Word of 2012

This has been the year which has seen media cannibalism: the Leveson inquiry and all which continues to fall from that, both merely implied and strongly hinted. It’s been a year of trust and mistrust, stretching around the world and filling both television screens and social media feeds.

Twelve months ago my word for the year summarised the prevailing mood of the time – what seems now as more of a flash than a precursor, although continued demonstrations in Greece, Spain, Italy and elsewhere show the natural progression of whatever it was people planted in 2011. That word and its intent has been overtaken by one of its core principles, which is why I’ve chosen the destination as the word of the year, rather than the means by which it is sought.

“Justice” has wrapped itself around this year and continues to direct the news agenda. It’s been the heart of the matter and the guiding principles. On the football pitch (and considerable time spent off it), ‘justice’ has been the heart of the alleged racial abuse between players and amongst rivals. Across social media platforms, most notably Twitter, teenagers have been locked up for abusing celebrities, putting under strain the arguments of ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘democratisation’ which underpins the popularity of new media.

In nations across the world, different definitions of injustice either fill our news pages or are conspicuous in not doing. Israel’s ‘pillar of strength’ operation against Hamas in Gaza is framed by whichever definition of ‘justice’ it is to which you subscribe. In the Australian Parliament, the injustice of sexism was put to the sword by Prime Minster Julia Gillard in the most unexpected viral video of the year. As Conservative MP Nadine Dorries learns the hard way that you can’t talk about politics whilst eating an ostrich’s anus on prime-time ITV, her pet subject of abortion reform was brought into stark focus in Ireland with the death of Savita Halappanavar, lifting even higher the position of justice within that notoriously difficult debate.

Anders Behring Breivik was jailed this year for his mass murder in Oslo and Utøya. His actions – and the sentence he might avoid were he considered unfit for trial – examined what we considered to be rightful justice. In Norway and in the UK, the death penalty argument was brought to light once again, setting against each other what each consider to be rightful justice.

“We need to see that justice is done” is a common politician’s refrain. The on-going MPs expenses scandal brings in questions of justice, certainly when members are arrested (or not) for fraud. The vexed issue of votes for prisoners, and the century-long debate on the injustice of unelected politicos sitting in the House of Lords, questions our nation’s definition of justice. Of course for many Conservative  MPs, the judgements from the European Courts strike at the very heart of British Justice, capital letters underlined in bold, standing proud over the tinier, illegitimate Johnny Foreigner Justice. How Britain deals with people like Abu Qatada – with or without European courts – reflects on how diluted or otherwise our justice system may well be. Parliament discussed the right to live – and the right to be born – as did British Courts.

For the BBC, the ‘justice’ sought by victims of Jimmy Savile and others has been the Corporation’s defining moment, causing again those who want the wholesale abolition of Auntie to take their chance in making the case. Somehow the Savile case has caused ripples across the country into most unexpected areas. I have to be very careful in how I phrase this, as I don’t wish to be sued, so I’ll just say that “People who should not have been accused of wrongdoing were wrong accused of wrongdoing and that was wrong.”

Across Europe the ‘sons of Occupy’ and connected relations continue to push against the economic and political establishment which rule their lives. In Spain, a theatre accepts carrots in lieu of payment, and of course Catalan independence is a drum beaten with the sound of the pursuit of justice. Elections in former Soviet republics, such as Belarus and Ukraine, shake the expected definitions of democratic representation. In Athens, supporters of Golden Dawn reject the establishment for ‘real’ justice as opposed to the establishment oppression (as they see it) in the age of austerity.

Last year, I chose “Occupy”. This year, “Justice”. I notice that the OED and others have considered ‘omnishambles’ to be the defining word of the year, which might be true for a narrowly defined Westminster village version of the ‘national word of our age’, but it doesn’t work as universal. Well, unless Mitt Romney had won, I suppose…

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Nadine, you’re not a celebrity

Why do we want to put stars in our children’s eyes?

Nadine Dorries (MP, Mid-Bedfordshire), asked that very question in a blog, in which she defended her parental duties to protect her daughter against the explicit nature of the celebrity culture world on TV screens and (somewhat bizarrely) the Reading Festival stage. Indeed, Nadine, the celebrity culture world IS setting up our children for a fall, isn’t it?

Many moons ago, Channel 4 launched the British version of ‘Big Brother’. In its earliest years, ‘Big Brother’ did very little to accelerate the celebrity of those people who took part. Some made low-level impact in television presenting jobs and music careers. Suddenly, and without much warning, related reality television programmes appeared on all national channels which thrust unknowns into the spotlight – this wasn’t just a big cheque to a quiz show winner, this was a recording contract, this was glossy magazine photo opps, this was Hollywood treatment to a British postcode and the bright lights of fame and fortune shone directly into the hearts of people who wanted instant success for little work. And who wouldn’t want to have a celebrity career at a fingerclick?

