Fired for a racist tweet. But was it really racist?

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Roseanne Barr has had her show cancelled because of a tweet suggesting former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett is the product of a union between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Planet of the Apes.

ABC Network, in cancelling the show, issued a statement calling Barr’s tweet “abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values”.

But what was so abhorrent or repugnant about the tweet?   Some have argued that it is deeply insulting to all Muslims, which is obviously nonsense given the Muslim Brotherhood is a small group of mainly Sunni Muslims, with fairly fundamentalist Islamist beliefs, and as such Roseanne’s tweet was a comment on Jarrett’s political beliefs rather than any comparison to Muslims as a whole.

Popular consensus, though, is that it was deeply racist, due to the fact that Valerie Jarrett is African-American, with brown skin, and comparing a brown person to an ape is about the most racist statement one can make.

But why? Why, given we are all evolved from apes, is it only racist when comparing a black or brown person to one, but not when making the same comparison in relation to somebody who is white or yellow?

Calling somebody an ape – or, in the example of the recent blog-post by the Secret Barrister, referring to a group of people as “knuckle-dragging cheerleaders” – is certainly an insult.  It is a way of saying that the person, or group of people, to whom one is referring, is primitive, unevolved, backward, or uncivilised.

Yet we don’t see anyone calling for the Secret Barrister’s book to be removed from bookshelves as a result of his / her recent use of the term “knuckle-dragging cheerleaders”.   Presumably because it is understood that the majority – if not all – of the people he was referring to, are white.  So that’s perfectly acceptable, then.

By saying that it is racist to refer to a black or brown person as an ape, but not a white or yellow person, are we not, in fact, simply reinforcing the notion that a different set of rules and norms needs to be followed when dealing with black and brown people, than with white and yellow people?  Is that not deeply racist?

I understand the argument that the reason it is racist to refer to a black or brown person as an ape, is because for years, racists have used that very insult to refer to people of colour, implying that they are less evolved than white people.

But this is where context matters.  A statement that refers to ALL black people as apes is, of course, racist – because the insult in this case is directed specifically at their race.  But a statement such as Roseanne’s, directed at one particular person, has to be viewed as a comment on that person alone. In which case it shouldn’t matter what colour skin the person has.

Roseanne, of course, made matters ten times worse by apologising for the tweet and seeking to blame tiredness and sleep deprivation for her error of judgement.  What she should have done, was to demand to know why it is that ABC – or anyone else for that matter – feels that Valerie Jarrett’s skin colour is relevant.

We saw the same confected offence-taking a few months ago, over the H&M poster campaign which showed a young black boy wearing a jumper with the words “Coolest monkey in the jungle”.  Cue outrage at the decision to use a black child rather than a white child.  Never mind the fact that parents of all colours and races have for decades referred fondly to their children as “cheeky monkeys”. Or that the mother of the child in question saw no issue with the slogan.

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If we truly want to have racial equality, surely one of the first steps we must take is to acknowledge our common evolutionary origins?  That must include the right to insult and offend each other equally.   Roseanne’s tweet was offensive – which it clearly was intended to be.  But it takes a pretty racist mindset to actually see it as racist.

Posted in politics | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

A lesson for the Secret Barrister – from Jane Austen

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“Oh thank God!” I thought, when the reporting ban was finally lifted on Tommy Robinson’s case, and the Secret Barrister published a blog post explaining all the legal ins and outs of his arrest and imprisonment.

And then I saw the words “knuckle-dragging cheerleaders”, “racists-in-arms” and “Nazi-themed march on Downing Street” and my heart sank.

Because what’s the point of putting together a 10-point explanation of the situation, if you’re going to use your opening paragraphs to insult the very people who would most benefit from reading it?  How many of them will have reached that point and shut it down in disgust, not reading any further?

The Secret Barrister, for those who haven’t heard of him / her, is a blogger who describes him / herself as “a junior barrister specialising in criminal law”. It is rumoured that the Secret Barrister is, in fact, not just one but a handful of junior barristers – but whether one or multiple is neither here nor there.

Either way, this particular blog was written by somebody clearly exasperated at having to explain what they see as a number of self-evident points of law to lesser-brained mortals asking stupid questions on social media.  Despite the overall clear, concise explanations of the various points covered, comments such as “No, ye of little brain”, while possibly meant to be read as fairly harmless, denote a contempt for the ordinary masses who clearly don’t find the various points of law quite as self-evident as the barristers who have spent years studying and practising them.

It brought to mind the scene in the film ‘Emma’, in which Emma, exasperated at Miss Bates’ annoying wittering, and attempting to show off to others present, cuts her down with a particularly cruel retort, and is afterwards firmly reprimanded by Mr Knightly.  “Badly done, Emma” he says to her, going on to point out that such remarks may be acceptable when directed towards an equal but in the case of Miss Bates “her situation being in every way below you should secure your compassion”.

I completely sympathise with, and understand, the frustration felt by whoever wrote that blog – as well as the irresistible urge to display their superior wit and intelligence in expressing it.  I’m not immune to such behaviour myself and have on a number of occasions over my years working in corporate environments, been told off by managers for being unnecessarily cutting in email exchanges with those who I felt were being unforgivably stupid.   It takes a very strong will to resist the urge to fire off a sharp retort to what is seen as a ridiculous question, particularly when posed by somebody for whom one already has little patience.

I also understand that the usual readership of the Secret Barrister is probably fairly well-educated, very few of them supporters of Tommy Robinson, and most of those regular readers would have well appreciated the barbs aimed at those still calling for his release.  It is these regular readers the blog is written for – and the majority of them will see no issue with it.

But what the whole debacle over Robinson’s arrest has highlighted, is the widening gulf between the ordinary British (and European, and American) public whose everyday experience of life is so very different from those occupying positions of relative power within the legal, political or media professions.  The reasons for Robinson’s arrest may have been immediately self-evident to those working in those professions, but far less so to those who have never had any experience of the law, or set foot inside a courtroom.   Yes, some of those calling for Tommy Robinson’s release probably are racists – but the large majority of them are ordinary citizens who simply can’t understand how somebody can be arrested, tried and imprisoned within a matter of hours simply for filming on the street outside a courtroom.

With everybody crying out for explanations, this could have been the perfect opportunity to narrow the gap in understanding between those in the legal profession and those outside.  For those such as myself, who already understood most of the points covered and simply needed a few minor misconceptions cleared up, it did the job perfectly.  But by talking down to, and insulting, those who most would have benefited from reading it in its entirety, the greater opportunity was lost.  Great, informative blog, Secret Barrister – but badly done.

Posted in grooming gangs, politics, social media | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

A Political Powder-Keg?

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Is there any more surreal a depiction of the strange times in which we are living, than the sight of the actress and comedian Roseanne Barr tweeting the actor James Woods to ask him to get involved in the case of Tommy Robinson, arrested and imprisoned two days ago for filming himself accosting defendants in a grooming gang case outside Leeds Crown Court?

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On the one hand, this sort of celebrity activism is to be applauded.  With their large social media followings, celebrities such as Roseanne and James Woods are able to direct public scrutiny to issues that maybe are not getting the media attention they deserve.

On the other hand, the recent case of Alfie Evans showed all too alarmingly how quickly an already fraught situation can escalate when celebrities in the United States start tweeting about political and social matters in the United Kingdom without first gaining a true understanding of the situation.   People whipped up into a frenzy by misinformation and wild accusations, turning up at Alder Hey hospital, threatening staff and intimidating other patients, were surely not what those celebrities had in mind when they first got involved.

The current Tommy Robinson situation is a political and social powder-keg on the brink of explosion.  UK media, constrained by reporting restrictions put in place by the judge, are unable to report on anything but the bare details of Mr Robinson’s arrest. Tens of thousands of people, though, have already watched his arrest on Twitter, as he was livestreaming it at the time it took place.  Mr Robinson’s fans are demanding to know what is going on, and thousands of them have already marched down Whitehall in protest, demanding his release.  At the time of writing, a petition calling for Theresa May to free Mr Robinson, had gathered over 207,000 signatures.

A few media outlets in the United States and Canada are more than happy to leap in and try to fill the gap in information by reporting the ‘facts’ as they know them to their hundreds of thousands of followers.   The problem being that most of the ‘facts’ being presented are nothing more than wild conjecture, based primarily on what appears to be complete lack of public knowledge about what reporting restrictions mean, and why they are imposed.

The basic facts, which are not in dispute, are that Tommy Robinson was outside Leeds Crown Court, livestreaming himself doorstepping defendants in a grooming gang case.  As there were reporting restrictions in place on the case in question, his actions were illegal.  He was arrested, bundled into a police van and taken away to an immediate hearing where it is being suggested that he was sentenced to 13 months in prison.  The reason for his immediate hearing and sentencing was because he was already serving a suspended 3 month sentence for a similar offence – the sentence had been suspended for 18 months on the basis that he did not repeat the offence, so by breaking the terms of that suspension he was liable to immediate imprisonment.

What seems to have really inflamed matters is that the judge who heard Mr Robinson’s case, subsequently imposed reporting restrictions on his case, to remain in place until the conclusion of the underlying cases on which he had been reporting.  An initial online newspaper report in the Mirror, about Mr Robinson’s arrest, was promptly taken down, prompting howls of outrage from those who had already watched the arrest on Twitter and who are now convinced that the establishment is trying to silence Mr Robinson.   The gloating of far-left activists, expressing the wish that he will be repeatedly raped or murdered while in prison, has only enraged and further alarmed his fans, with many of them tweeting that he has effectively been sentenced to death.

The facts that do not appear to be widely known, are these.  Firstly, where reporting restrictions are put in place, this is done so at the request of the prosecution – and the restrictions are usually in place only for the duration of the trial.  Once the verdicts are returned, the restrictions are lifted and the media are free to report on the case.   The issue with the case on which Mr Robinson was reporting, is that the verdicts have not yet been returned – hence the restrictions are still in place.

Nazir Afzal, the prosecutor in the Rochdale grooming gang trials, explained in a couple of hasty tweets that the Rochdale case almost collapsed because of a far-right communication during the trial, which the defendants claimed had prejudiced their jury.  The reason for reporting restrictions being in place is to prevent the defendants, if convicted, from having any recourse to a claim that their jury was unfairly prejudiced.  So by deliberately flouting the reporting restrictions, Mr Robinson, despite what may have been good intentions, was doing nothing other than harming the chances of a successful prosecution.

Secondly, for all those arguing that Mr Robinson wasn’t in breach of reporting restrictions because he wasn’t inside the court – the restrictions prevent the reporting of any information about the case, from either inside or outside.  The fact that Mr Robinson was outside the court is irrelevant – by livestreaming his report to the many thousands of followers of his website, he was breaking the law.

Thirdly, to all those peddling conspiracy theories that the mainstream media is trying to cover up reports of grooming gang trials and that Mr Robinson is the only ‘honest’ journalist prepared to report on such cases – it’s quite the opposite. The mainstream media are bound to follow the law and are simply respecting the reporting restrictions – Mr Robinson cannot call himself a journalist if he is not prepared to follow the same rule of law that binds other journalists.

The one very valid question that is repeatedly being asked on Twitter is – why is it that when a celebrity such as Rolf Harris, Stuart Hall or Max Clifford faces charges of paedophilia, the media are encouraged to report widely on the matter “in order to encourage more victims to come forward”, yet when it’s a grooming gang case, there always seems to be a media blackout?   I do not have an answer to this – hopefully once the verdicts are returned in the Leeds cases and the  reporting restrictions are lifted, somebody in the media will address this question with the Crown Prosecution Service.

The timing of all of this could not be worse.  A bank holiday weekend when people have more than enough time on their hands to fire off angry tweets and to turn up at mass protests in London and Leeds, when the courts are closed so nothing can be done to expedite the verdicts in the grooming gang cases and so allow the lifting of the reporting restrictions.  A few limited reports of Mr Robinson’s arrest have now appeared in the UK press – presumably allowed on the basis that they don’t disclose any information that is not already publicly available, and published with the intention of calming down conspiracy theorists, but to very little effect.

Jack Posobiec – described by Wikipedia as an “alt-right internet troll and conspiracy theorist” has leapt on the situation and has been repeatedly tweeting support for Robinson to his 326,000 followers, even suggesting that Donald Trump should offer him asylum.  How long, I wonder, before Trump responds?

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It’s not just commentators in the United States and Canada who are watching, either.  Geert Wilders in the Netherlands has fired off multiple tweets about Mr Robinson’s arrest, and in Australia, senator Pauline Hanson, with 37,000 followers, has got in on the action with this tweet:

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I wonder – with the world’s media and celebrities watching, what state will this situation have reached by the time courts resume on Tuesday?  Is it too much to hope that everybody will just take a breath, calm down and spend the weekend with their families, trusting that many journalists in the UK are just as desperate to report on this story as everybody else is to read about it?

Posted in grooming gangs, politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

An Unequal Justice – and an Unequal Legacy

Two young men with their whole lives ahead of them.  One stabbed to death while waiting for a bus – for being black.  The other abducted, stabbed repeatedly, doused in petrol and set on fire – for being white.

We all know about Stephen Lawrence.  His murder, his parents’ long and tireless fight for justice, and the institutional racism within the Metropolitan Police that was uncovered by the two inquiries into the handling of his case, will never be forgotten. Especially now that Theresa May has announced that an annual memorial day has been established in his honour.  From 2019 onwards, 22 April each year will be “Stephen Lawrence Day” – a day dedicated specifically to the teenager’s life and legacy.

But how many others, I wonder – like me – had never heard of Kriss Donald? How is it that his brutal murder in 2004, at age 15, does not attract the same level of attention?  How is it that his name can be forgotten so easily? Why – as many people are demanding on social media – is there no annual day dedicated to his life and legacy?

The obvious answer, of course, is that his death, while horrific and deplorable, did not leave the same legacy because his killers were brought to justice relatively quickly.  His mother did not have to spend years fighting for her son’s death to be taken seriously by a police force that has since been found to have been institutionally racist.  Despite the fact that three of the men responsible for Kriss’s death tried to escape justice by fleeing to Pakistan, they were arrested, brought back to Britain, tried and convicted within 2 years of the murder.

Contrast that to the 18 years it took for any convictions to take place in the case of Stephen Lawrence – and even then, only two of the five alleged killers were found guilty.   It was the long and tireless fight for justice by Stephen’s parents – and the subsequent investigations into police corruption and institutional racism within the police force – that ensured Stephen’s case remained headline news for so long.   And who can forget the Daily Mail’s front-page accusation and invitation to the alleged killers to sue them?

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But if “Stephen Lawrence Day” is truly about the impact that his murder had on policing and society, then why do we not have a memorial day for other shocking murders that have similarly had a permanent impact on our laws and society?

Take the Dunblane massacre, for example.  In March 1996, 16 children and one teacher were killed by a single gunman, Thomas Hamilton, who then turned the gun on himself.  The massacre shocked the local community and the entire country, and led to a permanent change in British gun ownership laws.  In February 1997, Parliament passed a law banning private ownership of any gun over .22 calibre, and in November 1997 this was extended to all handguns.  There has not been a school shooting in the United Kingdom since.

Or the Soham murders in 2002, in which two 10 year-old schoolgirls, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, were abducted and killed by the paedophile Ian Huntley. The discovery that Ian Huntley had previously been investigated for sexual offences, yet had still managed to get a job working as a caretaker at the school that Holly and Jessica attended, led to the introduction of a host of new child protection measures and a permanent change in the way data was shared between police forces via the national police database.

And what about Milly Dowler?  The manner of her death, and the time it took to identify and convict her killer, were distressing enough – but far worse was the revelation that an investigator for the News of the World had hacked her mobile phone voicemail messages during the time that she was missing, even deleting some of the messages, giving false hope to her parents that she may still be alive.  The revelations led to the Leveson Inquiry, which had permanent repercussions for press freedom.

So why is there no annual “Milly Dowler Day”?  No annual “Dunblane Massacre Day”?  No annual “Holly and Jessica Day”?

I suspect what it boils down to, is that nobody has thought to ask for such a day. Just as nobody has asked for a Lee Rigby Day, or a Damilola Taylor Day, or a day to commemorate any of the other shocking and senseless murders of young people that take place in Britain on what feels like an increasingly regular basis.

Ultimately, it comes down to the victims’ families to decide if they wish to be left alone to grieve and to try to move on with their lives, or if they wish to dedicate their lives to campaigning to ensure their children are never forgotten.

Most families – once their son’s or daughter’s killers have been brought to justice – choose the former route.  Doreen Lawrence – largely due to the fact that she had to fight for so long to even get any kind of justice for Stephen – has clearly chosen the latter.

It is inevitable that the singling out of Stephen Lawrence for a special day of commemoration has provoked mixed reactions.  I admit my initial reaction was disbelief – how, I wondered, could the government so blatantly single out one murder victim over and above all others? How could this not be a red rag to those who believe that we have a two-tier justice system that simply does not acknowledge racism against white people?   Or to those who believe that our media and justice system are too much focused on issues of race, and not sufficiently focused on tackling equally important issues such as knife crime, gang violence, terrorism and paedophilia, all of which account for far more murders than does racial violence.

Kriss Donald’s mother, to my knowledge, has never asked for a national day of commemoration for her son.  She has repeatedly refused to engage in any attempts to use her son’s murder as an excuse to stir up racial hatred – appealing for calm in the days following his murder and asking people not to target the Asian community in response to the actions of “five men, full of hate”.

If a national day of commemoration is what allows Stephen’s parents to finally move on with their lives, then I am all for it.  I just wish the announcement had been presented with a bit more thought as to how it would be received by those who do not automatically see why his death, above all others, should receive so much attention.

Posted in identity politics, politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

It’s time to challenge the false narrative of the “gender pay gap”

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Who needs fake news when seemingly the entire force of the mainstream media is dedicated to peddling the same false narrative, that men and women in the UK are paid unequally for the same work?

Is it laziness? Desire to use a catchy, easily-recognisable headline phrase rather than the multiple phrases that would be necessary to actually capture the issue?

Yes – on average, over their lifetimes, women earn less than men. And yes, we absolutely should look into every one of the reasons why that happens, and seek to address them. But using the term “gender pay gap” implies that the reason women earn less than men is simply because they are women – which is absolutely not correct.

The Guardian, today, even went so far as to convert the reported gender pay gap at various different companies into “the number of days women effectively work for free”, and published monthly calendars showing the dates that various companies “stop paying women”, allowing users to input the name of any company and immediately see on what date that company “stops paying women”. It really is a very impressive tool. Just a shame it’s promoting an outright lie, with the small fact that men and women are not paid differently for doing the same job, buried in the middle of the article, along with the equally vital information that the figures provided do not compare levels of pay for equal work or roles.

In reality, the “gender pay gap” is caused by various factors – societal (different expectations of women and men with regards child care and care of elderly relatives), behavioural (differences in personality, career choice and attitudes to work-life balance) and biological (pregnancy and childbirth being a major cause of women leaving work or taking time out).

It would be impossible to address all of the above factors in any meaningful way within the context of a single blog post, so I don’t intend to try. But I would like to look at one of the behavioural factors that I believe contributes to differing levels of pay between men and women – the “gender confidence gap”.

Why is it that women are – in general – less willing than men to negotiate higher salaries? Why don’t women advocate as forcefully for their ideas, or for promotion, as men?

I speak from experience here. Fairly early on in my career, I remember being in a job I was hating, working in a large investment bank, in which I not only found I didn’t have enough work to do so was constantly watching the clock, but also had a severe clash of personalities with my immediate supervisor. When my initial 3 month contract came up for renewal and the bank made it clear they wished to renew for a further 3 months, I rang up my agency and confided to them that I was miserable, told them I really didn’t wish to renew the contract, and begged them to find me something else.

To my utter mortification, my senior manager called me in the next morning and asked me if anything was bothering me. He hinted that he was aware that I wasn’t getting on with my supervisor, and asked whether I was finding the role sufficiently challenging. It was clear that the agent had broken my confidence and had told the manager of our conversation.

But what followed was one of the best lessons I ever learned, which served me very well from that moment on. Not only did my manager make it clear to me that he valued my work and was so keen for me to stay that he would be willing to re-jig the team so that I didn’t have to continue working under the supervisor I so hated – but he told me to ask the head of our department for a pay rise.  He told me I was one of the best and brightest people he’d worked with and that I was seriously underselling myself at my existing hourly rate.

It had never occurred to me that my manager would try so hard to work around the issues that were causing me to be so miserable. I had convinced myself that as a temp, and a junior member of the team, it was up to me to try to get on with the supervisor. It had certainly never occurred to me to ask for a pay rise.

I didn’t need telling twice. I asked for – and got – the pay rise. Three months later – again prompted by my manager – I asked for another. And every time thereafter that my contract came up for renewal – after the first six months it changed to six-monthly intervals – I asked for yet another pay rise. By the end of two years, I had almost doubled the rate I had started on.

Eventually, I did move on to another role at another bank. And this time I made sure that I properly researched rates of pay for similar roles, and that the rate I asked for was at the upper end of the rates advertised. The agent tried to talk me into putting myself forward at a lower rate to improve my chances of getting an interview, but I was adamant – I knew I was good at my job, and was determined not to sell myself at anything less than the top rate available.   I got the interview, and I got the job – at the rate I’d asked for.

I have spent just over 20 years contracting in the investment banking industry, and over that time I have had to negotiate my rate on numerous occasions – whether negotiating a starting rate, or an increase on renewal.   On every occasion, I have researched what similar roles are paying elsewhere, and have argued for the rate I required based on that knowledge and on as confident a sales pitch as I’ve been able to muster, as to my own talents and experience.

There have also been times where I have accepted a new role at a lower rate than I can see is being paid elsewhere. I have done this, generally, for one of two reasons – desperation for a job after a period out of work, or the knowledge that I am less experienced in the particular area than many other candidates who could command higher rates, but that the experience I will gain in the role will enable me to command a higher rate in the future.

The fact is, while the concept of “equal pay for equal work” means companies can’t pay women and men different amounts for the same job, the reality is that there are very few jobs in which two people genuinely do the same job. Two colleagues with the same job description may end up doing vastly different jobs in reality – from the simplicity of a supermarket cashier who scans and bags items faster than a colleague and therefore serves more customers on a daily basis, to the car salesman who sells twice as many cars each month as his colleague, to the corporate project manager who consistently delivers on time and on budget versus her colleague who constantly lets deadlines slip.   Allowing higher-performing workers to negotiate a higher rate than their lower-performing colleagues, provides an incentive for people to perform better in the workplace.  And enabling companies to pay lower rates to less-experienced candidates in exchange for valuable training and experience gained, provides a more level playing field in which candidates with differing levels of experience can compete for the same roles.

One tiny gem of information that often appears to be overlooked in the BBC pay row precipitated by Carrie Gracie’s resignation as China editor, was that when she was first offered the job in 2013, she was assured that she would earn the same amount in Beijing as Mark Mardell was earning in Washington as North America editor. However, three months after she accepted the China job on these terms Mr Mardell left Washington and was replaced by Jon Sopel, on roughly twice as much.

This, to me, indicates that Jon Sopel did a masterful job of negotiating his salary – NOT that Carrie Gracie was underpaid. She clearly felt that the salary she was earning was acceptable when she took the job – if she didn’t negotiate a suitable raise in five years then that is a failing either on her part, or that of her agent. For her to suddenly decide her salary is too low, simply because she found that Jon Sopel had negotiated a far higher rate than his predecessor was on, is ludicrous.   Not to mention the fact that, as many people have pointed out, the North America editor appears on the news far more often than the China editor – the two roles are not identical, and it is well within the realms of possibility that Jon Sopel may have negotiated enhanced responsibilities compared to his predecessor.

Salary negotiations are not easy. Many people – particularly women but also some men – find it incredibly difficult to sell themselves, to put forward the argument that they are worth “the big bucks”. But seeking to level the playing field by simply paying people the same regardless of talent or contribution, is not the answer, particularly within professional fields where companies seek to attract the best talent, and where individuals seek roles that will challenge their own individual skillsets.

I was very fortunate to have had a manager at such an early stage of my career who took an interest in my career and pushed me to assert myself more.  But it is telling that without that encouragement, I may have continued to undersell myself throughout the intervening years, both in terms of my rate of pay and in terms of my expectations of support from my managers.  I am no shrinking violet, but the “gender confidence gap” is real and I would far rather read news articles, and watch TV debates, that analyse and seek to address the reasons behind it, than read nonsense about how women “stop being paid” on a certain day of the year.  Especially given the vast amount of time and effort that must have gone into providing such completely false – and ultimately worthless – information.

Posted in feminism, personal, politics, workplace issues | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Lack of Tenure – The True Scandal of South Africa’s Failing Land Reform Policies

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I wrote a blog yesterday about the South African Parliament’s vote to allow the government to expropriate land without compensation. The blog was an attempt to explain the context to the vote, as well as the implications for food security and the economy if the policy actually is enforced.

While researching it, however, I started looking into the wider issue of land reform in South Africa – what policies are in place currently, how they are being enforced and what progress has been made in the 24 years since the end of apartheid.

The South African government in 1994 launched a process by which black people who were dispossessed of their land via colonial or apartheid policies, could claim back the land from its current owners. An initial application deadline was set for 31 December 1998, and around 80,000 claims were submitted prior to this deadline. 20 years later, around 6,000 of these claims are still outstanding, and the government has since reopened the application process to allow further claims to be made, as it has been suggested that the 80,000 initial claims only represented “1% of anticipated demand”.

While the government initially aimed to redistribute 30% of South Africa’s land by 2014, at present only around 7% has been redistributed, and the government has now shifted the target deadline out to 2025, with very little hope of actually meeting that target at the current pace of progress.

As pointed out in the previous blog, one of the key reasons given for the slow progress of land restitution, is the difficulty in negotiating appropriate compensation – hence the call for land to be expropriated without compensation.

But what the ANC is currently keeping very quiet about, is the fact that the existing land reform policies have created a situation in which any land that is expropriated, almost inevitably ends up falling into disuse. The reason for this is not due to any lack of motivation on the part of those who laid claim to the land, but rather due to the fact that the government does not give them secure tenure, instead granting them short-term leases, while the government retains the title to the land. The lack of tenure security makes it impossible for the recipients to secure funding to develop the land.

Worse still, in some cases it transpires that corrupt officials hand over the land to unknown people, rather than to those whose names are on the claim form.

The above-mentioned issues are highlighted in a damning parliamentary panel report which was published in November 2017, which sought to investigate the effectiveness of post-apartheid legislation in addressing the key issues of inequality in South African society. In addition to looking at issues such as poverty, unemployment, inequality, the creation and equitable distribution of wealth, and social cohesion, the report took an in-depth look at the way in which land reform policies have been pursued.

In addition to the issues mentioned above, the report highlighted issues with officials consolidating claimants into large dysfunctional groups, often with no shared identity and in some cases in serious dispute with one another. These groups are then expected to manage large farms or areas of land together, with no governmental support, making successful agricultural production impossible.

Furthermore, the report highlighted wider issues of tenure security particularly in former homeland areas where mining is taking place, with local people being denied rights to the land they are living on, by mining officials and traditional leaders who claim exclusive rights to the land through inaccurate interpretation of the underlying laws.

None of the issues mentioned in the report, could be blamed on white ownership of land, or on colonialism or apartheid – all of these issues relate to poor government policies enacted during the post-apartheid era.

It appears that rather than taking on board the report’s findings and its recommendations, and seeking to tackle the issues raised, the ANC are trying to take the easy way out, sweeping the bigger issues under the carpet and trying to focus all attention on the issue of land expropriation. But until the issues of corruption, mismanagement of claims and tenure security are resolved, any further expropriations – with or without compensation – will not only fail to fully satisfy the claimants, but will do irreparable damage to the South African agricultural sector, and the wider economy.

None of these issues will be easy to tackle. But it’s time for the ANC to stop blaming all of the country’s woes on the legacies of apartheid and colonialism, and instead take on the immense task of fixing the underlying policies that are keeping its citizens in perpetual insecurity.   I can only hope that Cyril Ramaphosa proves equal to the challenge.


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South Africa’s Bizarre Act of Self-Sabotage

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The South African Parliament recently voted to take steps to amend the Constitution to allow the government to expropriate land without compensation. Understandably, this has caused an outcry among those South Africans who either own land and now fear it is about to be taken away from them, or who simply see this as South Africa going down the same disastrous path Zimbabwe did 20 years ago, and who worry about what the policy will do to the country’s food security, and the broader economy.

On Twitter, meanwhile, users in the United Kingdom, Europe, United States and elsewhere are furiously sharing tweets and a video by Katie Hopkins, in which she draws a straight line between the new policy and the horrendous farm murders which continue to take place in South Africa. In her interpretation, the new policy is a flat-out endorsement of Julius Malema’s call for black people to kill white farmers in order to take their land. Those reading Katie’s tweets and watching her video are demanding to know why the mainstream media is not covering this impending disaster.

As a South African living in the UK but with family and friends still living in South Africa, I am not directly affected by the policy but I am deeply concerned about the impact it could have on the country I grew up in, and love dearly. And I am equally concerned about the rise in attacks and murders on South African farms. But while I cannot argue that the two issues are not related – of course they are, as both are rooted in resentment at the huge disparities in income and living standards brought about by colonialism and the apartheid era, and frustration at the slow pace of change – I despair at seeing the horrendously complicated issue of land reform reduced to the soundbite “white genocide”, which only serves to deepen the mistrust between ordinary black and white South Africans, most of whom fervently wish to move on from the divisive apartheid era.

This blog is therefore my best attempt to explain, and provide context for, what “land expropriation without compensation” is – and is not.

Firstly, a bit of background. The Constitution of South Africa, adopted in 1996, allows the government to expropriate land “in the public interest” and subject to payment of appropriate compensation. As it stands, this policy is not particularly controversial – similar policies exist in most other parts of the world, allowing governments to take over private land under “compulsory purchase” or “eminent domain” rules. A recent example of this taking place in the United Kingdom, was when the Olympic park was built in Stratford, East London – owners of property in the area were forced to sell their properties to the government at “market value” in order for the new site to be built.

The South African government, over the past 20 years, has been pursuing land reform policies which seek to redress the imbalance in land ownership in the country – including land restitution policies which aim to restore land that was expropriated from black owners under colonial or apartheid laws, to their living descendents or the communities to which they belonged.

The pace of restitution, however, has been frustratingly slow, with complaints that due to the “willing buyer – willing seller” principle used during negotiations, the government has in many cases been forced to pay greatly inflated prices for land. In 2014, for example, a claim involving the Mala Mala game reserve was finally settled, at a price just short of 1 billion rand – a figure which many felt was extortionate.

So the calls for land to be expropriated without compensation are, in many ways, a knee-jerk effort to speed up the process of land restitution by cutting out the difficult negotiation phase.

The policy is also, though, a cynical attempt by both the EFF and the ANC to win votes by seeming to put the interests of the majority black population ahead of the minority white population. Yet despite initial appearances, the two parties are deeply divided as to their overall aims.

The EFF, at heart, is a firmly socialist party. Its aim is not to take land from white people and give it to black people – in fact, it wishes to expropriate all land, both black-owned and white-owned, for state use. Under EFF policies, no individual would own land – it would all be owned by the state and leased to individuals. So while Julius Malema may sing “Kill the boer, kill the farmer”, he is not, in fact, encouraging people to kill farmers in order to take their land. His calls for violence against farmers, against white men, are simply that – xenophobic calls for violence. His plans for the land, on the other hand, are purely socialist.

The ANC, meanwhile, wishes to right the wrongs of apartheid and colonialism by restoring land to its rightful owners. It also, though, recognises the reality that taking land that is currently well-utilised, and simply handing it over to individuals or communities who would allow it to lie fallow, would be devastating for the country as a whole. In all the fuss about the recent vote in Parliament, the point which doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves, is that the ANC insisted on an amendment to the bill to state that the policy must not result in any risk to South Africa’s food security or the wider economy.

This point is crucial. Because, as former Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas pointed out recently, at present land expropriation without compensation is “just a slogan”. Until the government works out how to actually implement it, in a way that does not harm food security, and does not hurt investor sentiment, nothing will actually happen.

Of course, investor sentiment has already been hit. I pointed out to somebody on Twitter a few days ago that in many ways, the vote for expropriation without compensation is like the vote for Brexit – the UK voted in June 2016 to leave the EU but we have not yet left, many people are still fighting to ensure we never leave, and at present nothing much has changed since the vote. In much the same way, nothing much will change in South Africa until the government works out the finer details of how it can implement the policy without harming the economy – the answer to which, of course, is that it can’t. So either the policy will be abandoned, or the government will have to accept that the economy will be irrevocably damaged. In the meantime, just as the vote for Brexit caused an immediate drop in the value of the pound, so the vote for expropriation without compensation caused an immediate drop in the value of the rand.

But whereas my personal view is that the benefits of Brexit will in the long term outweigh any short-term pain, I think the opposite is the case with land expropriation without compensation.

If this policy is enacted, any short-term joy on the part of the populists who may rejoice at a policy that seeks to punish current landowners for the sins of their forefathers, will soon be replaced by pain when food production dries up and the economy grinds to a halt, as wealthy land and business owners pack up and move elsewhere in search of a more secure livelihood. And if the EFF gets its way, not only will it not result in land being given to black people who don’t yet own land – it will result in land being taken away from those who already have it.

This policy absolutely is not “white genocide”. It is simply the greatest act of self-harm a nation could impose on itself – and it is the poor black majority who will suffer the worst, if it goes ahead.



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“Frumpy” is Never a Good Look

There’s a wonderful scene in series 3 of ‘The West Wing’, when Sam Seaborn is meeting with a couple of Russian PR agents, to discuss terms for a meeting between President Bartlet and the Russian President. One of the Russians stipulates that when the two men meet, at a forthcoming event in Helsinki, President Bartlet must wear a coat.  Sam, puzzled at the request, asks why – prompting the following exchange:

Ivanovich: Sam, it is freezing too cold in Reykjavik, it is freezing too cold in Helsinki, it is freezing too cold in Gstaad – why must every American president bound out of an automobile like he’s at a yacht club, while in comparison… our leader looks like… I don’t even know what word is.

Sam: Frumpy?

Ivanovich: I don’t know what “frumpy” is, but onomatopoeically, sounds right.

Sam: It’s hard not to like a guy who doesn’t know “frumpy” but knows “onomatopoeia”. I’ll talk to the President about the coat.

I thought of this scene recently when I saw the picture of Jennifer Lawrence looking fabulous sandwiched between her four horrendously frumpy-looking co-stars at a photo shoot for the film ‘Red Sparrow’.

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And I also remembered numerous conversations with female co-workers, prior to my first office Christmas party, in London, aged 23. We were all disappointed that the invitations did not stipulate “Black tie” and instead simply “Dress to party”. We were all desperate to dress up in one of the many stunning ballgowns and party dresses displayed in all the shop windows ahead of the party season, but it was clear from talking to our male colleagues that many of them intended to go straight to the party in their office suits – some of them even intended to wear chinos – and we were worried about looking overdressed. Not to mention we all secretly wanted to see how the men would scrub up in black tie.

In the end, a group of us girls agreed that regardless of what everyone else was planning to wear, we were all going to make the most of the opportunity to dress up. And dress up we did. Thankfully, some of the men had decided likewise, and turned up in tuxedoes, putting their colleagues in chinos and crumpled office suits to shame.

