Category Archives: Column

THE DEBRIEF: The political WaG




Is there any fate worse than being First Lady? I cannot think of anything I’d dislike more. It’s all the hassle of public life with none of the power – always wearing the right dress and never saying the wrong thing, which, come to think of it, is sort of the inverse of my job. Outside the USA, there’s not even the snazzy title to go with it.

Usually I don’t give much thought to these Little Women, who’ve chained their lives to their husband’s career ambitions, like they’re looking after a diabetic dog. I don’t want to be them, I don’t admire them, I rank their opinions as substantially less important than whatever Buddhist manta Cara Delevingne’s posted on Instagram this week. But now we’re entering the pre-election era when these poor chattels get carted out, there’s no escaping it.

Justine Miliband’s been bullied into an excruciating TV interview, Sam Cam is omni-present (see also: yesterday’s soft-focus photo shoot in the Mail On Sunday). Now, as the election nears and things are getting serious, she was air-dropped into Rochester and Strood constituency in an attempt to reverse the fortunes of the Tory party, who lost the area when MP Mark Reckless defected to UKIP last September

Opining on the previous night’s TV debates during her visit Sam considered her husband (David Cameron, you know, the Prime Minister) didn’t seem too nervous. ‘I’m very glad it’s him not me.’ Somehow sidestepping the fact that it was never going to be her up on that podium, because she’s not actually a politician. Yet, given the way political wives are dangled in front of us, intended to humanise not just their husbands, but their whole party, I’m amazed no one has yet suggested a three-way leaders’ wives debate.

I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be a political wife. I image it as a Stepford life of blow-dries, kitchen-offs with other First Ladies and throwing house parties for people you don’t even like. Not going clubbing or wearing anything more outrageous than Boden. Not even getting to live where you like. You’d be on constant display, but never allowed any real opinions, especially not political ones. Only maybe on innocuous subjects like saving orphans that no one could disagree with you on. Mainly, though, ­whatever your professional qualifications – you’re reduced to spouting drivel about how great your husband is with the kids (even if he’s not) as if that’s any reason someone should vote for him.

When does this deal start, I wonder? On the first date? ‘Hey babes, I’ve got big plans, do you mind wearing tights over that Dolphin tattoo?’ At the altar? Will you take this man, no matter how abhorrent his policies? As you give birth, ‘You know, she can’t go to private school.’ Meanwhile, you keep your chin up as the world calls you Mr Spock, because, to be fair, what but your looks has it got to go on? It can’t know your politics, opinions or principles. It’s not your policies it’s voting for. Instead, your engagement in public life is limited to appearing on daytime TV shows and campaign stages giving rigour mortis smiles.

I don’t think I could stand this political WAGery. I’d rather be Miley Cyrus than Sam Cam; I’d rather be Kim Kardashian-West than Ju-Mil. I’d rather be Madonna… actually, I’d rather be Madonna, full stop. Even frivolous pop stars have more moral integrity and personal freedom than the charade of authority the First Lady’s got. Not a politician, an artist or even PA, at best she’s a glorified career. The thing about most of our political WAGS is that when they’re not being Good Wives I rather respect them. I admired Samantha Cameron’s career as creative director of Smythson (or did, before the tax haven stuff). I’ve always thought of Justine Thornton, a barrister and former Government advisor who’s scaled the Atlas mountains as far more than a dress. I’m in awe of Miriam Gonalez Durantez, most of all: an international lawyer whose pay grade and chutzpah cojones far outscale her husband’s. Which is why I wish, when I saw them in public it was inspiring women as professionals, not consorts.

Perhaps this is why the male partners of female MPs won’t be rolled out. Justine, Miriam and Sam Cam will have been asked how they rated their husband’s performances during the leader’s debate, but is anyone watching Peter Murrell’s reaction (Nicola Sturgeon’s husband, in case you’re asking)?

