vote1281305_52700450I’ve wanted the Tories to be better, I really have, but the time to give up seems to have come.

I’ve always hung back from the subtle rhetoric of  ‘All Tories are utter scumbags who deserve to be tortured slowly, then killed’. Why? Because I know that isn’t true – my parents are Tories, were local councillors for many years, and very active ones at that. Both of them despise and reject prejudice in all its forms, support the idea of drug legalisation and more rights and better treatment for immigrants and other views unpopular with the Daily Mail, but they are actually Tories. They have not always toed the party line and don’t much like it at the moment, and I’ve never wanted to believe that they believed in something wrong at its base. And I still don’t think Conservatism has to be wrong at its base, but what’s going on now is wrong by any definition.

The stereotypes of Tories are interesting. Growing up, I’d be asked if my parents were terribly strict. No, they’re about the most liberal parents I know. When I told people they were local counsellors, active in social services, health and education committees and other voluntary bodies, I’d get the response ‘Labour, then?’ as though Tories ought to be on Baby Killing and Dog Kicking committees.

I have difficulty on a number of levels with rabid Tory-hatred, not least that it makes simplistic reductions, which  discourage rational debate about politics. People believe the Tories are irredeemable, socially unacceptable, and will remain so whatever they do or say, and so it doesn’t really encourage the Tories to be better than they are. There are decent Tories out there, and it would be better to at least listen to them and let them come to the forefront of the party than to drive them all out of town with flaming torches.

I used to snort, and still do to some extent at people saying things such as ‘The Tories hate poor and disabled people and want them to die.’ But, by God, they’re sure as hell acting as though they do.

One thing that is really disappointing is that Iain Duncan Smith and the Social Justice Unit started off sounding as though they actually had a decent approach to the benefits system – before election, of course. The concept of ‘tapering off’ benefits so that rather than losing a host of them on taking up a job, more benefit could be retained while working  (let’s not forget how many benefit claimants are people employed in low-income jobs), seemed to be a positive way of helping people into work, rather than punishing people for the difficulty of finding jobs they can sustain themselves on. Obviously, I am no economist, maybe I’m totally off bat, but it sounded like a good idea to me.

This idea appears to have vanished utterly – presumably due the expense of implementing, and largely due to the media’s sustained campaign against benefit claimants. Yes, even though welfare is far from being the cause of the UK’s economic situation, the Tories knew that they would have wide backing from the media if they pursued this as a way of improving the state of Britain’s economy. So they took it and ran with it.

The resulting situation is disgusting. Not to mention illogical and expensive. And unless they burn themselves to the ground and entirely rebuild themselves as something else, this time I don’t think I can forgive the Conservative Party. Laugh away, say you knew it for years, but I wanted them to be worth my vote, I wanted there to be forward thinking, caring people to take the reins and make it a party worth supporting.

I wanted them to show they didn’t have to be the Nasty Party, but they’ve gone, put a smiley face on it and horrendously victimised the most vulnerable members of society without making efforts to go after the people and organisations who could cough up enough money to make an economic difference and still have enough phlegm to buy yachts with. And there’s going to be further economic and human disaster when housing benefit cuts bite, with low-income people becoming  unable to afford to live in places like London. Or to live anywhere safe and habitable.

I’m on benefits myself. I was made redundant four months ago, so I’m enjoying the fun and jollity of the JSA right now. If I remain unemployed for much longer, I probably (and quite rightly, in my case) lose entitlement to JSA and I’m somewhat relieved given everything I hear. We can manage without it, though things will be tight, but at least I can’t be threatened and cajoled at every turn. I’m distressed by the thought of the countless people for whom cessation of benefits is terrifying – people who are understandably wondering how they will live, how they will feed their children, with nothing.

The government’s line appears to be that ‘they’ll just have to manage on a bit less’, when they have no concept of what it is to be on a low income – hell, I don’t even have much of a concept of it, but I can see it is pushing people’s lives into a state of emergency.

Is the answer revolution, as the usual corners are muttering? Probably not. But social media is beginning to flex its muscle in terms of shaming or withdrawing custom from those who don’t pay tax or use ‘workfare’ free labour to replace paid jobs – the last few weeks have given several examples of effective people power fuelled by Twitter and Facebook.

And I still believe it is incumbent upon us to vote. The Coalition presumably decided to focus on welfare because they knew it would ‘play well with the voters’ and voters these days are more likely to be the sort of people who look down on those taking welfare. If voters were people with whom this kind of thing didn’t go down well, they may not have taken that decision. Staying silent at the polls is not helpful, but if everyone, or even a significant chunk of everyone, who is ‘not the kind of person who votes’ voted in the next election, that would scare the living shit out of every politician far more than any protest.

I can’t say it’s been a pleasure, Conservative Party, I can’t say it’s been anything at all. I gave you the benefit of the doubt for as long as I could, but if you’re cutting benefits, then so am I. I would say this is written more in sorrow than in anger, but screw it, I am seriously angry.

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ImageAs with everything, it starts young. It’s all ‘little rascals’ for your sons, but ‘perfect princess’ for your daughters. No pressure, like.

Perfection appears to be a feminine attribute – who knew? Would be nice to think it were so, to think it’s empowering, but in fact it’s the opposite.

It seems to be the case that women beat themselves up about things a lot more than guys do. Blokes are happier to muddle through and get shit done, while women, it seems, agonise over the minutiae (‘What did it mean when she said “fine”? Was that “fine” or, you know, “fine”? Oh God!’). Women notably initiate divorces far more than men, and I wonder how many blokes a demand for divorce has hit utterly out of the blue when they believed, reasonably or not, that everything was just dandy.

So the girls are expected to get it all right, dammit, as perfection is one of our attributes. A bit like God, but more hormonal.

The perfection bug is especially notable around weddings. When I got married one of the associated clichés that especially pissed me off, among many – don’t get me started on ‘Every woman has dreamed of her wedding day since she was a little girl’ – was the old ‘Every bride wants her day to be perfect’.

Well, for a start it wasn’t my day – it was a day for me, and my husband and our families and our friends. Additionally, I had no expectations of it being perfect, that would be deranged.  As it was, in the end it was a mixture of triumph, slight disarray and absolutely torrential, apocalyptic rain.

But naturally, we’re supposed to be bridezillas, tearing limbs and crushing buses when the napkins turn out to be ‘Brightest Azure’ and not ‘Vibrant Turquoise’ as requested. In our case, it was my husband who had far more of an idea of what sort of wedding he wanted than I did myself, and despite my hesitation on the practicality of our scenario (barn, countryside, 200 miles from home and seriously pushing their seating capacity) I decided it would be churlish not to go along with things when it wasn’t as though I had a better idea myself. Fortunately, one thing we totally agreed on was that ‘perfection’ was not part of the plan.

It’s not just weddings – we always read about ‘perfect’ homes, men, little black dresses, children, lipstick, dates, holidays. But material aimed at men doesn’t seem to have anything like the same emphasis on perfection. Blokes are laid back, blokes can improvise and go with the flow, we are lead to believe.

So the flipside can be that women are seen as unreasonable, unrealistic and not to be taken seriously because we have a lower threshold for coping with the messiness of life – which is funny, because we’re usually the ones cleaning it up, too.

ImageThose men, eh? Always trying to upstage one another with sexier outfits. Always getting into catfights, and, my God! The jealousy, they just can’t be happy for one another. They may be sweetness and light on the surface, but really they’re at each other’s throats – don’t let that ‘brotherhood’ act fool you.

No, I haven’t heard about that either. The concept of female rivalry seems to be one of the most insidious accusations and weapons in the media to undermine high profile women. The underlying message, as with so many things is ‘Don’t take women seriously. They’re all hormonal and irrational and will only do silly things if you give them an inch.’ Yet I have seldom seen it challenged.

Where did it come from as an idea? Why don’t we hear about football players who used to be in the same club bitching about who gets the best table at an award ceremony and how they ‘don’t speak to one another’ anymore. The other month Grazia had a headline about how, shock horror, J-Lo and Victoria Beckham haven’t had a cosy chat lately. My God! Obviously they can’t stand the sight of each other, there must be something up. It’s not as though they’re people who were moving in the same circles for a while and one of them moved away. When a female celebrity says of another ‘We haven’t talked for a while, but I wish her well’, it’s reported as though it’s some sort of chilly, hissed brush-off, not the comment of someone in reference to a person who is effectively a former work colleague. Apparently in the female celebrity world,  if you’re not BFFs, then surely you’re deadly enemies, stalking one another through the press to make sure the other woman is not getting thinner/younger looking/more popular than you.

It’s a no-win situation for high profile women, of course – the more they go on record claiming there’s no rift between them, the more insinuating headlines you see about them insisting there’s ‘no rift’ between them.

This attitude sneaks down to the more prosaic world of normal women too – the press delights in stories about research that allegedly proves that female bosses don’t like to promote other women, that women in the workplace look down on other women for being fat, or thin, or ugly, or pretty. In fact, when you think about it, there’s an awful lot of reported analysis of what women do in the workplace compared to that about men, as though it’s still some sort of marvellous novelty that women have jobs.

I think that just about every major TV series than involves a largely female cast attracts stories of how the women concerned fight at photo shoots, bicker over dresses or are ‘furious’ that one actor earns more than them. You don’t see headlines like that for mostly male series. The message is that if you get enough women in one place, you’ve got a fight on your hands. What seems to be being said here, again, is that women can’t cope with status – men are natural leaders and gracefully accept the ‘top dog’, but women can’t deal with it and must take part in a neverending and graceless struggle for dominance.

In the X-Factor and its ilk, there’s a lot of talk about what the judges say – usually the male judges. But if there are two young women on the panel, well, then it’s a week-by-week scoreboard of who has ‘won’ the essential female struggle of being the best dressed, with reporting that suggests it’s platform stilettos at dawn for these two ladies, and no mistake. (See articles like this, ad infinitum) Note that it doesn’t happen if one of the women is older – she’s an old hag and out of the running, effectively, even if she’s Darcy Bussell.

I find it difficult to imagine that women are somehow so much more competitive with one another than men are. In fact I suspect it is about the same between genders, but whereas it’s socially and historically acceptable between me, if it’s women being competitive with each other, it’s shallow, jealous and destructive. Men, though, are healthily competitive, it’s in their nature and it helps them get through life and contribute. And if men traditionally achieve through competing, therefore women are supposed to achieve through being collaborative and all getting along, but not doing anything, y’know, world changing.

The media’s catfighting (or passive aggressive) women are unattractively taking on male traits in a big, bad world that their little ladybrains can’t cope with it would appear. The media will allow us our little triumphs in life, but it makes sure to keep successful women’s dignity in check.

Some people love to take offense on other people’s behalf. It’s a thankless task, probably because they didn’t need to do it in the first place.

