Josie Cunningham. Photo: @JosieCOnline
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Josie Cunningham and the Big Brother abortion: why do some women volunteer for a witch-burning?

Josie Cunningham became famous for revealing she had her breasts enlarged on the NHS. Now she says she wants an abortion to go on Big Brother. In her determination to incite outrage, Cunningham is basically Abu Hamza with a double-D cup. Why do it?

Because the Middle Ages in Europe were a long and tedious era to be alive in, and because humanity was not happy to just hang around waiting for gifs and Buzzfeed quizzes to be invented, we learned to make our own entertainment. One of our main sources of fun was charivari, which was when the village decided that someone had done something the village didn’t like – often, though not always, something involving being a woman and having sex – and would get together to show its disapproval by banging pots outside the miscreant’s house.

Now we have smartphones, which means that we can leave the stockpot in the cupboard. We barely have to take half an eye off the newest farting otter or skateboarding goat when it’s time for a bit of charivari: we can just type “LOL SLAG” into Twitter and then get on with what we were doing, knowing that communal justice has been served. Which is a long way round of saying that the internet pasting being given to Josie Cunningham, after the aspiring celeb told the Mirror that she would have an abortion in order to get into the Big Brother house, isn't much of a cultural novelty. What is remarkable is that she seems to have very deliberately set out to be loathed.

 

 

Everything we know about her, we know because she's volunteered it. Her privacy hasn't been invaded, her words haven't been twisted. She sat down, with a camera on, and said things like: “I’m not having the abortion for the money, because I could get more money for the baby pictures.” Whether Cunningham is likeable obviously doesn't have anything to do with her right to an abortion – although if you listened to some columnists, you'd think that foetal personhood existed in inverse proportion to the personableness of the pregnant woman, so the more they hate Cunningham, the more likely they are to talk about the "innocent baby" or "unborn child". But in her determination to incite outrage, Cunningham is basically Abu Hamza with a double-D cup.

And Cunningham's chest is further evidence that she knows what she's inciting, because her previous moment of greatest fame (and the reason she's even under consideration for Big Brother) involved having a breast enlargement on the NHS, then talking to the papers about it. On her website, you can find a picture of her posing with nothing but some NHS tape over her cannonball tits to conceal the nipples. Her public career, such as it is, consists of trolling through elective medical procedures. And the media loves it. The Mail, the Sun, the Mirror, now me in the New Statesman – Cunningham gives everyone something to talk about. She fits our purpose.

In the Mail, Jan Moir calls her "another silly, silly young woman who has been encouraged to believe in her own specialness and suffering". For the Mirror's Carole Malone, she's "the poster girl for all that's dirty, immoral and sick in our society". And maybe she is, though not exactly in the way these writers intend. Like Moir and Malone, who are paid to "say the unsayable" and take the consequences, Cunningham is evidence that "hate figure" is tantamount to a valid profession for a woman.

A montage of news coverage, from Cunningham's website.

There are obnoxious male journalists, of course, ones who revel in their own unpleasantness – the Liddles and the Littlejohns. But there's no male equivalent of, say, Samantha Brick. A man writing a column might intend to offend, but when it's a woman offering the outrage, her very existence becomes part of the affront. Men can make careers directing hate at other people; women find it easier to channel it towards themselves. Sometimes, as in the case of Katie Hopkins, they do it so well that they make the jump from reality show monster to tabloid monsterer. If Cunningham needed to refine the art of saying something appalling and then turning public revulsion into profit, Hopkins would be the perfect place to look.

The demand for these permanently burnable witches seems easy enough to explain: it's down to cultural misogyny. Less obvious is why women show such alacrity in taking on the role, but perhaps there's an answer in Cunningham's backstory. According to her account, she was ferociously bullied by boys at school for having small breasts. "I may not have been suffering in a visable [sic] manner, but mentally I was suffering for over a decade," she writes on her official site. Maybe once you've learned to be hated, and learned to be the best at hating yourself, it begins to make sense that you should get some benefit from it. #

Bring on the pots and pans; Josie Cunningham is apparently ready for all the noise you can make, as long as you pay her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.