Still, if I had to be First Lady, I’d do it properly, in America. At least there they sell out fully into the frivolity of the role. Making fashion statements in pink milkshake suits like Jackie O or appearing on Ellen, dancing to Uptown Funk, like Michele Obama. Besides, the US produced the finest First Lady ever, Clare Underwood. Although fictional. A woman cool enough to play beer pong in the White House and spend her downtime hanging out with monks. But ultimately she’s the best First Lady because she’s more interested in tackling international politics (often against her husband’s wishes and edicts) as a UN ambassador than any of the perks being the wife of the President entails. For, as she says, when someone asks her why she’s not content with being First Lady, ‘It is not the same as contributing in a concrete way.’

This article originally appeared on The Debrief:

THE DEBRIEF: What’s wrong with casual sex?


Is Jenni Murray a feminist? A journalist? Or a slut-shaming misogynist who thinks yin is better than telling the truth?

If you’re under 30 you probably don’t even know who she is. Murray is a presenter on Radio 4’s supposedly feminist Women’s Hour, who has launched an attack on modern female role models: namely Lily Allen, Bryony Gordon and Caitlin Moran. Slamming them in a Daily Mail article for ‘over-sharing’, accusing them of ‘boasting’ and ‘bragging’ ‘without a scintilla of shame’. Their crimes? Daring to speak honestly about their experiences of taking drugs or having sex.

Murray attacks these modern female role models for wearing their ‘embarrassing exploits’ as ‘badges of honour’ (which sounds like an AMAZING idea to me. Mine, would be awarded for being sick into my handbag on the tube).



‘She clearly hasn’t read my book,’ Bryony Gordon tells me. ‘It is basically DRIPPING in shame. It would probably have been more helpful if instead she had asked “why is it that when a woman writes a book about casual sex in the year 2014, she has to feel ashamed?”’.

But is it more worrying that Murray, who says ‘most women would find it pretty difficult to bounce back from dark days of drug use and promiscuity’, is a Patron of The Family Planning Association, whose whole purpose I assumed was to give women unjudgemental advise about their sex lives? And that she claims to be a feminist (FFS).

Instead, in her criticism of Caitlin, Bryony and Lily, Murray slut-shames a whole generation of women who dare to talk openly about sex. She claims the difference between her generation’s sexual freedom or that enjoyed by 90s ladettes, and us, is that these generations were empowered by their sexual freedom and we are not. Is she mad? Has she forgotten her generation invented rape porn, with Lovelace? That the sexual revolution she’s nostalgic for led to The Family and P.I.E? Does she really think sex has changed that much since the sixties? Or that everyone back then was only doing it for love?

Murray says, unlike us, her generation of women were empowered by reading Germaine Greer. Is she kidding? We’ve had 44 years of gender theory and sexual empowerment since then. We’ve studied Judith Butler, Wendy McElroy, Candida Royalle and Beyoncé. And anyway Jenni, Greer was an over sharer way before us – you might want to look up that picture of her posing naked with her feet behind her head.

Besides, you might want to read Caitlin Moran’s book How To Build A Girl a bit more closely and notice the whole point of her novel isn’t bragging about shagging around but encouraging girls to think about their sexual pleasure, and not subsume their sexuality to men. (Caitlin specifically does a whole page on this). The reoccurring theme of the book is that no one but the heroine Johanna can make herself come. ‘I am the best lover of me,’ as she says.

Not that Caitlin cares Murray missed the point. As she tells me: ‘Every time someone wilfully misunderstands something I write, I have a shot, so I’m up on the deal here.’

After baiting women who talk about their sex lives, Murray launches into Lily Allen for daring to speak openly about having taken drugs. Has Jenni read Russell Brand’s My Booky Wook? Does she realise these girls look angels beside him?

But the main crime Murray seems to think these ‘bad girl confessionals’ have committed isn’t their fun loving lifestyles – it’s daring to tell the truth about them.

‘Once there were some things a woman would take with her to the grave,’ flaps Murray. Bless her. She is 64, she can’t get out much. She seems to have missed THE INTERNET. Social media. The incredible power millennials have found in sharing their experiences (presumably that’s why the whole ‘slut-shaming’ debate passed her by).