One thing I’ve found about being of the Hebraic persuasion, is that every now and then, people might ask me, delicately, if I mind them talking about Christmas, or seeing an image of a pig. Uhm, well along with most Jews or Muslims, although Christmas and pigs may not be part of our cultural tradition, we’re quite fine to hear people talking about Christmas or indeed to be witness to anything pig related without spontaneously combusting at the terrible affront.

The tabloids love to fly Indignation Air to Outrageville because someone has allegedly taken offense on behalf of religions and is therefore ‘banning’ Christmas, figgy pudding and jolly carol singers. The headlines, of course, blame the religions – well, religion, it’s always Islam – while the actual story tends to reveal that maybe someone in a local authority hinted in a memo somewhere that perhaps they ought to not do X or Y in case it ‘offends Muslims’, and the council ‘have no plans to implement this suggestion at this time’. So naturally the headline is: ‘MUSLIMS FORCE COUNCIL TO BAN XMAS CARDS’.

At the opposite end of the media spectrum to the Mail and co, the rather fabulous Offbeat Empire, topically enough, blogged about  ‘Privilege Checking and Semantics-Scolding as spectator sport’  last week.  Seeing themselves as activists supporting non mainstream lifestyles, the bloggers at Offbeat find themselves daily at the receiving end of emails accusing them of bigotry, writing from a position of privilege and so on because they used such-and-such a phrase and should obviously have known this was unacceptable. Although at the same time they can’t possibly have known anyway because they are privileged and can’t possibly understand what it is to be left-handed in a right-handed world to use a facetious comparison and not single out any groups out here, as that’s neither my intention nor Offbeat’s. But let’s just say a bit of politeness and dropping assumptions might not go amiss if you want to flag up to someone well meaning that they may be doing something wrong.

Offbeat is founded on the idea of supporting alternative lifestyles, so there’s never any intent to marginalise or offend said groups. Yet some people seem to get their kicks from picking and picking at linguistic minutiae, never thinking, for example, that they may not be speaking for everyone that is in their community (which may or may not actually be a particularly unified community) or that there are very good reasons that even sympathetic people from ‘privileged’ groups may not be up on every detail on what is acceptable. The example I used with my friends is that I don’t call out ‘Ignorance!’  or ‘Bigotry!’ if a friend were to invite me to a beer festival in the middle of Passover. I am a member of a group that comprises about 0.5% of the British population – I don’t expect most people to know when Passover is or that I won’t be drinking beer during it. There’s no reason for them to know that, just as there’s no reason to believe they won’t quite happily accept and respect those things once they do know.

Likewise, I’m not going to harrumph that ‘Some of us don’t celebrate Christmas, you know’ once the media begins to go on about it continually from about, well, this week. This is, nominally, a Christian country, and along with almost every other non-Christmas celebrating person I am actually perfectly tolerant of this fact, unlike those imaginary fairy-light-hating Muslims. It doesn’t mean I am oppressed or accepting being treated like crap; it’s about accepting the reasonable limitations of others and the context within which I am living.

It’s not just religions or people with minority status who can call on righteous fury these days, though – indignation is very equal opportunity.

A recent ‘case’ (I’m loathe to call it case without quote marks) saw Matthew Woods given a 12-week sentence at a youth centre for some doubtless droll and pithy comments on missing April Jones and Madeleine McCann. The judge decided that public opinion, whether they’d seen the comments or not, made his pathetic postings ‘abhorrent’ enough for a custodial sentence. Woods was targeted by an angry mob and actually taken into custody for his own safety, and it seems once this was done, the mob ruled and he had to be criminally charged.

But it wasn’t my ‘public opinion’ – and many other people would see no reason to sentence the man, or even take this issue to court. The ‘Sun Sez’ mentality wins the day.

Josie Appleton’s Spiked article on Section 5 of the1986 Public Order Act, and more particularly the way it has been used in recent years, shows how worrying are the implications of this attitude: ‘Nobody even needs to have been actually harassed or distressed by the defendant’s behaviour. Nor is it necessary for the accused to have intended to cause offence, only to be “aware that his behaviour may be” harassing or distressing.’

Something, to be sure, is rotten in the state when judges decide how offended the public should be at something that they generally wouldn’t see until there’s an outraged article about it in the national press. When did just telling someone ‘That’s out of order, please stop it’ become not enough for a comment that’s out of line? Do we have that little faith in people that we think punishment under criminal law is a proportionate punishment for a tasteless joke?

At other times, it’s not a legal punishment that results. The ‘Sachsgate’ exchange conducted by Russell Brand on his Radio 2 show, with Jonathan Ross, was barely noted by anyone at the time it went out, but BBC-hating parts of the media  gleefully whipped up a frenzy of offense, resulting in multiple complaints from people who either never heard the exchange or otherwise went out of their way to listen to it in retrospect. The upshot was that the two presenters were effectively exiled from the BBC because people who weren’t listening to the show in the first place were offended. Similarly, anyone could draw attention to something a bit non-u online and say ‘Look, just LOOK at this, it’s SICK!’ when otherwise no one would have seen it to be offended by it without it being specifically brought to their attention.

Can it really be possible to say that ‘public opinion’ is offended when public opinion is generally represented by the most vociferous and obnoxious parts of the press? It’s not for one person or body to say what people ought to be thinking or saying.  More  horror seems to be expressed these days at the concept of religious representatives speaking out on moral topics than on the media doing so, when the media’s views can be no less dogmatically entrenched, and are certainly attended to by more people. Moral outrage? Not in my name. Or not without checking with me first, OK?

