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Trans rights, TERFs, and a bruised 60-year-old: what happened at Speakers’ Corner?

How an event about gender led to an attack in Hyde Park.

On the evening of Wednesday 13 September, pictures of a 60-year-old woman with bruises on her face began to circulate online.

The person in the picture is called Maria MacLachlan. She claims on both Mumsnet and Facebook that she was “beaten up by a bunch of kids” at Speakers’ Corner after “some kid in a hoodie” tried to take her camera, which was looped around her wrist.

(From Mumsnet)

MacLachlan was waiting to attend an event called “What is Gender?” – its location was announced at Speakers’ Corner last night, and while waiting she came into contact with people she describes as “trans activist bullies” who were protesting against the event. MacLachlan has not responded to a request for comment.

The event she wanted to attend was initially scheduled for Wednesday 13 September from 7-9pm at the New Cross Learning centre in Lewisham, south-east London. The speakers would be discussing the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 (which is now under review by the government).

What is Gender? flyer from Twitter

When the event was announced, activists, including the campaign groups Sisters Uncut, Goldsmiths LGBTQ+ Society, and Action for Trans Health London, organised a protest against it. None of their call-outs to their members that are visible on Facebook incited violent action. All three organisations have been asked for comment but have not yet responded.

Some protesters encouraged contacting the organisers of the event to ask for it to be cancelled. This is because the speakers included the writer and self-described “fabulous transsexual” Miranda Yardley, the “radical lesbian feminist activist” Dr Julia Long and jewellery designer Venice Allan.

They are all well-known feminist figures who are accused of being “TERFs” – short for “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists” – by some in the trans community and beyond, who find their views on gender threatening towards trans women in particular (Long calls trans women “he”, for example, and Allan’s most recent tweet at the time of writing states, “trans women are NOT women”.)

The protesters argued that there was no “debate” aspect to the talk, and therefore the prevailing message would be an attack on trans people.

On Tuesday 12 September, the New Cross Learning centre announced that it would be cancelling the event. “After completing a risk assessment the Management Committee believe the potential risks to the library, volunteers, public and building are beyond our risk appetite,” it wrote on its Facebook page. “Our decision is not due to outside pressure but is purely taken for health & safety reasons.”

(From the New Cross Learning Facebook page)

Although the venue denies outside pressure led to the event being cancelled, Goldsmiths LGBTQ+ Society claimed some part in the decision on its Facebook page: “GOOD NEWS! This protest has been cancelled, because the event has been cancelled!!”, it announced. “We succeeded in putting enough pressure on the organisers that the[y] decided to cancel for 'Health and Safety concerns'.”

(From the Goldsmiths LGBTQ+ Facebook page)

The venue has not yet responded to the New Statesman's question asking if it received threatening calls or emails from any of these protest groups, and there is currently no evidence to suggest it did.

On the day the event was due to take place, the speaker Yardley tweeted a meeting point – Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park – for heading to its new location:

Protesters as well as attendees like MacLachlan gathered in Hyde Park in response to this, which is when the incident occurred. There is some footage of the altercation on YouTube:

It is difficult to tell in the clip what exactly happened – there is a scuffle that involves MacLachlan in physical contact with a younger person, a piece of equipment (her camera) crashing to the floor, and then being hit in the face by a third person in a hoodie who eventually runs off.

There are cries of “call the police” at the end of the clip. The identity of the perpetrator or perpetrators is unknown.

After initally saying twice that they had no record of the incident, the Metropolitan Police later said they had been called to an the incident at 7:30pm and spoken to the victim. There were no arrests and and enquiries continue. 

Although the circumstances of the attack are still unclear (and will probably remain so, unless clearer footage emerges or the police investigation procves fruitful), voices from both camps – those who were in favour of the event taking place, and those against – are claiming what it reveals about their opponents.

Trans activists warn that the incident could be used to claim they are violent, or that it might be described as an episode of male violence, which would be offensive if the attacker turns out to be a trans woman.

(From the Action for Trans Health London Facebook page)

Others, such as the speakers and those who are sympathetic towards them, are asking why we can’t all condemn an attack on a woman.

No conclusions can be drawn without further evidence or testimony from the parties involved, so it’s probably best to end with the writer and comedian Shon Faye’s Twitter take on the story, and condemn both transphobia and violence against women:

This article was updated at 10.45am on the 20 September 2017 after the Metropolitan Police corrected their earlier statements that there was no record of the incident. They had previously stated on two occasions that no incident had been reported.


Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?