Sincere Congratulations To The Spectator For Their All-Women Cover Issue

Fraser Nelson - The Spectator - Westminster Media - Journalism

A brief rant before normal service resumes…

The Spectator editor Fraser Nelson today felt the need to publish a self-congratulatory humblebrag remarking on the fact that their latest print edition’s cover page apparently features only the work of female writers, despite no conscious decision having been made to indulge in affirmative action.

Nelson gushes:

Just before The Spectator went to press yesterday, my colleague Emily Hill pointed out that I’d just taken away the only male name away from the cover: all seven of our coverlines were stories written by women. Did I really want that? I hadn’t thought about it until then, and for a while I did consider engaging in tokenism and slapping a man on for the sake of it. But why bother? Spectator readers don’t really care about gender, just good writing.

In fact it hadn’t occurred to any of us, until that point, that we were about to run what Ariane Sherine, who writes our cover story, today hails as the first all-woman cover in The Spectator’s 188-year history. But this wasn’t a patronising attempt at a ‘wimmin’s issue’ or some other awful tokenistic wheeze. Our all-women cover wasn’t deliberate, it was just the way the cards fell. Each week we want to get the best writers on the most original topics: this week, they all happened to be women.

That’s not to say there’s no difference when it comes to getting hold of good writers. As Emily will tell you, women don’t put themselves forward as much as men. To get the full range of talent from all available writers can mean people like Emily going to great lengths to find and encourage new writers – like Ariane Sherine. As so often, Fleet Street follows up. As I write, two national newspapers are vying for the right to republish her cover story.

Full disclosure: I have a bit of a beef with lead article author Ariane Sherine (a one-sided affair; she, I’m sure, has no idea who I am) following her previous effort for The Spectator, an appallingly condescending report about how she performed a comedy gig in the heart of UKIP-supporting coastal Essex and somehow, miraculously, was not ripped to shreds by the rabidly racist, evil Brexiteers who dwell there.

It is interesting, too that Sherine (and apparently other women writers published in The Spectator) had to be sought out, coaxed and persuaded to write for the venerable magazine because “women don’t put themselves forward as much as men”. Funny, that. I, a despicably privileged man, have pitched to The Spectator before – it was actually a terrible piece from a few years back when my writing was very green, not at all worth publishing – but then I never had the pleasure of being sought out and implored to honour The Spectator’s readers with the fruits of my keyboard. That must be quite a nice feeling.

I don’t normally do this, but let’s just muse on the topic of gender equality for a moment, particularly as it relates to journalism. Regular readers will know that I spent pretty much every spare moment of the past year campaigning for Brexit in the EU referendum, initially rather haphazardly but (I hope) increasingly coherently as I read Richard North’s peerless eureferendum.com blog, learned about Flexcit and fell in with The Leave Alliance. I claim zero credit for any of the specific ideas this blog has supported around Brexit and the future of international trade – my tiny bit part in this effort consisted merely of standing on the shoulders of giants, particularly Richard North and Pete North, whose technical mastery and polemical writing I admire enormously.

The point, I suppose, is this. For some time now, a group of independent, citizen bloggers have churned out consistently better analysis and commentary on the EU referendum and Brexit on any given day than the mainstream media has given the British people in an entire year. Even now, dim-witted publications like the Guardian and FT are scrambling to catch up and think through some of the ramifications and issues which the people in my circle have been writing about for months. And what mention or recognition has this work prompted from the Westminster media? How many links to our widely-read and shared articles have appeared in mainstream outlets like The Spectator?

I think you know that the answer is zero.

Now, you don’t have to rate Semi-Partisan Politics at all – though I am personally quite frustrated, this issue is much bigger than little old me. But doesn’t it seem slightly odd that the entire Westminster media managed to somehow overlook the hard work of a small army of pro-Brexit bloggers on the biggest political issue to face Britain, just when fresh analysis was sorely needed, and yet The Spectator has time to scour Britain at great length for underappreciated female talent to promote to the front page?

Fraser Nelson claims that The Spectator’s all-women front page was entirely accidental, and I take him at his word. But isn’t it telling that this feat was achieved at the height of silly season, the summer recess, when the political news which is the Spectator’s bread and butter is almost entirely absent? When MPs come back from recess and things get serious again, let’s see how many months or years it takes for the next unintentional all-women issue to go to print. My guess is that it will be some while; that when PMQs is back and party conference season gets underway we will be seeing a lot more of James Forsyth, James Delingpole and Rod Liddle on the cover. Just a hunch.

So what was the amazing piece which made the cover of The Spectator anyway, you ask? Well, it was a thrilling exposé of a growing trend among millennials whereby single women stop looking for a suitable man and choose to marry themselves instead.

A snippet:

As far as the bride was concerned, the wedding was perfect. Her dress was beautiful, the vows were traditional and she changed her name after the ceremony. The clifftop scenery was breathtaking, the seven bridesmaids were encouraging and supportive: move over Princess Di. There was only one thing missing: the groom. Like a growing number of single women, Sara Starkström had decided to marry herself.

‘I thought about people marrying other people without loving themselves first,’ says Starkström, a writer, explaining what many would call a bizarre overreaction to finding herself single at the age of 29. ‘How could they pledge to do all this stuff for another person when they couldn’t promise themselves the same thing? I decided to marry myself to celebrate my independence and strength. I did it to promise to be my own best friend.’

[..] While many commentators make scathing judgments about sologamy (the feminist blog Jezebel ran a dismissive piece called ‘Single women, please stop marrying yourselves’, chiding, ‘You should be aware that you’re no trailblazer and you’re sure as hell not thumbing your nose at the system. You’re buying into it’), this hasn’t stopped increasing numbers of women from taking the plunge. For Starkström, self-marriage was a liberating act for which she is quite happy to take all the jokes ‘about me carry-ing myself over the threshold and making love to myself’.

And the thrilling conclusion:

Perhaps this is the crux of the sologamy issue: self-marriage is harmless, cheap compared to the £20,500 average cost of a classic wedding, and the union seems to make the bride very happy. If only the same could be said for the majority of traditional marriages which feature a groom. Princess Diana’s fairy tale fell apart when she found that there were three people in her marriage. Now, for an ever-increasing number of determined modern women, one is more than enough.

This isn’t even original. Even I know – don’t ask me how – that Sex and the City featured a similar storyline nearly fifteen years ago, in which protagonist Carrie Bradshaw decides to marry herself as a way of recouping the money spent on friends’ engagements and replacing an expensive pair of shoes which were stolen at a previous party. This kind of story is “and finally…” fodder on the TV news, not lead article material for The Spectator.

This may be silly season, but British politics is hardly dull at present – we have the ramifications of the EU referendum result to pick through, and the slow-motion car crash that is the Labour Party’s self-destruction, while America continues to wrestle with the Donald Trump phenomenon. In these circumstances, I’m sorry to say that Sherine’s story about sologamy has more than a whiff of affirmative action about it.

Before the inevitable feminist lynching begins, another disclaimer: I have long believed that The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman is the outstanding political journalist of her generation and, based on my couple of conversations with her, a genuinely nice person in the SW1 bubble. If The Spectator had ten Isabel Hardmans on staff, I wouldn’t expect a male-written cover story any more than once a year. It shouldn’t be necessary, but I want to put any idea that this rumination is some alt-right, anti-woman rant quickly to bed.

Note too that even when quoting the established feminist blog Jezebel, The Spectator fails to provide a link to the article Sherine cites by name. This is how unwilling the establishment British media are to share readers, clicks and opportunities. It is selfishness beyond measure, and is ultimately counterproductive – the American political blogosphere grew and thrives today not only because bloggers link to one another, but because there is a dialogue between what were traditionally the “legacy” print media outlets and alternative voices.

Readers aren’t forever lost to a publication which dares to link. In fact, readers often respect the original source all the more as a curator of other worthwhile information across the internet, thus increasing their loyalty. Maybe this doesn’t easily show up in the monthly SEO and web traffic reports which now seem to drive all media behaviour – and which have turned the Telegraph from a respectable broadsheet to a sensationalist purveyor of clickbait – but it is a real factor nonetheless. My own personal blogging hero, Andrew Sullivan, built the most influential political blog in history based entirely on this philosophy of curating the web for his readers and also providing fresh commentary which was picked up by the legacy media.

