What do you do with a vile advertisement?

Commercial freedom, trans issues, and the struggle for respect.

Today the gambling firm Paddy Power were told that their major "Ladies' Day" advertising campaign could no longer be shown on British television. The company did not take this well, saying:

This is especially frustrating given the commercial was already pre-approved by British television advertising clearance body Clearcast, just one week ago, who then considered the humour in the advert, while not to everyone's taste, fell short of causing offence.

But what this omitted was not that the objection was to the advert causing "offence" but that it was likely to create a worse situation for trans people. In the words of Helen Belcher of TransMediaWatch:

The issue was not about offence, but simply about respect. The advert placed real people at risk of humiliation or abuse simply because they could be perceived as being trans.

But Paddy Power cannot see the problem with their "humour". Perhaps the readers of this post may not see it either, so let me spell it out. Transphobia is not about a mere laugh and a nudge at someone who is dressed differently from how you might expect them to look. It is about the daily hostility and humiliations some fellow human beings have to endure simply because they are seeking to realise themselves rather than have to impersonate somebody they are not.

Many trans people go about their lives in fear of the "mare or stallion" confrontations they have to suffer from strangers which Paddy Power is so gleefully happy to promote. And this mockery and taunting can sometimes lead to the sick violence of "tranny-bashing". As the journalist Jane Fae writes about the Paddy Power adverts:

So the Paddy Power ad campaign is all just a bit of fun? Just for laughs?

Sadly, the evidence already beginning to come in is just the opposite - and pretty much in line with fears expressed at the supposedly more "alarmist" end of the spectrum.

Earlier this week, a trans woman flew into London, where she stayed overnight in a reasonably upmarket hotel. Yesterday, at breakfast, two of the waiters huddled together, staring at her. Shortly after they were joined by two more staff. One of them pointed.

As she explained later, she knew she'd been 'read'. However, the last thing she expected was for a young Spanish waiter to be pushed forward.

He came over and asked her if she was in the Paddy Power advert.

He was speaking with sufficient lack of concern for her privacy that other guests were able to hear and, as a result, two business executives sat next to her loudly asked to be moved to a new table.

[...] many of the "just a laugh" brigade will still be puzzled by all of this. After all, there was no violence: nothing.

Except that paid staff thought it was OK to humiliate her with impunity.

Such dreadful experiences are not unusual. As Patrick Strudwick writes today in the Gay Times:

[A] 60-something trans woman spoke about her life. She had only transitioned a few years ago, and when she did she lost her family, including her children. She did not break down as she said this. She did not pause for dramatic effect to let the devastating news sink into the audience. She mentioned it in passing - this is so normal for trans people that it is half expected.

She reminded me of a transgender woman I met at a hate crime rally a couple of years ago. "I get abuse every single day," she said flatly, almost casually, "From name-calling to threats of murder."

No gay person, apart from those being bullied at school, experiences that level of hate.

Paddy Power may not have thought they were promoting bullying; they may well have been "only joking". But for them to seek some commercial advantage by stoking an already hostile environment for trans people was a vile and shameful exercise. Trans people surely have enough to put up with from other members of society, and it was wrong for Paddy Power to seek to make it yet more uncomfortable just so they can get more revenue from gamblers.

A modern liberal society should not encourage the banning of humorous adverts. No one should be a criminal just because of a bad joke, and no sensible person wants to criminalise advertisements made in bad taste. Freedom of expression is a basic right, just as are the rights to privacy and autonomy. We do not create a more civilized society by resorts to coercion against free speech. And, in practice, censorship is illiberal and often misconceived.

However, any exercise of freedom of expression certainly does not mean that others must fall silent. A more humane and liberal environment requires those who sneer should also be challenged and confronted. The rights to condemn and complain are just as much free speech acts as any "bit of fun". After all, freedom of expression should work both ways, and not just for the benefit of big business.

So if there has to be a special system of regulation for broadcast advertisements, then it is certainly more humane for the voices of those seeking to promote a respectful and safe environment for marginalised people to prevail over the interests of a large and brash gambling company.

Fundamental to any modern liberal society is a sense of respect for all those whose road to self-realisation may be different from one's own, as long as any person's self-realisation does not violate the rights of others. How free speech can be squared with such personal autonomy is more a cultural and moral matter than a legalistic one.

Paddy Power may be enjoying their notoriety and their defiant pose. Any company whose business model is based on encouraging those with little money to gamble it away is unlikely to be a moral exemplar in any case. But they should perhaps reflect that some people do want to ban gambling, and why it is not banned.

It is because others are happy to live and let live that gambling exists as a major commercial concern. The popular sense is that if people want to gamble, and make money out of gambling, then it is entirely a matter for them. So it is disappointing that Paddy Power and so many others who take autonomy for granted in their own affairs are so ready to make it difficult for others to do the same. It is not only the bookmaker and the punter who should be able to get on with their lives free from the intrusions of others. The benefit of self-realisation should be open to us all.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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