Is Big Brother watching?
I am concerned that the media (i.e. newspapers, magazines, and radio and television reports) is having undue influence over the rest of the population and more so now than ever before. The media is of course well-known for moulding news stories by fashioning the narratives in such a way as to put across their point of view – or to help encourage certain reactions from their readers. Journalists also have a habit of oversimplifying complicated matters because it makes their work much easier and produces more attention-grabbing headlines. There have been several examples of this lately and so I plan to delve into a few to highlight what I mean.
THE LEVESON INQUIRY
The Leveson Inquiry is currently showing the world the ‘cosy’ relationship which seems to have developed over the past couple of decades between media tycoons such as the Murdochs and Cabinet ministers.
U-TURNS ON BUDGET POLICIES
There have been several so-called “u-turns” in policies put forward by the Coalition Government recently. But are these u-turns down to government ministers listening to the population or simply by listening to the hammering they are getting in the press? (No, these are not necessarily the same thing.)
However, if Chancellor George Osborne and his associates had more carefully managed the media image of these policies, then maybe they could have avoided the need for the u-turns as the public would have more readily accepted the policies in the first place.
For example, the “pasty tax” (as it has been dubbed by the media) was actually not a new tax, but rather an attempt to prevent certain shops from flouting an existing loophole meaning they could sell certain products without adding VAT by claiming they weren’t being sold as ‘hot’ food. Now, surely something which is stopping unscrupulous businesses from bypassing taxes should be seen as a good thing for the average tax-paying citizen? Unfortunately this didn’t happen as the policy wasn’t explained in those terms and so as soon as the media managed to give it a bad name, the opposition were able to jump on the bandwagon, and it was doomed.
The ironic thing about the criticism from the press leading to government u-turns is that the inevitable happens: the press begin making a fuss about how these u-turns are signs that the ministers don’t know what they are doing. So it would appear that the government are damned if they do and damned if they don’t – what chance do they have?
MEDIA INFLUENCE IN OTHER AREAS
Media influence isn’t just limited to politics, but it has also become a worryingly dominant feature in how people perceive themselves; at least in terms of their outward appearance.
A selection of popular magazines
Recently, the results of a report announced that children as young as five feel under pressure to be the ‘perfect weight’ and to look a certain way. It is tragic to think that the positive spin given to the pictures of celebrities (often edited) spread all over the pages of magazines and tabloid newspapers can have such a negative impact on impressionable young minds. Wider society needs to take some of the blame as well because we currently can’t seem to be able to get the balance right between telling people not to worry about being stick thin and being concerned about people being overweight and unhealthy. Unfortunately being too thin is just as dangerous for your health and this message can sometimes get lost behind the stories which tell us “British women are the fattest in Europe”.
It is a sad but true fact that the media today has such influence because the general public would prefer others to help make up their minds for them. In their busy lives, it is easier to read a quick article or watch a short film summarising the ideas and opinions involved than to go the extra mile and find out the bare facts and really consider the issues for themselves. I am just as guilty of it myself, but I do try to look beyond the opinions being presented to me and to arrive at my own conclusions without allowing potential media spin to lead me to the same opinion as that of the journalist who wrote the piece.
Therefore, there is now more than ever a need for our politicians to know how to use the media to get the attention they require to help promote their own policies and to view their opponents in a negative light. Currently none of the main political parties seem able to have succeeded in developing an ongoing positive relationship with the press and both sides aren’t doing themselves any favours with the Leveson Inquiry in progress.
Last week (14th – 20th May) saw the return of the infamous Scout’s volunteering week, albeit in a revamped form. “Scout Community Week” is the new name for the original “bob-a-job week” which came to an end about 20 years ago. So why the name change? Well apparently it was time for a bit of re-branding in the Scouting community.
