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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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change