Sunday, 27 March 2011

Whose balance? GRS: There is an opposite of “regretter."

Balance is not a one-dimensional, black-and-white issue, it is complex and requires a good deal more thought by broadcasters, especially when dealing with marginalised groups such as trans people.

One of the issues raised over Channel 4’s inclusion of trans people in its 4thought slot was the decision to include a “regretter” (someone who regrets their Gender Reassignment Surgery, or GRS) in the line up, as their commitment to “balance” in reporting. Yet including someone who regrets his gender reassignment surgery in this context does not achieve balance. As Christine Burns quite rightly suggested in her blog recently, the idea of balance in reporting appears to have been considered a simplistic and unproblematic area from the point of view of those commissioning and creating television programmes and urgently needs rethinking.

Less than 1% of people who have had gender reassignment surgery have ever regretted it, a proportion which has declined significantly in recent years. So to include a regretter in this series feels very much like “balance” gone mad. This is akin to having a homophobic right-wing Christian to give “balance” in a programme about gays and lesbians. Should a programme about ethnic minorities need to include a racist in order to achieve balance? Should Songs of Praise also include input from the atheists? So why should an evangelical Christian have their say about trans people when we don’t routinely ask the BNP for their opinion on ethic minority issues? Why should one particular group be singled out for “balance” when other groups do not have representatives of people who question their very existence included?

When including someone who has regretted his gender reassignment surgery, in this series Channel 4 have failed to consider the implications for balance in more than one dimension, and as a result have revealed the shallowness of their thinking about balance which led to inclusion of Charles Kane. Balance is not a black-and-white issue, it is one which can be multi-dimensional and including a regretter raises many more complicated issues to do with balance.

A recent, unfortunately as yet unpublished, study in Holland is actually suggesting that the balance between the need to prevent people who will regret having GRS from obtaining surgery needs to be carefully struck, since there is an opposite of “regretter." One of the individuals in the study, who was refused GRS, committed suicide as a result. There are also reports of individuals who have self-harmed and become victims of substance abuse. In this study, the individual who killed herself would account, on her own, for well over double the proportion of regretters in the UK. If you also include in this proportion those whose lives have been rendered almost unliveable by this refusal there appears to be a greater danger from refusing people GRS than permitting GRS when one is not sure. Of course the difference is that those who commit suicide because they have been unable to access GRS are not around calling for changes, whereas Charles Kane is.

So, in my opinion, we should stop being so defensive in the face of people like Charles Kane who, as Christine rightly pointed out, arranged his own GRS privately. There is highly likely to be a consequence if Charles Kane, the religious right or anyone else makes it harder to obtain GRS; that consequence is likely to be a far greater number of suicides and troubled lives amongst those refused treatment. Let us be clear, refusing GRS where GRS is needed can, and does, kill. In one case; that of Cameron McWilliams, who committed suicide aged 10, it is possible that this resulted from the perception that changing gender was not possible. Let’s remember that whenever anyone publicises regretters, they are potentially harming “refusees”.

As such, next time a TV station includes Mr Kane in any of its programmes, balance can only be achieved if a relative or close friend of someone who has committed suicide as a result of being unable to obtain GRS, or someone who has self-harmed or abused drugs or alcohol, is also permitted to put the case against any further restrictions in the availability of GRS. In addition, the entire issue of “balance” needs to be reconsidered by broadcasters. In practical, semantic, philosophical, political and social terms “balance” is highly complex and not a one-size-fits-all issue that can be applied in the same way in every instance.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Comic Relief: Unfunny, uncharitable and unacceptable.

When Comic Relief’s fundraising efforts undermine the very people it says it wants to help, it is time for it to re-examine the way it does what it does.

After a very long battle Melissa was allowed to go to school as a girl just in time for her class Christmas party. Assigned male gender at birth she has always insisted she was a girl. Her parents supported her and eventually, her school allowed her to be herself. Her class teacher has stopped calling her Jack and allowed her friends and classmates to call her Melissa, which is what they had been doing all along.

But this didn’t stop older boys in the school from bullying her and persistently attacking her in the playground, assaults about which the school did nothing, despite multiple complaints from her parents. After witnessing their daughter’s constant suffering and seeing what used to be a bubbly, happy child becoming increasingly depressed and moody, her parents have reluctantly taken her out of school and started educating her at home.
Melissa is just 7 years old.

Serena was also assigned male gender at birth but has always felt like a girl. She was 13 when she abandoned school. She had been persistently bullied since she was nine years old to the extent that she was being punched or kicked in school almost every day. On one occasion she was hit in the head with a cricket bat, and on another her clothes were set alight. Once again the school did nothing. She self-harmed and began substance and alcohol abuse. She became depressed and suicidal, sending her distraught mother suicide notes; she frequently went missing and got involved in petty crime. Eventually, with the determined support of her mother, she was able to take her GCSEs with the help of a home tutor.

In order to combat the negative portrayal of trans people in the media which is the root cause of Melissa and Serena’s* problems, this week a Memorandum of Understanding was launched with Trans Media Watch and some responsible media organisations to promote fair and accurate portrayal of trans people in the media. Their aims are simple “accuracy, dignity, respect.”

However Comic Relief and ITV are apparently not interested in accuracy, dignity or respect when it comes to trans people. Comic Relief says it raises money for charities that, amongst others, help young people with mental health issues, young people who abuse alcohol, young people sexually exploited and trafficked, and people who suffer domestic and sexual abuse. Young trans people are represented disproportionately in these groups, and many of those needing the services of charities that help these people, as a result of the treatment they have received throughout their short lives, will be transgender. Yet Comic Relief have decided to use “comedian” Peter Kay to raise money for charity through a music video, which, typically, ridicules transwomen. Worse still Kay is to feature on ITV’s Loose Women show this week as their first “transsexual” panellist, to promote the video. It is these kinds of stereotypical depictions of trans people many “comedians” of his ilk rely on, that represents one of the main sources of transphobia in the media today.

So why does this matter? This kind of “humour” helps generate a climate in which it is acceptable to ridicule, exclude, assault and otherwise harm trans people, to bully us because we are Not Really Human. These “comics” make us targets for the hatred of the bigoted and the ignorant. But the damage they create goes well beyond that. If they are constantly ridiculed on TV why should trans children be taken seriously by staff when they are being bullied in school? And what if you are a trans child, fearfully hiding your secret longing to be who you really are, terrified that someone might find out? Only despair and self-hatred lie down that lonely road. Yet what other roads are open to a child who sees people like him or her belittled and mocked not just for entertainment, but in the name of charity?

So how can Comic Relief and ITV possibly justify using comedians whose stock-in-trade involves contempt for and derision of transgender people? In my opinion, ITV’s use of Kay in Loose Women is akin to inviting a member of the Black-and-White Minstrel Show onto the programme. Media organisations like The Guardian and Channel 4 have shown they can represent trans people with the “accuracy, dignity and respect” that Trans Media Watch advocates so why can’t Comic Relief and ITV?

Why is this charity happy to use comedians whose output helps contribute to the very social problems it says it wants to ameliorate? Maybe it is because Comic Relief has simply become a vehicle for the second-rate to self-congratulate or salvage terminal careers. Maybe they operate a kind of macabre cost-benefit analysis; “If we raise enough money to sort out loads of other people what does it matter if a few trannies top themselves?” Although life will get better, Melissa and Serena, wonderfully tough cookies though they are, will still have a lot of hard times to come. It is about time Comic Relief stopped making them unnecessarily harder.

*These are not their real names, but they are real kids and these are their real experiences.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Power cuts in Northern Japan Demonstrate the idiocy of deregulated privatisation

From tomorrow there will be planned three-hour power outages in Tokyo and other areas of Northern Japan such as Chiba, Yokohama, Aomori, Sapporo and Niigata. This is partly because of the additional power needed to support rescue efforts in and around Sendai, but also because of the reduced power output from power stations now that the Fukushima nuclear reactors are offline.

Yet these power outages are actually entirely unnecessary. Japan has enough electricity generating capacity, except the south-west of the country, including in and around the major cities of Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Hiroshima, Nagoya, Kagoshima and Hakata. However, this works on a different frequency. The north of the country’s power system, supplied by Tepco, runs on a frequency of 50 Hertz, the rest of the country, south of Yokohama, runs on a 60 hertz system. As such sharing power from the south to the north of the country is extrememely difficult, even at the best of times, which this is not.

Of course engineers may be able to set something up given time which will enable power from the south to be diverted north, but with the bulk of the country’s power engineers working to restore power to tsunami-sticken areas, there are few such engineers available. As such it is likely that power cuts, especially in the Tokyo area, will continue for some time unnecessarily.

Of course the privatisation-mad David Cameron, Nick Clegg and right-wing media in the UK is likely to want to keep things like this quiet. but it is yet another nail in the coffin of arguments for deregulation and privatisation. But I doubt that it will stop the privatisation-mad idiots now in charge of our political establishment.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Cameron's Falklands

David Cameron’s failed military intervention in Libya is selfish, overtly political, and will hinder those who are trying to overthrow brutal dictatorships in the Middle East.

News is coming in that a British crack SAS unit has been “detained” by rebels in Libya, and some reports suggest that the “rebels” in question were actually a couple of goatherds with Kalashnikovs.

The extent to which UK forces are becoming involved in the Libyan uprising is of deep concern, not merely because the news that Western forces are supporting the rebels is likely to cause deep harm to the rebel cause itself, but also because it is likely to undermine rebels in other countries. Dictators all over the Middle East will now be able to present any potential uprising against them as a “Judeo-Christian plot” either against them or against Islam. The last resort of these scoundrels being to wrap themselves in their flag, and possibly in the crescent moon as well.

