Learning about women's lives in Uganda. Image: Getty
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One woman's daily round in sub-Saharan Africa

Polly spoke about everything from the lot of women in Uganda (“Some people say there are improvements, but . . .”) to her broken marriage (“He stopped coming home, so I followed him to his place of work . . .”).

A Day in the Life of Polly Apio
BBC World Service

A documentary for the Women Farmers series followed one woman’s daily round in sub-Saharan Africa (21 October). The presenter/ producer, Cecile Wright, spent time with Polly Apio in Uganda, accompanying her to and from a distant well, grinding millet and bedding down in her hut. We opened to the sound of soft snoring followed by a Disneylike catalogue of morning noises: cocks crowing, birds cheeping, the sun and light and air inherent in the sounds potent and optimistic.

On the face of it, the programme idea was simple – just the two women, presenter and subject, talking on the way to the well, Polly quite open and humorous, Wright clearly someone to whom the correct question or most fruitful line of inquiry is obvious, nudging the conversation in directions that made good listening. Except it never felt manipulated. This was an honest chat over a four-kilometre walk, with the speakers growing more physically tired, and with the narrative weaving all over the place in the way that discussions on walks tend to do.

Polly spoke about everything from the lot of women in Uganda (“Some people say there are improvements, but . . .”) to her broken marriage (“He stopped coming home, so I followed him to his place of work . . .”). “Are your sons decent men?” Wright asked. Polly gave a low laugh: “They say to their wives, ‘Don’t tell Mamma or she will harass me!’”

You were increasingly aware that this conversation – the whole programme so far –had been mostly one long, continuous take. Even the unstoppably enquiring Clare Balding on her Radio 4 walk-and-talk show Ramblings has never managed such a protracted exchange. And most programmes wouldn’t allow it anyway – the trend having long been (nervously, maddeningly) to cut in and out. But the gentle intensity of the dialogue here, the faith in its natural rhythms, the many areas meandered over (infidelity, heartbreak, family traditions in Africa) effortlessly reminded us how protean and complex the human personality is.

Polly came alive as though the programme had plucked out her mystery and captured what made her so charming and strong. And then, later, to sleep. “D’you mind my kid snoring?” she asked exhaustedly, from the other side of the hut. Her walking companion just laughed, and shook her head.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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Do the abusive messages sent to One Direction members reveal a darker side to fandom?

Incidents like this are often used to characterise all young female fans, but this isn’t about fandom. It’s harassment. 

One Direction’s Niall Horan is the internet’s favourite innocent blond goofball. He spends his days tweeting platitudes about golf and the weather, Snapchatting his reactions to whatever is on his TV, and thanking his fans for everything they’ve done for him. His social media presence is generally one of cheerful bemusement.

So, last night, the web went into maternal #ProtectNiall mode when he took to Twitter to highlight the darker side to fame.

A group of “fans” got hold of Niall’s number, and started frantically texting, WhatsApping and calling him. After two weeks of constant abusive messaging, despite requests to stop, Niall tries to use his platform to get them to stop.

Around the same time, screenshots of the supposed messages started to circle online. (I certainly can’t prove whether they’re real or not, but they first surfaced before Niall’s tweets and feel genuine.) The pattern that emerges seems to be one of frantic, attention-seeking messaging, extreme shock and surprise when he writes back, and, when Niall only requests that they stop messaging him and respect his privacy, the really nasty stuff starts. Messages range from “You invented cancer” to “If [your nephew] was my kid I’d sell it”; from “You’re so stupid and r*tarded” to “I hope your house blows up”.

Niall’s responses are extremely Niall in their politeness. “Why do I deserve to have a bad day?” he asks one. “You guys are bullies,” he tells them. “Go away please.”

As soon as the screenshots emerged, so did suspicions about the identity of the individuals in question. A set of five or six Twitter handles were circled by fan accounts, encouraging people to block and report the usernames to Twitter. Some of the owners of these accounts themselves claim to have been part of the conversations in question, to varying degrees. These account owners are seemingly women, under the age of 18, who have supposedly been involved in other recent One Direction harassment incidents.

One of those incidents came just days before Niall’s tweets. A person suspected to be a member of this group of “fans” got hold of another band member’s phone number: Louis Tomlinson’s. You can listen to a recording of the phone conversation between them that leaked online. After telling him her Twitter handle, Tomlinson asks the caller how she got his number. “You’re a fucking bitch and I hope your baby dies,” she says. Louis responds with a variation on the ancient proverb, “Lawyer up, asshole.” He seemingly tweeted about the incident later that day – and Niall retweeted him.

Fan accounts insist that the same Twitter users were also involved in hacking the iCloud of Anne Twist, Harry Styles’s mother, and leaking hundreds of photos of her son online.

The whole situation is a complicated mess. Parts of the messages feel as though they have been influenced by the style of accounts desperately trying to get the attention of celebrities on Twitter. If you look at the top reply to any tweet from a celebrity with millions of Twitter followers, the responses are calculated to shock the most in an attempt to get noticed. Maybe it’s a weird combination of sexual and violent imagery, or a sexist or racist slur. This is harassment itself, but its ubiquitousness can make it seem less offensive or extreme. Perhaps this kind of behaviour is easier to ignore on Twitter or Instagram – if you have millions of followers, you presumably can’t be notified every time one of them interacts with you online. When it moves into your private sphere, I can image it becomes more terrifying than annoying. Maybe these girls were simply swept up in the cultural moment, and failed to grasp the consquences of their behaviour.

Is it a damning indictment of the hysteria of teenage girls? The scary state of twenty-first century fandom? The problems of anonymity offered by the internet? It’s true that the internet has offered new ways for fans and celebrities to have a more direct connection with one another: for the most part, a mutually beneficial arrangement.

But the revelation of the internet has also been that it is a tool through which fundamentally human behaviours are expressed. Over the last few decades, we have learned that aggressive behaviour online is not limited to largely non-existent stereotypes of spotty virgins in their mothers’ basements, or teenage girls developing “dangerous” sexuality. Grown men and women, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons all do it. It’s also not a behaviour that is inherently connected to online spaces: children and teenagers might experiment with moral boundaries through cyberbullying, but they also might do it via anonymous notes in lockers or whispers in school corridors. People of all ages, professions and genders harass others.

The real problem is not celebrity culture or the concept of teenage fandom or social media. As Louis Tomlinson rightly identifies, it’s that our laws have failed to catch up. If we continue to treat harassment as harassment, in all spaces and by all perpetrators, we’ll have a better chance of minimising it.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.