Tuesday, 25 September 2012

One privacy rule for the royals, another for the plebs

HERE we go again, then. We’ve hardly got over the thrill/shock of Prince Harry’s boy-bits being splashed around the net than we’re invited to join in a mass display of outrage/titillation at the public unveiling of his sister-in-law’s girl-bumps.
To which my first response was indifference. Boredom, even. Half the population of the world has developed mammary glands. Why on earth should we care about such a trivial revelation?
Well, there are reasons. And they’re not just the most immediately obvious ones.
But before I get on to that, I want to consider a much more shocking story.
One that says just as much about the sick nature of our society – some of it the same things – but which hasn’t had a fraction of the attention. Which is itself also something worth pondering.
It happened in Portsmouth last Tuesday when a 26-year-old man – described by his family as “vulnerable” – climbed onto the roof of a high building.
While police tried gently to coax him down safely, a crowd gathered below. Among whom some started yelling at him to jump.
If that isn’t already stomach-churning enough, when he did jump some onlookers filmed his fall –  and posted the footage on the internet.
As police said, their behaviour was “disgusting” and showed “a complete lack of empathy” for a troubled man.
What it also showed was an alarming distancing from reality.
So many people filter so much of their lives through the medium of a screen – TV, computer, games console or phone – that they are apparently becoming detached from physical truth.
Other people’s lives are thereby reduced to entertainment.
“Reality TV” takes over from genuine reality.
Nothing matters until it’s on YouTube. Where you can laugh at it. The more horrible – or the more salacious – the better.
Which is where we come back to the Duchess of Cambridge and the photographer so aptly dubbed by John Major “a peeping Tom”.
Like the unfortunate man in Portsmouth, the young Windsors have become commodified, dehumanised. Made public property even in those moments they’d like to keep private.
In Harry’s case there was no room for sympathy. He blatantly brought the whole thing on himself.
Kate’s case is different. She was in a place where it should have been reasonable to assume privacy.
The photographer, let’s face it, was either a perv or out to make money out of the perviness of others. Probably both.
But why should we more outraged at this instance of a seedy modern phenomenon than at others?
The surreptitious photographing of, say, Uma Thurman, Emma Watson, Charlotte Church or any of the literally thousands of women whose “wardrobe malfunctions” or not-quite-private beach moments have been sold by paparazzi to newspapers, magazines and websites.
You may say – and you might be right – that many, maybe most, of these women have colluded in their own commodification. If so, they were only taking advantage of prevailing conditions.
The duchess, we may assume, was not doing that. Or at least not deliberately.
Though it’s a fine line between courting fame for the wealth and privilege it can bring – and she’s certainly acquired plenty of that – and complaining about its seamier side.
The Harry and Kate incidents have shown the royal family as mere celebrities in the dismal modern vogue. But only up to a point.
The family – who, be it remembered, are who they are purely by accident of birth – still wield an anachronistic degree of power. Kate-gate has revealed that more clearly than anything caught by telephoto lens.
Others may revel in flashing their flesh about – and there are plenty who are famous for nothing else. But I suspect Thurman, Watson and Church were no more thrilled than the former Miss Middleton at being spied on in that tacky way.
They, however, knew they couldn’t do much about it. They didn’t have the clout that royalty still, bizarrely, seems to carry. Clout that seems to carry weight even in the courts of France, Italy and public opinion.
All those upholders of national morals who have squealed with indignation at the invasion of privacy have a point.
It would have been a lot stronger if they’d squealed just as loudly in defence of the rights of Thurman, Watson, Church and all the rest.
In fact, the most sycophantic defender of royal privileges happens to be the same paper whose website has become a world leader through the liberal use of celebrity “glamour” and “daring necklines”.
Marrying into royalty gets you lots of privileges denied to everyone else. There’s no good reason why it should.
And no reason at all why an enhanced right to privacy should be among them.

DID the undoubtedly patrician, Rugby-educated Andrew Mitchell swear at the police and call them plebs? I don’t know – I wasn’t there.
But imagine that you or I were accused of blaspheming at an officer outside Liquid or Betty’s, say.
We’d deny it, of course. But whose word do you think the magistrates would take – yours or that of two uniformed defenders of public order?

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Government policy killed Hillsborough victims

IN 1989 I was sports editor of the Sunderland Echo newspaper and editor of the town’s Saturday evening Football Echo.
On April 15, Sunderland were away to Oldham in the old Second Division. About halfway through the first half I took the unprecedented decision to take the running match report off the front page of Wearside’s equivalent of the Green ’Un.
Events at that afternoon’s abandoned FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest were simply too grim for a mere football match to seem that important. Even for football fans.
Especially for football fans.
With a few hours’ reflection, I might have chosen not to run the photo that dominated page one instead.
Taken by a Press Association photographer and distributed in what was then the usual way by wire service, it told the story of Hillsborough’s horror more vividly than any number of words.
 Few, if any, national papers used it in the days that followed. An internet search now brings it instantly back to view, copied, tellingly, not from any British papers but from foreign ones.
What it shows – the twisted bodies and distorted faces of ordinary people crushed against a metal grille – was soon deemed here too tasteless to show.
But horrifying as it was, it was also deeply, deeply shaming.
And not just to the police, the ambulance service, the Football Association and Sheffield Wednesday FC, all of whose shortcomings have been brought to light by last week’s publication of the long-delayed independent panel report.
Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was also guilty.
Not just for its participation in the ensuing cover-up of official culpability which has now at last been aired. But for helping to create the appalling conditions which caused the tragedy.
Four years earlier I had written an angry article condemning the then new practice of fencing fans in.
I recalled a match at Newcastle in 1974, when as a 16-year-old I had taken part in what was called “a pitch invasion”. That is to say I, and a number of others – mostly youngsters – in the Leazes End of St James’s Park had scrambled onto the field to escape the sheer weight of people surging behind us.
It was an FA Cup quarter-final – also, coincidentally, against Nottingham Forest – and the ground was simply not adequate for an emotionally charged crowd of 54,500 people.
As I wrote in 1985, had we been fenced in, those of us at the front would have been crushed.
Of course, I was not the only one voicing such fears. But then, we were only football fans, not people to be taken seriously.
The fatal fencing was FA policy because it was government policy. And it stemmed from an attitude right at the top.
David Mellor, who was a junior minister for most of Thatcher’s time as PM, gave it away on Radio 5 last week.
Asked about her part in the Hillsborough cover-up, his first words were: “Of course, she didn’t like football fans.”
Her attitude, that of her government, and – fatally, as it turned out at Hillsborough – that of the police, was that football supporters were hooligans, the enemy within. Policing them was a security issue, one of containment, not of safety and welfare.
The attitude was summed up by the Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Hill-Norton, when he called football “a slum game played by louts in front of hooligans”. You could hardly express class prejudice more clearly.
Thatcher’s press secretary, Bernard Ingham, notoriously detested football and its followers. The day after Hillsborough he spoke of “a tanked-up mob” that allegedly caused the disaster.
If that wasn’t his own lie, he was passing on someone else’s.
But it was a lie the government, the police – and, as we know, The Sun – were all predisposed to believe.
As president of European football’s governing body UEFA, Jacques Georges should have known better. But he was quick to pass on the lie, describing the Liverpool fans as “beasts waiting to charge into the arena”.
Unlike others, he soon apologised for his words, but he had already betrayed the attitude.
Football fans were animals. To be herded. And caged.
Things have changed since Hillsborough. The cages went, all-seater grounds came in, the policing of supporters is – mostly – far less antagonistic than it was in those bad old days.
The whole atmosphere of match days is different. The old Bovril, meat pie and urine smell has been replaced by the fine-cuisine aroma of the corporate dining suite.
Grounds are certainly safer. But it has come at a cost. About £30 per ticket in the average Championship ground, considerably more in the Premier League.
A year after Hillsborough, fans in Manchester United’s Stretford End paid £3.50 to watch a game. Allowing for inflation, that’s around £6.50 in today’s terms. You couldn’t see professional football anywhere in Britain for that today.
If football was ever a slum game, it isn’t now. The slum-dwellers have been priced out.
And the teenager I was in 1974 would have been priced out too.
If football in the 1980s was a battleground in the class war, it was the working-class that lost. Not just the battle, but the game.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

How Mutt Romney could swing it for the nice guy

WHAT kind of man sets off for a 12-hour drive with the family dog strapped to the car roof in a box?
The same kind of man, evidently, who as a schoolboy led a gang of bullies in forcibly cutting off the long hair of a pleading and weeping fellow student.
The same kind of man who, while his fellow citizens struggle through an economic recession, splashes out $12million on doing up his California beach-house, while claiming $77,000 in tax relief for one of his wife’s dressage horses.
Whose own tax avoidance means he salts away most of his $250m fortune in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands – not exactly what patriotic Americans expect.
Who likes to portray himself as a "job-creator" despite making that fortune as a master of "leveraged buyouts", which translates into real life in the form of closed factories and lost jobs.
The arcane tax schemes, and the planned "reforms" which would make him even more fabulously rich, may not carry huge weight with the average US voter – though they should.
Neither, perhaps, will the opposition to public health-care, the flip-flopping on the big-in-America issue of abortion, or the promise of a budget to make the poor "more self-reliant" – i.e. poorer.
They may not care all that much that a man apparently opposed to all forms of public spending (except military ones) once spent $1.5billion of taxpayers' money on staging the 2002 Winter Olympics – more than all seven previous Olympics in the US combined.
But it's hard to imagine an electorate that likes to think of its President as "a nice guy" forgiving Mitt Romney for that dog story.
Especially when you add the way the Romney children discovered where their pet was. By spotting the trail of diarrhoea down the car window.
It’s that detail that really brings home the full emotional impact of the best-known anecdote about the best-known living Mormon.
This is not a nice guy. Yet he is the man the Republican party wants to put in the White House.
It ought to be an impossible hope. The awful thing – the truly scary thing – is that it might not be.
Barack Obama has not lived up to the almost unfeasibly high hopes his 2008 election campaign built up.
Four years on, America’s national debt, plunged into record deficit by the war-mongering Bush administration, has not been fixed. In fact, it’s $5trillion worse.
Guantanamo Bay, that other chilling emblem of the Bush years, remains open. American fingers still get dirty in foreign pies – as they have under every president since 1941.
It is, in many ways, a sad record of disappointment. And it’s not all the fault of the most obstructive House of Representatives any president has had to battle against. Not quite.
It may be to Obama’s credit that the US – and the world – hasn’t been plunged yet into another Great Depression like that of the 1930s.
But the economy is still dire, which cannot be good news for a president seeking re-election.
In such circumstances, Mitt Romney’s dog would probably win the vote. Whether Romney himself can is an open question, with the candidates apparently running neck-and-neck in the opinion polls.
In the nice-guy stakes, it’s no contest.
American big business will be lining up its petro-dollars behind Romney. The rest of us should all pray the nice guy wins.


SARAH Storey, David Weir, Ellie Simmonds, Jonnie Peacock – who provided the most memorable moment of the Paralympics for you?
One contender was not a competitor at all, but the crowd who booed chancellor George Osborne.
It was perhaps a little impolite to the athletes whose medals he was there to present. But it was also a genuine and spontaneous expression of group feeling.
Just the kind of thing, in fact, which the great British public has been praised for all through this Olympic summer.
Just as Storey, Weir, Simmonds and the rest deserved our cheers, Osborne has earned the jeers.
Not just generally for his failed and brutal financial policies, but specifically for the government’s on-going assault on the very group of people the Paralympics celebrated.
The privatising of “fit for work” assessments is only the latest attack on the disability benefits many rely on.
And what of that much-trumpeted legacy of the Games?
The government promises £8million this year through Sport England to develop more grass-roots projects to help get disabled people into sport. Big deal.
Meanwhile, Osborne’s cuts have meant more than a third of councils in the UK have cut back their public sports facilities. In total, 375 leisure centres, gyms, swimming pools, football and tennis sites have either been closed completely or had their opening hours slashed.
If that’s not worth a hearty boo, I don’t know what is.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

And Oscar for 'worst loser' goes to...