Scouts doing their bit
The previous idea of Scouts going house to house doing “odd jobs” for individuals has been tweaked so the Scouts are now being encouraged to do projects which will benefit whole communities. It’s volunteering on a larger scale, but the Scouts are working together in groups to get more done and they will be able to see the effect their hard work has on their local area. It also shows people unconnected to the Scouts that the movement is teaching children to selflessly give their time to help the communities they live in. Speaking prior to the start of the week, Chief Scout Bear Grylls seemed excited by the impact he believes it will have on the UK as a whole: “Working together we’re going to make a huge difference to communities up and down the country.”
They seem to have taken on board the Coalition Government’s “Big Society” idea, and why not? It fits very well with the Scouting ideals of helping others: Bear Grylls has been promoting the volunteering week by emphasising, “Volunteering is at the very heart of Scouting.” It is also of added benefit to the original concept of “bob-a-job” as this way it doesn’t run the risk of either letting the children pester their neighbours or leaving them vulnerable to any dangerous adults out there – something that some of their parents I expect would have been overly worried about otherwise.
However, perhaps this re-branding of the Scouting movement needs to be expanded to cover its membership, not just its projects. The National Secular Society has recently helped to highlight this need. The Society wrote an open letter to Bear Grylls which stated that the Scouting Association’s outdated Christian stance, including an induction which includes promising to “do my duty to God”, needs to be changed as it has been preventing atheist children from joining.
It’s interesting to note that the Scouts have already become more accepting of children from other, non-Christian, religious backgrounds. This can be noted from the increasing number of children from Muslim families joining the movement. However the National Secular Society now wants to see that welcoming nature extended to children from atheist families by allowing them to omit the “duty to God” line found in the Scout promise.
However, one concern I have is that it is the parents who are speaking out – not the children. Aren’t children too young to be making the decision to believe (or not) in a God anyway? Trying to make them ‘pick a side’ is a bad idea as it implies they are old enough to make this type of decision, but most of them won’t be in a position to at that age.
Chief Scout Bear Grylls is proud of his Scouts
Perhaps the best way to resolve the situation is to remove the line “duty to God” for everyone, even if they are from religious families. Parents may be pushing their beliefs on their child anyway (even unintentionally), plus the omission for all will help to avoid creating a divisive atmosphere from the outset as all the children will be taking the same promise when they join the movement.
Bear Grylls has previously stated: “Scouting has something to offer everyone, no matter your religion, ethnicity or belief, and I’m so proud that we offer an environment for people of all backgrounds to come together and enjoy themselves.” Now if this is truly something he, and the rest of the Scouting Association, believes in, all that needs to be done is to get that tiny mention of ‘God’ removed so that it becomes a truly inclusive movement.
It’s strange to think how one word, or one phrase, can make such a difference to how something is viewed, but it does…
This week, the Department of Justice announced plans which they hope will help make more women and black or minority ethnics (BME) become top judges. The plans would both encourage more people from these groups to apply (they would introduce more flexible working hours) and would assist them in the selection process (“positive action” would mean interviewers are encouraged to select someone from an under-represented group).
It’s unsurprising to hear these plans being introduced as we are often told measures are being considered to promote the need to employ people from a wider range of backgrounds. It’s not uncommon to hear someone coming out to say “there aren’t enough women on the executive boards of big companies” or “those from ethnic minorities are under-represented in certain professions”. But why is it such a prevalent concern?
The problem can stem from the persistent domination of cultural stereotypes, meaning fewer people from certain backgrounds will apply for certain jobs: for example, fewer women do manual labour and fewer men work in the ‘caring’ professions such as teaching and nursing.
Do judges really need to represent wider society though? Surely the most important thing is that they are good at their job? In fact, in order for a judge to remain unbiased, I think it would be much better for them to not try and find things in common with the people they are employed to judge. Those employed within the judicial system should be able to distance themselves from the cases they are working on. This ensures they maintain an air of professionalism and are able to act out their duties without being swayed by any emotional attachments they may develop if they started seeing themselves as a judge who was in place to represent women, for example.
Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke
Secretary of State for Justice, Ken Clarke, did point out that the government is aware of the need to “continue to recruit the very best judges”, but also expressed a desire to “do what we can encourage top applicants from a diverse range of backgrounds so that the judiciary better reflects society”. Looking at the bare statistics, it does seem as if certain types of people aren’t succeeding or are just put off going into the profession: less than 15% of senior judges are female and only 3% are of black or Asian heritage (source: BBC News).