To this day, if there is a worthwhile piece of commentary or analysis on an American political blog, it is not unusual to see it linked to in a piece by an “establishment” journalist on the staff of, say, the New Republic or the National Review. Semi-Partisan Politics has been cited in the National Review a couple of times, a courtesy not once extended by any major British publication, and this despite the fact that 80 per cent of this blog’s output concerns UK rather than American politics.

So how should the British media interact with the blogosphere and promote new talent? Well, call me old fashioned but I believe that a simple commitment to meritocracy can’t go far wrong. Sure, The Spectator will always hire the likes of Pippa Middleton to write vacuous society guff about hunting for truffles in their Christmas issue, and that’s fine. But when it comes to political coverage, one wishes that established British publications would at least pretend to aspire to genuine meritocracy, seeking out the best analysis and commentary regardless of race or gender rather than indulging as they do in flagrant nepotism on the one hand and leftist affirmative action on the other.

I’ll speak plainly, because it’s better than dancing around the issue, from my perspective as someone no longer in the first flush of youth trying to build an audience and reputation as a writer. It is frustrating to pour every spare minute into this blog, providing (I dare to hope) sometimes original and refreshing commentary – particularly I think on the 2015 general election, the ongoing Labour leadership saga, free speech or academic freedom issues and the EU referendum – and see what is  objectively weaker commentary from nepotism beneficiaries or the obvious fruits of affirmative action benefit from a prestigious platform, greater recognition, and – oh yes, from monetary reward too. It’s just a little bit hard to take day after day.

I could play the minority card too, if I wanted to talk up my BAME working class background, but I would never compromise my principles by demanding that I be given a platform based on who I am rather than what I have to say. I won’t go there – it would be a violation of everything that this blog stands for. Others sadly seem happy to do so.

I write because I love to write, and because I think I have slowly created something quite small but precious here at Semi-Partisan Politics; because I have a small readership whom I love to serve, write for and debate with; because it is better than ranting into Facebook 24/7 as I used to before I opened a WordPress account. But sometimes it is a bit galling to see an inferior product exalted and given prominence when I and several of my good writer friends toil in obscurity.

Building a reputation and audience as a writer should be hard – it rightly takes time, effort, humility and perseverance. It has taken me over four years to even begin to get a sense of who my audience is / should be, and how best to serve them – and I claim no special skill at what I do, only a great deal of enthusiasm for it. But whether it is Twitter interactions, links to my site or other interactions, the amount of support I have received from American journalists and publications on the other side of the Atlantic vastly exceeds what little help or hand up I have ever received from the British media class – despite the fact that at least 80 per cent of my written output, networking and outreach efforts are focused on British politics and the Westminster media.

And I think British journalists and editors should be made to feel a little bit ashamed of that fact. Not for my sake – I’ll be just fine, and 95 per cent of the time I am happy to keep plugging away without a murmur of complaint. They should feel shame because my situation is far from unique, and because there are writers in my acquaintance whose insight, bravery and raw talent would enrich our country’s entire political discourse if only it had the bully pulpit it deserves.

The Westminster media establishment should be ashamed because the way they seek out and promote writing talent fails the British people, serving them an often substandard and derivative stream of written output and unoriginal thinking from the pens of the well-connected (either by parentage or ability to fill the checkboxes of a Diversity Officer’s form) while effectively pretending that the struggling political blogosphere – the primary outlet for so many talented, aspiring writers – doesn’t even exist, and certainly not as a source worthy of links or interaction.

Okay, rant over. I don’t have the energy to bring this piece to a neat end.

Normal business will now resume. Read it here first, or three months later from someone who gets paid to do this kind of thing.

 

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Nepotism Alert – Emily Benn

emily benn tony benn

 

“People might ask how I can know anything about ‘the real world’ given who my family are and the fact I am the granddaughter of Tony Benn” – Emily Benn

 

First it was Stephen of House Kinnock. Then came Will of House Straw. Euan of mighty House Blair waits in the wings. And now it is official – Emily Benn, fifth generation of her line, has been selected as Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Croydon South.

At one time, this depressing nepotistic spectacle was mostly a Tory party phenomenon – the Conservatives still boast a grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, Nicholas Soames, among their MPs. But as the ideological gap between the main parties has narrowed and the background of one party’s parliamentary intake has gradually become indistinguishable from another’s, we can only expect cases like this to become more frequent.

Is it necessarily bad to have someone from a political family, a woman in her early twenties, in Parliament? Of course not. Since the interests and priorities of young people are often scarcely acknowledged by Britain’s political leaders, more young faces in the halls of Westminster can only be a good thing. In particular, at a time when huge areas of government spending have been strictly constrained, virtually nothing has been asked of Britain’s pensioners or soon-to-be retirees, so great is the power of the grey vote. More young voters and a few twentysomething MPs are not the whole solution by any means, but it couldn’t hurt.

But is this really best that today’s Labour Party can do, in the age of Miliband? When every other speech from the Labour shadow cabinet (generic ranting against austerity aside) bemoans the lack of opportunities available to disadvantaged young people and the vital importance of listening to them, how will electing a privileged young woman from a dynastic family, almost completely divorced from real life, help to redress the balance?

Emily Benn, of course, is falling over herself to emphasise her humbler side and the extent to which she shares in the same trials and tribulations as the rest of us. In a piece in the Telegraph entitled “What I can offer British politics”, she insists:

“I get up and go to work every day (in the private sector). I have the same friends as everyone else and use the same buses, tubes and trains to get around town. I procrastinate on Facebook, just like the rest of our digitally savvy society, and struggle to find a house I can afford. And right now I am using the very same NHS hospitals as you would, while I accompany my mother to appointments in her cancer battle.”

But while it is true that this routine does indeed mirror the lives of many Britons, it would bring absolutely nothing new to the socioeconomic makeup of the House of Commons. Emily Benn’s career path has essentially been that of any other young(ish) Labour MP: university graduate (Oxbridge was helpful), premium graduate job (working for UBS investment bank, in Benn’s case), dabbling in lower level local politics to show a willingness to “help out”, followed by the nimble leap to national political party life. The only thing that differentiates Emily Benn from the other women in the Labour parliamentary party is the speed at which she achieved the holy grail of being selected by a constituency association – a victory which, if she were to be honest, is entirely attributable to her surname.

Contrast the embryonic career of Tony Benn’s granddaughter with the likes of Owen Jones, the young and telegenic left-wing campaigner, author and talking head. While one can disagree with his politics (this blog certainly does), it is hard to deny Jones’ very tangible accomplishments: a bestselling book that made people stop and think and which influenced the national political conversation, another book on the way, and a respectable track record of grassroots activism to back it up. Jones is often encouraged, even begged by some supporters, to stand at the next general election – though to his credit, he demures and remains non-committal. And few would doubt that Owen Jones would make an energetic, engaged, articulate and highly effective MP were he ever to run.

When has Emily Benn made people stop and think anew about a longstanding social problem? How many people turn out at events to hear her speak passionately on an issue close to her heart? How many newspaper articles does she have to her name, how many books has she published, how many times has Emily Benn’s media profile or debating ability led to invitations to appear on Question Time? In short, aside from her brief tenure as a local councillor, what has she done (aside from graduating university and getting a job like the rest of us) that in any way suggests an ability and promise so great that they earned her the right to carry the Labour Party banner into the 2015 general election?

When The People’s Assembly skulked through London in protest against austerity, this blog contended that a national movement which chooses Russell Brand rather than the likes of Owen Jones as its figurehead should not be surprised when it is generaly dismissed as irrelevant and unserious. The same criticism must now be levelled at the Labour Party, and the way in which local Labour associations are selecting their parliamentary candidates. If Labour insists on choosing famous names, and favouring style over substance, why should voters give them the time of day?

Ultimately, Emily Benn must ask herself this question – are her potential abilities as a future Member of Parliament so great and so unique that her contribution to British political life will outweigh the harm that she is doing by perpetuating yet another exclusionary British political dynasty?

But we cannot expect Ms. Benn to reach the difficult, truthful conclusion on her own. Therefore, it falls to the constituents of Croydon South to ensure that genuine promise beats hereditary entitlement in May 2015.

