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27 September 2013updated 07 Sep 2021 9:42am

Why should we listen to the Remembrance Day poppy mafia?

The decline of foreign reporting, Charles I's earring, and what we should tell our daughters.

By Helen Lewis

In the words of Anchorman: “Well, that escalated quickly.” When we first started talking to Russell Brand about a possible guest edit, he’d recently published a piece on the death of Margaret Thatcher, in which he wrote that “all of us that grew up under Thatcher were taught that it is good to be selfish, that other people’s pain is not your problem, that pain is in fact a weakness and suffering is deserved and shameful”. Hang on, we thought, this guy can write. (Tragically, due to schedule clashes, our original plan to send him to the Tory party conference had to be shelved: if you thought Brand/Paxo was must-watch TV, imagine Brand/Boris.)

And, fittingly for a former Sun “shagger of the year”, he’s also proved to be internet Viagra: in October, the New Statesman website recorded more than two million monthly unique users for the first time (our old friend the Spectator has just celebrated topping one million). The Spectator columnist Rod Liddle, fresh from endangering the trial of Stephen Lawrence’s killers, sneered that the guest edit would have tripled our sales “to about 27, once all Russell’s exes and his fan club bought copies”. As it happens, Rod, the NS is now being read by more people than ever before. Also, I’m pretty sure he has more than 27 exes.

Flower power

One of my mum’s most treasured possessions is a photo of her parents’ wedding day during the Second World War – my grandmother in a simple dress, my granddad in a smart uniform. To honour the sacrifices their generation made, I’ve always worn a poppy.

But in the past few years, something has changed. Repeated public shamings of those who don’t wear one, such as Channel 4’s Jon Snow, have terrified everyone into poppydom as an act of compliance, rather than one of pride and respect.

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At the BBC over the weekend – a full fortnight before Remembrance Day – I was offered a poppy to wear on screen four times, always with the words: “Of course, you don’t have to wear one.” The unspoken addendum was “. . . but if you don’t, you might end up in a tabloid gallery of people who callously refuse to honour our brave war dead”.

I bloody well object to this, given that it never seems to be people who have served in the armed forces who get on their high horse about it.

Motherload of blunders

In Wanstead, east London, on Tuesday, I spoke to Melissa Benn about What Should We Tell Our Daughters?, her new book on feminism. I praised the internet forum Mumsnet, saying that many of my friends had found it invaluable when parenthood proved – frankly – more boring and less fulfilling than they’d imagined. Immediately in the Q&A session, a hand shot up. Its owner told me off for denigrating motherhood.

A version of this seems to happen every time a prominent woman talks about her personal experience of motherhood, whether it’s staying at home or going back to work, whether she’s deliriously happy or decidedly underwhelmed – her decision is taken as a slight by those who’ve chosen a different path. Why does anything to do with motherhood so often feel like picking a team?

Pearls of criticism

The Victoria & Albert museum has a big new show dedicated to pearls. My favourite exhibit – appealing to both the ghoul and the history nerd in me – is the earring Charles I was wearing when the executioner decapitated him. But it was jarring to receive a lecture at the end about the evils of low-quality Chinese cultured pearls flooding the market. Then I clocked that the show was sponsored by the Qatar Museums Authority and the oil company Shell. The latter, in particular, probably doesn’t want people getting the idea that switching to cheaper new technologies is a Good Thing.

All change for correspondents

By the time you read this, I will have been on a panel at Chatham House talking about the future of foreign correspondents. The think tank asks hopefully if the decline of the peripatetic reporter will be offset by the rise of “citizen journalism”. I’ll be in Eeyore-ish mood, pointing to Syria as a case study of the future problems of foreign reporting: it’s almost impossible to get journalists in there, and those who do get in become targets at once, not just for government forces but also for rebels who know that western deaths command more international attention.

Under such circumstances, verifying pictures and footage from the country becomes even more important. But that’s not always possible and sometimes an editor will have to make a call on trusting a source’s word.

That’s what seems to have happened in the case of a shocking picture, of a foetus with a bullet in its head, which made the front page of the Times next to reports that Assad’s snipers were targeting pregnant women. My colleague Sophie McBain spoke to a ballistics expert who found the picture improbable, but said that there was no definitive way to prove or disprove it. The problem of foreign reporting in the future will be this: we will have more information than ever before, but it will be as hard as ever to find out what’s true.

A flock of Brandisers

Being the NS’s resident women’s libber, I’ve been asked several times this week how I felt about having such a “womaniser” involved with the paper. I find that a bit old-fashioned: it presupposes an idea of sex as something that men have to extort from women, with bribes, dinners or promises of commitment. Having seen the scale of female attention Russell Brand gets in private, I would suggest that, instead of thinking of him as a womaniser, it’s more helpful to think of many women as would-be Brandisers.

Peter Wilby returns next week