‘Why do men wear swimming trunks?’ my daughter asked.

‘Because they’re good to swim in?’ I volunteered.

‘But why don’t they wear swimsuits?’ she pursued.

‘Ah… ladies wear swimsuits because their boobies are private, but men’s aren’t.’ Probably a rubbish answer, but interesting in view of this post, which I had been struggling to write, or at least to get to the point of.

Women’s breasts hold a curious place in the public domain; both intensely private and yet also public property – Page 3, Zoo, Nuts and their nipple-counting ilk.  You see, there’s naughty bits, and then there’s royal naughty bits.

Yes, following on from Gingernutsgate, now there are pictures circulating of the norks of the England’s future queen. And what’s more they were taken by dastardly Frenchies! Curse those garlic-chomping, beret-wearing, zoom-lensing swine! If only they hadn’t killed off their monarchy, otherwise British paparazzi could go and take pictures of the unsheathed baguettes of their heirs to the throne, and see how they like them onions, huh?

But they can’t, so the press will just have to whinge, while secretly being pissed off that they can’t show the pictures because tabloid royalism ultimately has to trump naughty photos. It’s always fun watching them in a resentful froth.

The media view was that Harry was, and is, a naughty boy, and ought not to have compromised himself in that way. His security, having been roundly criticised, did come back with the fair enough point that they had to give him some kind of normalcy, for example not confiscating all photographic devices in his vicinity, and the freedom to make a tit (or indeed an arse or nob) of himself.

The Duchess of Cambridge, was, of course, preserved in a finely woven cocoon of disgust against those revolting Frog – or now it turns out they might have been English – snappers daring to have an ultra-long shot at the Royal Funbags. Unlike Harry, she can’t be said to have done anything to deserve it as such, having merely gone the ‘when in France’ way and had a bit of casual bikini-free time. Although the editor of a Danish magazine publishing the KateGate pictures claimed that she ought not to have been such a hussy as to have been ‘revealing her breasts towards a public road’, as though they were some kind of mammarial missile-launchers that might have blown up passing cars.

Yet Harry is second in line the throne (wait a minute, third, sorry Chuck), hardly unimportant, so it all says something about our gender attitudes as well. A famous bloke’s bits are funny and silly, and a bit inappropriate, but a man is generally supposed to keep calm and carry on should his unmentionables get into the public domain. Plus it’s his job to deal with it. But a royal lady’s boobies are no laughing matter (stop sniggering at the back) – they are entitled to their dignity, I tell you, and if you’re the right kind of person, there are legions ready to defend it.

Today, though, revealing photos are not just a matter for the famous – a few days after I wrote this down, my thoughts about breasts being public property was also brought up in an interesting and alarming article by Kira Cochrane the Guardian. The piece explores the charming fields of revenge porn and creepshooting. The first being where pictures of women are put up online by vengeful partners, or anyone who might have got hold of compromising pictures, the latter being the ‘art’ of taking salacious pictures of women in public for the express thrill of getting a cleavage shot without her consent.

Cochrane writes of how, in the case of revenge porn, blame is often cast upon the woman in question. Unlike our Kate, individual victims of shots made or shared without consent don’t have a national media or an outraged public to defend them  and may face their studies, job or business being imperilled because they are blamed for having ‘allowed’ such a picture to have got into the public domain. And the picture may not even be of her at all if there’s no face shown, but nonetheless be put up on a site where it’s linked to her online social profile. Or it might have been sneaked by one means or another from an entirely private set of digital pictures that have never been shared with anyone. So, a neat way to bomb someone’s chance of getting that job, for example, if those pictures will come up with a quick Google, and no, that’s not a euphemism. Indiscreet slut until proven otherwise. Or married to a royal.

Most of us are not stalked by half-mile zoom lenses and snappers in helicopters, but we’re still left feeling exposed in a camera-filled world. People can say ‘Simple – never take any compromising photos’, but while we do need to use a bit of judgement with risqué snaps, the wrong is with those who abuse such images and the people in them.

And the consequences by gender are interesting to compare: a man, if he’s not famous and this is all the wider public have to go on concerning him, is more open to accusations of being a pervert or creep, unjustly or otherwise; a woman tends to be seen as a slut who maybe deserves a bit of physical violence (oh, some people are such ‘controversially humourous’ cards!). The naked male ‘forces himself’ on us or is just a joke; the naked or dishabille woman ‘exposes herself’ to us, and is either a matter for salacious drooling, or else tutting and shaking of heads at her sluttiness. Oh, or if she’s not seen as attractive then she can be seen as a joke, too, because everyone knows ugly women are funny.

It’s easy to forget that naughty bits are attached to human beings – they may be naughty or nice, they may have put themselves out there willingly or unwillingly.  When we reduce people to their component parts, or their private parts, we lose the person, the identity and end up slinging around ideas like ‘slag’ or ‘perve’ without much really to go on. The famous, even the royals at the end of the day – I don’t see Windsor crashing to the ground over this, do you? – can keep on trucking, but it’s the incidents that don’t hit the headlines that can cause real damage. So be careful out there, and be sure not to direct your nipples towards public roads.

There’s a lot of Facebooks out there, I recently realised. ‘Well, duh?!’ – but it’s quite a headspinner when you think about it.

I suppose I’m on Thirtysomething Urban Liberal Facebook – my ‘local’ memes are campaigns in support of gay marriage, human rights and the like; a wide range of music, from dubstep to folk, largely from people who’ve been listening long enough not to be narrowly partisan; interesting gubbins about literature, history, politics and the arts. With words generally spelt correctly and in full.

As for the other worlds, I honestly have no idea. I got thinking about this on reading an online friend quoting a Facebook post from her teenaged niece about people posting up lists of ‘What boys should do’ (presumably to/with/at girlfriends). A very intelligent and measured response it was, too, largely about the narrowness of people’s ideas about gender and relationships. But it pointed out to me the vast chasm between ‘my’ Facebook, and that of a teen. (I really hate the word ‘teen’ for some reason, though in a different way to how I hate ‘youngster’.) I’ve never seen one of these ‘what boys should do’ memes, and there’s no reason I would. It’s not meant for me.

Then there’s Geek Facebook, full of tech news and in-jokes; some of my Facebook friends maybe skirt that. OK, they are it. And Pwned by Marketing Facebook full of Big Logo ‘friends’ and their advertising schtick. And OMG! Facebook characterised by celebrity and more local gossip. Plus a zillion-and-one Facebooks based around a sport or music genre or something that wouldn’t even occur to me.

Different generations have always had their own media, you only need to think of various music mags of my childhood – Smash Hits for kids, the NME/Melody Maker for your cynical teens and twenties, eventually mellowing on to Q magazine as dadrock beckoned. The web both opens up and hermetically seals these media worlds – anyone can access a website most of the time, but when it comes to social media, generations and groups create their own worlds online. And websites aren’t sitting on the shelf on WH Smiths , or in the magazine rack at home for anyone to casually see and pick up.

As my kids grow up, access to their media reality will be a trickier thing for me than it was for my parents and a thing much more central to them and their identity. This mostly bothers me as it makes kids far more of a captive market, especially when you throw in TV channels that are increasingly precision-tooled by age group and gender. I want to know more about my kids’ tastes than some tosser in an advertising office in Soho, but the nature of the media makes it increasingly hard for parents to do so and easier for the tossers in advertising offices to have a direct route to their little minds and their parents’ pockets. Quite aside from the pester power issue, and significantly more important as far as I’m concerned, are media-led messages about gender, about what’s normal and acceptable: being good looking, having cool stuff, being passive if you’re a girl, being aggressive if you’re a boy and the like.

I’m personally pretty confident we can keep TVs/web access out of the kids’ rooms until they’re a bit older – for a start, until we move out of this place, there sure as hell isn’t room for any such thing in their shared bedroom.  But keeping the marketers out of their head is another matter, especially when it’s clear that advertisers are more than ready to take advantage of children’s general lack of discrimination when it comes to thinking about what motives people might have for telling them that something is cool.

It’s increasingly hard for adults to mediate between the media and their kids, unless they literally hover over their kids’ shoulders all the time. And no kid wants gravitationally atypical parents around their person the whole time, any more than the parent wants to spend their time doing it.

Turning it off isn’t realistic, or desirable, as we have to accept that this is where a lot of kids’ social worlds will come from, and we can’t just cut them off from them. Standing at the sidelines muttering about how rubbish your child’s taste is has failed for parents since the dawn of time, and is a surefire way of teaching your kids how to really piss you off when they reach the teenage years, or possibly before then.

It’s just going to have to be good old vigilance, then. Being aware and trying to tell if your kids are absorbing the wrong sort of values and where those might be coming from. In other words, same as it ever was, but with the media playing hide and seek in your kids’ social and technical sphere, not coming from a shop shelf or a shared space. Kids’ media today seems to be speaking such a different language on many levels, and playing such a different and more central role to kids than it did to us that it can seem intimidating. On the other hand, a lot of the time it isn’t sophisticated – it doesn’t have to be – and any discerning adult can see where the rot is coming from and hopefully talk to their kids, sensibly, about knowing their shit from their Shinola, or words to that effect.

It’s not a tide we can change, so there’s no point being a bunch of Canutes about it – we’ll enjoy our boring, grown-ups’ media world, they’ll enjoy their childhood/yoof wonderland and seldom will the twain meet. But that doesn’t mean we can’t watch out of the corner of our eyes for the stalking figures of those media childcatchers waiting to take their values unaware.

We are permitted to be sympathetic about certain things – animals are probably top of the list, this being England, followed by little children, sick and disabled children and old people and disabled adults unless they’ve got some awkward condition we don’t understand and surely means they’re just milking the benefits system when they should be working.

At the bottom of the sympathy list are people with mental illness, offenders, drug addicts and sex workers. Which makes one reflect on how often three or all of these blend together to create a perfect smoothie of the underserving, as far as the media is concerned.

Yes, you can be sure of being told who you should be gunning for in life, and who we should be gunning towards (particularly if you’re armed, paranoid and have gypsies on your land). But then there’s the problem cases.

We’re to be sympathetic towards the girl who was raped by a stranger holding a knife to her throat, but to withhold it, at least somewhat, toward the one who claims a friend or partner forced himself on her sexually.

And people have to behave the right way when they’re facing a crisis in order to deserve our sympathy. Joanne Lees fell foul of the press for not being sufficiently tearful and for having the temerity to have a somewhat spiky personality rather than being a weeping victim. Kate McCann – not her husband, note – was thrown under suspicion for not visibly collapsing under the weight of grief. And now it’s being supposed that a photograph of the woman allegedly raped by Julian Assange standing with him and smiling 48 hours after the attack was said to have taken place could surely undermine the whole case. This notwithstanding of plentiful written evidence of victims finding they have to keep up a smiling face in the presence of their attacker for some time afterwards, because it’s someone they must needs relate to and they are still processing their experience and how they’re supposed to respond to it.

