I would be nowhere without Georgina Henry.
Nearly ten years ago I rang the Guardian’s deputy editor (as she was then) out of the blue, with an idea about running a list of the ’20 most powerful Asians in media’ to increase visibility of non-whites in the British media. I didn’t know who else to pitch it to. She didn’t even know me but she liked the idea and commissioned it. And though it wasn’t ground-breaking (ok, in a way it was) G2 ran our list on the front cover.
Most of you won’t know of Georgina Henry – she stopped playing an active role at the Guardian’s Comment is Free from around 2010 and had been getting treatment for cancer for the last two years. She died last week.
No one has had a bigger influence on my work as a journalist and commentator than Georgina Henry. Over two years later, When Guardian CIF launched in 2006, I was one of the few lucky bloggers she nurtured and helped in the early days. Without that support I doubt I’d be anywhere.
Her way of working and values taught me a few things too.
- Let ideas come to you from everywhere
I wasn’t the only unknown writer who was able to get an idea past Georgina – she was always open to new people and their pitches. She wanted to hear new voices and let the Guardian be the place where new ideas flourished.
As an editor and writer, she taught me to always open yourself to new influences and go outside your comfort-zone. Georgina used to help organise and even attend CIF readers/writers meet-ups – I can’t imagine the deputy editor of any other major newspaper doing that.
- You will get criticism for whatever you do
Any editor of an opinion-site will get criticism from all sides, but the Guardian particularly gets it in the neck. On issues such as Israel-Palestine, race-relations, terrorism, immigration and more – Georgina Henry wasn’t shy of constantly raising these topics despite the barrage of criticism that we knew would come.
But more admirably, she protected her writers and took on the vicious attacks herself. Getting criticism for running controversial articles was part of the job as she saw it, and she didn’t shy away from it. No serious editor should.
- Keep challenging the consensus
When CIF launched, lots of us new writers wanted to challenge the current debates. I wanted a new way of talking about race-relations without the self-appointed ‘community leaders’; Seth Freedman wanted to report on Israel-Palestine differently; Cath Elliott used to get angry by existing articles on feminism; many Muslims wanted to show that progressive voices also existed in the UK.
Georgina gave us the space to say something new and controversial, even if it antagonised Guardian writers. When I launched our manifesto on race-relations with a few others, Georgina happily hosted a week long debate even though it didn’t sit well with some established Guardian writers.
- Take risks
This is the most important thing Georgina taught me through her work. This is relevant not just for taking on new voices or challenging people, but to go outside the boundaries of what you normally do.
She launched CIF without much of an idea of where it would go; whether the chaos and new voices would be too difficult to handle; whether the site would dilute the Guardian brand or not. There were bloggers snarking about CIF and saying the project was doomed everywhere. She ploughed on anyway. She made it work through sheer will.
She commanded our respect like no other person I’ve met, and was a mentor and teacher. I will forever be in her debt.
The first time I was invited on to a debate on TV, I was so nervous I couldn’t stop myself shaking. It was partly nerves and partly the topic. It was Christmas 2005, and a theatre in Birmingham had to abandon a play because a large mob of angry Sikhs had gathered in protest outside, and some had broken the windows. All this because they said it insulted their religion.
Of course, the play – Behzti (‘shame’) – didn’t insult Sikhism, it merely depicted rape in a Gurdwara (temple) on stage. Self-appointed community leaders were aghast and spread rumours that the writer, a Sikh woman, was 1) an attention seeker 2) had a black boyfriend and wanted to deliberately insult Sikhs 3) wasn’t really a Sikh. I wrote angry editorials (as editor of the industry journal Asians in Media mag, then) that Behzti should not be shut down and angry Sikhs should learn to live with perceived insults to their faith. The play got shut down because the theatre and the local police were too scared to stand up to fundamentalists.
There have been plenty of controversies since, involving British Hindus and Muslims too.