However, whilst it is common for people to talk about whether certain industries represent society in physical attributes (gender, racial, disabilities), you never hear a similar discussion about more representation of homosexuals or certain political ideologies, mainly because they are ‘hidden’. In the same way, racial attributes take priority over religious representation because a Muslim who has an Asian skin colouring is more obvious to the outside world than someone who is a white Muslim (assuming they aren’t wearing anything that would identify them as a practising Muslim).
Another complaint which the media often like to bring up is that politicians should be more representative of the electorate. The current angle of this argument has been about how the majority of the cabinet went to public school and/or are Oxbridge graduates. Now, whilst I do agree that our politicians should be able to represent the public’s views, which may at times be in contradiction to their own, but they don’t need to have led the same life or to look the same (or to share the same religion, etc.) as the rest of their constituency. Members of Parliament (MPs) are elected to represent our interests, concerns, and viewpoints to the government, not our lives. MPs are our “delegates” – they speak and act on our behalf. We have recently started thinking that their representative role should encompass being physically representative of the society they represent, but this is simply not in the job description and it never was.
Also, even though those people who want measures such as “positive action” (sometimes known as “positive discrimination”) introduced as an aid to those who are under-represented in certain professions, particular at a senior level, these good-natured people might actually being more harm than good. As a woman, I can say that I would much prefer to feel that I got a job or received a promotion because I had shown that I was the best person for the job rather than always having the sneaking suspicion that I was there simply to “make up the numbers” and show that the company in question was trying to portray itself as one that will employ anyone from any background. Of course, I do believe in equality of the opportunity to apply for a job in any profession at any level, just not in equality of achievement as not all who apply will be deserving. After all, if everyone got a promotion, it would simply render your own promotion meaningless wouldn’t it?
The over-riding news theme of the week has been elections. With people going to the polls in England, Scotland, Wales, France and Greece, there has been a lot of discussion about what the results really mean for the future direction of Europe.
Rather than discussing all the ‘usual’ stuff that has already been covered in great detail by all of the major media channels, I want to look at what the elections might mean for the future of politics on a local level. Do we identify ourselves more with national than local politics?
The results below show the change in councillors across the English, Welsh and Scottish councils who held elections on Thursday. The results do clearly show disillusionment with the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government, but at the same time we can see that this hasn’t helped the smaller parties. The biggest gains of these elections were for Labour and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP).
Number of Councillors
|Scottish Nationalist Party
|Independent Community and Health Concern
|Scottish Socialist Party
Local council elections in Great Britain, 3rd May 2012. Source: BBC News.
As these were local elections, it shouldn’t matter what is happening politically at a national level. However, due to the nature of the world we now live in, there are an increasing number of people who feel less of a connection with their local area and are instead more aware of the national scene and what the national party policies are as opposed to really knowing what their candidates want to do for the local area.
We can also see from the results of the mayoral referendums held in the 10 largest English cities that people don’t seem to be in favour of having someone who is elected purely to represent their city. This would imply that the electorate is happier to not have a single figure leading on local issues; possibly because they associate themselves more with their national rather than their local identity. This thought can be further cemented when we look at the turnout for the elections (and referendums) held on Thursday: around the 30% mark, compared to around 60% across the country for the 2010 UK general election (source: the Electoral Commission).
Mayoral referendums in English cities, 3rd May 2012. Source: BBC News.
So what or who is to blame for the electorate confusing the local with the national issues? The obvious target is the media. Around election time we are faced with all the major news journalists telling us all about what the various possible outcomes of elections will mean for the political parties on a national level; about how it is a chance for the electorate to ‘send a message’ to the parties; and there’s very little time or space given to local issues. Of course, it would be difficult to cover all the local issues on a national news programme or in a national newspaper, but if less emphasis was given to the effect on the national picture, maybe more people would take the time to discover what their candidates were standing for on the local issues that will affect their day-to-day lives.
Another key player in the national v. local politics is how communities and the wider society have developed over the last 100 years. The transport revolution has led to an era where people are able to work in different towns/ cities/ counties to the place where they live. This can lead to people not feeling connected to where they live as they don’t spend as much time there as they would have done in previous generations. Many of us don’t know our neighbours, or at least don’t know them more than to say “hello” if we pass them in the street. Personally, I am much closer to and know a lot more about some of my work colleagues than I have ever done about any of my neighbours past or present. Maybe I should make more of an effort, but as I’ve just moved to London, I don’t think I’m even allowed to make eye contact with my neighbours!
The main London mayoral election candidates for 2012.
Lastly, I think maybe the political parties themselves should take some of the blame for the electorate losing sight of the local in amongst the national issues. The larger parties find it easier to get their candidates elected by using the momentum of their national image. It can help newer candidates with not much experience and it can also help more established candidates who have already said (and done) all they can about local issues. However, smaller political parties do still have to rely on the strength of their local candidates to engage the electorate on the local issues as their national image isn’t so established and their lower vote shares mean they can’t get as much air time as the more dominant parties.
“Well what can we do to change from the national to the local?” I hear you cry. The answer isn’t going to be simple or easy. I’m not going to suggest we fight for a huge political overhaul; that would be unrealistic. I think all we can do is get behind Cameron’s “big society” campaign. If he wants us to all take more of an interest in our communities, then maybe we should and not just because it would help us to engage with what’s important in our local areas, but also so we can get something positive out of it for ourselves: some new friends!
I just think I better start this blog off with an apology for not writing anything for about a year. The reason is that I began a full-time job and somehow managed to not have enough spare time to do my blog. However, I have been missing it recently and now my job has relocated to London this means I moved here and now have little money leftover for a social life, so I need to do something to entertain myself – so what better time to start blogging again? I plan to try and get back to maintaining a weekly article about the religious/ cultural/ spiritual/ moral/ ethical news stories which catch my eye. Although I may just take a story which has interested me and put a moral spin on it; it depends on what’s current and feels inspiring. Now, to begin the article proper…
The world wide web is very inviting, but also can be a dangerous place.
There have been two news stories that have gauged my interest this week and I’m going to tie them together. They are the media attention surrounding the use of pharmacies to provide contraception to under-age girls without the need for parental consent and the story about whether it should be up to the parents or the internet service providers (ISPs) to prevent children accessing porn content online. These news stories can be linked as at the heart of them is the suggestion that parents should be allowed to ‘control’ their children’s behaviour.
So, should medical information be kept from parents? Or do parents have a right to know about the important things happening in their children’s lives? Well as a young woman who until recently had been living at her parents’ house and who has no children of her own, I certainly am of the opinion that my life is my life and I don’t want any parental interference. However, I can certainly understand the point of view of the parents who just want to make sure their child is safe. Also, if episodes of TV medical dramas are anything to go by, there’s no point in hiding anything as “the truth will out in the end”, so maybe trying to keep secrets will just end up prolonging the agony in the long-run.
A difficult conversation to have.
There’s a fine line between wanting to protect someone you love because you care about their wellbeing versus not giving your child the opportunity to grow up and gain their independence. Whilst it is obviously important for families to try and create a good moral environment for their offspring to grow up in for their future lives, it must be accepted that interfering can lead to rebellion (particularly during the teenage years) so the well-meaning parents could end up just making the situation worse if they push it too far. As with most things in life, a good balance is the key. Don’t over-do the ‘I want to know where you are and what you’re doing at all times’ aspect of parenting; the best thing to do is to set your children a good moral example.
Also, the child is going to have to grow up one day and learn to make their own choices and decisions about morality and ethics in their lives. It is a parent’s job to guide but not force their own ideas of morality and ethics onto their offspring. Parents need to be able to let their children make – and learn from – their own mistakes and families also need to ensure that whilst certain behaviours are expected, people do make mistakes and we can forgive, learn from them, then move on.
