Friday 26 January 2018

Men (still) behaving badly

They just don't get it, do they?

'One longstanding attendee said it was “a boys’ night out” and compared it to “a rugby club dinner”.'

'These are not underage girls. They are all over 18 ...  They all know it’s a bit racy.'

'The girls were told to wear short skirts and sexy underwear and sign a non-disclosure agreement. Where on earth did they think they would be working, a vicar's tea party?'

And more, much more, in the same vein following the Financial Times story on Wednesday about a men-only charity dinner at the Dorchester Hotel in London.   

So let us try to imagine what goes on inside the head of a man who thinks there is absolutely nothing wrong with telling a young woman whom he has never met before and who is a paid worker at a dinner he is attending that he wants her to 'rip off her knickers and dance on a table.'

This same man presumably thinks it is perfectly acceptable that, in the words of the FT's report: 'Many of the hostesses were subjected to groping, lewd comments and repeated requests to join diners in bedrooms ...'

I am trying to imagine the life this man has led. Perhaps he went to a boys-only school, where as an adolescent, he got into the habit of making smutty jokes about girls and boasting about his (fictional) sexual exploits.

He played in boys-only sports matches, followed by booze-fuelled, boys-only after-match parties. If he went on to university, perhaps he joined a men-only drinking club, at which adolescent behaviour was not only accepted, but expected.

Perhaps now that he is middle-aged, he has a teenage daughter of his own. What would he say if she were to be subjected to the sort of behaviour he indulged in at the Presidents Club dinner? Oh, but she wouldn't be, would she, because she would never do the sort of job for which the young women at the Dorchester were being paid the princely sum of £150, would she?

Look back at one of those comments I quoted earlier. 'The girls were told to wear short skirts and sexy underwear ...' In other words, they knew perfectly well what they were being paid for: to be groped, fondled, and propositioned.

Er, no, actually, they weren't. Just as actresses in Victorian England weren't prostitutes, nor are hostesses in 2018. Women who dress to be attractive to men, whether on instruction or otherwise, are as entitled as everyone else to be treated with respect.

Two simple words are the key to the non-mystery of why some men insist on behaving boorishly: money and power. ('Presidents Club': interesting name, don't you think? Exactly what did these men think they were Presidents of, I wonder?)

The men at that now notorious dinner would have us believe that they were there for no other reason than to give some of their wealth to charity. What could possibly be more deserving of our praise and admiration?

I am (just about) prepared to accept that for some of them, it went no further than that, although I confess I fail to understand why it requires a men-only, black-tie dinner at the Dorchester to donate to good causes. Most of us manage it a good deal less ostentatiously.

But for others, the dinner surely provided a wonderful excuse to feel entitled: 'Look at me, I'm giving away some of my money -- so surely I deserve some fun in return?'

They were there (all right, some of them were there) because they knew that they would be out of sight of their mothers, wives, girlfriends, sisters and daughters -- free to indulge in the sort of adolescent behaviour which had become second nature to them. The charity bit was no more than a figleaf with which to hide their guilty consciences.

They were, in their own eyes, at least, men who had made a success of their lives. They had amassed enough money to buy them the right to behave however they liked, especially towards younger, less wealthy women. It is only one remove from the medieval droit de seigneur, which supposedly entitled feudal lords to have sex with the brides of their vassals.

So how about someone trying to teach adolescent boys how to behave appropriately towards their female fellow-humans? How about those much-mocked PSHE (personal, sex and health education) lessons involving something more than slipping a condom onto a banana?

Some schools are trying -- one day a year, perhaps, devoted to relationships -- but they plainly need to do more. Too many men, of all ages, still don't get it. Ill-educated adolescent males are still growing up into ill-educated adult males.

Yes, they can behave as badly as they like in the privacy of their own homes, as long as they harm no one else. If they want to sit in front of the TV getting pissed with their mates, shouting rude remarks at every attractive young woman who appears on screen, by all means, let them go ahead.

