Tuesday, 7 April 2015

We Are the Sixth Estate

It's exhausting being the Sixth Estate, isn't it? By Sixth Estate I mean the new guardians of the truth- us ordinary folks. I mean you and me - Twitter person A, Facebook person B, coming right behind the Fifth Estate of bloggers and citizen journalists. It has become our JOB to watch the folk who should be watching the folk who would get up to jiggery pokery as if no one were watching at all. 

It's Saturday and I'm in a supermarket. The lady behind me in the till queue has one of the tabloids who blindly replicated the Telegraph led fact bereft smear campaign headline about Nicola Sturgeon's meeting with the French Ambassador. I see it sitting atop her four pack of beans and her dozen eggs on the conveyor belt and I think, "Should I say something?"  As always in that kind of situation I think how I might react if a stranger comments on my choice of reading material. I decide to let it go. Not so much because I figure that it's none of my business what bilge the woman chooses to read, but that I really can't be bothered if she takes offence which she might, I suppose. I come away from the till feeling that I didn't do my duty as a member of the newly formed (in my head) Sixth Estate. I feel like the person who notices a flapping piece of gaffa tape on an aeroplane wing as they board and says nothing, and who must therefore share responsibility for the ensuing plane crash.

Across the Shire in a newsagent an older gentlemen buying a similar paper finds himself in a conversation with my altogether more forthright husband, who explains to the man that the headline of the paper he's buying has been debunked about five minutes after the ink has dried on it. The man isn't online that often, so he doesn't know. Mr M and him have a good chat about it. He still buys the paper.  He and his wife like the crossword.

Throughout the indyref, like many of you I suspect, I became a guerilla shelf stacker in my local shop. I'd move the Sunday Herald from under a stack of other papers to a more prominent position on the rack. I'd shuffle Red Top scaremongering "Indy is the end of the World as we know it" headlines to a less damaging location under the Inverurie Herald or Farmers Weekly. The day the Vow appeared on the front page of the Daily Record I seriously thought about buying them all up and stashing them for a future papier mache project like the time I made Robin and Maurice Gibb heads which sat on each shoulder of a bearded Mr M as Barry, when he went as the Bee Gees for Halloween*. In the end I didn't. But only because I didn't want to add to their circulation figures. Oh, and I also thought no one would fall for it anyway....

Online it's become our duty to share and post the truth about the lies printed by newspapers, said by politicians in TV broadcasts and unchallenged by their interviewers, re-tweet posts by bloggers who unlike many paid journalists actually check their sources (many of them linking to those sources to put paid to that common sniffy claim journalists have about bloggers not having to adhere to the same standards and rules as them. Excuse me if I say "Ha!" to that....). It's becoming a full time job, this being a member of the Sixth Estate.

The thing is that once the lie is printed, it's out there and winging its way into public consciousness with a infection speed akin to the Ebola virus, so the newspapers and the politicians who feed them reckon it's a risk worth taking. We can complain to IPSO, which has replaced the Press Complaints Commission with its newspaper editor stacked board with er....another newspaper editor stacked board which promises to be slightly better and not hack folks' phones. Yes, we could complain and we do, but what happens if those complaints are upheld?  The newspaper issues a small 8 point font sized retraction that is buried deep in the paper beside the Births Deaths and Marriages notices and it makes no difference to the traction of the original lie which rumbles on. In place of the toothless watch dog that newspapers are rightly not that scared of, it comes down to us, The Sixth Estate, to hold them to account and to damage their reputation, like they do to so many undeserving people with no right of reply. We must point, and mither, and retweet and share and yes, tell folks on supermarket queues who might give you a smack in the chops for your cheek.

It's a ridiculous state of affairs to find ourselves in, but as Estates go, the Sixth Estate is becoming the most powerful of them all.  We need to keep on the backs of those of those who get paid to report but write party sponsored propaganda instead. We need to celebrate the journalists who actually have standards, like James Cook who had completely unjustified vitriol thrown his way this weekend, and challenge others like Alan Cochrane who actually ADMITS his  political motivation outweighs any kind of journalistic integrity.

And, note to self, it's not enough to never buy the newspapers in question, or hide them under The Turriff Advertiser,  it's also time to gently challenge those who do. If you like a good crossword, buy a Puzzler. Last time I looked that particular publication didn't try and subvert democracy.

*best Halloween costume ever. Fact.

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Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Calling all Chicken Lickens

 "You mean to tell me it's 2015, and there's only 22% women MP's? 
Get outta town, Doc"

This weekend I'm going to my first ever SNP conference and I am equally scunnert and pleased to see that we will be debating and voting on all women short-lists for candidates. I am scunnert that it's necessary- I wish 50-50 would occur naturally. I looked to see if it would this time with Westminster candidates  and even had a bet on with my  WFI colleague Kathleen on the gender split of SNP parliamentary candidates. I was optimistic, she's been a member a lot longer than I and was less so. I think I owe the charity of Kathleen's choice (WaterAid I think) a tenner.

