Jaw-dropping anecdotes, Muslim jokes and Murakami’s sexy ear

Regular readers will remember Paul McMullan, the safari-suited defender of the tabloid press who was memorably recorded by Hugh Grant spilling the beans about phone-hacking in an undercover exposé for this magazine. The former News of the World deputy features editor turned the Leveson inquiry into car-crash TV on 29 November, coming up with a series of almost unbelievable anecdotes and quotes. He said that "in a bizarre way, [he] felt slightly proud" that the name-and-shame anti-paedophile campaign caused a riot that led to a paediatrician's house being attacked - and that "privacy is for paedos", anyway. He revealed that he was at journalism college with Michael Gove; that he dressed as "Brad the teenage rent boy" to get a story about a spanking priest; that he used a Hell's Angel as a private investigator; and that phone-hacking was no big deal, because Monica on Friends listened to her ex-boyfriend's answerphone messages.

Casually noting how phone numbers were traded between journalists, he told the judge: "I swapped Sylvester Stallone's mother for David Beckham." Jackie Stallone is an ex-Celebrity Big Brother contestant who claims to be able to read your future in your buttocks. David Beckham is an internationally renowned superstar sportsman. I'd call it the best decision McMullan ever made, if it wasn't for the fact that, when he tried to hack Beckham's answering machine, the footballer foiled his plan by picking up the phone.

The oddest moment, against stiff competition, was when he claimed that the source of the story about Grant's baby was a letter sent to his pub by one of the actor's friends. "I reckoned the tip was so hot, I was going to build a new toilet suite based on this!" he exulted.

The news channels have stopped covering the inquiry with the intensity of the early days, when Grant and Steve Coogan - and the McCanns and the Dowlers - appeared there. That's a shame, because the past few days have been much more revealing. On 28 November, Charlotte Church gave measured, undefensive and damning evidence about the pressures that were heaped on her as a teenager in the public eye, including a tasteful countdown to the date it was legal to have sex with her.

Having only experienced Church as the "voice of an angel" turned "hard-drinking ladette" of the tabloids, I was astonished by the sensible, intelligent woman who appeared in front of the inquiry. Sienna Miller - an actress I'm not sure I've ever seen act but whose love life and outfit choices I could recount to you in detail - was also impressive in acknowledging that what happened to her was distressing but in no way equivalent to the suffering of parents of murdered children.

The inquiry has been a depressing experience, although listening to the Guardian's Nick Davies - the man who exposed the hacking scandal - did give me some hope for my trade.

After hearing all of this, it seems probable that Lord Leveson will conclude that regulation of the press by the PCC has failed. But he is unlikely to be able to address the elephant in the room, although McMullan did towards the end of his extraordinary evidence: "Sometimes, I wouldn't have bought the News of the World even though I worked for it. But the British public did."

Relative values

One of the most common complaints levelled against lefty comedians is that they don't make jokes about really sensitive issues and instead stick to cheap shots about powerless minorities such as Christians and Etonians and the Queen. "It is hard to imagine Jimmy Carr or any of his cohorts making a joke about Muhammad," wrote Jan Moir in the Daily Mail on 25 November.

With pleasing synchronicity, I went to see Stewart Lee's stand-up set the same week, in which he tackles this idea head-on. (Incidentally, the pair have clashed before: Moir accused him of being part of a "cabal of foul-mouthed left-wing comics" in contrast to the blameless Michael McIntyre; Lee called her the Mail's "chief rage-monger".)

In the course of a clever but uneven set, Lee suggests that the real reason why comics like him don't joke about Islam is because they know very little about it and comedy relies on a shared cultural knowledge between performer and audience.
Nonetheless, Lee tries a typically twisting, self-parodying "Muslim joke" nonetheless - in the hope, he says, of a reviewer describing him as an "Islamophobic Michael McIntyre" or "the Sarah Millican of cultural relativism". Which I suppose I have done here. Hope he's pleased.

