Archive for October, 2008

Was it the Mail wot done it?

Russell Brand and Johnathan Ross have caused a storm of controversy rarely seen by the desensitised eyes of the MTV generation.

Their prank calls to Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs have met with condemnation from the PM and the BBC have received more than 10,400 complaints from outraged listeners and Daily Mail readers.

While blame is still being bandied around like a hot potato, Brand has apologsied (in his own special way) on his Radio 2 show, saying “sometimes you mustn’t swear on someone’s answerphone and that is why I would like to apologise personally”. Although excusing himself by saying “it was quite funny”.

To many this apology-of-sorts may sound like too little too late. Ross’s quip that Brand had “fucked” Sachs’ granddaughter, Georgina Baillie, and that Sachs might hang himself as a result of the message was not exactly easy listening. But the fact is that before the Daily Mail launched a campaign to have them fired, only two complaints had been made about the show, neither of them related to the messages.

Brand is no stranger to disapproval, after receiving death threats for calling George Bush a “retarded cowboy” when hosting this year’s MTV Awards in the US. But in a country that spawned one half of Gilbert & George and which deems Tracey Emin’s condom-littered bed “art”, it seems bizarre that an adolescent prank should provoke such a conservative blacklash.

While the UK airwaves are held to account by industry standards and moral censure from the prudishness of middle England, offence is the virtual currency of the UK art world. British Muslim artist Sarah Maple, currently exhibiting at the SaLon Gallery, Notting Hill, London, is a case in point.

Winner of the 4 Sensations prize, awarded to the “most imaginative and talented artists graduating in the U.K” by Channel 4 and the Saatchi Gallery, Maple has become the darling of the art world by depicting Muslim women holding pigs, sucking bananas suggestively and a photo of herself wearing a t-shirt that says: “I heart Jihad“.

Maple said: “I’m questioning the way some Muslims interpret the faith…It’s a quite serious thing, and then I make light of it, and I think a lot of people find that unsettling. But then they grow to like it.”

While Maple’s work has been met with criticism from the British Muslim community, it has seen nothing approaching the condemnation surrounding Brand and Ross. Has free speech in the UK been so disabled by self-censure that we’ve lost the last bastion of Britishness: our sense of humour?

In prison my whole life

“Imagine spending a lifetime…waiting, waiting to die”.

These are the words of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a revolutionary journalist and former Black Panther who was sentenced to death for the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1982.

Described by many as the “voice of the voiceless,” Mumia has remained an outspoken critic of the US political system from the darkness of his prison cell. Over the last 26 years he has written more than 500 columns, published five books and uses his weekly phone calls to record radio broadcasts for Prison Radio.

On Thursday night a documentary about his life and incarceration, In Prison My Whole Life, had its UK premiere. The bar of the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, usually home to a smattering of fashionistas, was buzzing with the clink of wine glasses, earnest conversation and Amnesty workers clutching petitions.

Inside the old theatre hall-turned-cinema, the red velvet chairs were draped with a campaigner’s goody-bag filled with political leaflets and peanuts.

The evening began with a series of readings from the who’s who of British acting talent. Lead by Colin Firth, whose wife Livia produced In Prison, Alan Rickman, Juliette Stevenson and Kelly MacDonald read extracts from A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, accompanied by performances from Beverly Knight and Ben Barnes.

The film is narrated by William Francome, an American-raised Brit who was born on the day that Mumia was arrested. It opens with his words: “I have been aware of Mumia for as long as I can remember… I am going on a journey to find out about the man who has been in prison my whole life.”

Approaching the case 26 years on, Francome pulls apart the flaws of a trial which Amnesty International described as “in violation of minimum international standards”. What he finds is a catalogue of errors that have been ignored by the legal system, including a racist judge, omitted and tampered evidence and falsified testimonies.

Throughout, Francome himself serves as a concrete reminder of the length of time that Mumia has spent in jail. Yet as the film goes on, what starts as an analysis of a single case opens into a more general critique of racial equality in the US and the vast disparities that still exist today.

From the FBI assassination of Black Panther leaders in the 1970s to the heartrending pictures of the victims of Hurricane Katrina, Francome explores why Mumia has become such an emblematic figure for so many and how much further there is to go before justice becomes truly blind.

Backed by MySpace, In Prison emulates what its director, Marc Evans, described as the “digital documentary style,” a testimony to its humble beginnings as Francome’s personal project. It serves to show, Evans said at the film’s world premiere in Rome last year, that despite “so much media noise”, the “dissenting voice still exists today”.

In Prison My Whole Life is due to be released to DVD in the UK later this year and is showing in London cinemas until the 29th October.

Sex, laws and video tape

Yesterday, porn protestors descended on Parliament in what must be the most impressive array of PVC I have ever seen.

Models dressed in gags and chains held up traffic as they paraded around Westminster in a protest against the Justice & Immigration Act (2008), due to come into force in January 2009. This law will make it illegal to possess or disseminate any image in which there is a perceived threat to a person’s body or life for the sake of sexual titillation.

Ben Westwood – Dame Vivienne’s son – whose book of “extreme” photography Fuck Fashion may be banned under the new laws, has taken a stand against the government. He is joined by the singer Gwen Stefani and the burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese.

He writes: ”The way I see it, some people like it and some people don’t. In my opinion S&M is just harmless fun. There is no anger or violence involved.”

Campaigners argue that the new law will criminalize thousands of relationships in which people use hardcore porn consensually in the privacy of their own home. Yet only last month, Max Mosley, the bête noir of the tabloids, was paid out a record £60,000 settlement in a libel case that may challenge EU legislation.

Mosley was famously outed as an S&M connoisseur by a video published by News of the World showing him being shaved and beaten by five women. In the judgement, which has caused equal outrage and smug applause among the British media, the Honourable Mr Justice Eady said:

“It is not for journalists to undermine human rights, or for judges to refuse to enforce them, merely on grounds of taste or moral disapproval.”

It’s a “matter of principle”, says Mosley in an interview with the Guardian, that people “whose sex life isn’t quite the same as the majority” should be entitled to do what they want in the privacy of their own home “as long as everybody involved is genuinely consensual, properly consensual, not just doing it for money or whatever”.

It is not the job of the law to engage in a “moral crusade” against what people do in their private lives, however bizarre or intriguing we may find them. Whatever scrutiny we subject ourselves to outside, we should be able to hope that behind at least one closed door, Big Brother isn’t watching us.

October 2008