Swimming in poisoned water

This week is both anti-bullying week and transgender awareness week, so some newspapers have chosen to celebrate both by, er, bullying transgender people (see my previous post). I’m not going to get into the arguments or unpick the bullshit — Alex Sharpe does a superb job of that here.

I’m just going to share a trans person’s tweet I saw yesterday.

So I’m sat on the train and there are four people reading The Sun and two with the Daily Fail in my eyeline… I’ve moved seats! No wonder trans people feel bombarded. #caniliveonthemoon?

Imagine starting your day by seeing six people in the same carriage as you holding newspapers that are doing their damnedest to stir up prejudice against you.

LGB people, muslims and non-EU citizens will recognise the feeling.

And the supposedly grown-up papers aren’t any better: The Times appears to be obsessed with trans people of late, often taking the side of religious evangelicals, while the Telegraph gives space to people like Norman Tebbit, who claimed that gay marriage would lead to him marrying his son.

It’s disproportionate, it’s relentless and it’s causing a great deal of distress for no good reason. And it’s getting worse.

To be trans in the current media climate is to constantly swim in poisoned water. No wonder so many of us end up feeling sick.

It’s about time we all stood up to defend, er, bullying

There’s something very strange happening in the UK media. It’s defending the bullying of children.

Last month, Peter Hitchens claimed in the Mail that banning smacking would “come back and slap us in the face.” The state has too much power, he said, noting that “Fathers, once kings (or despots) in their own homes, have been declared officially unnecessary.” As he explained, mistaking correlation for causation:

In the days of smacking, police walked around alone in tunics with no visible weapons. Now they make their rare public appearances in pairs or squads, clad in stab vests, clubs, pepper sprays and handcuffs.

Because of course absolutely nothing else in the world has changed politically, socially, culturally or economically.

They also roped in Jan Moir to opine, after detailing the barbaric discipline that used to be commonplace in schools and telling the hilarious story of her mum using a kettle “to ding my brother on the bonce”:

we all lived through an age of crime and home-grown or class-based punishment. And it didn’t do us any harm.

Imagine! Some people think whacking a child with a kettle is bad!

Today, to mark anti-bullying week, the Church of England has updated its anti-bullying guidelines for nurseries and primary schools. If a three-year-old wants to play with toys or clothes associated with the other gender,the guidance says, they shouldn’t be told not to or mocked for it.

Here’s the key phrase:

‘A child may choose the tutu, princess’s tiara and heels and/or the fireman’s helmet, tool belt and superhero cloak without expectation or comment’

The Daily Mail’s front page headline? No, of course it isn’t “let girls wear hard hats”. It’s “Church: let little boys wear tiaras,” because while nobody’s bothered about girls playing with boy stuff a wee boy in a tiara is clearly Satan’s work.

The article notes with disdain that “Schools are also told they cannot use the Christian faith or Bible teachings to justify behaviour that is considered to amount to bullying – for example, identifying a transgender pupil by a sex other than the one they have chosen.”

“Behaviour that is considered to amount to bullying”. So, bullying.

In an interesting coincidence, over the weekend the Mail on Sunday described how a teacher was suspended over allegations about, ahem, behaviour that is considered to amount to bullying.

“I called a trans boy a girl by mistake… and it may cost me my job as a teacher: Maths tutor suspended after praising pupil using the wrong gender,” the headline says.

He’s an evangelical pastor and the complaint against him alleged ongoing inappropriate behaviour, such as trying to shoehorn his religious beliefs into his maths lessons, and concern that he was picking on a trans child by deliberately and frequently misgendering him as well as detaining him unnecessarily. He denies “inappropriately” talking about religion in maths lessons. The word “inappropriately” is doing a lot of work there.

From the article:

He added, however, that he did not feel that he should be made to use the pronouns ‘he’ or ‘him’ and that to force him to do so was a breach of his human rights.

Like many people who find themselves represented by the Christian Legal Centre, whose dread hand is behind this story, the tutor in this story appears to be an arsehole.

The Mail on Sunday – and today, the Sun – has also dragged up (pun fully intended) a story from back in June:

Drag queens are being brought into taxpayer-funded nursery schools so that children as young as two can learn about transgender issues.

The cross-dressers are reading nursery rhymes and singing specially adapted songs ‘to teach children about LGBT tolerance’.

The performances, which are being trialled in a grand total of one nursery, are so newsworthy that the Sun has made them its front page story.

There’s a really horrible final sentence to the Mail’s version, too. Noting that the nursery in question decided to trial the performances in response to increasing hate crimes, it says:

Reported hate crimes rose 29 per cent in the last year, Home Office figures show, although only one in six was considered serious enough for a suspect to be charged.

If you find yourself defending the beating of children and campaigning against anti-bullying initiatives, this video may resonate.

