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Laurie Penny on The X Factor: Gamu Nhengu and the importance of empathy

The plight of the X Factor hopeful reminds us of the power of reality television.

Nothing is real until it's been made into reality television, and that includes human suffering. After years of arbitrarily blaming every imaginable social problem, from housing shortages to unemployment, on migrants, the caring British public has finally rallied to defend one single, solitary immigrant from forced deportation after seeing her perform reasonably well on the X Factor.

Eighteen-year-old Gamu Nhengu, originally from Zimbabwe, has a cherubic smile, a powerful set of lungs and an expired visa. Millions of viewers watched entranced as she belted out a precociously soulful cover of "Walking on Sunshine" in front of judges on the TV talent show, earning herself a standing ovation and a welter of appreciative Facebook fansites. Despite her popularity with the viewing public, however, the young singer was kicked off the programme and into the welcoming arms of the UK Border Agency last week amid murmurings that X Factor producers had declined to deal with her precarious immigration status. Having lived in Clackmannanshire for over five years, Nhengu and her family now have just days to leave the country.

In the past week, tens of thousands of supporters have written letters to the Home Office, signed online petitions and even travelled to Scotland to stand outside Nhengu's flat with wobbly homemade banners, treading that occasionally precarious picket line between popular protest and co-ordinated stalking. Even the Daily Mail has caved in to reader pressure and run panegyric pieces portraying young Nhengu, a benefit-claiming immigrant, as the unimpeachably twinkly offspring of Michael Jackson and Little Orphan Annie.

It's incredible. Campaigners, activists, aid workers, lawyers, family members and any number of asylum seekers have dedicated their lives to persuading a hostile press and a population raddled by prejudice and private anxiety that migrants are human beings with human rights who deserve compassion - but it turns out that all that was really needed was for one of them to stand on a stage in a party frock and compete for the chance to be publicly humiliated by Simon Cowell.

Perhaps the Refugee Council ought to rethink its press strategy. Perhaps they could put out fewer serious pamphlets about institutional abuse in immigration holding facilities and more spangly song-and-dance numbers. Perhaps the public might be more sympathetic to the plight of the hundreds of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who come to this country fleeing persecution in countries where homosexuality is illegal if they were all to dress up in sequins and perform Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Disappointingly, however, stardom is not the top priority of most of the thousands of immigrants currently facing deportation from the UK. Most of them are more immediately concerned about being forcibly returned to countries where they face rape, torture and even murder. Most of them are interested in nothing more than the chance to earn a decent living and a scrap of social respect. Many of the 900 men and women currently locked up in segregated cells in the Yarl's Wood detention centre just want to be able to see their kids again. But not Gamu Nhengu: she wants to be famous, and unlike the aspiration to live a life free from hunger, terror and persecution, that's something we can all relate to.

The formalised rules of managed frenzy that pass for emotional interest on reality television provide an empathic format with which the TV-viewing public can relate, because we know what is expected of us. There's nothing challenging here: we know how this story goes. Here's the shot of the contestant in her home, surrounded by her family; now here she is, waiting for her cue on live camera, with the voiceover informing us about how she just wants to help her mum out. As she steps in front of the judges, chewing her beautiful teenage lips, cut to a shot of her loving parents waiting nervously backstage; as she finishes her set piece to rapturous applause, zoom in on her family crying with relief. A thousand asylum appeal videos with mournful piano soundtracks could not hope to produce the revenue-generating response of a televised reality pageant tugging robotically on the dull heartstrings of a nation used to producing feelings en masse, for someone else's profit.

It would be easy to extrapolate that consumer culture has now reached the point where the only emotion with which the general public can truly empathise is aspirational craving -- not pain, or fear, or intimacy, none of which can be reproduced or ritualised in gameshow format, but simple, needy, greedy longing, for more status, more luxury, more money. It would be easy to assume that the only thing that truly unites us in these troubled times when the social can only be accessed in commodified, photostat formats is the asocial impulse to better our individual situation sat any cost.

That, however, would be the wrong assumption. Late capitalism has warped our capacity for empathy on a social scale, but has not destroyed it. Inside every one of us, from the welfare-claiming immigrant to the wealthy city worker, is a vulnerable, hopelessly young person desperate for acceptance, preparing for our big moment in the spotlight, anxious not to let our loved ones down, hoping to be judged kindly. If we can collectively realise that notion, even for the interim of a Saturday-night talent show, we will be one step closer to building the kind of society that we need.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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The private renting sector enables racist landlords like Fergus Wilson

A Kent landlord tried to ban "coloured people" from his properties. 

Fergus Wilson, a landlord in Kent, has made headlines after The Sun published his email to a letting agent which included the line: "No coloured people because of the curry smell at the end of the tenancy."

When confronted, the 70-year-old property owner responded with the claim "we're getting overloaded with coloured people". (He later denied he was racist and said it was a matter of economics.) The letting agents said they would not carry out his orders, which were illegal. 

The combination of blatant racism, a tired stereotype and the outdated language may make Wilson seem suspiciously like a Time Landlord who has somehow slipped in from 1974. But unfortunately he is more modern than he seems.

Back in 2013, a BBC undercover investigation found 10 letting agent firms willing to discriminate against black tenants at the landlord's request. One manager was filmed saying: "99% of my landlords don't want Afro-Caribbeans."

Under the Equality Act 2010, this is illegal. But the conditions of the private renting sector allow discrimination to flourish like mould on a damp wall. 

First, discrimination is common in flat shares. While housemates or live-in landlords cannot turn away a prospective tenant because of their race, they can express preferences of gender and ethnicity. There can be logical reasons for this - but it also provides useful cover for bigots. When one flat hunter in London protested about being asked "where do your parents come from?", the landlord claimed he just wanted to know whether she was Christian.

Second, the private rental sector is about as transparent as a landlord's tax arrangements. A friend of mine, a young professional Indian immigrant, enthusiastically replied to house share ads in the hope of meeting people from other cultures. After a month of responding to three or four room ads a day, he'd had just six responses. He ended up sharing with other Indian immigrants.

My friend suspected he'd been discriminated against, but he had no way of proving it. There is no centrally held data on who flatshares with who (the closest proxy is SpareRoom, but its data is limited to room ads). 

Third, the current private renting trends suggest discrimination will increase, rather than decrease. Landlords hiked rents by 2.1 per cent in the 12 months to February 2017, according to the Office for National Statistics, an indication of high demand. SpareRoom has recorded as many as 22 flat hunters chasing a single room. In this frenzy, it only becomes harder for prospective tenants to question the assertion "it's already taken". 

Alongside this demand, the government has introduced legislation which requires landlords to check that tenants can legitimately stay in the UK. A report this year by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants found that half of landlords were less likely to rent to foreign nationals as a result of the scheme. This also provides handy cover for the BTL bigot - when a black British tenant without a passport asked about a room, 58 per cent of landlords ignored the request or turned it down

Of course, plenty of landlords are open-minded, unbiased and unlikely to make a tabloid headline anytime soon. They most likely outnumber the Fergus Wilsons of this world. But without any way of monitoring discrimination in the private rental sector, it's impossible to know for sure. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.