While historically woman were so shamed by their ‘promiscuity’ that unmarried mothers and their babies were sent to homes like Tuam, now we value open-ness. We respect the bravery it takes to tell the truth, and admire women who talk in a real, raw, way about their lives.

Bryony and Caitlin are role models precisely because by sharing their experiences they have inspired other women to learn from them.


‘My book is really a cautionary tale, and I hope the young woman who have read it feel better about themselves, less guilty and awful because they slept with someone who didn’t go on to be their boyfriend,’ Bryony tells me. ‘I feel Jenni Murray should be supporting women rather than shaming them.’

If Murray’s moaning seems symptomatic of a generation of older women who feel alienated and annoyed by the freedom young women enjoy then actually that’s not my experience.

The best women I know Murray’s age are supportive and excited by watching girls explore a brave new world. And what’s most wonderful about Caitlin Moran’s book has been the way she has allowed mums and daughters to explore these issues, inspiring conversations between them about how gender and sexuality are changing, that otherwise they may not have had. Giving them a language to express feelings otherwise left unsaid. It’s their openness that makes Caitlin et al our heroes.

May I make a suggestion Jenni; do some research (and perhaps drop the F word). Our generation didn’t invent the wild woman. We’re just the first ones who gave her a break.

This article originally appeared on The Debrief:

The Sunday Times Magazine column: I broke my phone and gave IRL a go



There is a beautiful story, lost to the internet, that I read years ago. Late at night a young guy found himself typing into Google “I’m so lonely”. His Google search directed him to a forum on a film-review website, of all places, where he typed again “I’m so lonely”. Someone replied “I’m so lonely too”.

As Google’s algorithm shifted the phrase higher up the ratings, soon anyone typing “I’m so lonely” into the search engine found themselves directed to the forum, where discussions about loneliness grew. People poured out their stories of loneliness in support, connecting.

In the discussion that ensued, some wondered if there wasn’t a certain irony to hundreds of lonely people finding company online, yet in remaining alone.

In the early days of the net, this story made sense. The worldwide web, a tool that promised to bring us together, seemed to have begun isolating us, reducing our interactions to liking status updates. A recent AXA PPP poll found 18- to 24-year-olds four times as likely to feel lonely “most of the time”, compared to those aged 70+. It seems no coincidence that internet use is most prolific among this age group.


Sunday Times: My onscreen romance





Katie Glass ❤ Jodie Foster

I knew immediately my cinematic crush would be a woman. I never fancy men in movies because I’m not a fantasist, so I don’t get crushes on made-up people. But I am attracted to women in films because I can live through them vicariously. They seem a little more real, someone I could become.

Still, that does not quite explain why my cinematic crush is Jodie Foster as Tallulah in Bugsy Malone. The film was released in 1976, so it is not even my era, but as a child I was obsessed with this film. Tallulah is a wise-cracking flapper, a beautiful, hard, sarsaparilla-swigging showgirl, a dirty-mouthed sweetheart. Also, confusingly, she is played by Foster aged 13, because all the actors in Bugsy Malone are children. I must have been about 13 when I first saw it. And I had never met a 13-year-old like Tallulah.

Tallulah has an answer for everyone. When the mob boss Fat Sam asks her to leave a room for his “men’s talk”, she cackles, “That’s all right, I’m unshockable!” She sings a song about herself in which she tells a crowd, “I always leave a little reputation behind me/so if you really need to, you’ll know how to find me.” I loved, no, I wanted, to be her. Although, only now, watching Tallulah slink through the film, I realise she must be a high-class courtesan. Still, she seems to be enjoying herself.

My favourite thing about Tallulah, however, is that in real life Foster grew up to be the coolest woman in Hollywood. Foster, like Tallulah, proving women can act as, and become, who they want.


