Monday, 6 November 2017

Pounds of flesh

I woke up this morning with a message from Meriel which informed me that, on this day, forty years ago, ABBA's The Name of the Game climbed to Number One. It stayed at the top of the charts for four weeks, and one of my first childhood memories is watching Top of The Pops and the presenter talking about the song "STILL" being at number one, like it was some sort of astonishing feat, which it really wasn't when we consider it was replaced at the top by Wings' Mull of Kintyre, which stayed there for nine weeks and became the first ever single to sell over 2 million copies. At the time, of course, I was horrified at the injustice of a song as great as The Name of the Game being knocked off the top by something so slushy and mawkish. I'm not sure I'd have used those words to describe the Wings song at the time. I'd probably have simply moaned that it wasn't by ABBA...

I find myself incensed by the increasingly over-the-top reporting of Westminster sex scandals. It strikes me that a lot of people are crowing and a lot more are pretending to be a great deal more outraged than they actually are. I'm afraid I've become utterly bored of people talking about the issue as though it's something which only affects women. Create an independent body which people can go to if they feel victimised. Put checks and systems in place which make it clear how people are expected to behave in the work place and how they'll be punished if they break this code of conduct. Inform the police about people who have genuinely broken the law. Move on...

I'm afraid I'm particularly cynical about the queue of journalists who are presently coming forward to cut of their piece of flesh, particularly ones from the Daily Mail, whose guttersnipe reporters have brutally and systematically attacked minority groups over the years. You live by the sword. You die by it.

Journalists can be incredibly underhand and morally highly dubious in their quest to eke out stories. Quite why any journalist would be having a boozy lunch with an MP is beyond me.

For three years, from the start of 1997 to the end of 1999, I was the partner of a male MP. He was, and still is, a kind, honourable and honest man who cares about people. I was his partner when he was elected to Parliament in the Labour landslide, and his result was THE result of the night. The surprise win opened the two of us up to a huge amount of media scrutiny. I was 22 at the time, and highly vulnerable. No one at the Labour Party press office offered me help or guidance, and it felt as though I'd been dropped into the sea without a life vest.

A week after the election, something I'd written and directed, was performed at the London Pleasance and, during the technical rehearsal, I was besieged by phone calls from press people pretending to be reviewers and theatre correspondents. Within minutes, all the calls turned into dirt-digging missions with the journalists asking me how my relationship was going. I couldn't get them off the phone. One even asked me if there was anything I'd like to tell them before they found it out. It was terrifying and I had no idea how to answer the questions.

We used to go out to political events, and journalists, often female ones, would ply me with alcohol, pretend to be my pal, and get me to open up about my partner, asking me hugely leading questions but couching them with a sense that they were really keen to be my friend and what I was saying was entirely off-the-record. On a couple of occasions, what I said miraculously found its way into print. What those journalists did was really shady and underhand and I was often left feeling entirely abused. I remember a horrid meal once where my partner took that dreaded call from his press office telling him that such and such a paper were threatening to run a story about him, which I'd inadvertently triggered by speaking to a female journalist who'd taken advantage of my naïveté and openness. I felt sick and incredibly upset and guilty. I'd genuinely really liked her and thought she was a new friend.

Vulnerability manifests itself in myriad ways and people from both genders are capable of taking advantage. Men and women are both able to use sex as a tool and we mustn't fall into the trap of chanting "all men bad, all women good" in some sort of Orwellian catastrophe.

When I worked in the corporate sphere, I was more aware of sexual politics than any other time in my career. I saw some dreadful things. Men patronising women in an almost systematic way, but equally, women playing along in a way which often made me feel highly uncomfortable. Straight men in the office would often tell me I had to learn not to treat our female colleagues the way I treated men because, women "needed to be protected." On one occasion I was forced into buying flowers for a bank worker who'd threatened to go to her union because I'd inferred that she was lazy. The fact that I was asked to buy her flowers and, worse still, that she was appeased by them, shocked me beyond words.

So in summing up, I think, regardless of our gender or the role we play in an organisation or institution, we ALL need to take this opportunity to take a good, hard look at the way we behave. Let he who is without sin and all that...

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