Click this picture to see the Telegraph's take on the story about under-age girls getting the pill from pharmacies.
Thinking back to the original news stories which sparked this debate, if we think about it, allowing under-age girls to obtain contraception more easily, we are actually helping to prevent a much bigger problem (i.e. early motherhood) and it is better to do that than to waste time preaching to the young girl about under-age sex. The girl will have heard all about the dangers and irresponsibility of under-age sex before and pharmacies are already well-versed in providing counselling when they conduct the EHC (Emergency Hormonal Contraception) service which the majority of PCTs (Primary Care Trusts) up and down the country have already put into operation at a local level. Most EHC services can be accessed by under-age girls, but these are only a temporary solution whereas the pill is more permanent.
I think some parents (and politicians) are concerned that making the pill more readily available might appear as if society is ignoring or ‘accepting’ under-age sex. This is not the case at all: in fact, by allowing pharmacies to offer the pill without the need for a prescription, these vulnerable girls, who may be terrified of asking their family doctor about contraception, can gain access to it and to the one-on-one counselling from an impartial third party that goes with it. It would help to protect under-age girls, but obviously should not be used to replace the need to educate young people about sex and the law.
Lastly, I just want to turn this article on its head by highlighting a completely different type of parental interference. It’s been reported that some parents are helping their young children to create social media profiles on sites such as Facebook. Unfortunately, by allowing your child to join sites such as Facebook or accessing chat rooms, you aren’t considering the potentially unsuitable nature of these websites. There are adverts, invitations to join groups and messages that can be easily sent and received without being filtered and so they can contain swearwords, violence or sexual references.
So remember: we don’t want parent who are too over-protective, but we don’t want parents who are too liberal either!
Ed and Justine announce their wedding date
Ed Miliband officially set the date for his wedding to long-term partner Justine this week, but why now? For a couple who have been together for six years, have just entered their 40s and already appears to have a pretty stable relationship which has produced two children, a ‘sudden’ wedding (less than two months away on 27th May) seems bizarre to us outsiders. Are political power games at work here?
Maybe Ed wanted to get into the news. Critics have said he has been very quiet in terms of press coverage and so maybe he has been worried about dropping off the political radar. Of course any extra media attention in the run up to the local elections in May would come in handy…
This would in turn help Mr Miliband’s political career as it is strongly thought that the public are more likely to warm to a political party leader who has the usual “married with kids” status; portraying the ‘perfect picture’ of the traditional family unit.
The issue of Ed’s unmarried couple relationship first arose during the Labour leadership election last year, along with the intriguing revelation that Ed had been ‘too busy’ to put his name on his son’s birth certificate! Back then he seemed to defend his position by implying he didn’t think marriage was necessary to legitimise his relationship:
“I think marriage is a very important institution, but there are stable families that aren’t married and stable families that are married. My love for Justine is profound and we’re a very close unit.”
Mr Miliband went even further when asked what he thought the British public might think about not being married to his long-term partner:
“I don’t think people care one way or the other about what other people do in their lives as long as they show responsibility to each other.”
These are two strange statements for a person who was planning to pop the question to say in public. How come Ed is telling people it doesn’t matter that he’s not married one day and then setting a date for his wedding the next? Perhaps I’m being cynical…
Ed himself argues that he has always wanted to marry Justine and wanted to have a wedding earlier but he’s just had a lot on his plate and it ‘feels right’ to do it now:
“At the end of the day we’re in our 40s and we’ve got two kids – so it wasn’t a case of me suddenly popping the question. This is just something we think is right for us.”