It didn’t take many years for the joy of dressing up to fade – the sad truth is that no matter how fabulous a dress looks, it never looks good with flat shoes, and I simply can’t get on with high heels, so these days smart trousers, flat shoes and a sparkly top are about the extent of my efforts in the dressing-up department. But when I look back at the photos of that Christmas party, I still recall the exclamations over each other’s dresses, the sheer joy at how well we all scrubbed up, and above all, the excitement that we were going to an event that merited such attire.

We may sometimes forget it, because she’s been on our screens for so long, but Jennifer Lawrence is still only 27. Still young enough to thoroughly enjoy dressing up – and to want to take advantage of every opportunity she gets to do so.   Still young enough to look absolutely fabulous in a plunging, slit-to-the-thigh Versace ballgown.

Her co-stars, meanwhile, look dreadful. Did nobody tell them this was a party and that they might get their picture taken?   Or did they simply shrug and say, “Meh, I’m a star, I can wear what I like and I don’t care how scruffy I look”?

Not for the first time, I find myself completely at odds with the Twitterati feminarkies screeching about how Ms Lawrence’s attire is a depressing symbol of the patriarchy at work. Feminism is not, nor should it ever be, a race to the bottom, a battle to adopt all of the worst habits of men – in this case, a battle for a female star to look just as scruffy as her male co-stars.

In the PR stakes, Ms Lawrence won that photo-shoot hands-down. Feminists, rather than berating her for choosing not to cover up a fabulous dress with a heavy coat, should be celebrating the fact that she put all four of her male co-stars in the shade.  ‘The West Wing’ may have ended in 2006 but the majority of its political and social themes are as relevant today as they were then – none more so than this one: “frumpy” is never a good look.

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OFOC! WATON earth is this new nonsense?

Remember when letters after a person’s name used to be considered a marker of learning and gravitas? Years of hard work, dedication and effort culminating in a doctorate, or a degree, and the right to add the letters ‘MD’, ‘PhD’, ‘LLB’, ‘BA’, ‘BSc’ or other relevant title to one’s name?

And then along came social media, hashtags, and Brexit – and suddenly a whole host of people on Twitter are adding the letters #FBPE, #WATON, #OFOC and #ABTV to their names or Twitter bios.

Sadly, these letters do not indicate learning, or gravitas – in fact, in many cases, they indicate quite the opposite. Above all else, they are an indication of steadfast devotion to maintaining the walls of one’s echo chamber.   And an almost comical belief that as long as that echo chamber remains sound – as long as the only opinions one listens to on a regular basis are those that agree that Brexit must be stopped at all cost – then eventually it will, indeed, be stopped.

It started with #FBPE – which, to the uninitiated, stands for “Follow Back Pro EU”. A very simple hashtag enabling pro-EU Twitter users to easily identify – and, crucially, follow – each other, ensuring that they can all see each other’s tweets and easily engage with like-minded individuals.

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And boy, did it catch on! Pity the fool who tries to engage in polite disagreement with any opinion espoused by a user sporting #FBPE in their name. As I have discovered on a couple of occasions when I just couldn’t help myself – it’s simply impossible to have a conversation with just one individual. Oh no! Like sharks circling in the water, they feverishly monitor each other’s Twitter feeds, constantly on the lookout for anybody foolish enough to question any anti-Brexit tweet – and as soon as you attempt to engage one of them, they all pile in.    Before you know it, an attempt to explain that the word “let’s” on the infamous Brexit bus was interpreted by most Leave voters as a suggestion rather than a promise, sparks a 6-way debate about Nigel Farage, Grimsby fish processing, visas, blue passport covers, trade agreements and Moroccan raspberries (yes, really). Until finally, once you’ve rebuffed all their arguments, they either block you or accuse you of being a Russian bot.   If you’re ever bored and fancy wasting a day arguing with people on Twitter, just fire off a tweet contradicting any one of the more outlandish tweets posted by the #FBPE contingent.

It gets worse, though. Spurred on by the success of the #FBPE rallying-call, now it seems a whole host of further hashtags are being concocted, and commandeered by Twitter users desperate to add as many letters after their names as they possibly can.

And so we now also see #WATON appearing after increasing numbers of Twitter users’ names. Short for “We are the opposition now” it is perhaps not the best choice of acronym, given many of those who choose to use it are also rabid Corbyn supporters and have thus never been anything except the opposition. Maybe a better acronym would be #WWABTO (We will always be the opposition). After all, far better to shout from the sidelines than to actually attempt to move the debate forward.

Next, there is #OFOC (“Our future our choice”) – the latest attempt by certain members of the younger generation to convince the government that they, as the ones who will have to live with Brexit the longest, should have a greater say in the future of the country than the older generation who overwhelmingly voted for Brexit. After all, the argument goes, many of those who voted for Brexit will be dead in two years’ time whereas at that stage a number of 16-17 year-olds will be newly eligible to vote and would likely vote Remain, swinging the overall balance of the vote from Leave to Remain.

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Sadly these young voters are not so bright – ignoring, as they do, two key facts.

Firstly, the age at which the majority swung from Remain to Leave was actually 47, meaning given current average life expectancies, many Leave voters can expect to live with their decision for around 40 years.

And secondly, just as in two years’ time some of the older voters will have died and those currently too young to vote will have newly become eligible, so those in the middle will have matured. It is naïve in the extreme not to consider the fact that many of those who, in their early 40s and still in the flush of youthful optimism at the time of the first referendum, will, in two years’ time, have discovered that crucial combination of experience, optimism and “screw it!” attitude that will convince them to vote Leave.  ‘#OFOC!’ I hear the students exclaim. ‘We didn’t think of that!’

Finally, there’s #ABTV – which stands for Anti-Brexit Tactical Voting.   This is for anybody who still believes Gina Miller holds the answer to stopping Brexit – her “Best for Britain” campaign, launched prior to the 2017 general election, encouraged supporters to vote tactically for candidates committed to stopping Brexit. Bizarrely, despite their best efforts in the general election having made no difference to the overall course of Brexit negotiations, it seems the #ABTV devotees believe that voting exclusively for pro-EU parties in the May 2018 local elections will somehow swing the balance of power in their favour. The fact that they are electing local councilors, who have no more influence in Parliament than any other member of the public, appears not to have penetrated their collective consciousness. Possibly because they’re too busy engaging in Twitter pile-ons against those who don’t share their ideology, while frantically retweeting each other’s posts.

