Techno in Barcelona, the Indie’s founding fathers, and my advice to Australia’s cricket team

Amol Rajan's Diary.

Techno, I recently concluded, is the devil’s music. Even in its wilder and more varied forms, it has the kind of painful monotony that only a satanic imagination could conjure. In mid-June, I was at Sónar, a music festival in Barcelona, where my best-man duties had taken me. With unflinching fortitude, we listened to hour upon hour of this horrible noise, the only occasional glimmers of hope coming when a distant DJ dropped a beat and turned the volume up simultaneously. How on earth people can devote whole evenings, never mind careers, to this remorseless tyranny I shall never know.

Inky dreams

For all that, it was one of the best holidays I’ve ever had – not least because the Catalan sun readied me for my new job as editor of the Independent. It had been some time in the planning. On the flight home, with the techno finally draining from my ears, I took down my suitcase and extracted a battered old copy of Stephen Glover’s Paper Dreams, which documents the birth of the great British institution that I now lead. I bought a second-hand edition for 16p in Exeter shortly after joining the paper and, together with Andrew Neil’s Full Disclosure, Piers Morgan’s The Insider and Max Hastings’s Editor, it convinced me that being a journalist was one of the great privileges available to man. And to be editor? The stuff of dreams.

In the name of the fathers

Glover’s prose captured the zeitgeist beautifully, as indeed did the glorious early editions of the Independent. In preparation for my new assignment, I have buried myself in the archives and, reading those issues, I feel a deep sense of honour. For years, I’ve spoken to some of the great characters who made the paper so brilliant early on, including Glover, Francis Wheen –whose biography of Marx is simply the best book I’ve ever read – and Sebastian Faulks, a team-mate of mine in the Authors Cricket Club.

I think of these men as our founding fathers. The part of George Washington is played by Andreas Whittam Smith, who still writes superb columns for the paper.

Street knowledge

Last week, I asked Andreas what the founding ideals of the Independent were. First, he said, it was of no party or faction: you can’t think of it as left or right; it would always aim to surprise. Second, journalism is a street: we are on one side; the people we write about are on the other. It’s our job not to cross the street. Andreas used to think of his paper as “classic with a twist” – a lovely phrase.

In the coming months, I and the best team of writers and editors in Fleet Street will be animated by the spirit of those founding fathers. I have no intention of turning the clock back; rather, I want the paper to be true to the ideals in our DNA. After all, most of the British public think of themselves as independent-minded. Zeitgeists come and go but scepticism in Britain endures and we shall sing on its behalf.

Credit where it’s due

Two aspects of my appointment attracted most attention: the state-school heritage and skin colour. Naturally, I was thrilled to receive a warm letter from Keith Barbrook, the head teacher of Graveney School in south London, my alma mater. The brown skin business made me feel humble – but also uneasy. I didn’t smash through a glass ceiling, as one commentator put it: I just happened to be the lucky rascal who, when the moment came for an editor of minority extraction, was in the right place. Other people –my parents chief among them – deserve much more credit than me.

Second, the language around these issues is always dangerously loose. In The Meaning of Race, Kenan Malik shows that “race” is a social rather than a scientific category, concocted by (among others) French nationalists in the 19th century who wanted to justify inequality. It is also the first step on a road that ends in fascism. I am all for championing equality and indeed will fight for it, including through better and fairer representation of ethnic minorities. But race ought never to be a homologue of culture. I am an Englishman and a patriot and proud of it.

Gone Walkabout

Talking of nationhood, what on earth is happening to Australia? Our summers used to be defined by the onslaught of their cricketers through Ashes series we were bound to lose – but this lot seem utterly useless. They’re getting thumped on the cricket pitch. One of their players has been dropped after some allegedly drunken shenanigans in – of all places! – a Walkabout bar. And now they’ve dumped their coach just weeks before the biggest contest of all. I used to think that the answer to many of the world’s problems was a programme of mass migration to this beautiful, spacious and plentifully resourced nation. Now I’m not so sure.

The seamy side

So desperate are the tourists that they may fast-track legislation to allow the Pakistanborn Fawad Ahmed to play in this series. Ahmed, an asylum-seeker in a country not known for its liberal attitude to foreigners, has been left out by the selectors – but they retain the option of bringing him in for the last four Tests.

However, I must warn my Australian and, indeed, Pakistani comrades that a technical deficiency is threatening to hold back this sprightly twirlyman. Study pictures of Ah - med closely and you can see that he grips the ball tightly, with the seam running perpendicular to the base of his fingers.

Shane Warne, my hero, could tell him that this is a recipe for failure. Warne gripped the ball loosely and with the seam running perpendicular to the top, rather than bottom, of his fingers. That was what enabled the swerve into the right-hander that made Warne unplayable. Ahmed, by contrast, is a scrambled seam merchant. He may say that he is simply classic with a twist. I say he should log on to Amazon and get hold of a history of spin-bowling, quick.

Amol Rajan is the editor of the Independent

The audience at the Sónar festival in Barcelona. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

Photo: ASA
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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA