Saturday, 27 July 2013

Enough weasel words and deflection. Time for Twitter to stand up for the women abused on its own site.

Imagine how you’d feel after taking on one of Britain’s most powerful organisations. And won. Elated, delirious, vindicated. Now imagine how you’d feel if less than 24 hours later - still basking in the warm glow of having made a difference - you were subject to a sustained campaign of online abuse.

Abuse that ranges from the sexist to the outright threatening. We’re not talking about a few nasty comments. We’re not even talking about things which are offensive or even downright cruel. Not even the work of a few pathetic trolls with nothing better to do with their time than wind somebody up. No, this is much worse.  The abuse that the indefatigable Caroline Criado-Perez has received -  moments after she succeeded in getting the Bank of England to perform the u-turn of all u-turns in ensuring a woman will continue to grace England’s bank notes – is something no person would ever want to be privy to.
Not just the misogyny, (an inevitable consequence of being politically active and a woman. Heaven forbid) but the sexual abuse. The threats of rape, of other forms of sexual violence. Spurred on by others of a similar sick mindset, these people hunt in packs. They pick their latest victim and unleash a tide of the most hideous and twisted abuse.

Women being targeted and threatened with all manner of abuse is of course nothing new. The internet and social media has given these perpetrators the notoriety and platform some of them crave.
So, what are people like Caroline and many many other women like her supposed to do in response? The answer is simple: nothing. They shouldn’t have to do anything. It shouldn’t be up to victims to have to badger (for want of a better word) Twitter, and its collection of directors, to take action. They should be doing something already. It’s not good enough to fob women off and tell them to report the abuse to the police. Yes, the police need to act too, but they will inevitably have to work in conjunction with Twitter. Twitter holds the details of all its users, their email addresses, it monitors their tweets.

It’s about time big organisations acknowledged their responsibility and yes, a duty of care, to its users, and those subjected to campaign after campaign of abuse. Too often very rich CEOs hide away pleading impotence. We’ll suspend their account. Temporarily. This seems to be the best they’re willing to do. But, it’s not enough.  It’s not nearly enough. Many of these people are breaking the law. You are not allowed to threaten people in “real life.” If the laws of libel are the same offline as they are online, this must surely apply to the above.
Twitter needs to permanently disable these users’ accounts and ensure that any attempt to set up another (many online abusers operate from multiple accounts) from the same email address, even better from the same computer, is similarly declined.

Yesterday, I sent Caroline a message advising she took a break from Twitter. If only to preserve her own sanity and not have to read anymore of this stuff. In response she said: “nope, not backing down. This is the last time a woman puts up with this.” I instantly felt bad, and a bit stupid for what I’d said. Said with the best of intentions, but probably a little insensitive, because I knew Caroline was right. Why should she be the one who hides away and is driven from Twitter?  As she says, time to stand up to these people and time to stand up to Twitter.
There’s also part of me that takes the “don’t feed the trolls” approach. I don’t mean not responding to their abuse, but not retweeting it. These people love the publicity. Some of them get off on it. No doubt, literally. Retweeting it alerts their fellow abusers who use it as a chance to re-double their efforts. But I completely understand why people do retweet. If only to draw attention to the threats, show other people that they are not alone, and in the (vague) hope that Twitter and/or the police do something.

Incredibly, Caroline had her own account temporarily suspended by Twitter. For having the audacity to bring her users’ attention to what she was having to put up with. Whilst the abusers had free rein to continue. The logic of blaming the rape victim for going out and daring to wear a short skirt in public. Rather than tackle the abusers head on, Twitter reverted to self-preservation: its reputation meant silencing the abused. When Caroline alerted Twitter’s manager of news and journalism, rather than offer to help, he locked his account so only people he followed could communicate with him.
Part of me would like to see an end to anonymity on sites such as Twitter and Facebook. I’d extend that to people leaving comments on newspapers online and blogs. I realise some choose the anonymity to protect themselves. Unfortunately others use it to say things they may not have had the guts to say without the mask.

It’s important that male users of forums like Twitter stand up in solidarity with women having to face this torrent of abuse on an almost daily basis. Yes, men sometimes find themselves on the receiving end, but it’s nothing compared to what women have to put up with. I know several who have been scared away from contributing to blogs or any online conversations due to the experience of others. But, we can only do so much.
Most critically, it’s time for Twitter, like Facebook before it, to get a grip with what’s being written on its site. Weasel words, deflecting responsibility, cowering behind the police won’t do. You control the site. You pull the strings. You can pull the plug. You have a moral duty to protect all of your users.  Get the names of all those who abuse women, who threaten to rape and do other unspeakable things to them, and work with the police to ensure they receive the maximum possible punishment. Because women like Caroline aren’t going anywhere sometime soon.  And nor should they.

This post first appeared on Speaker's Chair on Saturday 27th July 2013

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The case for open primaries grows stronger by the scandal