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If you’re a true devotee to the cause of stopping Brexit, you will, of course, add all four hashtags to your name.   The delightfully loony AC Grayling providing the perfect example. After all, why would he want to be known by his academic qualifications when he can be down with the cool kids instead?

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It does get a little complicated after a while, though, what with all those different hashtags after one’s name. Maybe it’s time for them all to be consolidated into one simple hashtag that more accurately sums up the overall position of these anti-Brexit campaigners. I suggest #ADSL – or Anti-Democratic Sore Losers. Just like its broadband namesake, which so rarely lives up to the speeds advertised and is now finding itself outperformed by fibre, #ADSL perfectly encapsulates the ethos of a group of people desperate to cling to an outdated idea of the EU as the ultimate solution to global trade, world peace and social equality, and unable to see it for the protectionist, obstructionist monster that it has become.   Just like those reliant on ADSL broadband, who discover that advertised speeds only apply to those living closest to the exchange, the benefits of EU membership accrue only to those closest to the corridors of power. The sooner the #ADSL devotees realise this, the better.


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On Closet Brexiteer Artists

Roger Daltry

Roger Daltry – photo from

Great news for Brexit voters today, with the announcement that a small number of “Brexiteer artists” have “come out of the closet” and openly voiced their support for Brexit. They have even gone so far as to form a group, Artists 4 Brexit, in the hopes that other closet Brexiteer artists will realise they are not alone among their profession in thinking that the UK would, on balance, be better off outside the EU – and that, should they wish to out themselves and openly voice their support for Brexit, they will have the support of at least a few other artists.

Really, I should be cheering at the news that this small, persecuted minority has finally found its voice. But I couldn’t help feeling really rather sad at the formation of yet another group specifically devoted to dividing people into camps. Whether it’s “the 48%”, “the 52%”, “Scientists for EU”, “Students for Brexit”, “Artists 4 Brexit”, #FBPE or any number of other groups or hashtags set up specifically to allow people to identify those who voted the same way they did, all it does is further entrench the existing divisions between leave and remain voters.

Maybe I’m alone in remembering the outrage when, just a few days into the referendum campaign, the Remain campaign organised for around 200 business leaders to sign a letter publicly backing Remain.   It was pointed out, quite rightly, by some commentators that this felt like undue influence – the whole point of the referendum, after all, was for each individual voter to have the same level of input into the vote; a simple matter of one vote per registered voter.   For senior business leaders to publicly announce which way they intended to vote, so early on in the campaign before any proper arguments had been made by either side, was felt by many to run counter to the spirit of democracy that the referendum was supposed to uphold.

The outrage, of course, was soon swept aside as further public figures jumped on the bandwagon and announced which way they intended to vote – from entrepreneurs to economists, to world leaders, to UK politicians, to actors, adventurers, filmmakers, comedians and sportspeople – suddenly we were inundated with headlines and articles letting us know exactly what each of these people thought.   And the vast majority of those who spoke up publicly were backing Remain.

As far as the Remain team’s social media campaign was concerned, this was a gift. Dozens of different memes started to circulate, all of which essentially carried the same message. “Everybody who’s anybody is backing Remain; only losers and racists are backing Leave”.  A couple of examples are shown below.

Table showing prominent leave and remain supporters

Facebook meme - people supporting Brexit

And so the different camps started to form. And the message became even more entrenched – if you were an actor, or an environmentalist, or a scientist, or an historian, or a banker, or a business owner, of course you were expected to vote Remain, because a number of prominent people from the same background as you had already declared that they would be voting Remain.

The problem, of course, was that there were plenty of bankers, and actors, and environmentalists, and scientists, and business owners, and historians, and farmers and fishermen and students and housewives and men and women from all different walks of life who had their own ideas about which way they wanted to vote. They didn’t necessarily define themselves by their careers – they didn’t look to their managers or their heroes to determine which way to vote. They simply listened to the arguments made by both sides, and voted either Leave or Remain. And they voted the way they did for myriad different reasons.

The notion of people who voted Leave having different reasons for doing so, is, sadly, lost on the more bitter element of the Remain camp. The problem is, that having gone so far down the route of identity politics with the arguments that everybody who is good is voting Remain, and everybody who is evil is voting Brexit, it becomes impossible to entertain the thought that not all Brexiteers think alike (and neither do all Remainers). Hence the arguments that “if you voted for Brexit you were aligning yourself with racists like Farage and the British National Party” or “Not all Brexiteers are racists but all racists voted for Brexit”.

These arguments – as ridiculous as they are – sadly still get trotted out. Ironically, often by people who, in doing so, betray their ignorance of the concept of “one person one vote” and their complete lack of understanding of the arguments for and against the EU. The below tweet, posted just a couple of days ago, being a case in point.

FPBE Tweet

The whole point of democracy – of each person having one vote – is that when it comes to actually voting, the individual groups that may form for campaigning purposes, fall away.  A person who has heard ten arguments in favour of one outcome and ten in favour of the opposite will often make his or her decision based purely on the one or two arguments that most resonated for them personally – the other arguments will simply be ignored.   If two people end up voting for the same outcome, there is no guarantee that they did so based on the same arguments or reasoning.

But the idea of voting against your preferred outcome, simply because a person you despise has made it clear he or she intends to vote for that outcome, is just ridiculous.  Just as it’s ridiculous to change your vote just because somebody you dislike has made it clear they are voting for the same outcome but for a reason of which you disapprove.

Which brings me back to Artists 4 Brexit. As happy as I am to hear a few brave souls speaking out, I hate the fact that the term “coming out of the closet” is being used in this context.

Nobody should feel that they are “in the closet” due to the way they voted in the EU referendum. The notion that every person who voted for Brexit, is either a racist or doesn’t mind aligning themselves with racists, must be challenged whenever it raises its ugly head.

Because Brexit is happening. There is no longer any “for Brexit” or “for EU”. There is only “for the future”. Isn’t it time we all started to focus on that?

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