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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.