalie Bennett (looking impressively chipper) after 3am, when most viewers would have already gone to their beds. In expressing unhappiness with this situation, I was joined by people from across the political spectrum, and a substantial petition was later presented to BBC headquarters.

Today I finally got a reply from the BBC. It reads as follows:-

Please accept our apologies for the delay in replying. We understand our correspondents appreciate a quick response and we are sorry you had to wait on this occasion.

We are committed to impartial, balanced reporting but we appreciate that not everyone will agree with how we choose to cover a particular story.

In the case you have highlighted we felt it most newsworthy to report on the results of the three 'major' parties and UKIP, who finished second. The Conservatives won the election whilst Labour came third.

As you've pointed out, the Liberal Democrats were sixth, behind the Greens and an independent candidate. However, the fact remains that are [sic] a party in government which came third in the popular vote in the last General Election. Therefore we felt their performance to be both editorially relevant and of interest to our audience. But as explained above, such decisions are judgment calls which we recognise not everyone will agree with.

Let's address the issues this raises one at a time.

Firstly, that apology. It's notable that no reason is given for the delay, though I had been contacted briefly earlier to advise me that investigation would take some time. How long does it take to find out about an existing policy? If the explanation is so obvious, why couldn't it have been provided immediately?

Secondly, that commitment to balance - what exactly does it mean? Running the numbers (votes, percentage growth, comparative positioning, poll comparisons) makes that lack of coverage look distinctly unbalanced. As the letter goes on to explain that newsworthiness, not balance, was the prime consideration, it sees rather disingenuous to mention balance here.

Thirdly, whilst I acknowledge that UKIP did come second, the increase in their share of the vote was lower than that of the Greens and, notably, they had significantly fewer elected representatives in senior positions. If being in government is enough to give the LibDems consideration although they came sixth, ought not being represented in parliament to be a consideration when it comes to balancing coverage of the Greens against that of UKIP?

The most glaring point here, however, is this: that coverage of the Greens was missing right from the start of the programme, when they were several time lumped in with 'others'. At that point, the BBC did not know what the results of the vote would be. They made the decision to run extensive coverage of UKIP's story (actually disproportionate in relation to the major parties, too) and to exclude the Greens before the programme began.

There's another major point at issue here which the BBC's letter does not even try to address. Newsworthiness can sometimes explain not having room to mention something or someone in a short article. But this was a broadcast over six hours long. In that context, there is no need to make hard choices between subjects. There would have been ample room to properly cover the Greens' story and that of UKIP and the major parties.

It's generous of the BBC to explain to me that I may take a different point of view. As a commissioning editor (at Eye For Film and KaleidoScot) I understand the issue of editorial lines. As a sociology graduate, I understand the importance of anticipating bias in one's own work and work one is reviewing. The problem is that the BBC does not, as an organisation, acknowledge any of that. Rather it passes itself off as a neutral arbiter, delivering straight, unbiased facts. That makes slanted coverage like this deeply problematic.

On the night of the elections Natalie Bennett pointed out an interesting fact (which, from what I can determine, seems to bear up): the Greens were getting more new members per minute of airtime than any other party. In other words, there are a lot of people out there who are drawn to their politics once they know it's out there and know what it's about. in a context where overall levels of voting are falling lower and lower, doesn't the BBC owe it to potential voters to let them know what their options are?

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Women against feminism: what's the story?

There's "a large and growing number" of women who are against feminism, says the BBC, referring to "a wave of anti-feminist argument from young women". This evidenced by a group Tumblr blog with 4,700 members and a Facebook group with 14,784 members (a good many of whom are there to argue with its founders, to troll, or simply as observers). Far be it from me to dismiss these women's voices, as they may have important points to make on an individual basis, but numbers like this are, when considered in proportion to the number of women using each medium, hardly evidence of a mass movement. The pop group One Direction has over 400 times as many Facebook fans and its cultural relevance is not accorded that kind of weight.

Several publications have now seen fit to publish lists of some of these women talking about their feelings on the subject. If we are to take these as representative at all, we must further question the premise behind these rather wild claims. Around half of those interviewed stress that they are for equality. They say they want the chance to achieve things on their own merits. In other words, they are not anti-feminist at all - they simply describe themselves that way because they don't know what feminism is. Given how little education is available on the subject, this is hardly surprising, and it doesn't mean they're stupid - most of them seem to have arrived at reasonable ethical positions by themselves, just without using the same labels. It does mean, however, that journalists should know better than to treat them as part of the same 'movement' as women who don't believe they are the equals of men.

In between, there is the more obscure group of women who believe they "have all their rights already". Again, this belief doesn't mean they're stupid - they may simply never have been in situations where they were knowingly impacted by gender inequality. It's relatively easy to be sheltered from these things if young and from a relatively comfortable middle class background. If they have limited experience of employment, living independently, raising children, coping with ill health etc., they may not have noticed the worst inequalities, and if they are aware that the potential for male sexual violence has a limiting effect on their lives, they may not see that as part of the same phenomenon. But just as we can't assume they're stupid, we can't assume they wouldn't rage against inequality if they did encounter it, so construing them as anti-feminist, even if they label themselves that way, is rather misleading.

In other words, this notion that a great many women are rising up to say that they don't want to be equal and would rather spend their lives deferring to men just can't be substantiated by the evidence put forward it its support. So why is it circulating at all? There are a few possibilities. First up is sheer sensationalism: it's a simple case of man bites dog, where what is less likely, if presented as truth, gets more attention. Secondly, it's an example of fear porn - that is, people love to be shocked and horrified by reading about what is supposedly going wrong with the world, and the idea of a group turning on its own is easy clickbait. Thirdly, there's the possibility that it serves certain agendas - although most articles express horror at the "growing phenomenon", the idea nevertheless helps to trivialise feminist concerns, positioning them as outdated, elitist and out of touch with everyday reality. (It's also possible, of course, that all these factors are involved to some degree.)

Rather than getting angry at young women who are trying to do what's right with limited information, feminists need to be asking why this non-story has been inflated and passed off as something meaningful - and why it's happening now. At a time when worldwide movements to reduce violence against women are finally gaining ground but when things like access to contraception and the right to equal pay are coming under attack in parts of the Western world, feminist ideas that were once minority currency are gradually moving into mass circulation. We should all be on our guard against insidious attacks based on flimsy evidence. It is the story that is the problem, not the myth upon which it is based.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

In the pit

Like everyone else, I've been following the unfolding story of the disaster in Soma, where over 280 miners died this week. I've watched twin media narratives unfold. One of these is the conventional disaster story, the attempt to convince viewers that there might yet be some hope, that it's possible a miracle could happen and someone could be found alive, despite the fact that's vanishingly unlikely in a case like this and the relatives waiting out there could probably do without the added pressure of being urged to clutch at straws. The other involves exploring the political background to the event, the failure of the Turkish government to provide adequate protection to miners. But this is part of a bigger story that they still seem to be missing.

That story is one in which each of us plays a role, at least insofar as we might be benefiting from the global economic recovery. Because it is on the backs of people like the Soma miners that that recovery is built. We don't hear a lot about it but mining is one of the key industries driving the recovery and, when one considers how others depend on it, it might be considered that most important. It may be people in offices coordinating shipments, brokering deals and buying and selling stocks who are shaping economic growth, but it is miners who are putting their bodies on the line, and without them we could all find ourselves a great deal poorer.

I don't say this purely to celebrate the people who do his job (though it would be nice to see more of them get adequate wages); I say it as a warning. Because we've seen this before - in gold rushes, in South Africa's uranium rush, in the horror of what happened under the conquistadors at Potosí. Although we depend on miners, they often have very little control over their working conditions. When society is hungry for raw materials, miners end up being forced to take risks. There isn't time to manufacture and distribute proper safety equipment, and many pit owners don't care. Less care is taken with geological surveys. Pits are expanded into territory that those involve recognise as treacherous. Poorly trained newcomers are sent into working environments they are not ready for (and in some countries, too often, they are children).

In this situation, we can expect to see more disasters like that at Soma. Most of them will be smaller, involving 'just' injuries or  small number of deaths, and will not make the headlines. Many will take place in areas that the international media pays little attention to anyway, but they will happen. It is imperative, therefore, that pressure be put on governments and industry to ensure good safety standards in mines, with regular unannounced inspections. This is as much an issue for the First World as for the countries where most of the accidents will happen, because as consumers of internationally sourced products, we all have a responsibility to those who are working on our behalf.

Mining is an inherently dangerous profession and we cannot prevent accidents, but we can work together to monitor them and we can stand up for the people on whom our global economy depends. The Soma accident isn't just a tragedy to watch on TV; it's a wake-up call.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Banking on the Pound

Yesterday's speech by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney received predictable responses on Twitter - passionately assurances, from both Yes and No campaigners, that their own cases were vindicated by it as he clearly agreed with them in full. Having watched this go on through the subsequent hours, I hope that I may be excused for sticking my oar in and asserting that, on the contrary, he agrees with me in full: I have long argued that this is a complex, nuanced issue with both positive and negative points.

I'm not a newcomer to this area of discussion; I've run three different kinds of business and I've written on business and financial issues for around a decade. And like it or not, this is a business issue, not an ideological one - those who get further than just lapping up the soundbites or shrugging their shoulders because maths is hard will be thinking carefully about how the decision could impact them financially before they decide which way to vote. They will be thinking not just about their domestic lives but also about the businesses they run and the businesses they work for. Even if they've already made up their minds about voting, many will want to work out how they can prepare financially for what is to come, how much work they will need to do to make adjustments, and what they need to take into account when preparing individual business forecasts.

In any situation of this type there are a lot of unknowns, but as Carney noted, something we can do is to look at other countries that have gone through the same process, and consider what happened to them. Doing so should reduce some of the panic that has attended the independence debate. The question is not - and, to serious minded people, never has been - about whether or not Scotland can survive on its own. What matters is whether or not it should, and whether or not it would be able to provide its citizens with a standard of living not simply adequate but satisfactory.

In asking these questions, we really need to examine two points that have been sidelined or distorted during the bulk of the debate. Firstly, there's the issue of currency use. We need to say goodbye to the nonsense that has been spouted about Scotland perhaps not being able to use the pound. Of course it will be able to use the pound. There's a very simple reason for this: the pound is a freely tradeable currency. Should it cease to be such, the UK (or what then remains of it) can kiss goodbye to its high credit rating. Naturally that isn't going to happen - so what really matters is not the cash we use (after all, we could always choose the bitcoin), but who is our lender of last resort.

This brings me to the second point - it would be unwise for any country already dealing with complexities of establishing itself as an independent force in the modern world to try and set up its own weighty central bank at the same time. But independence does not have to be established overnight. Again, if we look at other recent divorces between nations, we can see how this works in practice. If a currency is shared for a short period of time - five years is probably  good base estimate, but it should be flexible in order to take account of changing circumstances - this gives a new country stability when it most needs it. It will face limitations for the duration, being obliged to follow a similar economic direction to its larger partner, but this can be temporary. Introducing its own currency after that point is much easier and means it then has the freedom to determine its own direction.

So why is nobody discussing this option? In act, a few of the smaller political parties are, but it has been elided from the mainstream debate for two reasons. Firstly, the majority of those opposed to independence find it problematic because it makes the option of independence seem more viable. secondly, the majority of those in favour find it problematic because it requires the acknowledgement that independence would be complicated and some major elements would remain unpredictable for years after the fact. (The desire to make everything seem predictable and safe is a problem on both sides of the argument - it's politically expedient, of course, but hardly honest - there is no political arrangement without uncertainty - and the public are beginning to see through it). This is another illustration of the problems stemming from the media narrative of the referendum as a battle between polarised opponents, focused on sniping at each other rather than on elucidating the issues the public is anxious to understand. We badly need to open up public discussion of a wider range of possibilities where Scotland' political and economic future is concerned.

At present, many Scots find themselves dependent on putting their trust in one financial assessment or another based on how credible its exponents seem, without ever unravelling the details. Carney is to be praised for he clear language he used in his address, and this should be taken not as an opportunity for political posturing but as an opportunity to explore the pros and cons together, constructively, and invite more people in to the economic debate. If nothing else it is an opportunity for education that - whichever way the referendum goes - will benefit Scotland in the long term.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Best Exotic Politico Hotel

This week, First Minister's Questions in the Scottish Parliament opened with a bizarre exchange in which Johann Lamont challenged Alex Salmond over the cost of a 2012 trip to Chicago. There's a reason why this kind of politics is generally discouraged, with people being advised to play the ball, not the man. It's not just about being polite. It's that the ball can't kick back.

Lamont's criticism centered on Salmond's $2,000 a night stay at the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago. It just so happens that, like my many writers, I make part of my living from producing promotional copy, and I've written about the Peninsula Hotel. The reason it's so popular with celebrities, something Lamont ridiculed (she must wish Justin Bieber's latest bad-boy-honest publicity stunt had happened a day earlier), is that it has excellent security. Accommodating politicians in a place like this may cost more upfront but it cuts down on the cost of providing personal security, so it's not quite the waste of money it might look like. Sadly, senior politicians and celebrities do need security these days, and the cost of losing our first minister, even just in financial terms, would be considerable - not to mention that, with increased security, he's cheaper to insure.

What really makes this unfortunate for Lamont, however, is nothing to do with Salmond - it's all about the Labour Party. Let's stick with Chicago. In 1999, Tony Blair stayed in the Conrad Suite in the city's Hilton hotel, another place known for the excellent security, which is partly why it has been used by the likes of Frank Sinatra, John Travolta and Cher. The Chicago Hilton charges upwards of $7,000 a night for this suite.

Far be it from me to attack Blair for this, even if I can't see why he'd need 24 hour butler service. The point is, accommodating famous politicians is expensive. If Lamont herself becomes First Minister one day, she may find herself in the awkward position of having to find a cheaper hotel and security deal for herself. Thursday's conversation may come back to haunt her. She would be wise to do her backtracking now rather than letting this fester.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Burning Chromosomes

Amid all the recent Skeptics related flap about sex and gender, one thing has stood out to me. It is the assertion that people's  'biological sex' is obvious because of chromosomes. This is a dubious statement for many reasons, but prominent among them is this: of the numerous people I have questioned after they made this statement, all of whom have described themselves with confidence as either male or female, not one has been able to tell me with certainty what their own chromosomes look like.

