Why we shouldn't deride Liz Jones for her sperm-stealing revelation

If these columns represent reality, rather than calculated provocation, they should be met with comp

Liz Jones has got Twitter angry. No, that won't do at all; it hasn't narrowed anything down for you. She's got Twitter angry about something she said in the Mail, about women. No, that still doesn't do it. OK, it's something she wrote about women being sperm-snatching desperados raiding their lovers' condoms for testicular emissions. Ah, now we know where we are.

Billed as "her most shocking confession yet", today's article details Jones's quest to get herself pregnant, in which she claims: "I resolved to steal his sperm from him in the middle of the night. I thought it was my right, given that he was living with me and I had bought him many, many M&S ready meals." Well, I suppose if you have gone to the trouble of making someone a posh dinner in a plastic tray, you can pretty much stake a claim to whatever bodily fluids they've got going.

It's easy to mock. Sometimes it's right to mock, and sometimes it's not. I don't know what to think of these rather boggling revelations, other than to see why it has got others more than a little steamed up. Jones writes: "But I do believe that any man who moves in with a woman in her late 30s or early 40s should take it as read that she will want to use them to procreate, by fair means or foul, no matter how much she protests otherwise."

Now, as a man who tends not to get his advice about sex and relationships from the pages of the Daily Mail, I might take this advice with a pinch of salt. I won't turn into the Rick Moranis character in Parenthood, who checks his partner's diaphragm every night to ensure she hasn't sneakily put holes in it. But I suppose this kind of overly sweeping statement gets people irritated by the way in which it reduces a whole generation of women into deceptive sperm-harvesting condom raiders, man-milk snatchers on a mission to get themselves up the duff by any means necessary.

On the other hand, there's more than one way to look at Liz Jones. We could see her as a brilliant creator of a ditsy comic persona who ends up being the butt of every joke and on the wrong end of every story. That's comforting, because it means no-one gets hurt if we slag her off, because we're essentially just finishing off the effacing that she's already started; and besides, it's just a character, rather than a human being in these columns, maybe with elements of truth and elements of fiction.

But is that right? Let's assume that the Liz Jones who appears in print is not some confection or caricature, and that every word is true. Here's someone who was so desperate to have children she stole sperm from her lover's condom while he wasn't looking; and not only that, she has written about it in a national newspaper, exposing herself to ridicule and contempt. Here's someone who has, in the past, run up huge debts through overspending, over and over again, so much so that readers sent in scratchcards to give her a helping hand. Imagine that person is someone you know rather than just a byline in a newspaper you don't particularly care for. Would you think of them as someone who needs help, rather than a bunch of strangers on the internet taking the piss out of them?

I've said it before, but fun as it is to stick the boot into someone like Liz Jones who sets herself up as an Aunt Sally (or is set up as one by others), I can't really bring myself to do it anymore. If it's not true, it's just a bit of trolling, designed to light up the Twitter mob's flaming torches and get them to drive huge amounts of traffic towards the Daily Mail website -- there's nothing the Mail Online likes more than a bunch of angry liberals to boost those unique visitor numbers.

Look at a sentence like "As a feminist, I looked down on mumsy types" and you have to wonder. Is that really what she thinks, or is it rather more cynical red-rag-waving? I suppose we shall never know, and I certainly don't claim to have any particular insight. But the way I look at it is this: if there's a chance that these columns represent the reality of another person's life, instead of a calculated bit of provocation, then the person who has been brave enough to share such negative aspects of their personality should be met with compassion, rather than animosity or ridicule. Fine, the sweeping statements about whole groups of people aren't helpful, but they could be seen as justifying the author's own behaviour by imagining it to be commonplace.

You can argue whether it's really in that person's best interests to share such deeply personal insights with thousands of others, but it's their decision. And, if it is all true, I just feel sorry for the person who wrote it, rather than thinking them worth of derision. It's just a sad, sad story.

 

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad