Welcome to Tory Britain, where you can’t even age with dignity: scroungers, shirkers and the neo-liberal rhetoric of strength.

By Milly Morris

(Image location)foucault1

Growing up as the youngest of fourteen siblings and living in poverty for her entire life, my Grandma has always fought to keep her head above water. In 1939, she left school at fourteen – the year that World War II broke out – and cared for her disabled father, who had lost his leg in the First World War. After he died, she was evicted and became homeless whilst she struggled to look for work.

Despite her difficult experiences, the stories that she relayed to my siblings and I were always centred around community spirit, friendship and the trouble that she would get up to at my age. Indeed, throughout my life, she has consistently taught me that compassion and community are essential to human existence. Moreover, from the perspective of the average Tory MP, my Grandma is a “model citizen”: she has worked hard her entire life, paid her taxes and – much to my annoyance – always gets excited at the sight of the Queen on TV.

Today, at 93-years-old, surely she should be able to relinquish some of her individual responsibility and be one of many vulnerable citizens that the government aims to protect and support?

Yet, when my Grandma was sent to hospital last week, she was left in a corridor for nine hours before being seen. The lack of resources meant that she wasn’t even permitted a bed for the time that she was there, being left to sleep in a wheelchair. Despite the warm and friendly staff attempting to cater to all patients, the waiting room was crowded and chaotic; patients and their families were left in undignified discomfort, lying and sitting on the floor.

Since the announcement of the upcoming general election in June, the right-wing press have hailed Theresa May’s “strength” as guaranteeing the country with a sense of stability. This is despite the fact that the UN recently condemned austerity politics as the main source of poverty and inequality in the UK, disproportionately effecting women and children.

For Foucault, language “mediates our understanding of the world” and shapes the social reality that we live in via portrayals of that reality. Indeed, within neoliberal society, rampant individualism is often misconstrued as strength whilst compassion is associated with weakness, instability and – as the right-wing media would like us to believe – millennial “entitlement.” One can see such language being played out in binary representations of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn; whilst May is a “safe pair of hands”, Corbyn’s desires to support vulnerable individuals mean that he is repeatedly presented as “out of touch” and a “loser.”

Arguably, this ubiquitous rhetoric of contempt for “weakness” has led us to the point where our most vulnerable in society are simply being tossed onto the scrapheap and left to rot. For example, calls to support refugees are branded as overly emotional, irrational and naïve. When Gary Linicker critiqued The Sun’s racist coverage of refugees – including Katie Hopkin’s column which referred to them as “cockroaches” – he was branded a “leftie luvvie.” In contrast, when David Cameron announced his plans for airstrikes on Syria, The Sun’s headline was: “Wham! Bam! Thank you Cam!”, suggesting that the former Prime Minister was efficient and strong in his violent reaction to the refugee crisis.

Moreover, such discourse shifts collective responsibilities onto the individual and demonises those who struggle to keep up. Rather than lay the blame for the refugee crisis at the foot at violent government’s doors, the right-wing media consistently asks why individual asylum seekers don’t “go back where they came from” to “fight for their own freedom.” In terms of the welfare state, individual “benefit scroungers” and migrant workers are seen to be forcing our services into disarray. This is despite the fact that the government’s welfare plans have been found to have “serious design flaws.” Indeed, we are now living in a country where starving benefit “scroungers” will go to prison for stealing £12.60 worth of meat, seemingly forgetting the fact that:

(…) just a few years ago – over 300 parliamentarians were found to have claimed expenses to which they weren’t entitled; hundreds of thousands handed over to some of the richest people in the country for duck houses, moat repairs and heating their stables.

Arguably, such pervasive and stigmatic language has meant that people are afraid to ask for help for fear of appearing ‘weak.’ Indeed, this may be why so many people who are suffering at the hand of Tory austerity are still willing to vote for Theresa May in June; when we individualize issues, people turn inwards rather than looking outwards at the powerful structures which govern our existence.

It would appear that ‘strength’ in this instance is less about providing feasible solutions for a divided country and more about shifting attention away from those who are profiting from atomistic individualism whilst simultaneously re-writing the narratives for those who criticise such ideals as simply naïve.

Yet, at a time when the NHS is on the brink of being dismantled, we must ask ourselves: if the government does not look after our most vulnerable citizens, then what are the state’s real interests?