But it’s not how rape victims are ‘supposed’ to behave – the ‘good rape victim’ gets jumped on by armed man in an alleyway, while sober and not wearing anything revealing, and dutifully goes to the police straight away and presents them with all the forensic evidence so that there can’t be any ambiguity. She doesn’t, for example, wash herself thoroughly afterwards in a state of horrified shock – as many victims of rape do – or have her wish not have sex overruled by a friend or partner.

The Assange case has been an interesting one for the press. On the one side, it must be a fit-up –  they’re obviously pursuing him because of Wikileaks! On the other, he’s a pretty dreadful person – he must have done it! Of course, while you wouldn’t often see countries going to so much trouble to extradite someone for the sort of rape that some people like to call ‘not real/legitimate/rape’, that doesn’t mean he didn’t do it. Nor does the fact that he’s a bit of a git mean that he did. So the media’s thrashing around in a bit of a state, not sure who to expect us to side with here. Perhaps worst for the liberal end – ‘Possible rape victim! Ambiguous circumstances! Freedom of speech! Bit of a git! Oh dear!’

But when it comes to the black and white of who we have sympathy for, the game can be played both ways. In 2008 the press immediately sided with a tearful Karen Matthews appealing for the return of her lost daughter, Shannon. So their fury (to coin a phrase beloved of the tabloids) was redoubled at ‘Britain’s Worst Mum’ ‘Evil Karen Matthews’ when the rather flimsy and ludicrous plot was revealed. Matthews and her co-conspiritors may have been dim, but even she knew how to play the media sympathy card. The devastated mum stance will do wonders for media exposure and support – who could be unsympathetic to that?

Emotional fascism is a favourite stand of the tabloid media – ‘You must feel as we tell you to feel or you are Not One of Us’. I’ll never forget the time my mother and I were at a supermarket checkout in 2002 when the announcement came that there was to be a minute’s silence in memory of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. That was the first I’d heard of it, I could only assume it was because the ‘Sun Said’ we should have one (I later found out I was right). But what to do? Would we be looked at askance if we failed to join in and mourn ‘appropriately’ for these girls who, while their fate was of course awful, really meant nothing to us? Who we couldn’t see any more reason to be silent for than for many other tragic events occurring all around the world?

In the end we kept talking, albeit in an undertone. No one looked askance at us. But we were both left furious at this presumption upon our feelings.

Media sentimentality is good at shutting out debate, and hiding the real issues. The murder of James Bulger is a classic case – Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were presented as two ‘devil children’. This idea of an appallingly unfortunate association between two soulless freaks of nature hid the actually more frightening truth that the behaviour of these boys was no more than emotional ignorance at its worst. They decided, as children do, to see ‘what happens if…?’  but for various reasons they lacked the empathy and understanding to see how horrifically wrong it was, or to understand the consequences. In many ways it’s frighteningly easy for something like this to happen if children are neglected and emotionally stunted as it appears those boys were. But far easier to believe pages of drooling prose about ‘evil demon boys’ than to consider the effects of childhood neglect in a frequently violent world. Trying to understand them, in the eyes of the tabloid media, would be like trying to excuse them, and anyway, there was nothing to understand. They weren’t people – they were purely ciphers of evil.

A favourite tabloid trick, I noticed, especially when someone is accused of a crime against children, is to put a close-up shot of their eyes on the front page, with a headline a la ‘EYES OF EVIL’ and you can almost hear Britain tutting over its tea ‘Oooh, yes, evil eyes – you can tell, can’t you?’ Sometimes it happens they are right and the person is found guilty. Other times, such as the murder of Jo Yeates,  the media finds a conveniently eccentric contact, in this case landlord Christopher Jeffries, and get maximum mileage from making them sound as outlandish and creepy as possible.  You’ve got to alienate the person you want to be your killer from the public, and everyone likes to play amateur detective and demonstrate why this weirdo must have done it. He liked strange, avant-garde films, don’t you know?

I’m glad to say that Jeffries received substantial damages from a couple of papers in the aftermath, but it may not make up for the harm done to him – no one’s going to read the apologies and corrections after all.

And there’s the rub – when the media turns us against the wrong person, it’s the wrong that’s the headline, and the apology that’s shoved into a corner. It’s hard to imagine what it must be like to live in the aftermath of being portrayed as a threat to society. It’s difficult to conceive the frustration of someone in the media spotlight who finds their behaviour and motives picked apart because they are not someone who slots neatly into media expectations. But saying sorry isn’t the media’s job and it doesn’t get readers reading and Twitter buzzing. Telling us who to love and hate, though, is always a winner and has a great ally in the internet where we can amplify it all for them.

Not only can falsely supposed villains not move away from their media infamy, but the media doesn’t want victims to move away from a life lived in a vale of tears. Infamously, in 2009 the Scottish Express scraped the barrel  by carrying a horrified and unbelievably sanctimonious front page about survivors of the Dunblane nursery massacre, claiming that these teenagers were having the temerity to, well, be teenagers and get drunk, post photos of themselves online flipping the bird and so forth. Because they were victims of tragedy, it was supposed they must live their life as pure and innocent monuments of grief.

Whether you’re an ‘innocent tot’, a ‘weeping victim’, an ‘ASBO yob’ or ‘creepy old man’ the press has a preserving jar of public sympathy or hatred ready for you, you lucky things, and a readership always eager to fill it.

When is a story not a story?

PR and news sources have long been a tail-chomping serpent. There’s no doubt that there is a layer of ‘news’ that consists entirely of stories about film trailers being released, things people are sharing on the web a lot this week, self-serving corporate sponsored research that comes with a neatly-packaged provocative question  (Will asking a question get your paper cited more?) and anything to do with Katie Price, who is a sort of black hole of media solipsism and may have ceased to exist as a physical entity.

The Daily Mail has made this its forte, hence its terrifying success as a website. It can happily fill a page with a description of a film trailer or funny clip that people have been looking at online, followed by a link to the clip. It can have a load of follow-up articles about what people thought of its latest bit of misogynist shit-stirring, as though ‘Person overpaid to write cretinous bilge writes cretinous bilge’ is an earth-shattering event.

Web 2.0 is pretty much made for pseudo-news – we can all be generators, even if that news is ‘Look, my kitten fell off a table!’ If enough people look at your kitten falling off a table – mazel tov, it’s news. We can hurl abuse at people in response to some news, real or pseudo, and if enough of us hurl abuse, that’s news, too.

Nick Davies’ superb blast at modern journalism, ‘Flat Earth News’, unsurprisingly has a number of entries in the index under ‘pseudo’ – from research sponsored by corporations with a line to push, to carefully arranged paparazzi opportunities, to websites that appear to be one thing but are actually a front for something less cuddly.

‘Leaked’ sex tapes are also a favourite piece of pseudo news. Sex writer Violet Blue, in ‘The Smart Girls’ Guide to Porn’ points out that these leaks, in the US at least, have involved the participants signing necessary release forms in order to avoid being sued or going to prison. Any suggestion of a legal catfight is just a nice piece of grandstanding and good publicity.

In times when an ad for a leading smart phone asks ‘First to hear or last to know?’, we’re all especially vulnerable to pseudo news. We all want to be the first to tweet it or otherwise bring it to other people’s attention. And given the fact, according to Davies, that journalists often hardly bother to check the veracity and integrity of their sources, you can imagine what it means when news is spread around like a wet sneeze by you or me.

I will confess my sin as a novice Twitter user that I joined many in expressing my sadness at the imminent demise of Clive James, when it turned out that the humourist had merely been quoted out of context, and saying that he was ‘coming towards the end of [his] life’ actually meant that, in general, he felt he was the latter part of his life, not that his consultant had drawn up a chair and sombrely given him the measure of his days.

The internet is perhaps a perfect wrong-end-of-stick grabbing mechanism, with its lack of winks, nudges and pupils doing funny business, and people and organisations are likely to make more and more sophisticated use of this as time goes on; we can catch them in the act or be caught.

We need to curb our need to be Mr or Mrs News. By no means should we ‘leave it to the professionals’ – as Davies points out, they’re hardly reliable, but the price of useful and non (or minimally) manipulated information is eternal vigilance. Or at least being a tad discerning about what we pass on to others.

At one end there’s the fairly harmless but increasingly irritating ‘X is dead’ virus and celebrity gossip, but at the other there’s a world of highly partial corporate-sponsored research, sinister organisations in fluffy, woolly coats and various other carefully thought-through and constructed manipulations.

The ‘X is dead’ screening method is quite easy – I apply the BBC test. Whatever you think of Auntie, they are wont to check stuff before they commit it to the web. The Beeb isn’t first with the news, but that’s because they’re a tad more careful than some other sources about what they will put up. It’s not foolproof, but it’s pretty good.

As for everything else, the sad fact is it’s hard to do much other than have a default setting of ‘resolute cynicism’, a la Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad Science’, which is ultimately less about science and more about the massive bullshit quotient of the media in general. Ask yourself who has an interest in what’s being discussed, think whether some of the statements in a piece seem as empty as a Nick Clegg fan convention, look out for phrases that ring alarm bells (eg indications of a tiny and/or self-selecting research sample, ‘research by Brand X suggests…’) and beware of pieces that seem just to have a gaping hole where you’d expect to find some sort of further detail.

We’ve seen the positive side, or at least what we hope will turn out to be the positive side, of Web 2.0 in events in the Middle East over the last two years. These were situations where people presumably tuned out the distracting hum of tits, writs and fake death rumours, grabbed the salient information and ran like hell with it.

An Anti-Coalition Spring? Not hugely likely, it must be said. A better informed and more discerning audience? We can all try to do it ourselves and influence others. Pass it on.

Phew! Thank goodness for the media, or we women just wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves. Just follow the simple rules below for a fulfilling life that doesn’t put anyone’s noses out of joint.

Childbearing

Before 21 is a no-no! You’ll be far too young and clueless and probably spend all your child benefit on widescreen TVs. In fact you probably got pregnant just to get a council house in the first place, you hussy!

Don’t think about it after 35. If you can even get pregnant, your child will probably be disabled, your birth will go horribly wrong and cost the NHS lots of money, plus you’ll be letting down your employers by taking time out at an important juncture in your career. Oh, and you’ll never lose that baby weight, you know.

Careers

Don’t let the side down with silly jobs in primary teaching, childcare or health and beauty. People won’t respect you unless you have proper jobs like being a lawyer, journalist or doctor.

But if you’re a lawyer or a doctor or a businesswoman it’s going to cause all sorts of trouble when you have children, and you’ll end up neglecting them because you’re so focused on your career.