There have been claims that his political workload whilst he worked his way up the political ladder, when he was in the Shadow Cabinet and most recently when he contested the Labour party leadership campaign was such a strain that he couldn’t think about getting married during those times. This is a bit of a poor excuse though as surely he can’t expect us to believe that now he is the Labour party leader his workload has diminished? Also, he obviously found plenty of time for other things whilst in those high-pressured jobs as his two children show…
So is Mr Miliband using the institution of marriage to charm the media in an attempt to get some nice press coverage which will hopefully help boost his public image as he simultaneously launches the Labour campaign for the upcoming local elections? Of course I cannot know what Ed really had in mind when he announced the date for his wedding this week, but I can comment on the morality of someone feeling they need to get married because of what ‘society’ thinks. I believe that, despite how much social change there has been to fight for the acceptance of homosexuality and the celebration of homosexual couples through civil partnerships, we are still lacking in our acceptance of unmarried couples, particularly those who have children together. I don’t think it’s right that people – particularly those in the public eye – feel they have to bow to public pressure in this way. It’s tragic that it is still seen in this day and age that the best way to succeed in British politics is to have a ‘normal’ stable family life; i.e. married with 2.4 children as the stereotype goes.
However, one thing we can applaud the bride and groom-to-be on is their plans to celebrate “in their own way”: there will be no best man or bridesmaids at this ceremony, so they are fighting against tradition in some small way.
The British Humanist Association (BHA) is campaigning to get everyone who is not religious to tick the “No Religion” box in the religion section on the census. Why the need for a campaign? Because there are a lot of ‘cultural’ Christians who label themselves as Christian but don’t actually practice or really believe in it!
The 2011 Census is fast-approaching: the majority of households will have already received their questionnaires through the post and the official “census night” of 27th March (the date of which your answers should reflect the situation of the household on) is less than two weeks away.
In recent decades there can be no doubt that there has been a significant rise in the number of people claiming to have no religion or who belong to non-Christian religions or ‘alternative’ spiritualities (e.g. New Age, Neo-Paganism). This is often said to be due to immigration, conversion, the spread of religious ideas, and more freedom of religious expression and beliefs due to greater emphasis on the importance of tolerance. Some historians believe this occurred due to the growth of pluralism, whilst others such as Grace Davie claim that it is due to the rise of secularism, which leads people to “believe without belonging” (i.e. to be able to separate their religious beliefs from organised religion).
However, this idea of “believing without belonging” doesn’t seem to be something that people in the UK are particularly proud of. It seems as if there are a large number of non-practising Christians who are more than happy to still label themselves as members of the very religion they have now left. During the 2001 Census, 41 million people said they were Christian (that’s more than 72% of the total population) whilst only just over 5% said that they belonged to a non-Christian religious group.
Therefore, the BHA is committed to exposing the truth and getting a more realistic evaluation of the non-religious population present in today’s Britain. The organisation has now stepped-up their campaign by launching a set of 200 bus adverts around the UK earlier this month. Unfortunately for them, it seems that freedom of speech is not as important as the right not to be offended and so the original slogan “If you’re not religious, for God’s sake say so” has become “Not religious? In this year’s census say so!” on the advice of the Committee of Advertising Practice. It’s just not as catchy and attention-grabbing now, and so may well not have the same impact because it doesn’t stick in the mind as easily. The BHA is still using their original poster slogan on its website which the newly-phrased bus adverts direct their audience to. Check out the campaign website here.
Will this census campaign have any effect? I think it will have some effect, but it will not necessarily be confined to the results of the census. The biggest impact will probably be that it gets people talking: it’ll be this census’ equivalent of the “Jedi knights” campaign in 2001 which saw a lot of people writing “Jedi” in the section on religion as they were outraged at this new question being added to the census. These people felt that their religion is such a personal thing that they didn’t want it to be used as a piece of data to monitor the population with.
Quite an amusing idea really that whilst this group of people wanted to retain the personal aspect of their faith, others – like those mentioned at the beginning of this article – are willing to pigeonhole their beliefs into a specific religion. Another interesting thought that pops into my head is that the BHA is telling people to stop associating themselves with a religion they no longer really connect with by categorising themselves into another all-encompassing group: the “non-religious” – is this a contradiction in terms? Well, the BHA claims the reason behind this is so that those people who do not belong to an organised religion will be counted in the same group (awarding this category as large a number as possible), which they hope will lead to more rights and considerations in politics and law for this portion of society.