Bleak dramas, the new Newsnight and what CEOs can learn from terrorists

Julia Hobsbawm's diary.

Comrade. Colleagues. Conference. I used to spend the early weeks of autumn listening to the three Cs, initially at Labour and then briefly at the Conservatives (somehow I always missed the Lib Dems: although what did I actually miss?). Not any more. Marriage long ago put paid to my bar-propping seaside days. Plus, conferences are for tribes, unless you are a lobbyist or a journalist, and I prefer political polygamy. So, now I follow everything on air and online instead. BBC Radio 5 Live is the best way to hear a party leader’s speech uncluttered by anything but the words. Richard Bacon and John Pienaar always do a pithy analysis against the backdrop boom of diehard applause and anthem-pop cringe.

This year, felled by back-to-school flu, I watched a lot of Labour while lying down. Not a bad thing. Something called “Composite 4” was repeatedly called for from “the floor”. The Tories are a bit better in the jargon department but social media has made everything slightly indecipherable for the uninitiated: do they hashtag #cpc13 in the shires?

You schmooze, you lose

You would think that because I’m a professional who teaches networking for a living, the political season would be unmissable for me. All those receptions. Parties. Late-night drinks. Well, I have a secret to share. Conferences and, indeed, cocktail parties are actually the worst places to network. Too dependent on see-and-be-seen schmoozing and less on what really oils the wheels of good connections: curiosity and conversation. This happens less in big cliquey groups with people hurling business cards at each other and far more in small gatherings.

Publishing philosophy

Publishing is awash with tremendous zeitgeist thinking: Malcolm Gladwell, Jane McGonigal, Noreena Hertz. But when it comes to the philosophy of networking, avoid the cheery how-to books giving you “tips” and focus on the sociologists and scientists, not the salesmen. Charles Kadushin of Brandeis University and Barry Wellman of NetLab at the University of Toronto understand that tomorrow’s world won’t be an old-boy network of tight, self-reinforcing elites but one that is distinctly plural.

In 2007 the political analyst Anne-Marie Slaughter, writing in Foreign Affairs, predicted that supranational governance would hinge not on hierarchies but on lateral networks. Today, terrorists and criminals are ahead of governments and commerce in their understanding of how to transfer knowledge effectively through their groups.

Talking about a revolution

When I took the youngest member of our family away from playing Minecraft on the Xbox to marvel at the Science Museum in London, we learned that early industrial machines of the 1800s were invented by millwrights, “jacks of all trades” who created connections between the workers with skills to build everything from power looms to machine tools. As the Hungarian physicist Albert-László Barabási puts it, networks are everywhere; you just have to look for them. Social network analysis is less than a century old but the politics and economics of human capital will dominate over the next one.

Central Park and Highgate

After visiting the shop (the Science Museum’s biggest manufacturing output these days is its own-brand inventions) we had a gorgeous walk by the Serpentine, past the new Zaha Hadid-designed gallery. Central Park, eat your heart out. I used to go to New York for a cosmopolitan and cultural energy fix, and specifically for the nail bars and gourmand coffee. No longer. The Vietnamese have perfected fortnight-lasting gel nail techniques all over London and you cannot move now for the New Zealand bean aficionados running artisan workshops about crema depths on espressos.

I will return to Manhattan next month for a memorial for my father, who died a year ago. This week, the Daily Mail took issue with him in a venomous editorial about Ed Miliband’s father, Ralph, calling them both “useful idiots” of communism. As an avid Daily Mail reader, I can’t complain too loudly, although it hurts hugely. My father would have shrugged. He was a historian, not a politician.

Disgrace for Damian

He would have admired and enjoyed our friend Simon Schama’s magisterial Story of the Jews on BBC2 all month as well as Peaky Blinders, the 1920s gangster drama produced by the TV genius Caryn Mandabach. Television is having such a good moment.

I like the new Newsnight edited by Ian Katz. It could perhaps be dubbed “Guardian TV”, as it all screams “Very Now” – although have I missed the memo abut Chris Huhne? Is he as “back” as Damian McBride? To me, being discredited politically should be for life, not just for Christmas.

Methed up

Our household also watches masses on Netflix. Most recently we started Breaking Bad. This had two effects. One, we were joined on the sofa for the first time in two years by our teenage son, and two . . . I am waiting to be as wowed as the rest of the world. Give me Nordic Noir angst drama, not crystal meth with bleak jokes. I’ve watched only one episode. I was not, so to speak, hooked.

Appliance of science

Peter Bazalgette was on Newsnight last week declaring Breaking Bad to be superb. He and 60 other luminaries spent a morning at the Wellcome Trust to judge this year’s crop of entries for the annual commentariat prize at our Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards. I’m pretty sure the turnout was high because everyone wanted to meet each other. Better than a conference, as more politically eclectic. You could say it’s premium networking.

Julia Hobsbawm runs the networking company Editorial Intelligence and is Honorary Visiting Professor in Networking at Cass Business School in London. She tweets at: @juliahobsbawm

Gourmand coffee is now readily available in London. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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No, single men do not have a “right” to reproduce

The World Health Organisation’s new definition of infertility enshrines a man’s right to do to women what patriarchy has always done to them – own their bodies.

Last year, Katha Pollitt wrote an article for The Nation in which she asked why the left was simultaneously making progress with equal marriage while falling behind on abortion rights. “The media ,” she wrote, “present marriage equality and reproductive rights as ‘culture war’ issues, as if they somehow went together. But perhaps they’re not as similar as we think.”

She highlighted the ways in which the right can afford to cede ground on marriage equality while continuing to deny females bodily autonomy. She is right to do so. While both reproductive choice and gay rights may be classed as gender issues, each has its own very specific relationship to patriarchy.

A woman’s desire to control her reproductive destiny will always be in direct opposition to patriarchy’s desire to exploit female bodies as a reproductive resource. The social institutions that develop to support the latter – such as marriage – may change, but the exploitation can remain in place.

This has, I think, caused great confusion for those of us who like to see ourselves as progressive. We know that the idealisation of the heterosexual nuclear family, coupled with the demonisation of all relationships seen as “other”, has caused harm to countless individuals. We refuse to define marriage as solely for the purpose of procreation, or to insist that a family unit includes one parent of each sex.

We know we are right in thinking that one cannot challenge patriarchy without fundamentally revising our understanding of family structures. Where we have gone wrong is in assuming that a revision of family structures will, in and of itself, challenge patriarchy. On the contrary, it can accommodate it.

This is why all feminists – and indeed anyone serious about tackling patriarchy at the root – should be deeply concerned about the World Health Organisation’s new definition of infertility. Whereas up until now infertility has been defined solely in medical terms (as the failure to achieve pregnancy after 12 months of unprotected sex), a revised definition will give each individual “a right to reproduce”.

According to Dr David Adamson, one of the authors of the new standards, this new definition “includes the rights of all individuals to have a family, and that includes single men, single women, gay men, gay women”:

“It puts a stake in the ground and says an individual’s got a right to reproduce whether or not they have a partner. It’s a big change.”

It sure is. From now on, even single men who want children – but cannot have them solely because they do not have a female partner to impregnate – will be classed as “infertile”. I hope I’m not the only person to see a problem with this.

I am all in favour of different family structures. I’m especially in favour of those that undermine an age-old institution set up to allow men to claim ownership of women’s reproductive labour and offspring.

I am less enthusiastic about preserving a man’s “right” to reproductive labour regardless of whether or not he has a female partner. The safeguarding of such a right marks not so much an end to patriarchy as the introduction of a new, improved, pick ‘n’ mix, no-strings-attached version.

There is nothing in Adamson’s words to suggest he sees a difference between the position of a reproductively healthy single woman and a reproductively healthy single man. Yet the difference seems obvious to me. A woman can impregnate herself using donor sperm; a man must impregnate another human being using his sperm.

In order to exercise his “right” to reproduce, a man requires the cooperation – or failing that, forced labour – of a female person for the duration of nine months. He requires her to take serious health risks, endure permanent physical side-effects and then to supress any bond she may have developed with the growing foetus. A woman requires none of these things from a sperm donor.

This new definition of infertility effectively enshrines a man’s right to do to women what patriarchy has always done to them: appropriate their labour, exploit their bodies and then claim ownership of any resultant human life.

Already it is being suggested that this new definition may lead to a change in UK surrogacy law. And while some may find it reassuring to see Josephine Quintavalle of the conservative pressure group Comment on Reproductive Ethics complaining about the sidelining of “the biological process and significance of natural intercourse between a man and a woman”, that really isn’t the problem here.

“How long,” asks Quintavalle, “before babies are created and grown on request completely in the lab?” The answer to this is “probably a very long time indeed”. After all, men are hardly on the verge of running out of poor and/or vulnerable women to exploit. As long as there are female people who feel their only remaining resource is a functioning womb, why bother developing complex technology to replace them?

Men do not have a fundamental right to use female bodies, neither for reproduction nor for sex. A man who wants children but has no available partner is no more “infertile” than a man who wants sex but has no available partner is “sexually deprived”.

The WHO’s new definition is symptomatic of men’s ongoing refusal to recognise female boundaries. Our bodies are our own, not a resource to be put at men’s disposal. Until all those who claim to be opposed to patriarchal exploitation recognise this, progress towards gender-based equality will be very one-sided indeed.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.