New Statesman | The reporting of India Chipchase’s murder shows the true extent of Britain’s rape culture

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Why India Chipchase? For the Sun, it must have been the booze: “Woman ‘drank six Jagerbombs in ten minutes on the night she was raped and murdered” went the tweet, for which the newspaper was rightly damned. India Chipchase is not dead because she had one boozy night. She’s dead because a man, Edward Tenniswood, picked her up outside a club when she was intoxicated and unresisting; because he took her to his home to rape her; and because having raped her, he choked her to death.

Still, why India Chipchase? Why, when we know (thanks to the diligent recording of the Counting Dead Women project) that a woman is killed by a man every 2.9 days in the UK, did this woman become the face on the front pages? Why did this trial, of all the trials of men who kill women, get so much coverage? Her murder was unusual because her murderer was a stranger to her – 68 per cent of female murder victims are killed by someone they know – but still, not that unusual. It happens about once every ten days, yet we don’t see 30-odd cases a year reported as extensively as India Chipchase’s.

So why her? What did the media see in her that made her the perfect victim? The grotesque answer is, the same things as the man who murdered her did.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

Emails to Roz Kaveney on the issue of no platform policy

Yesterday, I emailed Roz Kaveney to request a quote for this New Statesman article on the subject of no platform policies. Kaveney has subsequently tweeted to say that I requested “an immediate response”, the implication being that she was not given enough time to compile the materials in support of her position or that it was unreasonable of me to expect her to do so. Below, I have reproduced all four of the emails I sent her. None requests an immediate response. For the record, I would have been happy to wait or to approach an alternative source had Kaveney decided not to provide a statement.

Subject: Request for comment on no-platforming

Sarah Ditum

Mon, Mar 17, 2014 at 1:30 PM

Hi Roz, I’m working on a piece for the New Statesman about no-platforming and I wondered if you’d like to contribute a comment towards it. I know that on Twitter you’ve said you “don’t object” to the no-platforming of Julie Bindel, and I wondered if you might be able to briefly outline your reasons for saying that. I believe that you’re a founder member of Feminists Against Censorship, and it seems like there would be an interesting tension between supporting no-platform (which is arguably a form of censorship) and opposing censorship.

Thanks so much for you time and your thoughts. Looking forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,

Sarah

Kaveney has published her reply to this email as a post on LiveJournal.

Sarah Ditum

Mon, Mar 17, 2014 at 1:58 PM

Hi Roz, and thanks for getting back to me so quickly.

I suppose it’s the definition of hate speech that I’m interested in – of Bindel’s work, which parts do you consider to be examples of hate speech?

Thanks again and kind regards,

Sarah

Sarah Ditum

Mon, Mar 17, 2014 at 2:14 PM

I appreciate that this is a sensitive area, and I don’t want to pressure you to go over a subject you find distressing. However, it would be really helpful in explaining the case for no-platforming if you were able to provide some specific examples of what you consider to be hate speech – I’m conscious that if I quote your remarks so far, it might not be enough to convince readers that no-platforming her is justified.

Thanks again,

Sarah

Sarah Ditum 

Mon, Mar 17, 2014 at 2:16 PM

Absolutely fine. Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, best of luck with your lecture tour.

Kind regards,

Sarah

Why women’s mags might not be the great Satan on glossy pages

ImageHold onto your hoohahs because I am about to shock the liberal ladypants right off you: I like women’s magazines. Yes, I know that feminist blogs are existentially bound to be the mortal enemies of anything glossy that sits on a news stand. Yes, I know that there’s some egregious bullshittery within the editorial gospel of these shiny-papered organs. I know it’s easy to hate on women’s magazines.

And yet women’s magazines are the only publications where female writers aren’t massively outnumbered by male ones. They’re one of the few sectors in any industry where female authority is the norm, rather than a freakishly dickless aberration. And they’re almost the only media where things in which women are interested – fashion and beauty, but also friendship and family and sex – are treated as things a normally intelligent person might be interested in, rather than the brainfluff of vacant-headed boob carriers consigned to a section called “Lifestyle”.