TO Alan Oliveira, Oscar Pistorius is “a great athlete” and “a really great idol”. To Pistorius, Oliveira’s victory in the Paralympic T44 200 metres was “ridiculous” and only happened because the blades he runs on are too long.
Brazilian Oliveira also said Pistorius was “not a bad loser”. Which was kind of him, since a bad loser is exactly what the South African sounded like.
Perhaps it’s because he hasn’t had much practice.
To be fair to Pistorius, after a night to sleep on it, he apologised the next morning. Significantly, though, he didn’t retract what he said. He said sorry only for the timing of his comments, “in another athlete’s moment of triumph”.
So what it boils down to is this: the most famous Paralympian of them all has “respect” for his opponent, but still thinks his own defeat was “ridiculous” and “unfair”.
Oh dear. It doesn’t seem quite in the true Olympian spirit, does it?
Pistorius, in his dummy-spitting poor sportsmanship, has sent a dagger right to the heart of what the Paralympics is supposed to be all about.
We’ve heard a lot these past weeks about level playing-fields and equality of opportunity.
Pistorius’s first comment after Oliveira’s victory was “we are not running in a fair race here”.
A remark which contains several levels of irony.
Irony No.1: Pistorius himself fought over several years to compete against able-bodied athletes. He was finally allowed to run against Usain Bolt and company only after persuading the authorities that his own blades didn’t give him an unfair advantage.
Irony No.2: Every aspect of the Paralympics is governed by technological advances and judgement calls designed to even out levels of disability.
You would struggle to play a decent game of basketball in a hospital wheelchair. And neither Pistorius nor Oliveira would run much of a race without their carbon-fibre blades, which aren’t much like legs, whatever length they are.
Irony No.3 (the big one): Pistorius has never known a truly level playing-field in his life.
His story is indeed remarkable. Having had his lower legs amputated before he was a year old, he went on to play water-polo, cricket and tennis at school, took part in triathlons, wrestling and boxing.
In one school rugby game, he was heading for the try-line when an opponent tackled him hard – and came away clutching one of Pistorius’s prosthetic legs. While the defender presumably reeled in shock, Pistorius hopped to the line and scored.
That is indeed true grit and exemplifies exactly why so many athletes with disabilities – and those without – regard Pistorius as an inspiration.
But there’s another side to all this.
Pistorius was born in a country then still regulated by apartheid. His white parents were wealthy enough to send him to one of South Africa’s poshest schools.
And while he surely lived up to the school motto, Virtute et Labore – translated, loosely, by the school itself as “Through Courage and Labour” – he equally surely had every possible assistance to do so.
If the playing-fields of Pretoria Boys High School had been truly level, young Pistorius would have had to share its advantages with thousands of township boys.
Or perhaps with some of the estimated 12,000 landmine-victim amputees in neighbouring Mozambique.
The greatest challenge facing the organisers of Paralympic sport is to try to make it as fair as they can.
They do it through the category system, which is immediately and obviously riddled with inconsistencies.
For example, T44 means “single below-knee amputation or moderately reduced function in one or both legs”. Yet Pistorius is surely T43 – “double below-knee amputees and other athletes with impairments comparable to a double below-knee amputation”.
I like Pistorius’s own motto: “You’re not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have.”
I also like what his parents apparently told him: “A loser isn’t the person that gets involved and comes last, but the one who doesn’t get involved.”
But life dishes out many more disabilities than the purely physical ones. And not everyone gets the opportunities to get involved.


SO Archbishop Desmond Tutu believes Tony Blair and George W Bush should be arraigned at the International Criminal Court at The Hague for war crimes over the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Well, it’s only what many people, including me, have been saying for the past nine years.
But when it comes from a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and famously one of the nicest people in the world, maybe it’s time for the world to take note.
However, when he says the Iraq war left the world more divided than “any other conflict in history” he calls into question his own grasp of history.
World War II, anyone? We’re still feeling the aftershocks, 67 years after it supposedly ended. Indeed, Iraq itself could plausibly be described as one of them.