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.)

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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