Let's think about that for a minute.

Considering this, one friend told me that he'd be prepared to make a bet. I respect that position - it's not hard to guess the likely outcome - but it misses the point. The argument that sex is obvious because of chromosomes implies that we are looking at chromosomes and then deciding what sex somebody is (generally referred to as 'gendering' them).

This is patently not what we are doing. We are, as a rule looking at secondary sex characteristics or aspects of presentation (or, in the case of babies, genitals) and deciding, on that basis, what sex category to place people in; then, on that basis, we are making an assumption about what their chromosomes are likely to look like.

Ergo, unless the first we see of someone is a cell under a microscope, chromosomes play no role in what is 'obvious'. They may play a role in confirming or contradicting that later on, but it's rare.

Perhaps what is intended here is the advancement of the idea that sex can always be clarified by chromosomes. This relies on a very dogmatic view of sex in a context where scientists and doctors are far from reaching a consensus (sex can be defined by a number of characteristics that don't always neatly line up), it runs into problems when it comes to individuals with variant sex chromosomes (not super rare) and it plainly doesn't fit with our social reality.

When we look at someone's chromosomes, we may well find that they're not what we expect. Some kinds of intersex people have bodies that look completely male or female whilst their chromosomes might lead you to expect the opposite; to claim that they are 'really' gendered by their chromosomes is to dismiss at a stroke their whole life history. Not only does this render the notion of sex pretty much meaningless (lots of us don't reproduce anyway* but sex has a huge effect on how we interact), but any competent biologist will tell you that genotype does not equal phenotype, for a host of reasons, and phenotype is no less biologically 'real'.

Although many intersex people are identified at birth, many don't find out until much later in life (it's reasonable to suppose that a fair number never know at all). Every now and then a story hits the papers, usually with a lurid headline. A fifty year old man has found out he's really a woman! they tell us, except of course he has done no such thing. If he has always felt comfortable with his male identity, with a body that looks the way it does, he's not likely to change that because of a curious medical detail. His family, friends and workmates may raise eyebrows at the unexpected news but they won't suddenly see him differently. He'll still just be this guy, you know?

If you are minded to dismiss somebody as not 'really' male or female because their chromosomes don't match their appearance, you had better (a) actually know what their chromosomes are instead of basing bullying on a guess, and (b) give serious thought to how you would feel and behave if you discovered your chromosomes were not what you expected. Would you really change your lifestyle completely? Would you start thinking of the life you had lived as false, of yourself as fake? Are chromosomes that important to you?

There is a parallel here with many people's approach to sexual orientation. I have had many conversations with men who tell me they would never feel attracted to a man (by which they usually mean a male-bodied person; and so on, for other categories of sex and orientation). Not wouldn't want to sleep with, which is entirely their prerogative, but wouldn't feel attracted to. I find this odd because when I first notice somebody appealing I'm not usually looking at their genitals or peering at their chromosomes under a microscope. YMMV. I usually notice things like their curves, their (ahem) secondary sexual characteristics, and how they move. Despite my many years of living and working in trans and intersex circles, I have no magical power to perceive either the private anatomy or the gender identity of a fully clothed stranger. Simply considering the statistics, I'm sure I must have been attracted to some people where one of both of those things in fact defied my expectations.** Attraction is not a thing we control and, in most contexts, it's really not a thing we need to worry about that much. After all, we cope with other instances where otherwise cute people turn out to have characteristics that are deal breakers (for instance, I know a fair few people who refuse to sleep with folk who vote Tory, and they don't break down in tears if they discover they've accidentally lusted over one).

Sex, gender and sexual orientation are complicated things. Unless we're monitoring discrimination or planning to get intimate with someone then they are also, as a rule, none of our business. We don't need to impose dubious scientific definitions on them or get our knickers in a twist trying to reconcile the inherent fuzziness of
biology with a compulsion to neatly index everything. There is variety everywhere in nature - without it, evolution wouldn't work - and any truly scientific approach must acknowledge that. So in the end, it doesn't hurt science to respect people's lived experiences. In this situation at least, there need be no conflict between good science and good manners.

* One definition of sex used in biology holds that females are those individuals in a species who produce larger gametes than other members (males). It would work fairly well except that a significant percentage of individuals in most species, including humans, don't produce any gametes.
**This isn't to suggest that cross dressers set out to deceive people. I start from the assumption that, like me (when not in professional wear) they dress to please themselves, not because they're sleazily determined to seduce me. Others might want to give this approach a try.