Let’s take a look at Elle, because it’s the one I read most (and the one I’ve written for). Yes, actually read, not just look at the pictures: every issue, Elle carries at least four good quality features, the kind of thing you can start in an idle moment while the kettle’s boiling and find yourself still reading as your tea goes cold.

Over the last few years, they’ve run a fantastic essay about feminism by Sarah Churchwell; a series of outstanding pieces by “beauty extremist” Avril Mair, going into the kind of genuine hard work it takes to develop and maintain a fashion-class body; and wonderful discursive articles about careers, relationships and the meaning of style. Seriously, you haven’t even inflicted consensual superficial bruising on the subject of fetishwear as fashion unless you’ve read UK Elle’s article from 2011. (They also have the inevitable occasional Ultimate Celebrity Interview, but you can’t get everything right.)

When it comes to the actual fashion – the photo shoots – I think even the most passionate defender of the glossy has to acknowledge some capital-I-issues. It’s obscene that teenage models are routinely presented as avatars for an audience twice their age. It’s obscene that a starvation level body mass index is presented as a normal, desirable female look. It’s obscene that short, black, fat (and I’m talking fashion-fat here, as in size 10 or above) and disabled women are either non-existent to fashion or fetishised half to death if they do appear.

All that sucks. But get this: it sucks the same in almost every branch of the media. Wailing on women’s magazines as if they’re the only place this happens is so self-defeatingly dumb, I almost can’t bear to think about it. I mean, take one of the main purveyors of the j’accuse approach to women’s magazines: the Mail’s Liz Jones. A woman whose entire journalistic career is founded on niggling and picking at other women, and who when she’s not writing about how disgusting fat poor people are is whining about the privations of being an anorexic living in a massive barn. (CONFIDENTIAL TO LIZ: YOUR EMPLOYERS MAY NOT BE AS CONCERNED FOR YOUR WELFARE AS THEY SAY IF THEY’RE PAYING YOU TO INDULGE YOUR POTENTIALLY FATAL NEUROSES,)

Women’s magazines could be better. They could adopt a saner approach to diet and exercise. (Seriously, if you have six weeks to get a bikini body, you need to either have one to start with or think about buying a bigger bikini.) They could act like consumption isn’t a sacred rite (and maybe they will, when the advertisers finally all walk into the online sunset and readers are actually paying the paper and production costs rather than being a bought audience). They could let go of the crack-brained arguments about “having it all” or “keeping him happy”.

You know when that’s going to happen? When smart, funny women recognise that smart, funny women make women’s magazines. When readers demand better and writers push to provide it – we know they can, because of how many great women writers already work (or have worked) for women’s magazines. And please, tell me where else I get to see female performers and creators lauded on the cover just for being rocking. (Well, beautiful and rocking.) When Wired magazine – with the notionally gender neutral remit of “tech and shit” – puts a woman on the cover, she’s posed to mark her token nature in a male dominated industry, or she’s naked, or she’s just tits. WT everliving F is up with that, Wired?

So every time some chippy blogger rips into the great Satan of the glossies, as if they’re the only papery barrier between us and total emancipation, I like to take a moment to count all the other brilliant venues for women’s interest journalism. And then, after I’ve blinked, I take a chilly satisfaction in thinking of how happy that blogger would be to get – if she’s one of the very, very fortunate and talented ones – a single page of Grazia to spread her thoughts on.

Image taken from jaimelondonboy‘s Flickr stream, used under Creative Commons

An earlier version of this post appeared on The Flick

“There are upsides to being this obnoxious”: why newspapers hate me for being successful

By the Daily Mail

The other day, I got over 1.5 million hits. “They’ve come from Twitter,” explained the digital editor, “to tell you what a repulsive pustule on the face of journalism you are.”

You’re probably thinking, “What a lovely surprise!” But while it was lovely, it wasn’t a surprise. At least, not for me.

Throughout my online life, I’ve regularly had hordes of readers sent my way by people who think they’re better than me and want their friends and followers to share in the glow of moral superiority that only right-wing rags can shed over liberal-leaning punters. Continue reading

This stylish man: on Christopher Hitchens

“I once had the easiest job in journalism: editing Christopher Hitchens,” tweeted his Slate editor June Thomas, shortly after his death. A short tribute, but a touching balance of the personal and the professional; and also, an accidental summary of the thing I hate about his work. Christopher Hitchens wrote with such an assured and powerful voice – exactly the same voice he spoke with – it’s easy to believe that editing would require only the lightest touch. All the words are correct, and in their right places. Nothing needs changing, except for the fact that whole pieces could benefit from being run through with a red pen.

Continue reading

Private lives

I feel ancient. I remember when a Tory vice girl story was a thing of joy and wonder, a hose full of snigger juice soused across the news. “Aha!” you could chortle back in the days of section 28 and Back To Basics, “They love to govern our bedrooms, but they’re not so straight themselves!” And then you could giggle yourself into a mildly-satirical frenzy, and maybe climax with a joke about oranges. Innocent, undemanding days.

Continue reading

What’s the blogging story?

Vodpod videos no longer available.

There are some questions I didn’t realise were still worth asking. Is blogging journalism? Will blogging kill journalism? Can bloggers save journalism? So I was a tiny bit surprised to find myself talking about all these at a Bristol Festival Of Ideas event last Friday. As far as I’m concerned, the definitive answers are “sometimes”, “no” and “not completely”.

Blogging is a platform, and just like print it hosts good practitioners and bad practitioners. It’s well established now as a complement to straight news – so much so that most newspapers publish their comment sections in a blog format online. Meanwhile, a Wired feature by Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff argues that the rise of the app market means that the open internet in which blogs have thrived will soon be eclipsed. Media companies might just have found what they want: a way to use the astonishing distribution potential of the internet and make readers pay for it.

Which means the time when blogs were serious competion for an audience’s attention and money could be on the way out – a good thing for the financial security of the journalism industry and its employees, a bad thing if you like the way the web opens up journalism to non-pros with a story and scrutiny-minded amateurs.

The debate I took part in made me realise that not everyone is thinking that way. For some  journalists, bloggers remain an exisential threat – forgetting that there are plenty of journalists who blog professionally, or who self-publish extraordinary reporting and testimony, or who do so as an unpaid addendum to their employment. For some bloggers, blogging is the scourge that will clean up a corrupt mainstream media – forgetting, natch, that there are plenty of bloggers as billious and hateful as the worst newspaper employees, and that bloggers have seemingly worked hand in hand with traditional media outlets to get some truly grotesque non-stories going (Guido, The Mail, I am giving you a squinty look).

One of the strangest points in the discussion was when the idea of a code of conduct for bloggers came up, and Brooke Magnanti suggested that bloggers already had their own code of conduct, pointing to the fact that while her identity was known to some in the blogging community, none of those who guessed chose to sell her out. To me, this only says that bloggers are a group with shared social norms that value anonymity: that one principle means nothing in terms of accountability to or honesty about people who aren’t bloggers.

In the Saturday workshop, the delegates from the Bristol NUJ seemed to tentatively approve the idea of extending NUJ affiliation to bloggers and inviting them to adhere to its code of conduct, which is quite good. I hope they do. Bloggers – I think, anyway – are quite likely to become workers for media companies over time, and it makes sense for the union to cultivate the sympathetic ones from early on whether they ultimately turn pro or not.

There were some objections to this from NUJ members: one suggested that bloggers should be required to suspend posting in sympathy with industrial action, because they believed that blogging counted as supplying copy if a journal scraped the content to fill a page. Tagging bloggers as blacklegs for being plagiarised struck me as highly daft, and showed a real lack of understanding about how copyright applies to work published online. Which means that, if the happy anarchy of the web really is on the wane and blogs with it, some people still have a lot to learn before it’s all over.