The latest one involves Maajid Nawaz, a Lib Dem candidate and head of the anti-terrorism think-tank Quilliam Foundation, who tweeted a picture of the Jesus & Mo cartoons, which depicts both figures as stick drawings. Some Muslims are outraged and want Maajid de-selected. One of the instigator, another self-appointed ‘community leader’, boasted that he would inform Islamic countries in the Middle East about Nawaaz. It doesn’t get more comical than this.
If there’s one lesson I’ve learnt: it’s that most religious Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims in Britain still don’t understand freedom of speech. They pay lip service to free speech, of course, but the minute they feel their religion is being insulted, they want to see it censored. I’m not referring to ordinary people here – I’m referring to the ones who are more religious than normal. They are the ones who go the extra effort of mobilising others to be offended.
Let me be blunt.
If you appreciate the freedom to practice religion, then you should embrace freedom of speech.
If you appreciate the fact that Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims broadly have the same right as Christians, then you should embrace freedom of speech.
If you think people shouldn’t be locked up for expressing fringe and perhaps unpopular opinions, then you should embrace free speech.
And yes, all of these mean you have to accept the right of others to say things you may find hurtful or insulting to your religion. That’s how it works.
You cannot have a relatively free society without the freedom to insult and antagonise religious people. You cannot create a well functioning secular society without the right to insult religion. Otherwise, you end up like Pakistan, which plans to execute a mentally ill British man for being ‘blasphemous’.
I’m not saying Christians understand this fully (the Daily Mail constantly whines about insults to Christian sensibility); neither am I saying that non-religious Brits have this nailed down (people have been harassed for saying offensive things or just making jokes).
I am saying that minorities should be especially pro-free-speech, because when freedom of speech is curtailed, it is used against minorities first. And that freedom speech does and should always include the right to insult religion and religious figures.
You have a right to be offended.
You don’t have a right to censorship. You don’t have the right to shut down a play, close down an exhibition, stop a book being sold, or stop someone from speaking peacefully or holding a demo. And yes, that includes the likes of the EDL.
I’m really sick of some people acting like village thugs and demanding people listen to them because they feel insulted. No. No one cares if you feel hurt, especially if its over your religion. The rest of us don’t care how important it is to you – the right to insult and have free speech is far more important.
At the time of the Behzti play controversy, I was invited to a debate on BBC Asian Network where some Sikh ‘human rights’ organisation claimed they were going to sue the writer (herself a Sikh!) for inciting violence against Sikhs. I kid you not. I laughed in their face, on radio. That is how seriously these people should be taken. Their proposed plan never got anywhere of course.
Is sex-selection among British Asian families a big issue? We should be wary of the Independent’s campaign
Yesterday the Independent splashed on the news that between 1,500 and 4,700 girls in the UK had been ‘lost’ due to sex-selection, primarily among Asian families. Sex-selection is usually defined as parents determining the gender of a foetus before its born, and aborting it if its female because they don’t value girls.
Like most people I was shocked and horrified by the relevations. I have researched and written a lot about on 60 million ‘missing women’ in India, which is partly a result of extensive sex-selection there. There are cases in the UK too, as a phone-in for BBC Asian Network illustrated.
But the more I look at the Independent’s campaign and reporting on sex-selection in the UK, the more sceptical I get. I would go as far as saying that Asian organisations campaigning on this issue should be wary of lending their name to it.
Why? Four reasons.
First, the campaign looks like an attempt to restrict abortion rights in the UK, which also happens to be an aim of our Tory government. Any restriction on abortion rights would be counter-productive and hurt Asian women too. The article by the Indy today quotes two MPs, Fiona Bruce and Jim Dobbin, co-chairs of the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, who want to ban any abortions in the UK.
It is highly irresponsible of the Independent to quote extremists in a report on a very sensitive issue. It gives them credence and pushes the debate in the wrong direction.
Second, the Independent’s numbers need more scrutiny. A few years ago the Department of Health looked at birth registration data from 2007 to 2011, and found no conclusive evidence of sex-selection among ethnic minority families. The Indy takes a different approach, looking at ethnic minority families with dependent children from the 2011 census. This means, as Unity points out,
As such the data set requested by the Indie will only provide data on children born to a particular family only if those children are classed as dependants and usually reside with their family, which means it will include students under the age of 20 in further, but not higher education, and schoolchildren who live away from home during term times.
The reason why these girls don’t appear in the Census may or may not be down to sex-selection, it’s simply speculation, as even the Indy admits.
UPDATE: As @AbdulAzim points out, South Asian women who get married relatively early and move to South Asia would also drop off the Census and wouldn’t be counted by the Indy’s method.
Third, sex-selection is infact not the main reason why so many girls in India (and other countries across Asia) are missing. In India sex-selection is estimated to be responsible for around 12-15% of ‘missing’ girls. Girls dying young through neglect is a much bigger problem (India has the highest differential in the world for mortality rates between boys and girls). The same could be an issue here.. which means the focus should be on challenging Asian attitudes that value boys over girls, than restricting abortion rights.
Fourth Parents don’t reliably know the sex of their child at the 13-week scan (thanks @bex_tweets), and the number of abortions after the 20-week scan are minuscule. Again, this either suggests other factors are responsible for why there are more boys than girls, or this is a statistical anomaly.
I’m not playing down the problem of sex-selection, but we have to know more about this issue.
The Independent only looks at families where the mother is born abroad. But most British Asian families now have mothers born in the UK, and we don’t know if there is a problem of sex-selection among these families. The data may reflect attitudes 20 years ago that are now outdated.
This is why I’m sceptical of taking the Independent’s reporting at face value. It certainly does not justify any restrictions on abortion rights.
Nigel Farage said something vaguely interesting today, on the subject of immigration into the UK:
If you said to me, would I like to see over the next ten years a further five million people come in to Britain and if that happened we’d all be slightly richer, I’d say, I’d rather we weren’t slightly richer, and I’d rather we had communities that were united and where young unemployed British people had a realistic chance of getting a job.
I think the social side of this matters more than pure market economics.
I actually agree with Nigel Farage that the social side of immigration matters more than pure economics.
In fact, what I find it frustrating when people talk about immigration solely in economic terms because it dehumanises people and reduces them to their economic value.
I suspect many lefties have traditionally ignored discussing the social impact of immigration on fears it would bring up more racism and that is a harder debate to win. They prefer pointing to the facts on the economic impact on immigration.
But, my fellow lefties, throwing facts at people (on immigration or even social security) is mostly a waste of time. And besides, a debate about economics excites no one except economists.
I’ll tell you what has changed people’s minds on immigration though. Pictures of Amir Khan (above), Linford Christie, Kelly Holmes, Mark Ramprakash, Ashley Cole and others draping themselves in the Union flag have done far more to ease fears about immigration than any reports on the economic impact of immigration.
A debate about the social impact of immigration is a debate about questions like: ‘will these people fit in to our communities?’ / ‘will they care about this country as much as we do?’ and so on.
And the undeniable fact is that on the social front, we have won the immigration debate. Of course, racism hasn’t gone away, but there’s also far less of it around now than just 20 years ago. A majority of Britons think multiculturalism has been good for Britain.
If Nigel Farage wants to debate the social impact of immigration – in fact I’d be more than happy to. That’s the real debate and it’s one we can win.
Labour MP Tom Harris has an article today in the Telegraph titled ‘Object to mass immigration from the EU? Join the Romaphobe club!‘.
You know what the article is going to say before you even read the first line. It will appeal to and be detested by the usual suspects. Although, in this case, Harris is attracting criticism even from the right.