The Sunday Times Magazine column: Stop hashtagging around, Dave and Nick. I want to take you seriously



I don’t want David Cameron to take part in the TV debates. As much fun as it’s been watching him squirm, I still don’t want him on my screen. Not Cameron, nor Ukip, nor the Greens, nor Respect, nor the Monster Raving Loony party.

Amusing as it would be to watch this political Britain’s Got Talent unfold, especially if they got Simon Cowell to judge it, I’d rather can the televised debates. And not just because I haven’t got a TV.

I’m sick of infotainment. I’m done with politics reduced to fashionable hashtags. It’s been Disneyfied. Some things are meant to be dull. So this is a call for politics to return to when it was incredibly boring. I want grey-flannel issues to come back in.In 2014 politics reached peak trendiness. The comedian Russell Brand nominated himself yoof spokesperson. The former pop star Myleene Klass debated the mansion tax. Feminism was dressed up for the cover of Elle magazine and sashayed down the catwalk for Karl Lagerfeld with placards proclaiming “make fashion not war”. Social issues became so hipsterised, the term Ukipster was coined.

You weren’t a serious movement unless you earned a hashtag. Celebs, including Michelle Obama and Cara Delevingne, clamoured to campaign for causes like #bringbackourgirls. Yet approximately 230 of the 273 girls Boko Haram militants captured remain missing. Meanwhile, as stories emerge of the hostages subjected to rape, abuse, physical torture and forced marriage, the red carpets have already forgotten them. At the Golden Globes the signs celebrities once held for #ourgirls were replaced by this season’s cause celeb: floor-length dresses accessorised with signs reading #JeSuisCharlie.

This isn’t to write off all hashtag activism as vanity, but rather to acknowledge that sometimes “raising awareness” — through social media, fashion and celebrity spokespeople — is not enough. Legislation is also required. Money. And policies. And it is this boring yet decisive action that gets lost when politics goes on TV.


The Sunday Times: Putting the DPP in the dock. Why women should be equal in law



Alison Saunders is the second woman to become director of public prosecutions. Women should be celebrating her success. I am not. Her very focus on women is what worries me.

Since she started she has promoted a focus on female “victims”. That word itself is telling. It is not the language of criminal justice, which considers “complainants”, but of an ideology that sees women as helpless targets, which I do not.

In my experience of reporting on forced marriage I’ve met brilliant, strong young women who have testified, sometimes against their families, proud to stand up for themselves and protect other girls. They called themselves survivors.

Saunders does not credit women with this ability to know how to act. She pushed ahead with her first female genital mutilation prosecution against the wishes of the adult female “victim” involved, who did not want the case brought.

Saunders brings a similar approach to female rape complainants. Before they have even proved their cases she describes them as “victims”.

She has told police and prosecutors to place the onus on men in date-rape cases to prove they obtained explicit consent from the women they slept with, especially when they have been drinking (although it is unclear how this fits with the presumption of innocence). So now women can claim retrospectively that they were raped after a sexual encounter they regret.

This saddens me. It undermines the ability of women to make their own decisions. It suggests that, especially when drunk, we do not know our own minds. When intoxicated people get behind the wheel of a car it is considered their choice of action. Women, similarly, must take responsibility — or we do not have real equality.

I would not expect a man who went home with me after a night out to wake up and withdraw his consent. But then usually men do not. Because men do not buy into the same post-sexual shame that women are fed — the puritanical idea that women are harmed by sex. Men do not promote their victimhood.

So we do not hear much about the 700,000 men (according to estimates from the Office for National Statistics) who reported last year that they had been assaulted in acts of domestic violence. Nor do we hear much about the 75,000 men who, the Ministry of Justice claims, experience sexual assault or attempted assault each year.

Saunders is right about one thing: female victims were maligned by the criminal justice system in the past. The way to see them treated equally, however, is not to baby-fy them. Women will not gain equality by being portrayed as victims.

Instead we must take gender out of crime. Women who report sexual assaults are crossing the same Rubicon as men in criminal cases. We are all grown-ups. We can all stand by our actions.