On the subject of scoundrels desperate to wrap themselves in the flag, it appears quite clear than David Cameron has decided that the Libyan people’s uprising represents an opportunity for him. His Falklands. Even the most ostrich-headed members of the Tory-led coalition government realise that the next election is likely to be a bloodbath despite their blatant attempts at gerrymandering constituency boundaries. Cameron’s coalition partners have already been reduced to a zombie party, the walking dead. His damaging cuts to the NHS, the imminent steep rise in unemployment, the incoherent melee which will soon replace the education system and the million-plus young people wasting their lives neither in work nor in education or training, will take his government well beyond the point of no return.

So he realises that he desperately needs a Falklands; a jingoistic military adventure abroad which would mask the destruction his policies are causing to the infrastructure and economy of the country and revive his electoral prospects. The problem is that Cameron’s desperation to revive his government’s electoral hopes appears to be leading to a huge military failure, almost on a par with the one that brought down President Jimmy Carter in Iran. Worse than that however, his selfish desire to continue in office and to impose more suffering on the British people, is likely to result in lasting damage to the ability of Arab people to rise up an overthrow their governments.

Maybe this is what he wants, things are starting to look far too uncomfortable for him at home as people here take heart and inspiration from the events in Egypt and Tunisia…

Thursday, 3 March 2011

UKuncut: big business begins the fightback.

When the Spanish conquistadores defeated the Mayan civilization, they wiped out their whole society in just one day. They simply struck at its centre and, because it was a very highly centralised, hierarchical nation it meant that attacking the top of this hierarchy, “decapitation” in today’s military language, brought the entire Maya nation to its knees overnight.
Yet the same conquistadores fought the Apaches for 300 years and failed to defeat them.

The reason for this is that the Apache nation had a very flat, egalitarian social structure; there was no centralised leadership to decapitate. Each tribe or village was mobile, agile and could react autonomously to any attack. If anyone developed in a leadership role and was killed, another person emerged instantly and took his or her place.

This is the same situation big business finds itself in when facing UKuncut. UKuncut is flat, non-hierarchical organisation; there is no leadership to decapitate, no person to smear, to bribe, to threaten or to undermine. If they stop one lot of protests from happening, another autonomous group will start other actions. It would be like trying to catch a whole shoal of fish with one hand.

So the large multinational companies which have been targeted by UKuncut have, desperately decided to employ PR agents to undermine UKuncut. There is clearly a great deal of money to be made, and prestige to be gained by the PR companies that can do the impossible and stop UKuncut. There are only three known ways to stop the shoal of fish of UKuncut and those are;

Extreme violence. In this case not an option because the reaction is likely to be counterproductive in the extreme. Would work in China or Iran but not here.

Working to change the UKuncut organisation from a horizontal one to a hierarchical one. Again pretty much impossible because everyone involved is very wary of anyone being turned into a leader, and such a move would also be highly counterproductive.

So the only way left for these the PR agents to stop this shoal of fish getting bigger and landing hits on both big business and the government they have hired is to “poison the water they swim in”.


What we saw on ITV1’s “Tonight” programme this evening was the first phase of this. Very subtly, the arguments of the big corporations were put across (with words fading in and out on screen to help persuade), in simple terms by people specially employed to put the case for the rich not to pay their fair share of tax.

In contrast the arguments of the expert were put across as complex and the UKuncut protestors talked mainly about practical issues and described what they were doing in their actions but their arguments about why these companies should be held to account were not properly put forward, at least not in a coherent way (and not with subtle words fading in and out as professional PR people cleverly and concisely put their arguments that black is white). Round two to Big Business.
The water that UKuncut swims in is public anger at the scale of tax avoidance in relation to the huge cuts in public services which are affecting everything from the NHS to education. This water was gently poisoned tonight. Not enough, but seeds of doubt were planted, this will be just the beginning, these arguments will be repeated relentlessly over the coming months – Gobbels style – in the knowledge that if you repeat a lie often enough, eventually people will think it is true. Their fightback, organised by shady characters operating behind everyone’s back, through ‘contacts’, clandestine phone calls and closed meetings, has begun in earnest.

So what can UKuncut do about this? My suggestion is that we play to our strengths. We need good arguments, good counter-arguments and easily-understood ways of communicating with everyone through traditional media as well as social media. Yet we don’t need highly-paid, shady PR men to develop and hone our ideas into concise arguments, we have our own people, a resource of thousands. I would propose crowdsourcing our ideas and arguments, inviting the public to find effective and creative ways of presenting our case and communicating our rebuttals of the propaganda now seeping out of the darkest shadows of the business machine.

Let’s put our heads together, let’s get good honest arguments marshalled and distributed to all who are involved in actions in banks, mobile companies, fashion stores and other places, let’s get our collective intelligence to work on counter arguments to the nasty right-wing glibness which will subtly start creeping its way into the national consciousness through the mainstream media. If they try to poison our water we need to purify it, or slowly our movement will die.