J Lo joins Beyonce and Maria Carey in lineup of dictator divas

They've all sung to some of the world's most unpleasant dictators.

A report by the Human Rights Foundation has estimated that Jennifer Lopez has earned £6.6 m singing for some of the world's most unpleasant dictators and crooked industrialists — including at Turkmenistan's Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov's birthday party (try saying that after a couple of toasts in his honour) last month. 

J Lo's publicist later said that she would have never performed had she realised there were "human rights issues of any kind" — which strikes me as rather unlikely. Even if the star herself was too busy shopping for her latest diamante leotard, surely someone in her famously sizeable entourage would have time to flick through Human Rights Watch's reporting on Turkmenistan which describes it.

She's not the only pop diva happy to play for thugs, dictators and criminals for cash, however. Beyonce famously earned $1 m playing for Gaddafi's son Mutassim (which she later said she donated to Haiti). Mariah Carey also accepted money from Libya's ruling family as did, moving on to pop stars more generally, Usher, Nelly Furtardo, Lionel Ritchie and 50 Cent.

I don't buy the often used argument that music stars didn't realise that their presidential patrons abused human rights. Nor do I think that donating these earnings to charity after a public backlash makes everything OK again.

Sting's defiant response to his £1- £2m pay cheque from the Uzbek president's daughter Gulnara Karimova — he argued that he didn't believe in cultural boycotts as they only make closed regimes more insular — was self-serving and arrogant. The people who benefited from Sting's generous cultural exchange were the elite guests of the presidents daughter. Does he imagine they will be so inspired by 'Fields of Gold' that they will spontaneously lift controls on homegrown artists and journalists? 

Given these pop star payrolls, stunts like biting the head off a bat don't seem so bad after all — except that Black Sabbath (including bat-eating Ozzy Osbourne) performed for South Africa's apartheid regime, too.

This piece first appeared on Spears Magazine

Photograph: Getty Images

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.