Rude v prude

Anyone offended by bad language - and even worse prose - look away now. The Literary Review has published the shortlist for its annual Bad Sex in Fiction Awards and there are some absolute stinkers on the list. The venerable Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 offers my favourite passage (sorry, it's impossible to write about these awards without becoming painfully conscious of stray innuendoes in your own writing). Prepare yourself: "A freshly made ear and a freshly made vagina look very much alike, Tengo thought. Both appeared to be turned outward, trying to listen closely to something - something like a distant bell." Freshly made?

Still, there's a point to all this sniggering behind the hand, as the Review's senior editor Jonathan Beckman pointed out in the Financial Times: "Prudishness lies at the heart of poor sex writing . . . Good sex writing, by contrast, is clear, precise and unillusioned."

Or, to put it another way, if you can't construct a decent sentence about this fundamental human experience, why should the reader trust you on anything else?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral

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Of course we could do more to stop terrorism – if we’re willing to live in a police state

 The only way to stop this sort of human monster completely is to become like them.

What are we prepared to sacrifice to keep children safe? On Monday night at Manchester arena, 22 people were senselessly slaughtered. Many of them were young girls, pouring out of a pop concert, giddy with excitement. Hours before the killer was identified or Islamic State had claimed responsibility for the attack, the political conversation had already turned to vengeance, and respected public thinkers were calling, in the name of those dead children, for further crackdowns on immigrants and perceived outsiders, for troops on the streets, for "internment camps'" with straight faces and the sincere implication that anyone who disagrees is weak-willed and possibly a terrorist sympathiser. A lot of little girls have been killed. What good are tolerance and human rights today?

Nobody can be expected to be instantly rational when dozens of kids have just been maimed and murdered. There are, however, individuals who seem more than prepared to exploit the occasion to further their own agendas. Yet again, we are told that the state is failing in its duty to protect "our" children, that pansy liberals won't let us raise the "obvious solutions" to this problem. Nobody can quite bring themselves to articulate exactly what those "obvious solutions" might be, hedging the issue instead with grave looks, raised eyebrows and stern allusions to the consequences of political correctness. The consensus is that we are living in a nation so paralysed by hand-flapping progressive talk-talkery that ordinary, right-thinking folks aren’t allowed to say what’s really on their minds. 

The truth is that nobody’s stopping anyone from saying what they think about any of this, and if you don’t believe me, take a brisk scroll through Twitter this afternoon, and keep some eyeball bleach on hand. In fact, the reason a lot of people are stopping short of saying what they think ought to be done is that they know full well that what they think ought to be done is unacceptable and shameful in any sane society. So shameful, indeed, that it takes a professional shit-stirrer to speak it aloud. 

Enter Katie Hopkins. It’s not just pro-trolls like her who have called for a "final solution" following the Manchester Arena bombing. Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson declared that we should start putting "thousands" of people in "internment camps" in the name of protecting children. Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill echoed the tone, blaming "multiculturalism" for mass murder, and implying that anyone advocating calm and tolerance in the face of terrorism does not feel sufficiently angry about the murder of 22 of their fellow citizens. “It is becoming clear,” insists O'Neill, “that the top-down promotion of a hollow ‘togetherness’ in response to terrorism is about cultivating passivity.”

In fact, Britain is far from passive in the face of extremist violence. Britain already has one of the most robust counter-terrorism programs on the planet. We are among the most surveilled societies in the Western world. We have a counter-extremism program, Prevent, that places a duty in schools, universities and other public bodies to report any suspected radical or "extremist" activity, and is so exacting that it has been condemned by experts and educators across the board as an infringement of the right to free speech and thought. The authorities responsible for heading off and hunting down these psychopaths and all who sail with them are hardly slacking on the job. The problem is that there's really no way to up the game from here without going full police state. The pundits condemning the relevant institutions as shirkers today know this full well, which is why a police state is exactly what they’re asking for, with the inference that anyone who disagrees is awfully relaxed about the violent death of young girls and their parents.