If things were as they should be no one would ever mention all female short lists, or 50-50 quotas. I personally, like many women, would rather we didn't have to have a debate on whether there should be affirmative action to get more women MPs, MSPs or in the wider society, board members. The fact is, it's STILL not occurring naturally. I feel it's a chicken and egg situation. Things won't start to happen in a way that views women as equal partners in business or politics until there are more women in there making sure they do.  What is wrong with this picture? It's 2015 and the percentage of the population that is female is  52% yet only 22% of UK MPs are women, and 35% in Holyrood.  We should all think that's weird. Something clearly is very wrong and that's why affirmative action needs to be taken, even if it's just temporary until it sets things on the right course.  And I believe that quotas have to be part of a wider strategy if we are to reach a situation where we don't need quotas any more.

When I went for selection there were almost equal amounts of men and women going forward for candidacy in the constituencies I stood in. But when I looked at other constituencies around the country, this wasn't the case in a lot of them.  Some constituencies had no women at all going up for selection. This of course, on the surface looks like it's the fault of the women who should have put themselves forward but didn't. But as with most superficial explanations, they are usually hiding the more complex deeper actual reasons. Take this for a wee sociological example; in some cases an oft asked hustings question for women candidates was how they would balance their responsibilities of family and their appointment to Westminster. Few asked the same of the blokes who had families.I could go on.

Here's an argument: having an all female short list would rid us all of the othering of women. It would take away the difference that many perceive to be relevant but in fact isn't. It sounds counter intuitive, but even if for just one term we took away gender difference just  for once in the selection process gender wouldn't be an issue as people make up their minds as to who to vote for when they choose their candidates from an all women shortlist. In one fell swoop we'd choose the best candidates from a pool of women and end up with a more fair representation of both genders at Holyrood.

And, and I get that this view might be controversial- it would force the hand of women who should be standing to get in there. An active invitation to women could make women who previously hadn't considered a career in politics seriously think  about it. I have to say, I often get frustrated at women's lack of self confidence in arenas like this. Why is that? What came first the system that doesn't encourage women or women's reluctance to enter the system?  More chicken and egg stuff.

So if  we evened things up a bit by positive action even for a temporary period, then would the knock on effect would be that we'd be unlikely to need positive action again. Would a 50/50 situation just keep going because we would have normalised it?

As with many things I look to other countries to see how it worked for them as a model for how we could do it. More than 30 countries have already have already introduced  quotas  for women candidates. Even more have introduced incentives and measures to encourage more women into politics. Did the sky fall in? 

No, it didn't.

Sweden is often cited as being a model for female participation in politics. I like many folk thought wrongly they had a quota system- at least at one point. But they didn't as such. It was more complex, because the reasons for the gender imbalance are complex. 

What happened is that certain parties adopted a range of initiatives to get more women on their candidate lists because they wanted to appeal across the gender divide.  For example recommended amounts of women on party  lists or alternate men/women candidates on lists showing an equal spread.  It wasn't so much a dictat of 50% of all party candidates have to be women as "Our party is going to introduce a range of initiatives including a recommendation of how we can achieve more equal representation." 

Of course , what Sweden also had was a socio-economic framework that was and is more progressive than ours in the UK. Even in the 70s they were streets ahead in female parliamentary representation due to a welfare system that encouraged women into full time work. There's that chicken and egg thing again...

At party level the initiatives taken by one party fostered a "contagion" theory. That means that if one party was doing something that encouraged more women candidates, the others didn't want to look behind the curve to their electorate  so they followed suit and it became the norm across parties.

The thing is that even with recommendations and a man/woman candidate list its wasn't enough on its own. What we have to look at is what stops women from putting themselves forward. And tackle those issues too.  Swedish parties looked at those too. In fact initiatives boiled down to four categories:

  •  quotas,
  • recommendations, 
  •  goals and
  • additional strategies

Quotas on their own won't work. And if we aren't careful they might breed resentment. We need to look at a range of actions, of which recommended quota could just form a part. I personally wouldn't like to ever be accused of only getting a candidacy because they needed a woman to fill a quota, and I doubt any woman would disagree with me. But if a quota were to provide encouragement for talented women who might not otherwise feel particularly encouraged, then I reckon that's fair enough. The question is not "Should we have quotas?", but "What can we do to encourage talented women to stand?" If part of the answer is "an all women shortlist" or a 50-50 shortlist, then let's give it a whirl.

