Militant secularists, tragic bathtubs and Biggles on Newsnight

In these troubled economic times, isn't it good to know that some parts of our export market are thriving? In the year since its government began a violent crackdown on protests, the Gulf state of Bahrain has bought more than £1m of British military equipment. This includes "licences for gun silencers, weapons sights, rifles, artillery and components for military training aircraft", according to Richard Norton-Taylor in the Guardian. We've even exported the Met's former assistant commissioner John Yates, who is considering introducing that venerable British tradition known as "kettling" to contain protesters.

We also sold Saudi Arabia £1m of arms between June and September last year (its army duly chuntered into Bahrain in British-made trucks). At the Commons committee on arms-export controls, William Hague patiently explained that although the British government was concerned about Saudi Arabia's treatment of women and foreign workers, it was OK because most of our exports were Typhoon fighter jets and "they are not relevant to our concerns about these rights". Although, since women can't drive cars in Saudi Arabia, I presume they can't fly jets either.

Waste paper

Attention, numbers fans! As well as being universally hated, the health service reform bill is also terminally unwieldy. At 72,788 words, it's not only three times bigger than the bill that created the NHS but also longer than Breakfast at Tiffany's, Animal Farm, the US constitution and The Waste Land combined.

As even the civil servants working on the bill have complained they don't understand it, I also suspect The Waste Land makes more sense.

Losing their religion?

Who can take Baroness Warsi, who popped off for a Valentine's Day half-term trip to the Vatican, seriously when she talks about "militant secularists" threatening to take over Britain? Those arguing that religion is a private matter are "deeply intolerant", she asserts, demonstrating "similar traits to totalitarian regimes".

What Warsi conspicuously fails to mention is what form this "militancy" is supposed to take, aside from a general whinge that there is no mention of Christianity in the European constitution. When it was reported this month that prayers at council meetings had been "banned", a closer look at the story showed that councillors were free to pray before and after and that the judge merely stopped them from making everyone else join in with them during a meeting.

Similarly, when the Pope came to Britain in 2010, the Daily Mail ran a front page complaining of an "atheist hate campaign" against him led by Stephen Fry. It turned out this consisted mostly of - prepare yourselves - a strongly worded letter to the Guardian. How can God compete with such weapons?

The death bath

Believe me, I've been trying to feel sorry for the Sun since the arrests of five more of its journalists but the paper isn't making it easy. First there was its former political editor Trevor Kavanagh's claim that the 171 police officers involved made it the "biggest single police operation in the history of British policing".

As the non-partisan Full Fact blog points out, not only are there three operations, involving 169 not 171 "officers and staff", but Operation Sumac, the investigation into the murder of five prostitutes in Ipswich in 2006, involved 300 officers and staff from Suffolk police. It's likely that other murder investigations of similar breadth also involved more than 169 police.

Second, the paper has covered the death of Whitney Houston in spectacularly ghoulish fashion. On 15 February, it cleared out its front page for a shot of "Whitney's Death Bath" (I presume it was fair game because the bath had sought publicity in the past).

The Death Bath came complete with "a towel, hair ties and a dish for body oil". The Sun described this as a "Tragic Hotel Scene". It'd find the state of my bathroom in the morning unbearably poignant.

Banterbury Tales

It was inevitable, really. As soon as the Guardian website asked readers to submit their favourite "bad chat-up lines", in flooded the rape jokes. "Does this smell like chloroform to you?" chortled two commenters. "Get in the van!" chuckled another. (These were all deleted later by moderators.) On Twitter, the hashtag #candyheartrejects had many of the same gags. As the Unilad debacle (see Laurie Penny on page 13) shows, there is a swath of society desperate to make rape jokes in any outlet they can. The stand-up comedian Graeme Lamb told me that he was once at an open-mike night in Manchester where half of the acts made them, prompting the MC to step in and call a halt.

The Telegraph's Tom Chivers suggests that such jokes have flourished because "the battle over the offensiveness of the act is won". I'd love to think that, but it seems to me more that defensive young men, seeing their female counterparts everywhere stepping on their old turf, are taking refuge in manly "banter", reassuring themselves there are some arenas where women still aren't welcome.

Biggles goes to Athens

A quick word before I go. Hurry and there's still time to watch the 13 February edition of Newsnight on the iPlayer. Ignore Michael Wolff shouting about Murdoch, but appreciate instead Sue Lloyd-Roberts's excellent reporting on the "virginity tests" inflicted on female protesters in Egypt's revolution and the struggles of the nine women MPs now in parliament.

As a bonus, there's Paul Mason reporting from Greece in a natty anti-tear-gas outfit of mask and goggles which makes him look a bit like Biggles.

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 20 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?