In the two countries I call home, there are events unfolding today which highlight the complex minefield of freedom of speech and censorship of the press. Today in the UK, the Leveson Enquiry is hearing evidence from a range of people who have suffered as a result of phone-hacking and other illegal news-gathering techniques. And on the other side of the world in South Africa, the government is almost certain to pass into law a Protection of Information Bill, which will grant them wide-ranging powers to prevent the spread of information that the government deems “not in the public interest”.
What does that mean? Well, I went looking for the text of the bill, and this is what it says. “Not in the public interest” would include information in the “National Interest of the Republic”, and “Commercial Information”. To quote from the act:
“The national interest of the Republic includes, but is not limited to--
(a) all matters relating to the advancement of the public good; and
(b) all matters relating to the protection and preservation of all things owned or maintained for the public by the State”
Well, if that isn’t worryingly broad and open to all sorts of interpretation, I don’t know what is.
and “Commercial Information” includes:
(a) Commercial information of an organ of state or information which has been given by an organisation, ﬁrm or individual to an organ of state or an official representing the State, on request or invitation or in terms of a statutory or regulatory provision, the disclosure of which would prejudice the commercial, business, ﬁnancial or industrial interests of the organ of state, organisation or individual concerned;
So, theoretically, if a politician has taken a kickback, for granting a tender, for example, and have to disclose it legally, it can be kept out of the press, because it would prejudice his interests.
If you’d like to look at the act in full, you can find it here.
But do the South Africa government have a point? After all, the Leveson enquiry is sitting because the press in this country has done so much damage. It’s a no-brainer that hacking someone’s phone to gather information is both immoral and illegal. But the super-injunction thing is a thornier issue. Is it genuinely in the public interest to know that a premiership footballer can’t keep it in his pants? We can to and fro for hours on the ethics of revealing the details of the life of a private individual, and there is no doubt that sectors of the British press have behaved with a show of utter moral bankruptcy where certain individuals (notably the victims of crime and their families) have been concerned. My own opinion is that, broadly speaking and with the obvious exceptions mentioned above, an individual who has metaphorically and literally kept his or her trousers zipped has nothing to fear from a well-regulated free press.
When it comes to companies, organisations or governments, I feel we need to be much more hardcore. In 2009, a multinational company called Trafigura sought and was granted an injunction against the Guardian newspaper. The Guardian wished to expose the fact that Trafigura has illegally dumped highly toxic waste in Cote d’Ivoire, leading to 15 deaths and hundreds of thousands of illnesses. Trafigura also tried to gag the BBC and to alter an article on Dutch Wikipedia about the ship that did the dumping. What the company did was heinous, and their attempts to conceal it were even more appalling. Leaving aside the environmental evil and abuse of human rights, as a public company, Trafigura had a duty of care to its employees, directors and shareholders not to behave in such a disgraceful way.
And this is my point with regard to governments. Like it or not, Members of Parliament both here and in South Africa, you work for us. We hired you, we pay your salaries, and in everything you do, you are accountable to us. Think of a free press as that annoying lady from accounts who meets us, your boss, in the kitchen and tells us you got in to work late and smelling of rum and then fiddled your expenses. If you clocked in on time and sober, you have nothing to fear. But if you’re pissed and late with your hand in the till, you deserve to get your arse kicked, and you will.
The laughable thing, of course, is that muzzling the press is almost useless in the age of the Internet. The Trafigura injunction was overturned within days because the Internet was full of speculation, and then whistle-blowing. And unless South Africa comes over all Chinese and starts restricting access to the Net, the same will happen there. Thinking, educated South Africans with broadband connections will have access to unrestricted news via international journalists, bloggers, tweeters and more. It will only be the poorer South Africans who rely on TV, radio and newspapers who will have their access to information compromised. It’s a whole new form of apartheid.
I am a South African and I love South Africa. I left eleven years ago to come and live in London, but I did not leave because I opposed the government, or even because of the crime rate. I left because I got a great work opportunity and because I wanted a chance to live and work in a country with many more creative opportunities, and because I wanted to give my son the widest possible range of choices for his future. I always hoped that the South Africa we saw born in 1994 would grow into the astonishing country it could be. I hoped that it would become such a vibrant, exciting, cultural place that we would want to come back because there were more opportunities than there were in London. In many ways it has, but in ways that matter deeply, today is the day I know I cannot call it home anymore.
South Africans are calling today Black Tuesday, in memory of the Black Wednesday in 1977 when, following the murder of Steve Biko, the apartheid government banned black consciousness organisations and muzzled the press. I know that we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of history, but this is the first time I have seen it happen within my own lifetime, and my heart
Women of the world, if you want to see steam coming out of my ears, there are three things you can say to me:
1. I ate the last of the cake. That’s okay, right?
2. It doesn’t really matter where the apostrophe goes, does it?
3. I’m not a feminist.
The answers to the first two are: “it is not okay. Waitrose is five minutes away, off you go. ” and, “Yes. It. Does.” The answer to the third is trickier. Of all the women who have ever said to me that they are not feminists, not one of them , when questioned, would reject the basic tenets of feminism, ie that women should have control of their own bodies, and equal rights in the workplace, the home and politically. Nevertheless, one statistic suggests that only 29% of American women and 42% of women in the UK would call themselves feminists. It seems to me that the reason women say they’re not feminists is that somewhere along the line, they have met or seen a woman who calls herself a feminist and thought, “I don’t want to be like her.”
I can understand why so many women reject the outward face of feminism. I grew up in South Africa, and went to Wits University in the late 1980s. Wits was Nelson Mandela’s alma mater, and when I went there, was highly politicised. There were anti-apartheid protests every Thursday and every Thursday the police would come onto campus to subdue, beat and arrest students. I lost count of the times we were teargassed in class. You couldn’t not be politically aware, and the women’s movement was very powerful. Unfortunately they were also very militant, and prescriptive. If you shaved your legs or even wore a skirt, you’d be frowned upon. I remember one acquaintance illicitly applying lipstick in my car after she’d left a women’s movement gathering. She’d been far too scared to do it in the meeting.
There is no doubt that my instincts have always been feminist, but I could not buy that version of it at all. It seemed to me that if I was going to shrug off centuries of the patriarchy telling me what to do, I wasn’t going to trade it for another bunch of people telling me how to dress and behave. Nevertheless, over the years, I’ve read loads of feminist literature. I’ve also distilled my life experience (daughter of a strict, sexist Italian-Afrikaans patriarch/ above-mentioned left-wing university education/ ten years as a single mother) to develop a belief in female equality that makes sense to me, and I’m proud to call it feminism.
But feminism, in my opinion, is at a point of crisis. While on some levels women in the western world have made enormous progress towards equality, billions of women in the rest of the world are as badly or worse off as ever. And over the last fifteen years or so, I’ve seen a gradual backsliding in media and social interaction in the way women behave and are treated (see my post on Slut kicking). We should be gathering more women, not fewer. But somehow, the word “feminist” has become almost an insult. Just when we need it most, the brand of feminism has become something undesirable and unlovely. We need to bring in one of those think-tank creative firms in Soho, run by girls called Jocasta and boys with droopy trousers, media hair and black-rimmed glasses to put the sexy back. The feminist movement needs rebranding.
I could surround a delightful dinner table with the fine people who have told me to read Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman. It’s a bestselling book by a very popular writer, which sets out to do exactly what I’m saying here: rebranding feminism in the eyes of modern women. It’s sold squillions of copies. I ummed and ahed for ages, and eventually just knuckled down and read it. And bless her award-winning heart, she’s done a cracking job. She debunks a lot of myths and does it with endless humour. It’s a rollicking good read, and I’m sure thousands of women have read it and come out of the other side, saying, for the first time, “Well, maybe I am a feminist after all.”
But in the same way the “womyn” at my university got on my tits a bit, I have to say How to be a Woman did too, after a while. Every behaviour that Moran challenged, she offered her own prescription. Don’t shave or wax your pubes like a porn star, she recommends, grow a nice bush. Don’t have plastic surgery but do care about fashion. After six or seven chapters, I wanted to suggest that the book be retitled, How to be a Woman… just like me.
And while that’s going to work for some women, and has, it’s not going to work for everyone. Because in my experience, women really, really don’t like being told what to do, or how to be. I know I don’t.
I’ve been thinking back to my university days, to a life-changing moment early in my first year. It was the first drama theory class with Malcolm Purkey (an inspiring man and teacher, now heading up the legendary Market Theatre in Johannesburg). He began the class by telling us, “At any point, feel free to put your feet up on the desk and say, ‘Malcolm, you’re talking bullshit.’” It was the most exhilarating thing anyone had ever said to me, because (a) we would get to put our feet on the FURNITURE, (b) we could call a teacher by his first name, and (c) we could swear! What he didn't tell us was that if you did try the “Bullshit!” manoeuvre, he would fix you with his intimidating gaze and say, “Really? Why?” And you would be expected to substantiate your argument. You would have had to have read all the material, read around the subject, and have an intelligent, cogent thesis to present, or he would crush you. It was a splendid life lesson.
And so, at risk of telling you what to do, I’d like to offer you the Rosie Fiore feminist manifesto. It’s very simple.
1. Whatever the issue, inform yourself. Read what people have said about it, preferably from as many different angles as possible.
2. Do what you want.
I mean it. Do exactly what you want. Shave your pubes or grow them to your knees. Have a face-lift or don’t, have children or don’t, be pro-choice or pro-life, vote or don’t, wear a burqa or a thong, work, or don’t. But do it all because you’ve thought about it, and it’s your choice and yours alone. That’s what being a feminist is. It’s about being a grown-up, and making your own choices. And it’s fun.
I so, so wish there was a way to start this blog post without linking to the Daily Mail, but since the demise of splendid proxy service istyosty, there isn’t, so here goes. Columnist Liz Jones wrote an article this week in which she confessed to stealing sperm from first a boyfriend and then her husband in clandestine attempt to fall pregnant, despite the fact that both men had made it clear that they did not want to have children. It’s a horrible, sordid little story, but the worst part about it is that Jones asserts that she is far from alone in these actions. She cites a few examples of “friends” of hers who have done something similar, but most worryingly says, “I don’t understand why more men aren’t wise to this risk — maybe sex addles their brain. So let me offer a warning to men wishing to avoid any chance of unwanted fatherhood: if a woman disappears to the loo immediately after sex, I suggest you find out exactly what she is up to.”
And, “…any man who moves in with a woman in her late 30s or early 40s should take it as read that she will want to use them to procreate, by fair means or foul, no matter how much she protests otherwise. A 2001 survey revealed that 42 per cent of women would lie about using contraception in order to get pregnant in spite of their partners’ wishes.”
Well, I’m a firm believer in the statistic that 85% of statistics are made up on the spot, so I decided to go looking for Liz’s source. It took some digging on the Net, but it turns out her survey does exist. It’s widely quoted all over the Internet, and it was called The National Scruples and Lies Survey, and polled 5,000 UK women. So far, so believable, very scientific. Except the poll was not conducted by a psychology unit at a reputable university, or even an investigative journalist at a broadsheet. It was a tick-box survey of readers of That’s Life magazine. If you’re not familiar with That’s Life, it’s one of those printed-on-tissue-paper 69p weeklies you find in doctors’ waiting rooms. This is their current cover.
There’s a “poll” on their homepage right now, which I am sure will form part of the next sound and academic piece of research they publish. Here it is.
It would be funny if it weren’t so sad and scary. Liz Jones’ article has prompted an outpouring of wrath in the comments on the DM website, and she’s been trending on twitter for two days – no mean feat in these days of the short attention span. Much of the vitriol is of the personal “ugly old bag, no wonder no one wanted a baby with you” ilk, but a disturbingly high number of commenters say with great satisfaction, “I knew it all along! All women are evil and deceitful and want to trick a man and take him for everything he’s got”. As one self-satisfied chap said, “They don’t want a baby, they want a child support cheque”. Well, of course we do… having raised one child as a single parent, I can tell you it’s just like a constant five-star holiday in the Bahamas, as you and the child you are responsible for 24/7 live it large on the few hundred pounds a grudging father would be forced to pay.
The truth is I’m not so concerned with the details of Ms Jones’ story. What worries me is that a prominent journalist has used the platform of a national newspaper to assert that almost half of all women are devious about reproduction, and she has then backed it up with what, at first glance, looks like a solid statistic. And while I spent a little of my time trying to see whether that factoid had any basis in rigorous scientific research, I can guarantee that 99,99% of other people who read that column did not do the same. Already the web is full of articles and blogs requoting the statistic, and using Liz Jones’ article as their source. After a while it will be so widely reported, it will just become true.
There was a wonderfully creepy 1944 George Cukor film called Gaslight, where a husband persuades his wife she is mad by constantly questioning her perception of reality. I’m sure it happens to you. Your partner says something that upsets you, and when you say so, they tell you you’re being over-sensitive. A colleague makes a racist or sexist joke and when you call them on it, they laugh, punch you on the shoulder and say, “It’s just a joke!” Well, in my opinion, Liz Jones, in her own deluded way, has gone some distance towards gaslighting the nation. So here’s my Friday advice. Question, challenge, research. If it smells like rubbish, it probably is.
* And if you didn't know, a succubus is a mythical demon in the shape of a woman who seduces men in order to steal their sperm. Don't say you don't learn anything here.
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.