So let’s not mince words. Let's be absolutely clear what’s at stake here. Let us acknowledge that yes, we could do more to stop this, if we wanted. And then let's think about whether that's really, actually, what we want.

Yes, we could do more. We could allow the state to round up and lock away anyone even remotely suspected of violent, extremist tendencies; anyone who has ever accessed a suspicious website or attended a dubious lecture. We'd have to lock those people up for a very long time, of course, because if there's one thing that nudges people from a passing interest in anti-state violence into full on fanaticism, it's active state oppression. We could ban anyone who's ever been in any way associated with extremist ideology from entering the country, including those who are fleeing violence themselves. We could institute total surveillance of everyone’s online activity. We could build those internment camps. They’d be expensive, so it’s only fair that potential degenerates and their associates be obliged to work for their keep. Of course, you wouldn't want those internment camps spread out - you'd want the inmates concentrated in one place. What could we call such camps? I’m sure we’ll think of a name.

If we did all that, and more, then yes, there's a chance that we could stop atrocities like this from happening again. Even then, there's no guarantee. The most exacting neo-stasi infrastructure can’t always stop the rogue loner with a breadknife and a brain boiling with arcane violence. It would, however, significantly lower the odds.

The question is not whether it can be done. Of course it can be done. Paranoid, bloodless, hyper-vigilant police states have been instituted in European nations before, and if any country on earth has the infrastructure to make it work right now, it's Britain, a small island with an extensive surveillance architecture, a mostly urban population, a conservative government currently seeking re-election on a tough-love platform, and no pesky constitutional rights to free speech. We can do it if we want to. Sure we can. The question is whether we should. The question is whether it's worth it. Is it worth it, to prevent the loss of one more young life, the devastation of one more family?

Don’t answer that right now. Give it a few days, at least, because right now it makes a great deal of emotional sense to say yes, yes, it’s worth it. Anything to stop something like this happening again. To save one child. To keep hundreds more from being traumatised for life just because they went to a pop concert with their friends. I suspect that today, tucked away in the collective psyche of a great many otherwise tolerant and decent people, is a furious, frightened voice yelling - sure, let’s do it. Let’s shut the borders and build the camps. It might not be nice, it might not even be right, but these evil dickheads are killing kids, so frankly, fuck the Geneva convention.

That furious, frightened instinct needs to be named so we can deal with it like adults. The anger and the fear here are real and legitimate, even though a great many bad actors are exploiting them to further racist, xenophobic agendas. It’s alright to be frightened and furious. It’s not alright to let those emotions dictate public policy. Today, with the faces of murdered little girls all over the news, is not a day to ask anyone what they’re prepared to sacrifice to make sure this never happens again.

Because the truth is that the only way to stop this sort of human monster is to become like them. The only way to be sure that no swivel-eyed extremist who hates life, and liberty and raw youthful joy so much that he's prepared to blow up a pop concert full of teenagers can never do that again is to acquiesce to the sort of state apparatus that is anathema to joy and liberty and life, the sort of state apparatus that no child should grow up with.

This is why platitudes about 'unity', about 'not letting hate win', about keeping it together and trying not to let our worst instincts take over, are not, in fact, platitudes at all. They are not banal. They are not hollow. It takes enormous strength of character, at a time like this,  not to give in to fear and rage and the rationale of revenge. The people of Manchester are showing that strength in the wake of one of the most horrific mass murders this tense and divided nation has ever seen. We owe it to them, to the victims of this attack, and to their families not to sully their memories by surrendering to the logic of intolerance.

It is at moments like this when a community proves its character.  It is at times like this that it is more, not less essential to refuse racist and fascist ideas. Tolerance is not passivity. Kindness is not weakness. It is not cowardly to stay with our anger and our grief and refuse to let those emotions sway our commitment to human dignity, or to look dreadful vengeance in the face and refuse it. It is strength. It is strength more profound and more human than fundamentalists of any faction can comprehend, and if we hang on to that strength, they will never, ever win. 

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

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