I won’t go over the entire piece. There are the usual stereotypes…
But a consistent pattern of complaints took shape quite early on: filthy and vastly overcrowded living arrangements, organised aggressive begging, the ghetto-isation of local streets where women no longer feel safe to walk due to the presence of large groups of (workless) men, the rifling through domestic wheelie bins by groups of women pushing oddly child-free prams, and a worrying increase in the reporting of aggressive and violent behavior in local schools.
…and the usual straw man:
It’s simply not good enough for our leaders to say that it’s all right to talk about immigration, and then when they do exactly that, to call them bigots when they think no one’s listening.
Memo: the problem isn’t talking about immigration, the problem is the deliberately negative stereotypes.
There’s nothing new about how Tom Harris MP scapegoats and scaremongers about immigrants.
I took part in a debate recently on media portrayals of Asian immigration from Uganda during the 70s.
Guess what – the stereotypes are astonishingly similar.
(images courtesy of the National Archive).
The funny thing is, these days the Tories are always hailing the ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ of Ugandan Asians.
There was a similar gaggle of Labour MPs then too arguing for a race to the bottom on the subject.
How quickly people forget history.
If the demise of Liberal Conspiracy marks the end of the ‘amateur blogger’ then I’m the next Pope. I always have one piece of advice for my new students at Kingston University: start blogging.
The media landscape has clearly evolved since 2005, but blogging has only become more powerful and influential. When I launched Liberal Conspiracy in Nov 2007, I was unknown in Westminster; six years later this site was read at the top of the Labour party.
None of this happened because I was well-connected, had worked at a newspaper or had influential friends. It happened only because Liberal Conspiracy ran stories (thanks to tips from many readers) that got noticed. The national media cannot ignore us like they used to. For all its faults the new media landscape is far more meritocratic than old media or the political establishment.
But I had an edge – a good understanding of web programming and technology. Before blogging I used to run messageboards and online magazines that ran on code (HTML, CSS, PHP, MySQL) I had written myself. For Liberal Conspiracy and Pickled Politics I developed new designs and WordPress themes myself (with some help), and was able to make changes, experiment and evolve quicker than others who paid for customised designs. I was also very comfortable with, and more aggressive than most bloggers, in using social media to find and promote stories.
Unsurprisingly, my work at Kingston involves teaching digital journalism: teaching web programming and technologies to leverage journalism. There are far more qualified people at Kingston to teach journalism; my focus is is on how to use the internet to take that further. And I’m grateful to them for taking me on (I’ve given a few lectures on the topic at City University too).
Whether amateur (i.e. independent) multi-author publishing is dead wholly depends on how people approach it. Here’s my advice: don’t expect to start an opinion blog and get 100,000 readers a month. The market is over-saturated with opinions on the Guardian, New Statesman, HuffPo and IndyVoices (just on the left). Only the Guardian pays and yet the others have no problems attracting submissions because so many want to make a name for themselves.
Worse, most opinion blogging only talks to the already-converted and changes minds only at the margins. It may be cathartic for some but that’s not enough to attract a lot of visitors regularly.
‘News’ publishing on the other hand has a bright future and I suspect we will see much more of this. But I’d like people to think outside the box.
Firstly, popular ‘news’ doesn’t always have to mean exposing Traditional Britain, or leaking the Coalition Agreement, it can involve finding interesting stories from social media or putting together publicly available info. Our most popular posts this year have been a collection of Tweets (on British Gas and the EDL’s Tommy Robinson). Another example: How one Twitter troll went from abuse to apology in minutes. All these were stories Buzzfeed or HuffPo would (and did) do but we got there quicker and went viral first.
Secondly, the platform has become irrelevant. We need to move away from talking about blogging, and setting up a simple WordPress blog, to thinking about publishing. The traditional advantages of blogging (simple format, popularity through inter-linking, simple set-up) have become largely irrelevant as HuffPost and Buzzfeed have shown. Both developed their own content system, and meanwhile WordPress has become bloated and slow.
My model for Liberal Conspiracy was simple: use fun and interesting news to amass readers and followers; then get them to read policy material and get involved in campaigns.
There is now more opportunity than ever for someone to start another political news site, make it popular, and figure out a business model to earn a living from it. I stopped Liberal Conspiracy because the traditional blogging model has become defunct, not because online publishing is a waste of time and effort. A budding journalist or publisher has no excuse not to use this medium to make a name for themselves. I hope many more will do.
After 8 years of running blogs as an editor, and blogging almost every day, I think it’s about time to hang up my boots. I no longer have the time to maintain Liberal Conspiracy as a daily-updated news and opinion blog, so as of today I’m going to stop. This site will become an occasionally updated personal blog, with the odd guest-post.
Eight years. That makes me a granddad in internet time. When I started blogging in August 2005, YouTube hadn’t even launched yet, let alone the widespread use of Facebook or Twitter. In total I’ve written around 3000 posts on LC (around 1 million words), and another 3000 posts on my previous group-blog Pickled Politics. Around 2 million words in total; the mind boggles.
I founded Liberal Conspiracy (with the help and support of many, many others) as a hub for left-wing opinion and news at a time there were hardly any group blogs. It was an attempts to raise our collective presence. Editorially, it was an independent and non-aligned left platform with a focus on campaigning. But the enduring success of Guardian CIF, and more recently the New Statesman and Huffington Post, have made other general opinion-blogs redundant. Frankly, there is just too much opinion out there. There is more space for news-focused blogs I think, but they require a level of time and energy I no longer possess.
With the help of its readers, this site has had some good hits. We:
- leaked the Coalition Agreement before the parties published it.
- exposed Nadine Dorries’s fundamentalist friends during her anti-abortion crusade
- exposed Jacob Rees-Mogg MPs links to the xenophobic Traditional Britain
- helped stop Rod Liddle becoming editor of the Independent
- organised the advertiser boycott of the News of the World over its phone-hacking.
- helped hobble the government’s Workfare programme
- exposed how BBC journalists were ordered to use ‘savings’ instead of ‘cuts’
- forced Newsnight to apologise for misrepresenting a single mother
… and much, much more.
This site also gave a platform to lots of people to build their name (including Laurie Penny, Owen Jones, Adam Bienkov, Ellie O’Hagan, Tim Wigmore, Tim Fenton and many others).
As for me… I’m certainly not bored of news, politics or even blogging in fact, but I just can’t dedicate the time. I’m working with the BBC to get a documentary off the ground; I’ve been invited to speak at two TEDx talks abroad (and have to prepare) on violence against women in India; I’ve started lecturing p/t at Kingston University. Plus, I want the time and space to work on new projects.
It’s time for something new. I’ll continue tweeting news and opinion of course, and occasionally blogging here and elsewhere, just not with the same vigour. Better to go on a high than when in decline. It was a good run, and a long run… but everything must eventually come to an end. Thanks for all your tips, guest posts and comments.
The pissy right-wing response to this has been a joy to read. Remember, the more vindictive they sound, the more they were burnt by my blogging.
Also, there are a few thanks I missed out for friends who went beyond just contributing to the site. Special love to: Aaron Heath, Shantel Burns, Sarah McAlpine, Jennifer O’Mahony, Ellie Cumbo and most of all, deputy-editor Dan Paskins.
The comedian Russell Brand was on Newsnight last night, and although I was sceptical about watching the interview at first, it turned out to be much more entertaining and insightful than I expected.
Like the rest of Westminster, my first reaction to hearing that Brand had never voted, and didn’t feel like voting, was to pour scorn all over him: what right does he have to preach about politics then? But after watching the video, I realised that I was missing the point. Brand isn’t apathetic about politics, he is apathetic to our current state of affairs.
One of my maxims in politics is, never blame the voters. Yes, they’re frequently contradictory in their views and generally clueless about policies, but they behave on instinct and emotion, and that is important because the world would be an awful place if cold rationality drove politics.
Politicos usually agree that you shouldn’t blame voters, but they invariably do so anyway. They’re criticised for voting against their own interests or supporting other parties or sitting at home on election day. It’s tempting to criticise people for making different decisions to you, but it’s also silly.
My defence of Russell Brand is that he’s simply articulating this contradictory anger. People just want a better world and they’re not seeing anyone offer them to it. They’re just seeing people in Westminster talk in incomprehensible language while offering solutions that sound roughly the same. It has become a system geared towards the remaining voters, not all citizens.
Our political system is too narrow. If the proportion of people who didn’t vote were all captured by one party, it would be the largest in Parliament. Non-voters are the majority party, and their proportion has been growing steadily since 1945. And yet, even to a close watcher like me, Westminster politics frequently feels like two bald men fighting over a comb. There are no bold solutions on offer because the system has been captured by middle-class wonks and those paralysed by narrow interpretations of polling.
As someone who feels trapped tween (Iraq-war-starting, civil-liberties-destroying) Labour & (fucking) Tories, I loved it RT @ Whatdjathink?
— Graham Linehan (@Glinner) October 24, 2013
Even Tom Watson said this recently:
It’s been missing from the Labour Party since Tony Blair marched us into the arid desert of pragmatism that was so electorally successful. It’s belief. Belief in ourselves. Belief in the great cause of social progress. The marketing men, the spin people and the special advisers: they’ve won. For those brief minutes of Drenge I wanted to sack them all.
Brand will find sympathy for his frustrated outpouring because he is articulating a deep frustration, even among people who do vote. They don’t necessarily want a whole new system, they just want someone who emotionally engages them.
Politicos scoff at the fact that Brand hasn’t offered a comprehensive alternative, but that’s not his job that is the job of people who do this for a living.
This chart by Ipsos-Mori was published yesterday.
More Britons see David Cameron as being on the right than see Miliband as being on the left.
This may not seem extraordinary to the readers of this blog, but given how desperately the press have painted him as ‘Red Ed’ – this is surprising.
Also, being in the political centre doesn’t make you popular or more electable: just ask Nick Clegg.
Earlier today, British Gas tweeted this
Our Customer Services Director Bert Pijls will be taking part in a Q&A about our price rise at 1-2pm. Tweet your questions using #AskBG!
— British Gas (@BritishGas) October 17, 2013
Ruh roh. Can anyone see a train crash coming?
Thankfully, Twitter did not disappoint.
— Stephen Hull (@hullstephen) October 17, 2013
Hi Bert, which items of furniture do you, in your humble opinion, think people should burn first this winter? #AskBG
— Lee Vincent (@LeeJamesVincent) October 17, 2013
— TechnicallyRon (@TechnicallyRon) October 17, 2013
— Lisaaaargh! (@BiscuitAhoy) October 17, 2013
— Felicity Morse (@FelicityMorse) October 17, 2013
#AskBG would it be ok to burn the corpses of your board of directors when I can't afford heating?
— Matt Kelly (@Matt_Dot_Com) October 17, 2013
Can I please borrow your soul as you don't seem to be using it at the moment #AskBG
— Gareth Heskett (@GarethHeskett) October 17, 2013
#askbg Do you prefer one 36 carrot gold diamond encrusted horse sized duck, or 100 36 carrot gold diamond encrusted duck sized horses?
— John Coventry (@JohnnyCov) October 17, 2013
— Cal Loftus (@calloftus) October 17, 2013
— Danny Leigh (@dannytheleigh) October 17, 2013
— edo badonde (@edoSfulton) October 17, 2013
— Steve Rose (@steveplrose) October 17, 2013
#AskBG If I email this lovely man from the Nigerian Lotto Nscam Bank my details,he says he can provide cheaper gas.What have you got to say?
— I,Clarkeyus (@paininthebrum) October 17, 2013
I'm having to burn all the junk mail you send me in order to keep warm #AskBG
— wolftic (@wolftic) October 17, 2013
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