Going back to work after having a baby

You can’t be doing work stuff after you have a baby you heartless fiend! You should take at least six months before going back to work. Yes, we’re talking to you, Rachida Dati.

But don’t take more than six months, as you’ll make employers not want to take on women between 20 and 40.

Dressing

A nice bit of leg cheers everyone up Don’t wear a tent if you can flaunt it, love. We all love a bit of leg and cleavage. And those tight jeans, yeah!

Don’t drink and flaunt, though Come on, you were obviously up for it in that dress, and you made a noise that sounded like yes, honest. You’d had a bit to drink, hadn’t you, you should take better care, really.

Weight

Don’t be a skinny skeleton. Oh yuck, we don’t want those toast-rack rib nasties in bikinis – grim. Yes, a nice, curvy size 8 is what you should be.

Size 10? Eeeuuuh!

Coming next, a media guide to life for men…  oh, wait a minute, men don’t need those. As you were, lads.

 

Think of the children. What do you think of? Jumpers for goal posts, orange squash, playing hide and seek? ASBOs, rioters, looters, sex maniacs, cyberbullies?  Tweenagers, slags, ‘grown up too soon’?

Every generation is convinced the one below it is more uncontrollable, more alien than any generation before.  And now the chorus seems to be ‘But no, really this time it really is, honest, I mean there’s the internet and Facebook and stuff’. You can imagine the commotion when the written word was introduced – ‘But now kids will be able to invite 3,000 mates around for a party via cuneiform tablets and they’ll all turn up and trash our ziggurat!’

The kids don’t really change, the panics do. Our kids aren’t ‘growing up too fast’. If they were it wouldn’t really be a problem, as more of them might be able to cope with what’s thrown at them. The issue is that pre-adolescent children are still children. Having seen a man and lady do a rude thing doesn’t confer some form of maturity in anyone’s eyes but the kids’, yet we often respond as though it does. Children, according to the media, should be ‘innocent’, skipping around in frills and short trousers, lisping and playing with dollies and hobby horses until around the age of 16 or so, it appears.

Until then, they’re prey for paedos in real life (should they happen to be allowed there) or online. After about 16 they’re mostly criminals, looters or teenage Lolitas queuing up to be spitroasted by Premiership footballers, or feckless, skill-less idiots who can’t be trusted to tie a shoelace until they have a degree.

Although people say we are pushing kids to grow up, we’re actually taking the opportunities to be really responsible for anything away, and shunting the goalposts of adulthood swiftly towards the horizon. School becomes mandatory until 18 in 2013, and now Cameron’s saying no housing benefit until you’re 25, so at home with parents (assuming they’ll have you).

Flogging make-up to three year olds or violent computer games to ten year olds might be distasteful and unhelpful, but it’s not producing a generation of mini-adults. Just because kids might have ‘seen more’ by age eleven than older generations might have done doesn’t mean they’re any wiser. They’re still children, albeit ones who might know what ‘wolfbagging’ is, and whose older brother’s mate is selling skunk.

An adolescent was expected to be pretty self sufficient in the early part of the last century. My grandfather left school at 14 and got his first job as a radio repairman for a shop (this consisted of him turning up at people’s houses, tapping the radio a bit with a hammer and saying something like ‘I’m afraid this is too far gone, you’ll have to get a new one, Missus’). This is not to lobby for the return of child labour – I mean, we don’t need more people on the job market, for a start. But it is to say young people in the past had more access to constructive ways to express their maturity once they were ready to do so.

Along with the refusal to give responsibility, an increasingly risk averse society infantalises everyone, parents and children alike, as recorded on Lenore Skenazy’s fantastic Free-Range Kids website. Read and weep at tales of parents who won’t allow 10-year-olds in public toilets without them, or those who won’t let their kids take a simple swimming test to allow them to use a water flume because they’re scared they might fail it and feel all upset. I’m half expecting some years hence to hear people saying ‘You let him take the bus on his own?! But he’s only 32!’

This sort of attitude was exemplified in an article on G4S’s alleged use of ‘A-level students’ for Olympic security. Now, I’ll agree with any sane person that G4S are as useful as a sack of crap, and it remains at utter mystery as to why they win government contracts to so much as pick a crisp packet up off the floor, but to say ‘Security experts expressed alarm that youngsters aged 18 and 19 had been entrusted with searching spectators and bags’ seems deeply unfair. Why shouldn’t an 18 or 19 year old be capable of conducting security searches? It may well be that G4S, in its wisdom, has managed to select a bunch of utter morons, but this doesn’t mean that therefore any young person still in education is incapable of doing anything responsible.

So how do you express your adultness in this context?  When you’re not allowed out on your own, when you can’t live independently, when you’re seen as a probable liability for anything involving skill or responsibility, even in your late teens?

Through the stuff that’s filed under ‘Not for kids’ – drugs, sex and disobedience for the hell of it. Teenagers are naturally inclined to do this, and pushing those boundaries is part of growing up, but the government and societal norms are stretching out adolescence ever longer, leading some kids to pushing those boundaries nearer to breaking point in their frustration. Now it seems as though any young person between about 13 and 21 is seen as a child, a bit of a burden, not very capable of anything productive but all too capable of, say, rioting or nicking your iPad.

At the same time as being frightened that our children are growing up too fast, we are holding back young people’s ability to genuinely grow up when they have the smarts and the resources to do so.  Removing responsibility, choice and independence ultimately pushes many of them to take the search for the Holy Grail of adulthood into all the wrong places.