Matthew Hicks plays "Prince Harry" in the show. Photo: Daniel Smith/Fox
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Laurie Penny on the Windsors: Who needs Fox’s fake royal reality show “I Wanna Marry Harry”?

The British royal family is already the longest-running and most successful reality television series on the planet.

“Power is sexy!” Entire academic treatises could be written on the words of Meghan Ramsey Jones of Dallas, Texas, a young contestant on the Fox show I Wanna Marry “Harry”, making her case for being a princess to Inside Edition. The reality TV series, which began on 20 May in the US and will soon be broadcast in the UK, is a light-hearted romp through every possible contortion of Anglo-American pop feudalism. We have seen the face of hegemony and it has a camera-ready grin and is asking us to dance.

The idea is simple. Twelve impressionable, classically attractive and heavily made-up young women are flown to a stately home in Berkshire and introduced to a young toff. He has a security detail and looks a lot like Prince Harry, known to the world as one of its most eligible bachelors by virtue of being fourth in line to the British throne, and the contestants are left to draw their own conclusions. They are encouraged to compete for the affections of “Harry” in the age-old North American mating ritual: a series of humiliating rounds of hazing in which each contestant’s emotional journey is edited for maximum Schadenfreude and broadcast to an audience of millions.

Now, some might argue that the concept for this series is not only the worst thing Fox has done since cancelling Firefly in 2002 but one of the worst things ever to happen in the history of television. Those people would be dead wrong. This is a cultural triumph, a magisterial montage of brash American competitiveness and oily British class deference, our two great nations brought together in a glorious pageant of crass misogyny that somehow manages to make you lose more hope in the future of humanity than either could have achieved by itself.

It’s all supposed to be a joke, of course. Much like its predecessor Joe Millionaire, the punchline is that these young women have been conned into thinking they were attempting to date a “real” prince. We are meant to laugh at the stupid, silly, desperate women for actually falling for the fairy tale they’ve been flogged all their lives. The TV toff is a lookalike, an environmental consultant from Exeter, whose participation in the show suggests that he doesn’t feel sorry for the girls because they were silly enough to believe the con. The question posed is whether the contestants on the show are going to fall for the fake prince’s fake money and fake power or for his “real heart”, which seems unlikely, unless the said heart was ripped from his body in a moment of clear and dreadful vengeance.

I’m sure the fake prince of Berkshire is a decent chap. Indeed, in the publicity clips, he comes across as one, in the proud tradition of nice, young, middle-class British men down the centuries haplessly agreeing to be meat puppets for empire in all its forms in return for a paycheque and promotion. Advertorials for the programme remind American audiences that British men – all British men – are attractive and charming and will probably make you a tweed breakfast and apologise to a cup of tea as
you snuggle up together to laugh at the less fortunate. This is a delusion that seems to be shared by approximately half the US population, as well as many Brits who should know better.

American women everywhere, I’d like to let you in on a little secret: real British men are like men everywhere. Which is to say that they vary enormously in terms of personality, are usually not expected to inherit large parts of the Midlands and are generally trying hard to be decent human beings despite a considerable amount of social and cultural pressure to act like twazzocks. They are not all paid con artists, although I’d recommend that, given the option, you go for one of those over the real Prince Harry, should he ever offer to whisk you away in his Apache battle-copter.

The real Prince Harry is distinctly uncharming, though power and money have a charm all their own. I’m not hating on the hair: I actually have a bit of a thing for gingers, which is the only thing I have in common with Princess Diana. It’s just that the real Prince Harry used the word “Paki” to describe an Asian friend and talked about flying helicopters in Afghanistan as “a joy for me because I’m one of those people who loves playing PlayStation and Xbox” (this was in an interview in which he admitted to killing insurgents). Then there are the crass Vegas romps, the wildly dysfunctional family, the spoilt gaffe-wizardry and the Nazi fancy-dress costumes.

The real Harry is terrible marriage material – but a perfect supporting cast member in the longest-running and most successful reality television series on the planet. The British royal family is reality TV incarnate. I mean that literally: the coronation of the current monarch coincided with the emergence of TV culture as postwar austerity drew to an end and was the occasion for which many British families purchased their first television set.

The subsequent six decades have been an industry lesson in how the ideology of power adapts in adversity. The royal family remains, despite setbacks, Britain’s biggest celebrity brand, as useful for distracting the native population from the economic turbulence at home as it is in persuading the rest of the world that British class hierarchy is not only benign but adorable.

This spring, after three years of toadying by the broadcast media over the mating, breeding and ageing of the Windsor clan, we were treated to interminable pictures of Baby George being introduced to various Commonwealth leaders and this will be the case until the next time Harry does something newsworthily foolish. At a time of social crisis and growing inequality, we are still gawping and swooning over the pageantry of power. The joke is on all of us.

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

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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The reason chicken is a popular British food? Because we started factory farming

In the 1950s, chicken was seen as an elite food and was expensive.

Chlorine-washed chickens, hormone-fed beef and pork raised on growth-promoting antibiotics. It doesn’t sound very tasty – but this is what could be lining our supermarket shelves after Brexit. Trade deals could allow an influx of meat into Britain from the US, where lower animal welfare standards mean it can be produced more cheaply. A House of Lords report this week warned this could spark a change in our farming. The high animal welfare and environmental standards we have in the UK (set by EU law) could be eroded to allow British meat to compete with cheaper imports.

Last week, Michael Gove, Defra secretary, reassured parliament he was committed to maintaining current standards after Brexit. "One thing is clear: I do not want to see, and we will not have, US-style farming in this country," he said. Yet some argue US-style farms have already taken over British agriculture, largely under the radar and without a national debate.

Gove was reacting to last week’s report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism which revealed there are now 800 “mega-farms” in the UK, huge industrial units mimicking the feedlots of California or Texas. The biggest can house more than a million chickens, 20,000 pigs or 2,000 cattle. Their emergence is part of a 26 per cent rise in intensive farming in the UK in the last six years.

This rise is mainly due to Britain’s insatiable appetite for chicken. In the 1950s, it was seen as an elite food and was expensive. Just a million were produced a year. Then, intensive farming methods were imported from the US. In 1959, the first fast-processing "poultry factory" was opened in Aldershot. By 1965, the price of poultry had fallen by nearly a third, causing demand to soar. By 1990, almost a quarter of the meat eaten in Britain was chicken or turkey. As birds can be brought to slaughter much more quickly than cows or sheep, it remained cheaper than beef or lamb.

People also began to change their meat-eating habits for health reasons. From the 1970s, government campaigns advised people to eat less fatty red meat. Chicken was seen as a leaner, healthier, alternative.

Now, it is the nation’s favourite meat. Last year, nearly a billion birds were slaughtered and another 400 million imported. Five companies – two of which are owned by multinationals - control most of the poultry production in the UK. Industrial farms are clustered in pockets of the country near their abattoirs and factories. It is causing conflict in the countryside, as local people and campaign groups say they are a blight on the landscape and complain of the smells and disturbance of lorries bringing in grain or taking birds to the abattoir.

Professor Tim Lang of the Centre for Food Policy at City University believes the change to intensive farming has entrenched cheap chicken into our culture. "The more cheap meat these farms produce, the more people eat, the more cheap meat becomes part of the culture and lifestyle. We now have chicken and chips, chicken nuggets, chicken burgers. Chicken is the processed meat of choice," he says. Free range chicken accounts for 3 per cent of the market. Organic – which has the highest animal welfare standards – makes up just 1 per cent.

Yet the actual meat has changed since intensive farms arrived. Experts tested chicken from such farms in 2008 and found it had twice as much fat, a third less protein and a third more calories than in 1940. Gram for gram, it had as much fat as a Big Mac.

Chickens grown for meat are kept in computer-controlled warehouses, with up to 19 birds per square metre (roughly the same amount of space as an A4 piece of paper per bird). They are fed additive-filled, high protein food and the temperature and humidity is controlled so they gain weight. They are taken to be slaughtered when they are five to six weeks old.

Farmers and the food industry say this is the most efficient and green way to produce the meat people want. Inside sheds, the birds are protected from predators while disease and pollution can be controlled. Putting these birds out to pasture would use up more land – land which could be used for houses, parks or kept as countryside. Last June, a Defra survey counted 173 million poultry birds on the ground at that point – though as there are many "crops" of chicken many more are slaughtered in total. If we wanted to raise all those birds to organic conditions, we would take up the same amount of space as the whole of the island of Anglesey.

Animal welfare campaigners say the current "factory farming" system is cruel. Chickens want to feel the sun on their feathers, roll in dust and forage for seeds. Cramped inside a shed, they become stressed and start injuring or cannibalising one other. Food poisoning bugs such as E.coli or campylobacter, many of which are becoming resistant to antibiotics, can spread quickly through a herd. Some 63 per cent of supermarket chickens are now infected with campylobacter, the latest government testing shows, although this has decreased since last year.

The latest report, written by the House of Lords’ EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee, said polls show 80 per cent or more of the UK public want animal welfare standards to be maintained or improved post-Brexit. Yet many consumers are not aware of the difference between intensive and organic farming – and may not be willing to pay a price for premium welfare products, it said.

Lang believes debate should be opened again. People need to understand where their meat comes from and whether they are comfortable with the methods used to make it. The rise in intensive farming is driven by our choices, with food companies and supermarkets acting as our brokers. “If we don’t like it, we must vote with our purses, demand retailers change their contracts and specifications in our name," he says.

‘With Brexit looming, British consumers need to be very clear: do they want animal welfare standards to rise or get swept away in pursuit of cheaper food?’

Madlen Davies is a health and science reporter at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. She tweets @madlendavies.