If you’re really interested in the discussion, you can watch the video above – with contributions from Roy Greenslade, Anton Vowl, Sunny Hundal, Iqbal Tamimi, Brooke Magnanti, Elisabeth Winkler, Kevin Arscott and Donnacha DeLong (yes, there was a vast panel, and it probably didn’t help the discussion to stay focused). I can’t because it’s excrutiating to hear myself talk.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

Farewell, Aarowatch

Aaronovitch Watch claims to have watched its last Aaro:

the Times is going to go paywall at the end of this month, and that seems to us like a natural point to bring “Aaronovitch Watch” to a close. Whatever the ease or otherwise of getting Aaro’s weekly column on the down-low, the fact is that with his disappearance behind the paywall he’s going to be a less influential and less important columnist – with the passing of New Labour as well, this was always going to be the case anyway.

In the wider “World of Decency”, I also feel that a historical moment has largely passed by. There are still imperial wars out there, of course, still ludicrous double standards on human rights and even the New Labour project is not 100% dead yet. And Harry’s Place and Normblog and all will presumably continue to be as ghastly as they ever were, while Nick Cohen is unlikely to shut up as he is to ever write a readable column again. And all of these baleful social phenomena will still have their crowd of cheerleaders from a soi-Decent Left perspective, with willyoucondemnathons and all. But, well, do you care as much as you did five years ago? I know I don’t. If we carry this thing on beyond its natural life, it’s almost certain to end up as another site about bloody Israel.

Aaronovitch Watch, 20 May 2010, “Closing down sale”

(Prescient, because a week and a half later, the flotilla happened and even the most reluctant blogs threatened to become “another site about bloody Israel”.) I can’t remember exactly how I first found Aaronovitch Watch – probably by googling some combination of the words “Nick Cohen” and “is wrong” – but it’s been one of the best things in my RSS feeds ever since I subscribed to it.

As well as rustling up well-informed analyses (not just of Aaro, but of pretty much any rhetoric from the bizarro world of liberal beligerance that huddled under the tag of Decency), Aaro Watch has always been pleasingly provisional. Loads of blogs are written on the premise that the author knows a Great Deal about something and you have come to imbibe their worldview; the writers of Aaro Watch say things like, “It’s perverse, but I like being wrong. If I’m not wrong at lot of the time, I know I’m not trying hard enough.”

And, probably because the blog has always been written in explicitly discursive style, a strong and interesting community of discussion has gathered around it. I’ve only ever been an irregular commenter on there, but the threads are always worth reading: long without turning cyclical, smart and usually funny too. I’m going to miss that part of the blog maybe even more than I’m going to miss it as a centralised location for Nick Cohen abuse.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

Maternity grief

Lucy Cavendish visited an online forum for mothers, and was amazed to find them discussing motherhood – sometimes quite heatedly! While I dislike the tone of her article, the premise is pretty robust. Motherhood is a sensitive issue, many mothers become entrenched in their parenting choices and defend them bitterly, going to work when you have small children can be a difficult and guilt-wracked decision. This is all true enough. (Though there’s less of the difficulty and guilt if work is a financial necessity rather than a little paid hobby done to benefit your sense of self. I’m just saying.)

I don’t really believe her claim that things for mothers now are more spectacularly traumatic than ever, though. There are some things that probably do diminish our confidence in our own abilities, but weirdly, while she’s slinging blame at “target culture” and “having-it-all”, she doesn’t mention the thing that I’d reckon was the most likely sources of anxiety: separation from extended families. I hadn’t held a baby for longer than ten minutes until I had my own, because I never lived near enough to my aunts, uncles and cousins to get much time with a practice infant. And because my home was a 90-minute drive from my parents, I wasn’t able to just pop round and get some advice from my Mum. A long-term fall in fertility rates feels like a better explanation for maternal anxiety that a lot of specious psychologising about how, once women have learnt to be careerist, we can’t possibly go back to being properly nurturing or something.

That’s if there is more maternal anxiety, of course, which I’m not totally convinced you can decide based on a rummage through Mumsnet and a look at the parenting section in Waterstone’s. I’ll tell you what did make me feel guilty and anxious, though – reading this in the middle of the article:

Recently, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released the results of a study of children born in the 1970s. It found that those with mothers who worked up to 18 months during their preschool years had only a 64% chance of passing an A-level. This fell to a 52% chance of success if the mother worked for an additional year. Furthermore, the children of these working mothers faced a greater risk of unemployment (up from 6% to 9%) and psychological stress (up from 23% to 28%) in adulthood.

These statistics were presented in the press as further “proof” that working mums damage kids. Other headline-creating studies include: “Working mothers have fatter children”; “Working mothers harm children’s A-level chances”; “Children of working mothers have less healthy lifestyle”. The Institute of Child Health studied more than 12,500 five-year-olds and found those with working mothers ate more snacks and watched more TV, regardless of the mother’s education or salary. (Working mothers typically counter these statistics by saying there is always another study that says the opposite, and that research from the 1970s will not be so relevant now.)

Is that really the best that Cavendish expects working mothers to come up with? Maybe working mothers could check out the findings of the JRF for themselves, which come with their own reassuring caveat:

There was strong evidence of a trade-off for mothers who were employed full-time when their children were under five. Although full-time work increased family income, less time for mothers to interact with their families tended to reduce children’s later educational attainments (the analysis controlled for family income).

JRF, “The effect of parents’ employment on outcomes for children”

That sounds problematic to me: if the analysis is controlled for income, then it seems to me that it’s going to filter out the potential positive effects of the increased wealth that comes from having a working mother. It’s not binary, and the study’s findings aren’t presented in quite the definitive way that Cavendish found them in the headlines.

But what she offers in response isn’t a cautious weighing up of the credits and debits of working motherhood. It’s just a portrait of unhappiness, with an implicit line of aggression against the mothers who make her feel bad – the ones whose children “play more sports than mine, […] are academically more competent, […] read books all the time, […] are constantly on playdates, […] are popular, witty, funny.” I’m not sure that a criticism of an article criticising parenting advice is the right place to start handing out parenting advice of my own, but I have some anyway: how about not writing in a national newspaper about your children’s perceived shortcomings and the way they reflect on you? I’m not a psychologist or anything, but I’m fairly sure that for a child to read that about him or herself could be almost nearly as harmful as the fact that mummy has a job.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

Dispatches filmaker criticises Newsbeat

The director of the Young, Nazi And Proud documentary has commented on BBC Newsbeat’s handling of the BNP. David Modell met Mark Collett in 2002 and recorded him expressing admiration for Hitler and the Nazis, hatred of black people, and “twisted homicidal fantasies”. Modell is severely critical of the level of preparation and standard of questioning shown by the BBC’s journalists:

“Mark and Joey” would have loved the broadcast interview. Their roles in the party were never explained to the listener, so they were able to appear simply as representative party members. Collett’s confession of Nazi sympathies was never even referred to.

The interview was typical of the sometimes flawed reporting of the BNP when the BBC engages its representatives in mainstream broadcasts. The BNPs heritage of neo-nazism and position in the “white supremacist” movement is often not understood by poorly briefed reporters, who conduct interviews in a format designed for credible politicians.

In the case of the Newsbeat interview the lack of depth is even more inexcusable as this was clearly prerecorded and edited, so there should have been time for proper research and scrutiny.

I would never argue that we should not allow the BNP airtime. But reporting the organisation has to be done with great care because of the distress and damage it has the potential (and the will) to cause. Failure to do so risks collaborating in the dissemination of a destructive hatred.

Channel 4 News, “Dispatches: Young, Nazi and Proud”

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009