Nepotism Alert – Stephen Kinnock

Lord Stephen of House Kinnock. Winter is coming.

 

Watch out, there’s a new man in town. He is going to shake things up. He’s going to get things done. He’s a policy heavyweight and an inspirational leader-in-waiting. He’s going to rise up through the Westminster power structure and eventually become the Labour leader that Ed Miliband can only dream of being. He is Stephen Kinnock.

The face has the wistful, simple and vacant look reminiscent of Prince Edward on a bad day, albeit with even less charisma. Presumably he is charming enough in person, as he is happily married to Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Prime Minister of Denmark. Kinnock Jr. currently lives in London while she and his children reside (naturally) in Copenhagen.

But now Stephen Kinnock, Son of Neil, First of his Name, is throwing his hat into the ring to be the Labour candidate for the Welsh constituency of Aberavon at the next general election.

The Guardian observes that this is by no means the first nonentity with a famous surname to try to make politics a family business in recent years:

Will Straw, son of Jack, will contest Rossendale & Darwen for Labour in next year’s general election. David Prescott, son of John, stood unsuccessfully for selection in the Greenwich and Woolwich constituency in November. There has been speculation that Tony Blair’s eldest son, Euan, might seek a parliamentary seat after he gave up a career in banking to work for a small Coventry charity.

The four young men, were they successful in their ambitions, would be the next wave of political offspring to carry on the family tradition. Hilary Benn, son of Tony, Ben Gummer, son of John, and Nick Hurd, son of Douglas, are all MPs. Anas Sarwar was elected Labour MP for Glasgow Central after his father, Mohammad, stood down from the seat in 2010. Francis Maude, Bernard Jenkin, Andrew Mitchell and several others at Westminster all succeeded a parent to the role. There are plenty of recent historical examples too, from Douglas Hogg, the former Tory agriculture minister, to Estelle Morris, education secretary under Tony Blair, both of whom came from dynasties of MPs.

Just what Parliament needs – another untalented, uninspiring wet rag of a candidate with next to no real life experience (aside from the inevitable internships and think tank jobs that having a politician’s surname makes getting easy) to lower the average IQ of the Commons even further. Stephen Kinnock’s credentials and life experience? Being a research assistant at the European Parliament, a succession of jobs at the British Council, a job for the World Economic Forum and his present role at a consultancy that “helps global businesses go beyond the green basics and reinvent the way they grow”. Make of that last one what you will.

Parliament and politicians are thoroughly despised at this country at the moment. I know they are because I helped to campaign for one in the 2010 general election and many members of the public told me exactly what they thought of the lot of them. The expenses scandal is still fresh in the minds of many, and public fury will surely erupt again when MPs accept their proposed inflation-busting pay raise in the near future. With political engagement at an all time low, is now really the time to be throwing more prime examples of nepotism from the political elites in our faces?

Of course, these shenanigans are not restricted to the Labour Party – though they certainly take the biscuit for nominating Emily Benn to be a candidate back in 2007, when she was still only seventeen years old. There was a time when the runt of the family litter would be encouraged to join the clergy while the oldest son inherited the family estate. I certainly do not propose a return to those days, but surely we can come up with a better career path for the rootless and questionably-talented progeny of famous politicians than our current scheme of packing them back to Westminster before the green benches occupied by their parents have had a chance to grow cold?

And if we must continue to indulge in nepotism in British political life, can we at least try to make it a little more glamorous? In America, they make up for their lack of a royal family by bestowing on their political dynasties a real aura of magic and sparkle, wealth, privilege and scandalous intrigue worthy of a daytime soap opera. The Kennedys, the Bushes, the Clintons – their style of nepotism is no more morally acceptable, but it is a hell of a lot more fun to watch. No television producer is in a hurry to start making Keeping Up With The Kinnocks.

This is the son of a man who fell into the sea while posing for a photo shoot:

 

Somewhere, lurking well out of sight, are talented potential citizen politicians whose civic instincts we should be tapping to devote five or ten years of their life to serve a term or two in Parliament for the good of the nation.

Stephen Kinnock can sit this one out. The World Economic Forum surely misses his talents.