Handy things the BBC taught me

Sophie Harman

Newsreading

I don’t know if you saw the email in January from the BBC looking for ‘Expert Women.’ It was unfortunately worded, as if the BBC could make women experts or that somehow women needed help being experts. Aside from the wording the intent was good: most experts on TV and radio are men and the BBC have recognised this and decided to do something about it. I applied and was accepted. I also found the day to be brilliant and very helpful. I thought it would be worth sharing some of the things I found out for four reasons. First, some of my friends were one of the 400+ women who applied. The demand or need for such knowledge is clearly there. Second, you may be like me and think TV or radio is not for you. I thought this and then after the day changed my mind. Apparently this is what a lot of women think. Third, according to research from City University London the ratio of male/female experts in Politics is 10/1 and foreign affairs 5/1. In the long list we were shown at the beginning of the day, Politics was the worst of all academic disciplines. I see this as a discipline fail. Finally, it is an opportunity for me to share a picture of me presenting the news (I am taking a call from a foreign correspondent on the line) in my Mum’s kitchen. Once male/female ratios are equal I’ll post the full video complete with thrilling guided tour of my home town of Chesham. I can’t add you to a BBC database (which is half the problem) but some of these points may help you go for it should you get the call.

  1. Um, well, so – are all acceptable words to use in a TV or radio interview. Don’t stress about them. We all use them in everyday speech. Think about how often you use um, like, well, so when talking in the pub/coffee shop/on the phone. Always.
  2. If you dry up/go blank presenters will help you. Professional presenters or interviewers know what to do: this is their job, they will therefore pick you up, prompt you and get you back on track if you forget your name. So don’t worry about blanking.
  3. Breathe through your mouth. This was a big reveal for me as years of yoga mean I always think breathing through your nose is best. Big mistake! Yawning is also good as it relaxes your jaw and wakes up your brain.
  4. Who cares if you get high pitched when you’re nervous? You are not Thatcher and this is not the 80s, women don’t have to moderate their voices anymore. Having an annoying voice has not stopped Robert Peston.
  5. If you flush/go red – no-one can see if you’re on radio and it is not clear on telly.
  6. Never read. You may want notes as a crutch but reading from them will make you sound and look rubbish. They will also make you more nervous.
  7. TV studios (well the BBC ones) are like the university seminar rooms you to try to change – in the basement, windowless, in odd corridors – with added cameras. So nothing to fear there.
  8. Examples to illustrate your point are big. They are effective at communicating and impacting with people listening/watching.
  9. Pivoting – talk about what you want. If you listen to the radio/watch TV you’ll see this all the time. ‘That’s an interesting question, but the real issue is…’
  10. Take your bangles off if on radio (I sadly abandoned wearing bangles everyday years ago because of keyboard bashing but I salute those of you who remain committed to the bangle) – the mega mics pick up everything.
  11. Because no-one can see you on radio you can raise your hand to the presenter if you have a point to make and they’re ignoring you
  12. Be easy – if they call and you can do it, turn up and do it: no drama.
  13. Have a back up list of excellent women – this is a big one. If we want to get more women on the radio and TV we’ve got to help each other. If you get the call and cant make it, have a go-to list ready to refer another woman. If anyone wants to be added to my global health women expert list let me know!
  14. Contact editors/producers if something newsworthy happens in your area. E.g. if you’re an expert in Milton Keynes and there’s a local government coup – let them know! Also update your linkedin (apparently a search tool for journalists – who knew?). You can contact them by Twitter or emailing them (all BBC addresss seem to be in the format of harman@bbc.co.uk)
  15. What to wear: no stripes, no white, if on radio less jewellery the better. Apparently there is a secret society led by Susannah Reid of dresses that look good and fit mics on telly but I am not privy to that information. When I am I’ll break the Reid omerta and share.
  16. Do some homework on the show you’re on. The Today Programme has a different style to PM to Woman’s Hour. Still be yourself but get a sense of the pace and tone.
  17. Fun Fact! Impersonating the accent of the person talking to you is not insulting – it is called ‘code switching’ and (correct me if I’m wrong linguists) is something women predominantly do to communicate effectively.

This may be all self-evident to anyone who has gone on media training. However training always seems to tell you how to be when the BBC seemed to stress over and over how it is best to just be yourself. Top thing I learned, give it a go, and if you don’t like it don’t do it again. Mumbling on radio 4 won’t end your career. You’ve got nothing to lose.