Labour’s Unite shenanigans (see today’s Times (£), and comments on Unite and GMB influence over selections here, here (£) and here) have further convinced me (if I ever needed convincing), that open primaries are the best way to ensure we have an open and transparent system when selecting parliamentary candidates. Let’s go the whole hog and have it in place when selecting candidates for local elections too. But let’s start with Westminster and work our way backwards.
Candidates are selected and then fight to become elected representatives. If you’re lucky enough to be fighting in a safe seat, you can be guaranteed to be stuck on the Green Benches for as long as you like. Even complacency or laziness won’t stop you getting re-elected. Electing an MP is a big deal. Everyone with an interest (or without) should be given the chance to have their say.
David Cameron signalled his desire for primaries in opposition. In 2009, he was a strong advocate, describing them as “an exciting opportunity.” The Coalition Agreement vowed:
“We will fund 200 all-postal primaries over this Parliament, targeted at seats which have not changed hands for many years."
But, the election of the outspoken and refreshing newbie in 2010, Dr Sarah Wollaston, via an open primary, has probably seen the government shelve plans for any more. Why? Because it could, heaven help us, lead to more independent-minded MPs.
MPs who dare to criticise their own parties. MPs who believe that their duty first and foremost is to represent their constituents, and not to climb the greasy ministerial poll. MPs who won’t be cowed into silence, or bullied by the whips.
Surely, we should be encouraging such people into politics? Not those who seem to revel in losing all sense of identity once they walk into the Commons.
Here are five reasons why all political parties and the public should embrace open primaries:
1.      An open, transparent and corrupt-free system for all to see. No more closed door hustings where only a couple of hundred party members (if you’re lucky) get to make such an important decision.
2.      Voting open to all (party members, members of other parties, and members of none), would boost overall voter turnout. Knowing they had a say in selecting a candidate (from each party) is a sure fire way of reinvigorating the democratic process.
3.      Challenge the dangerous notion of the safe seat. Candidates would have to work for their votes and not rely on people voting for them simply because other candidates don’t stand a chance of winning.
4.      Someone selected by people from all political backgrounds (and none) would have had to have had broad appeal to win. Rather than just parroting bog-standard party lines, or slamming the opposition without even thinking, they’d have to show they were someone prepared to listen to and take on a wide spectrum of views. This is what representing your constituents actually means.
5.      They would encourage a different sort of candidate to put his/her name forward, which would give us a more diverse system. Diverse in the sense of views, and not just of gender or colour, for example.
The only thing we have to fear from primaries are voters. Lots of them. And that’s a good thing.
This post first appeared on Speaker's Chair on Wednesday 3rd July 2014

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

MPs already well paid? No, they’re not paid enough

Let’s be honest, there never will be a good time for MPs to get a pay rise. The public would rather see their pay fall than rise. The expenses scandal was the final nail in the coffin for most. Any remaining shreds of sympathy gone. Although I’m inclined to agree with what Labour MP Tom Harris has on his Twitter bio: “MPs are hated; always have been, always will be. C'est la vie.”
And he’s probably right. MPs could work for free and it still wouldn’t be good enough. At least they tried to detoxify the issue of MPs setting their own pay by passing on this responsibility to the Commons expenses watchdog, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA).
Fat lot of good that did. As Harris notes:

“People initially liked the idea of an independent body doing the job, but not if their independent decisions were going to include giving MPs a big pay hike.”

It does make you wonder what kind of people run the IPSA. According to their website: In everything we do, we focus on our main duty; to serve the interests of the public.” The IPSA hasn’t yet officially come out and recommended MPs get a £10,000 pay rise, and even if they were to go back on their verdict (unlikely), the damage has already been done.
As argued on this site yesterday, how on earth can we justify pay increases of 1% on public sector workers, whilst the (mostly) men and women who impose them walk away with a 15% increase? In 2013, we can’t.
But, let’s stop for a moment and look at the salary paid to the IPSA’s chair, Sir Ian Kennedy: remunerated the handsome sum of£700 a day for a 3 day week. For simplicity’s sake, assuming he’s paid for all 52 weeks a year, this equates to a salary of £109,200. Considerably more than MPs currently get, and still greater than they’d receive even with their inflated pay rise.
Are we really saying that the man charged with cleaning up parliament should be paid that much more than the folk who sit in it and decide how our schools and health service is run, or how best to tackle crime and protect us from terrorist attacks? This is before we get on to what are undoubtedly healthy sums paid to the IPSA’s Director of Communications and its other PR and Marketing bods.
Top civil servants, head teachers, GPs, anyone who’s a big cheese in the private sector, are all paid salaries that dwarf that of your average backbench MP. The issue isn’t that MPs are paid too much, it’s that they aren’t paid enough.
Critics (i.e. most of us) will point out that they’re privileged to be doing the job they do. Even if they’re hated for doing it. And they are in a wonderfully unique position. Working in the corridors of power must be a thrilling feeling. I know one MP, who lost their seat in 2005, who says that on an almost weekly basis they lament the fact that they’ll never be privy to such a life again.
As things stand, it’d be wrong for MPs to get a pay rise above that handed down to the rest of the public sector, even though they deserve one. Pay restraint looks to be with us for a generation.
Talk of MPs’ expenses is fraught with danger, but there are certain expenses that are integral to an MP. We should look at increasing the budget they have for paying staff. At present, London-based MPs receive £144,000 a year and those based outside the capital get £137,200. Individual salaries are at an MP’s discretion although there are agreed pay scales as guidance. Wages can vary between £16-25,000, sometimes more, based on experience and expertise. If for argument sake, a London MP employed six full-time staff, he/she could only afford to pay them £24,000, well short of the city’s average salary. A recent study found that Londoners need to be earning £38,000 just to be able to afford to rent a one bedroom flat.
Of course MPs don’t divvy up staff salaries in equal amounts. Many hire part-time staff; some rely on (paid and unpaid) internships and volunteers. £144,000 may sound like a large figure but it won’t get you very far when split between four or six people. Non-London MPs get even less to pay staff at Westminster and in their constituencies. Naturally, their staff in London can expect to be paid more, meaning less is available for constituency employees.
MPs work stupid hours. They’re rarely not working. Life in politics plays havoc with personal relationships. One out of every six Tory MPs elected in 2010 has split from a partner or seen their marriage breakdown.
There is no job description. They just keep on going until they drop. In some cases, sadly, literally. They need more support. In the current climate, there’s no way they’re going to get their 15% pay rise. Increasing the amount of paid help they get would be a decent compromise.

This comment piece was first published by Speaker's Chair on Tuesday 2nd July 2013