On the flipside of all this, celebrities whose careers had faded through the years found themselves using the same processes to win back a little of the bright lights they thought were lost. Celebrity versions of Big Brother, Fame Academy and others made it acceptable to strip celebrities of most of their charm as a ‘payback’ for their desperation to return into the centre of people’s attention. They danced, sang and wandered around naked for the benefit of nobody but their own attempts to make it again in the changed celebrity world. This new reality, fed by and made for reality television, made celebrities as hungry for fame as the ordinary people who wanted more than a quiz show first prize.

The extreme conclusion of this is ITV’s “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here”, the natural consequence for the urgency with which faded celebrities wanted coverage in the tabloids. ITV couldn’t have known  just how far they could push famous people to do whatever they asked. Insects were eaten, dung was swam through, flesh was revealed and dignities were prostituted. As long as office workers could guffaw on Monday morning about a has-been crunching on spiders, then the production team had done their job.

Viewing figures for “I’m a Celebrity…” topped 16 million people. That’s one of the highest viewing figures on British television, far over-shadowing the viewing numbers for most soaps. Up with other ITV stables such as “The X-Factor” and its predecessor “Pop Idol”, it’s a huge success story for advertisers, producers and celebrities alike.

Nadine Dorries is not a celebrity by many definitions of the term. She’s a member of parliament, representing the constituency of Mid Bedfordshire. At the 2010 election, just shy of 29,000 people voted for her to represent them, over 50% of those who voted. Those 29,000 people probably knew before hand that Nadine was a controversial and divisive figure. Her provocative views on abortion law reform has set her apart from many Conservative MPs. Perhaps most infamously, she attempted to take through the Commons an “abstinence Bill”, an old-fashioned, out-dated “won’t somebody think of the children” legislation.

She justifies taking a televised holiday in Australia to eat  kangeroo anus because politicians are considered out of touch, and that a potential audience of 16 million people want to be taught by her. She believes ITV would allow her to talk about abortion reform law. She could not be more wrong, and goodness knows she has been wrong plenty of times in her career. She’s misunderstood the point of a prime-time reality show if she thinks long speeches about abortion law would be shown amongst shots of models and pop stars camped around a bonfire. She’s misunderstood the point of prime-time reality programmes entirely if she thinks politicians can appear without production choices making them look embarrassing.

This isn’t to say that we should keep MPs on BBC Parliament and pop stars on ITV1. There is a need to make politics and politicians relevant to people today, especially young people. Nadine Dorries can speak about getting her fingernails dirty all she likes; the role of an MP is not to appear on a phone-in reality show where producers have all the power. With Parliament currently sitting, laws are being debated and voted on, and alongside those MPs from Sinn Féin who refuse to take their seats, Nadine Dorries is deliberately absent. That’s not a responsible act from an MP however you measure it.

I’m not against MPs getting out into the real world, but “I’m a Celebrity…” is not reality. Getting an MP to be a bin man for a week or sit in A&E is just as ‘finger nail dirtying’ as anything Nadine pretends will happen whilst being filmed eating a cockroach with a Page 3 model, and it’s more likely to produce something approaching respect with voters.

I doubt watching Nadine eating an arse rather than talking out of one will bring her into a new light. It won’t win her respect as an MP who is taking a holiday on full pay because she feels that nobody is listening to her on Question Time. Already semi-detached amongst her colleagues, the natural conclusion from her jaunt is a permanent exclusion from the Conservative Party. If she wanted to do the decent thing, her next job will be in the Chiltern Hundreds.

Morality manifesto

British elections – indeed, most elections in western democracies – are won and lost on economic matters. Who can make money go further, fund public services better, guarantee jobs and investment, ensure taxes are fair, and so on. “It’s the economy, stupid” rings through history and permeates our futures.

Morality and moral choices tend not to envelop British elections particularly prominently. During the general election of 18 months ago, the repeated memes were almost entirely financial or fiscal; tax, funding for public services, cost of education. The tone of the election was markedly similar to those in previous years – tax bombshells, tax u-turns, only our party can be trusted on this, on that, on the other.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, tone during election periods has little resemblance to their British forefathers (and for the basis of most American elections across all layers of representation, ‘period’ means ‘all year round’). The rise of the Tea Party Movement and its infiltration into the Republican Party has changed irrevocably the manner in which USA elections are conducted. The rise of the morality brigade, avowedly Christian, right-wing, suspicious of the State, wary of welfare; there are very few British equivalents: imagine the very worst of UKIP and Tories combined with a script written by a greatest hits of Thought for the Day contributors.