All the small things: a little writing app that makes a big difference

In the old days, writing for magazines was easy: you’d write a piece, send it as a Word doc or a text file, and that was it. Now, though, everything’s online and in a CMS. Creating content for that is often a pain in the backside, especially if you use apps designed for print rather than pixels.

Hurrah, then, for Ulysses. It’s a genuinely great app that’s already saving me stacks of time – not just in terms of creating copy I don’t then need to tweak, but in terms of the massive time savings that come from the way it does things. At £31.99 it’ll pay for itself in no time.

Here’s the obligatory video.

If you need to write words of any kind, it’s a great app. There’s a free demo too.

The best of both worlds: Spiceworld and Narnia

Today’s Sun says that for the very first time Alex Salmond has admitted that independence won’t be easy and that we won’t have magic taps running fresh water, whisky and oil.  “Was that really so difficult, First Minister?” the leader asks.

As Wings Over Scotland points out, it wasn’t difficult – and wasn’t difficult  when he said the same thing publicly in June 2013, in January 2014 and in June 2014.

It probably sounds like a minor thing, but it’s characteristic of something that’s really shaken my faith in journalism in general over the last couple of years: we’re being told stuff that simply isn’t true and that doesn’t stand up to the slightest bit of fact-checking. It’s not just the tabloids, either.

If the papers can’t be straight about very simple, well documented and easily verifiable pieces of information, how can you trust them on the more important issues?

It’s hard to quibble with Stuart Campbell when he says:

this stuff isn’t (just) cheap, snarky point-scoring about the stupefying incompetence of other journalists. It’s about the people of Scotland being fed a completely false narrative about a dishonest, shifty First Minister who promises the Earth and refuses to acknowledge any possible problems.

Obviously I’m coming to this from the perspective of a (converted) Yes voter, but it’s very clear from conversations I’m having online and off that many people will be voting in part based on outright lies and some very carefully worded claims (so for example the Better Together literature points out that Scotland benefits from transplant deals with English hospitals, implying that independence will mean the end of such deals. It won’t).

I’m not naive. I know that political campaigning means lying, distortion, dog whistle issues and other unpalatable things. But journalism is supposed to counterbalance that, to investigate the claims, expose the falsehoods and to hold campaigners (on both sides) to account. Its number one purpose is to ensure that the electorate are well informed – and from where I’m sitting, much of the media appears to be doing quite the opposite.

Journalism is supposed to be part of the solution, but here in Scotland* it’s part of the problem.

* With some honourable exceptions, of course. 

“The comments have failed us”

Margaret Eby argues that online comments on news pieces “are, most of the time, a disservice to both the writer and the reader.”

It’s true that putting your work out for public consumption requires some heartiness of spirit. But it is now not just tolerated but expected that journalists should suffer abuse at the hands of their audience. This is a relatively new occupational hazard. Newspapers always got their fair share of cranky letters, but no reporter was required to read–let alone publish–all of them. There is no other job, save comedian or bar band, where heckling is so routine.

The Magazine Diaries

I’ve contributed to The Magazine Diaries, “a little book publishing project designed to let magazine people tell the world how they feel about making magazines in the middle of the biggest disruption in publishing history and raise some money for a great charity.” The project is asking magazine people to submit 100-word articles about their jobs, and my one is here:

I worry about thinning walls between advertising and editorial, about writers who don’t need paid because someone else is picking up their tab, about slideshows and pop-ups and weird tricks for flat bellies.

But I still feel lucky.

You’ll find a full list of contributors here.

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs for no good reason.”

While I’m on an old-article tip, I’ll republish this as part of my ongoing and Quixotic battle to stop Hunter S Thompson from being misquoted. It’s from .net back in 2008.

Flies and death and stuff

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs for no good reason. There is also a negative side.” Legendary gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson said that, and it’s been circulating around the internet for years now.

The thing is, he didn’t say it. If you pick up his book Generation of Swine, you’ll see that what HST really wrote was this: “The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.” The misquote has become an Internet Fact.

It’s a similar story with Mariah Carey. Despite what you might have read in Grazia last year, she didn’t actually say of starving children that “I’d love to be skinny like that, but not with all the flies and death and stuff”. The quote was invented by a satirical website, but it soon became an Internet Fact that ended up in print.

Internet Facts are a good example of the wisdom of crowds being drowned out by the mooing of herds: what survives isn’t necessarily the truth, but what people would like to believe. It’s funny when it’s making Mariah Carey look daft, but when it’s something more serious the effect is chilling.

In June, The Sun reported that an Anglo-Indian couple had abandoned their newborn baby girls because the dad wanted boys. The following day, it returned to the story – this time to quote the relevant NHS trust’s statement, which denied the allegations and said that the parents were perfectly attentive and very much in love with their daughters. Dozens of blogs quoted the original article; not one of them ran a correction when it turned out that the story was flawed at best and completely false at worst. And on The Sun website, it’s clear that most commenters simply ignored the correction. The result was several pages of knee-jerk nonsense, often bordering on the racist, sometimes crossing the line altogether. The story – the original one, not the corrected, accurate version – has become an Internet Fact, fuel for casual racists and Stormfront posters alike.

There are countless examples, ranging from the relatively harmless – for example, lurid and entirely invented tales of celebrities’ sexual proclivities – to the downright dangerous, such as the false dangers attributed to life-saving vaccines. Thanks to blogs and comments, we all have the right to publish this stuff and to circulate it more widely – but with that right comes the responsibility to ensure that what we say or post is actually true. Everything we post online has the potential to become an Internet Fact. As with most things in life, it pays to listen to Cher: as she sang in If I Could Turn Back Time, “words can be weapons. They wound sometimes.”

Life through a lens

This nice piece by my friend Craig Grannell on experiencing life through a smartphone screen reminded me of this, a column I did for .net in 2009.

I was visiting the BBC recently, and I arrived just after a large delegation of Japanese visitors. As I waited to be ushered inside, I watched the group unwittingly living up to the stereotype of gadget-wielding photography obsessives. They filmed and photographed the receptionists at work. They filmed and photographed the security guards. They filmed and photographed people coming in and out. Most of all, they filmed and photographed each other filming and photographing.

The first thing I thought was: I’m glad I don’t have to edit all that footage into something interesting. But my second thought was more serious. Photos and videos are hyperlinks to memories, icons that your brain double-clicks to bring back the full experience – the sights, sounds, smells and sensations of a happy day or a crappy one. Increasingly, though, we’re using gadgets to record the whole experience. That makes us passive observers, not active participants.

As soon as you start fiddling with a piece of technology, your attention is on the technology – so if you’re filming the bit of a gig where the singer hits those emotional highs, you’re removing yourself from the very thing you paid all that money to experience. When you tweet about the cute thing your kid just did, your attention’s on Twitter, on making your point in 140 characters, not on what your kid’s doing.  When you check email during a conversation, you’re temporarily tuning out the person or people you’re with. And when you film every waking moment you’re giving your attention to the framing, to the focus, to the F-stop, to the battery warning light that’s flickering in the corner of the viewfinder.

What you’re not doing is experiencing the thing you’re photographing, or twittering about, or filming. You’re not paying attention to the sounds, the smells, all the little details that make the moment special and burn it into your brain. For all our fancy trousers and our clever gadgets we’re a fairly simple species, and our caveman minds weren’t designed for multitasking.

That means that your gadget – your iPhone, your HD camcorder, your Blackberry – is the digital watch in the Biblical epic, the Ford Mondeo in the costume drama. It’s the bit of the novel where the author suddenly addresses you directly. It’s the drunk who bumps into you at the rock gig. It’s the noisy crisp eater behind you in the cinema. It’s the faraway music that stops you sleeping. It’s the thief that steals your attention, ends the immersion, takes you out of the moment and leaves you outside, looking in.

Of course gadgets have their place, and the world would be a lot poorer without smartphones, camcorders and other devices. But we need to be careful, because if we give them too much of our attention, if we experience our entire lives through a lens or lit by a screen, we’re no longer creating hyperlinks. Instead, our photos, our Facebook updates and our tweets are dead links, shortcuts that can only ever lead to a mental Page Not Found.

I thought about this at last week’s Eels gig, when the woman next to me filmed the whole gig on her phone. As she watched the screen throughout, that means her video isn’t a reminder of what the gig was like; it’s a reminder of what filming the gig was like. It’s an important difference.


“The constant scream of OMG OMG WHAT A DORK from family, friends and passing members of the clergy”

Me, on Techradar, writing about wearables.

It’s often said that smartphones are driven by fashion, but that isn’t really true. There are trends, of course, such as the current vogue for gold. But ultimately if a phone’s good enough and doesn’t actually frighten small children you won’t care too much what it looks like, because you’re either using it or it’s in your pocket or bag.

Wearables are different, and watches especially so.

Yeah, well, Microsoft probably paid him to write it

Walt Mossberg, one of the world’s best known tech writers, has written about platforms and their defenders. While comparing tech firms’ fans to religious devotees is one of the oldest cliches in the book, he’s right about the behaviour of people who believe their choice of computer, smartphone or games console is superior to others’ choice of computer, smartphone or games console:

It’s really not okay to pour down personal hate and derision on people who happen to use and like a tech product that competes with the one you prefer. I’m pretty sure that kind of behavior violates the tenets of, you know, all the real religions. And it’s really over the top to become so devoted to a tech company that you can’t see the point of view of others who don’t buy, or even like, that company’s products.

Every tech writer is all too familiar with the oft-expressed idea that “the only explanation for a positive review of an Apple product is a payoff”, although I wish it were only limited to Apple things: in my experience, the payoff thing is levelled when you’re positive or critical about pretty much anything.

Pointing it out won’t make any difference, of course. As Douglas Adams famously wrote, when people suggest we try being nicer to one another they tend to end up nailed to trees.