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Nigella and a “playful tiff”, the changing face of the media and letting Ian Brady die

Helen Lewis writes the First Thoughts column.

Would you have stepped in to halt what Charles Saatchi called a “playful tiff” and the police called assault? After the Sunday People published front-page pictures of Nigella Lawson being grabbed round the throat by her husband, I found myself cast into the unusual role of tabloid defender. Some think the whole episode was a shameful intrusion of the couple’s privacy but I can’t agree. Saatchi and Lawson were in public, outside a restaurant, and there’s a public interest in reporting a crime – particularly one that is as commonplace as it is ugly. “If that’s what’s happening in public,” one senior journalist emailed me to say, “imagine what’s happening in private.”

According to government figures, 1.2 million women suffered domestic abuse last year but fewer than one in four victims reports the crime to the police. Saatchi has now accepted a caution – to stop the incident “hanging over all of us for months”, he says – but Lawson did not make a complaint to the police.

Partner violence is toxic precisely because it happens in otherwise loving relationships, in which a man (or, more rarely, a woman) can switch from being affectionate and supportive to controlling and violent. “Why doesn’t she leave him?” we ask, not knowing if she has the money or energy or self-esteem or whether he’s threatened that she will lose access to their children if she does. “Why doesn’t someone intervene?” we wonder, all the while averting our eyes from the kids making a nuisance on the train because we don’t want to risk getting our heads kicked in.

Meanwhile, most British women’s refuges are scrabbling to survive as their local authority funding is being savagely cut. It’s very easy to moralise from an armchair about whether the photographer or other diners should have intervened to help Lawson, but the possible closure of women’s shelters has received relatively little coverage. We’re all guilty of walking by.

Slap happy

The other important question raised by the Saatchi incident is whether our attitude to domestic violence has changed as much as we’d hope in the past 50 years. I’m torn. In 1965, just three years after his great success in Dr No, Sean Connery told Playboy: “I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman – although I don’t recommend doing it in the same way that you’d hit a man. An open-handed slap is justified – if all other alternatives fail and there has been plenty of warning. If a woman is a bitch, or hysterical, or bloody-minded continually, then I’d do it . . . But I wouldn’t call myself sadistic.” Try to imagine an A-list actor saying something similar today.

On the other hand, as Kate Mossman writes on page 48, the singer Chris Brown has continued to receive awards and to sell albums since his 2009 assault of his girlfriend Rihanna – even though photographs of her bruised and swollen face were leaked on the internet, graphically demonstrating the viciousness of the assault. The conclusion has to be that we’re now more confident about identifying domestic violence. We just don’t know how to deal with those who commit it.

Cursed to live

I thought I was the wettest, most bleeding-heart of liberals but even I can’t see why we’ve spent years keeping the Moors murderer Ian Brady alive against his will. Still, it’s intriguing to see Mail and Telegraph website commenters, who are usually keen on the death penalty for any crime bigger than a parking ticket, decide instead that Brady should be force-fed just to spite him.

Lonely asylum

Talking of being locked up, on 19 June, the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, reached the one-year anniversary of his decision to seek asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy. With talks between Britain and Ecuador stalled and the media caravan having moved on to a new leaker, Edward Snowden, Assange is now said to be ready to spend five years there.

Indie shuffle

A year ago, the NS ran a special report into race and the media, in which Rafael Behr tackled the “monochrome majority” in the lobby and Mehdi Hasan asked why, in 16 years of reading newspapers, he could “count on two hands the number of regular staff columnists . . . with fixed slots on the comment pages of the British press, who have looked similar to me”. We also noted that there were no non-white national paper editors – but that’s now changed with the promotion of Amol Rajan to editor of the print Independent.

Rajan and the new editor of the 20p ipaper, Oly Duff, are both just 29, so the appointments represent a gamble by Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev that more youthful papers can entice young readers away from their iPads and smartphones and back to the grubby world of ink.

Time for action

I’ve spent a great deal of the past couple of years writing about violence against women but I’ve decided to do the unthinkable for a member of the commentariat – and try to do something about it. If all goes well, I’ll soon be joining the board of Nia, a small, Hackney-based rape and domestic violence charity. Wish me luck.


Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.