Two people who represent the Tea Party ideals on English soil characterise two very different poles of their respective parties; Nadine Dorries (Conservative, Mid Befordshire) and Frank Field (Labour, Birkenhead). They could not be further apart in their political histories or heritages, and yet together they are spearheading repeated attempts to alter British law on abortion with language and attitudes not experienced in this country for generations. They represent the increasingly palpable sense of religious attitudes fighting back after years of secularisation within politics and political debate.

They represent the Tea Party in spirit.

We all know that the word “rape” has been adopted to mean a brutal result in sports (“They were absolutely raped out there”), and almost parallel to that, “abortion” has been similarly re-defined (“That bloke is an absolute abortion”). It is not with this redefining that I consider how Dorries is associated with the word “abortion” is much the same way as water is defined with the word “wet”. Her career as an MP has become inextricably linked to the issue and the wider discussion on sexual morality. You may recall her proposed Act of Parliament, which would force schools into teaching abstinence in sexual education classes, though only to girls.

Dorries (“At the next election, the Coalition will ensure the Liberal Democrats are wiped out, which is a good thing”) is passionate about driving abortion reform through the Health and Social Care Bill, and connected morality purposes fuel her campaigning spirit. Crucially, such issues require care and attention to debate them soundly. Dorries does not provide much chance of a reasonable debate; she has ridiculed the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists committee (“There is a specific committee which develops the guidelines for the care of women seeking terminations. They’re all abortionists. They earn their living from abortions.” (Source – the very good, albeit spiky, recent interview from The Guardian : http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/aug/06/nadine-dorries-abortion-sex-education)

She protests too much – she is a religious extremist whose additions to this very tricky subject do far more damage than good.

Together with Field, the amendment aims to make what appears to be a modest alteration to current law. Their claim is that Marie Stopes or BPAS, who offer counselling to women who are pregnant and considering options available to them, pressurise the women into choosing the option of abortion for reasons of profit or financial gain. BPAS is a not-for-profit organisation, and its role as an advisor to women has been largely considered independent and fair-handed.

What Dorries is attempting to do is colour the debate with the red mist of her own permanently irate attitude. She is not as pro-choice as she likes to make out, pouring emotive descriptions of her time as a nurse into her anecdotes and examples, associating all experiences with the trauma of long distance memories. Her claims are so much rhetoric – when she claims “Women are given no advice, they are just spoken to and channelled straight into an abortion clinic where they have their abortion in a factory-like manner, then ejected into the street..”, she has not then continued to explain how moving from one state of affairs to another would resolve her view in one move. It’s all “from the very worst I can paint to the very best I can imagine”.

This issue is very complex and emotive, by its very nature. It is unsettling to see the debate bubble and stir in the way it is – not a reasonable exchange, but prejudice, insults, on both extremes of the political divide. It is the American accent sewn into the British debate which unsettles me more. I do not have a problem with people of faith throwing into any debate their opinions, views or suggestions; the issue gets harder to accept when those people desire to dilute facts with moral teachings. “This is my view based on what I have been taught by my religious teacher” is not comparable with “These are my opinions taken from a religious text I hold to be absolutely true”.

I have always held the opinion that women deserve to have the final say on their bodies, their babies, their lives. There is a line in the process from “before sexual intercourse has occured” to “making the decision on whether an abortion should be performed” at which politicians must stand the heck down. Our elected officials push so much judgement on those babies which are born – to single mothers, who are judged; to immigrants, who are judged; to a father who is over 60, who tends to be judged very differently…..What we really need is an isolation tank, a forcefield, behind which is the collated directions from Government, and in front of which is the mother who must be allowed to make up her own mind. Dorries would like to smash the forcefield into tiny pieces, and I cannot accept her notion that it is better for everyone if she succeeds.

And just when we probably need it least, another question of morality and freedom of thought is threatening to run parallel with abortion in the lead-up to the 2015 general election. Martin Green, a government advisor to the Department of Health, has suggested the right to die be a subject to parliamentary debate or even referendum.

I am in favour of decriminalising the right to die. The debate must be held, much as a rational debate on abortion must also be allowed to be aired.

My unease through all of this is drawn from the background noise, the quietened corner of Britain now returning, voice slightly altered but attitude totally reborn. We see through many prisms the natural disquiet over Islamist extremists – whose warped, inaccurate version of the Islamic faith has lead to such tragedies and deaths. News media rush to hear the latest garbled morality fetishism from self-appointed Muslim ‘faith leaders’, no more representative of mainstream Islam than David Icke or my kettle. We are a small island whose political debate has lost its Christian accent; I fear for what other consequences could follow if the Dorries experience means the voice which roars back is not so much Priests as Palin.

We would be better not having the Tea Party dump its wares in our waters.