The fact of the matter is our society is not reflected in our politicians. And it is 2015. Yes, 2015; the year Doc went to in Back to the Future for goodness sakes!  We need to do something quite full on. Because society, you've had long enough to sort this out and it  STILL isn't the way it should be left to your own devices. Quotas, recommendations, affirmative action, whatever...the sky will not fall in. Bet you a tenner.

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Friday, 20 March 2015

Let's Send Off Sexism, Loons and Quines

 More of this kind of thing, please:
(Any excuse to put a pic of the much missed 
female titan of Scottish politics, 
Margo MacDonald, works for me.)

Last week at the Women for Independence AGM we voted to continue with our  campaign to rid politics of sexism. Then on Tuesday I got asked by my branch to do a talk on involving more women in political campaigns. Today I thought I'd distill a few of the things in my head to 4 handy tips on how I think each of us can help to do it. I've four tips for men and four for women. In the interests of equality, of course. (and yes, I know a lot of these tips are applicable to both sexes but I need a format here...so stick with it!)

1. Do not buy any newspaper which features any sexist language or images. Also, let's not tweet links to them either. Sure, a screenshot pointing it out for scrutiny is fine, but clickbait is why they do it. Don't fall into the trap of adding to the circulation figures that they can give to advertisers to encourage them to buy ad space. That's what keeps a rag like theirs going.

2. I know a lot of you don't like the politics of Ruth Davidson, Margaret Curran, Jackie Baillie and Kezia Dugdale. But let's be better than the eejit who went on about Nicola's hair looking like a helmet and called her a "wee lassie". Let's concentrate on their politics and never mention their looks or sexuality. They don't deserve to be treated like that any more than Nicola Sturgeon or Tasmina Sheik, Maggie Chapman or Natalie McGarry do.
Also, their looks and sexuality are totally irrelevant and you just sound like you don't have a decent argument to make by having to reduce your tweets to insults- and god knows we've plenty of decent political arguments to use against them. 

You're not helping women like me who want to be involved in politics but always have it in the back of their mind that if they are elected to office that their life isn't going to be worth living because of the sexist abuse. And surely you'd like more ace women in the Green Party, SSP and SNP, fighting your corner, wouldn' t you? 

3. Think about the type of "encouragement" you give women. What can feel like you to be well meaning can actually be a wee bit patronising.  I recently went for selection for candidacy for the SNP. I nearly got selected and it was an experience that has done me a lot of good but I noticed a few things that bothered me. 

Think, would you openly tell a male candidate who had just given a speech at hustings that his speech was good but here's some tips on how you could have been better or here's what I think  you should have spoken about instead? None of my male counterparts got this kind of post match critique. I did. On one occasion it even came as one of my questions from the audience. I also had someone tell me I should concentrate on "just being an Indy Quine".  I think it was meant to sound like consolation after I didn't get selected. I'd like to think that being an Indy Quine and an elected politician aren't two mutually exclusive things. I'll be going for selection again despite this advice.  And this kind of remark doesn't just happen at hustings, it happens when I do a lot of talks. In all my time doing public events I've not had one woman tell me how I could do my speeches better. Except my mum but that's her job, ok?

4. Call folk out. See when you are on Twitter or Facebook and you see someone you follow making sexist remarks, tell them that it's unacceptable and gie them a hard time. I'd like to see more men call out other men publicly. 

I have deleted a few people I know on my Facebook account because of things they have said that have been, to my mind, offensive to women. And I've told them before I do it. I did the same to someone I used to work with who posted a few things I felt were anti-English as well. I view the two things the same way; you do our cause no good and you sound like an dinosaurarse (Latin term) and I don't want to be associated with you and your backwards views. Don't stand for it in your peer group and we'll drive it right out.

1. Hey, it's not just blokes that are guilty of sexism, you know. We shouldn't slag off other women in politics because of how they look either. One of the worst pieces of sexist writing I ever saw was on how Nicola's makeup made her look orange. I blogged about it here. It was written by a woman and to me that added insult to injury. And let's not talk about male politicians' looks either. Jim Murphy's changing hair colour pales into insignificance when you actually listen to him. Concentrate on his words instead if you want to be critical. They are a gold mine.

2. See the next time you are at a political event can you ask a question from the floor, please? All too often the questions to the panelists are dominated by male voices. Getting more women on panels is one thing that is going to help even the gender representation up, but  I like to hear more female voices in the audience as well. And I tell you, women usually have a different take on things. And they ask good questions. They also tend not to do that thing where they make a speech to a panel from the audience rather than ask an actual question....come on, you know the type! Women tend to prefer speaking in small groups I'm told but you wouldn't think that if you'd seen 700 women all fighting for a shot on the mic on the open session at the WFI AGM, so can we see a bit more standing up and taking the floor at mixed public meetings too?

3. Would women only training (or indeed any training) give you the confidence to go out canvassing? Why not ask your branch to provide some? A lot of women are not comfortable with the idea of knocking doors. And who can blame them if they haven't done it before. But can I let you into a secret- you won't be having to have big political arguments on the doors, you'll just be asking folk how they intend to vote. It's dead easy. You'll probably end up liking it, but I totally get that you'd like some direction first before you take the plunge. More women on the canvassing teams is good for changing equality in politics from the ground up. And women are ace canvassers- I've seen it. Sorry if that sounds sexist, but it's true.

4. There is a tendency for the eyes in the room to go to the women when there is a vacancy for secretary in  a group or branch meeting. Newsflash: you don't need a uterus to send emails, do databases and organise things. Who knew? Let's take matters into our own hands here. Nominate a bloke in your branch to take on the secretary post for a change! And you, why don't you get someone to nominate you as Convener, or Political Education Officer or something that has a bit of bite? If your branch isn't particularly gender equal and you are in that branch, then it's kind of your fault too. Stand up and get stuck in! And get them to change the time of your meeting if you feel it's stopping more women with children attending. I persuaded Alex Salmond to do that this week! (it didn't take much, I just promised him a selfie with me..)

And here's a final request for EVERYONE regardless of gender. Every time you watch a political show and the panel is disproportionately male, can you tweet them, write to them and ask why there aren't more women on the panel, please? Because there's no excuse and they need to get tellt.

We do all of these things and we won't need a 50:50 campaign or legislation, we'll change things naturally. And Scottish society will be the progressive one that I think most of us want.  

I don't think we'll ever look back.

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Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Take Me to the Cooler; It's a Fair Cop

 Al Capone being arrested for tax evasion

It seems I may be in trouble with the Inland Revenue. I received a letter warning me that if I made a mistake like I did again I may be fined. Most of us live in fear of upsetting the taxman, and like a good citizen, I went into a cold sweat and let a wee bum squeaker fly  as I am programmed to do on occasions such as these. But I had activated the fear gland too quickly. As I read further I discovered it turns out that I am not a Gary Barlow-esque tax evader, I am a tax over payer. Yes. I did my sums a wee bit wrong (state education, y'see) and I over paid my income tax by around £500 last year. And they are most displeased. I'll say that again- I may be fined if I overpay again.

 Nice wee pic of Gary Barlow

Where to even start with this? My fairly measly overpayment not only got noticed, but warranted action to warn me. The HMRC are ON it. Don't believe what the papers say. We just thought that it was the DWP that were looking for every transgression, no matter how small and activating fear glands all over the place. But no- there is no case too small for these Hawkeyes. The place is teeming with Elliot Nesses

Yet I read in the papers that quite a lot of folk seem to get away with not paying their tax. Part of the problem, we are told,  is that the amount of people employed to tracking down benefit cheats is much more than those employed to tackle tax avoidance. This is due to the targets that Ian Duncan Smith has set the DWP on tackling those pernicious benefits scroungers who cost us A MASSIVE ECONOMY BUSTING £1.2 billion a year. The man has built his reputation on tackling the housing benefit hording residents of Benefits Street etc. After all, aren't they the scourge of our society sitting around in their beer stained tracksuit bottoms filling out applications to have their family DNA tested on Jeremy Kyle and posting it off with a stamp PAID FOR BY US? The tax avoiders have nicer clothes, don't have fights on daytime telly and seems to be an all round nicer bunch who wouldn't embarrass you at a nice polite family wedding.

But hang on a wee minute, it's possible we're forgetting the statistics of tax evasion versus benefit fraud the UK, so I'll remind you by looking at the 2013/4 numbers.  Just 0.7 per cent - or £1.2bn - of total benefit expenditure in 2013/14 was overpaid due to fraud. At the same time £1.5 billion is estimated to not have been paid out to people who are actually entitled to it. Now compare that with tax evasion. HMRC’s most recent estimate of the annual “tax gap” – the money lost to the state through people not paying as much as they should – was £34bn.

I'm not keen on writing about financial things, as like a good citizen who pays her tax, or in this case, overpays her tax, I don't like to upset our imperial masters by being too critical of their agents as they have the right to knock on my door at any point and make my life a bit rubbish if they wanted to.  So I ask you not to be too hard on the HMRC and their clearly hugely efficient  system of contacting those not declaring their tax properly. One can only assume that if they have the resources and time to contact those OVERPAYING their tax, then they have clearly already finished chasing all those tax cheats and have little else to do but move onto the heinous criminals who have paid too much.
Rest easy, citizens. I expect, given my letter from them that the 20/1015 figures on tax evasion will read somewhat differently than before. You wait and see.

(You may want to read an excellent article on DWP and HMRC facts and figures that Channel 4 news did on the subject HERE after their recent interview with Ian Duncan Smith )

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