But here is the message they need to hear, loud and clear: No, you can't do it in the workplace, or at a charity dinner. You can't assault, grope, harass or intimidate anyone. It doesn't matter how they are dressed, or how much you're giving to charity. It doesn't matter if you're a hot-shot film producer or merely a Loadsamoney property developer.

I can even boil the message down to two words: Grow. Up.

Friday 12 January 2018

Save us from journalist politicians

I strongly suspect that the world would be a much better place if we journalists were never allowed to go into politics. (Although I suppose that, if pressed, I might make an exception for Winston Churchill.)

We suffer from an alarming tendency to believe in simple answers. We prize making an impact over getting things right, and an off-the-cuff opinion over a considered judgement.

As the American journalist Andrew Ferguson put it many years ago: 'Journalism is a character defect. ... It is a life lived at a safe remove: standing off to one side of the parade as it passes, noting its flaws, offering glib and unworkable suggestions for its improvement. Every journalist must know that this is not, really, how a serious-minded person would choose to spend his days.'

Ouch. A good journalist might know how to ask the right questions, but a good politician knows how to find the right answers. There's a big difference.

Exhibit One: Toby Young, former provocateur extraordinaire, a man so proud of his ability to get up people's noses that he wrote a book called 'How to lose friends and alienate people'. It was later made into a film, but it demonstrated, as Young continued to do for many years, an unusual knack for being both offensive and wrong.

If that's how you get your kicks, fine. But as Young has belatedly discovered, it becomes a bit of a problem if you then try to reinvent yourself as a serious educational reformer with ideas that deserve to be listened to by policy-makers. What seemed clever when you were in the losing friends business risks backfiring when you start trying to win allies.

So I'm afraid I have little sympathy now that he has had to resign as a member of the board of the higher education regulator, the Office for Students. As a puerile wordsmith, he can comment till he's blue in the face about women's body shapes (while watching prime minister's questions in 2012, he tweeted: 'Serious cleavage behind Ed Miliband’s head. Anyone know who it belongs to?')

He can also, if he insists, be crassly offensive about people who don't share his superior intellect: 'If Gove is serious about wanting to bring back O-levels, the Government will have to repeal the Equalities Act, because any exam that isn’t "accessible" to a functionally illiterate troglodyte with a mental age of six will be judged to be "elitist".' But he shouldn't be surprised if some people take such comments as suggesting that he may not be the ideal person to sit on the board of an education regulator.

Let's not obsess too much about Toby Young. Exhibits Two and Three: the Terrible Twins, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. Both of them former journalists (Gove at the BBC and The Times; Johnson at The Times, the Daily Telegraph, and The Spectator), both of them with a marked talent for bad judgement and a preference for the short-term over the long-term. Definitely not a good advertisement for the journalist-politician brand.

Of course, there are exceptions. There always are. Whatever you think of his, er, whacky views on climate change, no one could argue that Nigel Lawson (another former editor of The Spectator) wasn't a serious politician in his time as Margaret Thatcher's chancellor of the exchequer.  Likewise Ed Balls (former Financial Times leader writer), notwithstanding his decision to reinvent himself on Strictly Come Dancing.

Michael Foot was a first-rate journalist (editor of the Evening Standard at the age of 28) but not such a success as leader of the Labour party; Bill Deedes, on the other hand, seems to have made a pretty good fist of being both a Cabinet minister (1962-64) under Harold Macmillan and editor of the Daily Telegraph (1974-86).

Norman Fowler (formerly of The Times) is now Speaker of the House of Lords, so he's done all right; Ben Bradshaw (BBC) served as culture secretary under Gordon Brown; and Ruth Davidson (also BBC) is leader of the Scottish Conservatives and increasingly spoken of as a future party leader, so she's not done too badly either.

Overall, however, the record is not encouraging for journalists with political ambitions. Much better to stick to asking questions rather than trying to answer them, and -- as Toby Young has shown -- indulge our talent for losing friends rather than try to win allies.

Oh, and a final thought: I feel much the same way about celebrity-politicians. I suspect I need hardly mention the current occupant of the White House, but I'd also harbour grave doubts if Oprah Winfrey decided to try her hand at politics. Being good on TV is not the same as being good at running a country.

Nor is being good at running a business. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, please note.

Friday 5 January 2018

Admit it, Mrs May: the NHS is in crisis

Within the past five years, both my parents have died. My mother died in March 2013; my father just before Christmas. I have no complaints: they were both in their nineties and had led long and happy lives.

They also, especially towards the end of their lives, had benefitted from superb care paid for by the NHS. Even when doctors, nurses and other staff were working under immense stress, they were unfailingly kind and professional.

Like millions of other people who have had similar experiences, I have nothing but admiration for the medical and other staff who keep the NHS going, through thick and thin, winter and summer, flu outbreaks and terrorist attacks.

I have rather less admiration for the politicians who have systematically starved the health service of the resources it so desperately needs to provide for the ever-increasing demands of an ageing population.

How Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, can be spoken of as a minister who has done his job so well that he deserves a promotion, is something I shall never begin to understand.

According to The Times: 'Tory MPs increasingly admire Mr Hunt, 51, for his perseverance in a difficult brief.' Others, however, are reported to fear that he is still regarded as 'toxic' by some sections of the public.

Consider me among those sections.  Consider me also among those who remember the British Red Cross warning exactly a year ago -- a year ago! -- that the NHS was facing a 'humanitarian crisis' following the deaths of two patients after long waits on trolleys in hospital corridors.

There are many problems in the world that Theresa May can do little or nothing about. The war in Syria, Donald Trump, North Korea's nuclear weapons programme, the agonies of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

There are others where she can make a very real, immediate difference -- and the NHS is one of them.

So how has she reacted as the long-predicted winter crisis blew up in her face? 'I know it’s difficult, I know it’s frustrating, and I know it’s disappointing for people, and I apologise.'

Difficult? Disappointing? Has Mrs May ever been stuck on a hospital trolley in A&E, waiting in agony, terrified that she had been forgotten? Has she ever pysched herself up ahead of an operation, done all the pre-op things she had been instructed to do, made arrangements to put her life on hold, spent a sleepless night fretting about what might happen if the op goes wrong, only to be told when she gets to the hospital: 'Oh sorry, we've had to reschedule your operation, you can go home again.'?

What should she have said? 'I readily acknowledge that the NHS is facing a funding crisis. I am taking immediate steps to reverse the £2 billion of income tax cuts and £1 billion of welfare cuts that came into force last April -- 80% of the benefit of which went to better-off households -- and will plough the extra revenue back into the NHS.

'I will also plough extra money back into local council budgets, so that they can start to rebuild their social care provision and relieve some of the pressure on hospital beds. In addition, I want to say loud and clear that there will always be a valued place for non-British born staff in the NHS, that we will guarantee their long-term future in this country, regardless of any Brexit deal that may eventually be agreed with the EU, and that we shall continue to recruit from overseas to fill some of the 10,000 unfilled doctor posts and 40,000 nurse vacancies.'

But of course, she can't -- won't -- say anything like it. Because she still believes there is 'waste' in the NHS, that 'efficiencies' are required, and that the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Nigel Farage still poses an existential threat to her party and her government.  

Is the NHS perfect? Of course not. Could it be better run? No question. Are there lessons that under-performing Trusts could learn from the better-run ones? I'm sure there are.

But not while front-line staff and managers alike are battling to keep the service functioning at all. Not while they are on the edge of physical and emotional collapse as a result of the 'challenges' that confront them.

And not while both the prime minister and the health secretary think it's enough to say how much they appreciate what NHS staff do. Fine words butter no parsnips, as the old saying goes -- nor do they save an NHS in dire crisis.

It's all too easy to obsess about the latest lunacies from the White House, or the dismal prospect of never-ending Brexit rows. Once in a while, we need to look at what's happening right under our noses, in doctors' surgeries and local hospitals all over the country.

And then tell our MPs what we expect them to do about it.