Jamie’s mangetout dinner, a fool’s bargain, and why West Side Story is better than opera

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

If Bashar al-Assad’s regime is using chemical weapons in Syria – and given how our leaders deceived us over Iraq, it is hard to know what to believe – the argument for US and UK intervention is hard to resist. Yet resist it we should. No good ever comes of meddling in the Middle East. Cruise missile attacks on Damascus may strengthen Assad, allowing him to rally patriotic support and portray the rebels as western-Zionist stooges. Or they may strengthen the Islamists in Syria, including two al-Qaeda groups. Most likely, both Assad and the Islamists will gain. Liberal secularists get marginalised when the bombs start to fly.
 
The Assad regime has always murdered, tortured and imprisoned its opponents. It is now doing in the open the sort of thing it has done behind prison doors for years. If we wish to stop dictators, we should not wait until the TV beams atrocities into our living rooms. There are 27 countries on the government’s list of human rights violators. According to a parliamentary committee, 25 of them have been licensed to receive exports of British military and intelligence equipment. The Department for Business considers Libya and Saudi Arabia “priority markets for arms exports”. Other customers include Egypt, Bahrain, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Russia and, yes, Syria, which was invited to an arms fair in London last year.
 
The most common argument for continuing the arms trade is that it gives us influence over tyrants. That doesn’t seem to be working terribly well.
 

Economical with the truth

 
“Lies!” my late father always shouted when advertisements came on TV. Everybody knows that ads contain untruths, I would say. But, he would point out, all too many people believe them – though how they would be enlightened by his shouting when only my mother and I were within earshot he did not explain.
 
The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) often strikes me as being about as effective as he was. It is lately exercised over discounts, which are simply advertisers’ lies in another form, like claims that a powder washes whitest. It has announced an investigation into furniture and carpet chains that inflate prices for short periods in a few stores and then present the normal prices as bargains. Tesco, meanwhile, has been fined £300,000 for labelling strawberries as “half price”.
 
However, such claims are ubiquitous, because there can be no “normal” price for fresh fruit and vegetables, which vary according to season, or for tables, which come in all shapes and sizes. The only true discounts are on standardised, branded goods, such as tins of Heinz baked beans.
 
Whatever regulations the OFT tries to impose, shopkeepers will find new ways to mislead customers. If it takes particular exception to lies about prices, it should either ban discount claims entirely or permit them only if retailers announce price rises with equal prominence.
 

Market forces

 
The tradition of blaming the poor for their poverty dies hard. The celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, speaking with metropolitan authority, advises that, instead of eating “chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers”, the poor should visit their local market and “just grab ten mangetout for dinner”. It would be cheaper than at supermarkets where, he explains, “You’re going to buy a 200g bag . . . or a 400g pack.”
 
Here in Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, there’s a market once a month. I’ve never seen any mangetout and the veg come in 200g or 400g bags. Not the place to be poor, perhaps.
 

The dark ages

 
Cricket’s bad light laws –which robbed England of victory and paying spectators of a thrilling climax in the final Ashes Test at the Oval – are preposterous. A dark red ball, it is said, is hard to see even when the floodlights are on (as they were at the Oval) and it is therefore dangerous and unreasonable to continue when natural light is fading.
 
Yet batsmen are now protected by helmets and other gear, while fielders and umpires are probably more threatened on late afternoons with the sun in their eyes. One of the bestknown matches in history – a knockout cup tie between Lancashire and Gloucestershire in 1971 – ended in semi-darkness just before 9pm in late July with an over from one of the world’s fastest bowlers. The batting side won, even though nobody then wore helmets and white balls hadn’t been invented. One batsman scored 24 in an over. Before he went out, he sat in a darkened room to accustom his eyes to the conditions.
 
High-flying Jets I am usually doubtful about the merits of musicals but I decided to give the Sadler’s Wells performance of West Side Story a try. It was brilliant.
 
Two things occurred to me. First, West Side Story (1957), which is about the tensions between New York street gangs, was as important an influence as Look Back in Anger (1956) in liberating theatre from middle-class characters in middle-class settings.
 
Second, if, as its supporters sometimes claim, opera is the highest art form because it combines music, poetry and narrative drama, West Side Story must be higher still because it combines those three, and dance. Discuss, as the exam papers say.
Jamie Oliver with Australian Premier Ted Baillieu in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA