Extramarital affairs and the National Business Awards

A campaign against an affairs website, and the company that hosts it, is open ground for Labour.

Next week, George Osborne will address the National Business Awards. Over a thousand commercial leaders -- described by David Cameron as the "best of British" -- will gather for a glittering ceremony in central London. But a group of Christian Socialists is fighting to get one company disqualified for facilitating what Ed Miliband might call "predatory" behaviour, of a sexual kind.

Global Personals helps companies set up their own dating sites. Nothing wrong with that, except that two of its many clients -- Marital Affair and, until recently, AffairsDating -- facilitate extramarital affairs for money. Type in your preference and relationship status to these sites, and they fix up what you want. According to one's slogan, "The grass is always greener" -- even if you have kids.

Jon Kuhrt, a Christian Socialist and Labour member, decided to take on this practice when his five-year-old son spotted one of Marital Affair's giant billboards and asked him what it was all about. He set up a Facebook group that attracted 4,000 members and encouraged religious groups to bombard the company with complaints.

Although the advert was withdrawn, direct campaigning against these sites gave them a boom of free publicity.

A far more strategic target was Global Personals. This is an independent company with separate management and no responsibility for marketing these affairs websites. But it does provide the software, technological support and hosting for such sites. If you want to make a payment to Marital Affair, it goes through Global Personals. It monitors all the site's activity and takes a share of the revenue.

When campaigners, now working under the Faithfulness Matters coalition, wrote to the judges of the National Business Awards to express concerns, Global Personals was less than impressed. It sent the New Statesman this statement:

It is not for Global Personals to be the arbiter of "good taste" or to bow down to unelected bodies who seek to threaten and interfere with lawful business in a democratic society. Indeed it would be wholly undemocratic for Global Personals to implement the wishes of a campaign group because it seeks to bully, by threats, its chosen "target" business.

By threatening behaviour, Global Personals says it is referring to campaigners' attempts to "bombard" the switchboard and "harass" staff. Activists calling and emailing the company insist that their messages have been entirely peaceful -- and have been ignored.

The debate raises interesting questions of liberty. It is not the state's place to outlaw companies for "immoral" behaviour, but that doesn't mean that a company should abandon all sense of ethics.

Campaigners say that as long as the company continues to operate Marital Affair, they will push for the disqualification of Global Personals from the awards to "send a message" to others. AffairsDating is no longer a concern, as it recently left the Global Personals platform.

As for the awards judges, they say they "interrogated" Global Personals's operations and introduced a new scoring band for "ethics" in response to campaigners' demands. Nice, although one has to wonder why they didn't think of this earlier.

Meanwhile the campaigners under the Faithfulness Matters coalition still have a couple more cards to play. They are contacting other companies that use the Global Personals platform -- which include NatMag/Hearst Magazines, the publisher behind You and Your Wedding, and Bauer Media, which oversees Askamum and Mother and Baby -- to ask what they think. Ouch.

Campaigners also plan to start targeting George Osborne. It's a clever move, because it goes right to the heart of the liberal/conservative split in the Conservative Party. Critics such as Ed West of the Telegraph have already spoken out against fellow members for failing to take on business practices like this, arguing that it cedes ground to Labour.

As ever on the left, there is some suspicion of any campaign led by religious groups, particularly one that pursues "conservative" values. But, with its explicit emphasis on "committed relationships", this campaign is about more than protecting marriage. (Activists would be wise to change their heterosexual logo, however, even if the sites are targeted at straight couples.)

Nor are they fighting against dating -- campaigners are keen to stress their approval of 99 per cent of Global Personals's business partners. They're not even criticising infidelity. They are simply fighting the practice of making money out of businesses that promote extramarital affairs. At its heart, it is an anti-consumerist campaign against the commodification of relationships.

This is open ground for Labour to capture. Like Ed Miliband's narrative about "predatory" business behaviour and like the "small c" conservative values of Blue Labour, it puts the Tories on the back foot. It also raises interesting questions about a potential revival of the Christian Socialist movement within the party. Global Personals won't be the only one watching this space.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.