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    In passing the decision on Syria strikes on to Congress, the President has decided it's better to look like a coward than a hypocrite.

    Yesterday, in an announcement that took pretty much all news networks and commentators by surprise, Barack Obama took precisely zero military action in response to Syria's highly-publicised recent use of chemical weapons.

    For even the first few paragraphs of his speech, everyone still assumed there would be Tomahawk missiles in the air within hours.

    “In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted. Now, after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets,” the President said. “I’m confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behaviour, and degrade their capacity to carry it out. Our military has positioned assets in the region. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose.”

    So far, so Desert Fox. But then, the President changed tack.

    “I’m also mindful that I’m the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy,” he said, in one of the more awkward non-sequiturs of his speaking career. “I’ve long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And that’s why I’ve made a second decision: I will seek authorisation for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.”

    That's right: despite not technically needing the approval of his legislature to take military action, Obama is magnanimously seeking it anyway. This would be a big deal even if there wasn't an enormous elephant in that particular room, but of course there is, in the form of David Cameron's catastrophically embarrassing failure to achieve the exact same vote, despite – in theory – having a much tighter constitutional hold on his legislature than Obama.

    But the US president has run out of friends. The UN is completely gridlocked by Russia, while the UK, America's usual ally in such adventures, now isn't on board either. Nobody, not the Arab League, not NATO, not the war-weary American public nor even the war-eager hawks in the Republican party for whom limited missile strikes don't go far enough; nobody, except suddenly belligerent France, is on board with the President's plan.

    That being the case, Obama has decided to duck acting unilaterally. Instead, he is betting on his own ability to sell the war to the people, and therefore to Congress, in just nine days. If he succeeds, of course, he can go to war without being accused of riding roughshod over Congress, and international law. He cannot be accused of acting alone.

    But if he fails, it will be a catastrophe for his credibility at home and abroad.

    This is Obama's own fault, really. He talked himself into a corner with his 'red line' ultimatum, and has found himself cornered between two versions of himself: one, a year ago, laying down the sanctity of international law on chemical weaponry; and the other as a candidate in 2008 waxing lyrical on how the primacy of Congress should be respected in warlike matters. The latter position makes going to war alone, without Congress, the UN, a national mandate, or even the British along for the ride, unpalatable. So, with his position on chemical weapons staked out in 2012, but no support, and mindful of what he said about similar decisions as a candidate in 2008, he has taken the less lonely option. He has chosen to look like a coward, instead of a hypocrite.

    Is that entirely fair? Was this cowardice? To some extent, yes. To the Syrian rebels who had been expecting air support, it looks like when the crucial moment came, America blinked. After more than two years of inaction, their disappointment is unsurprising.

    One thing is certain: Obama is not really acting out of concern for constitutionality. Remember, he had no such misgivings about not consulting Congress when he took action in Libya two years ago. But then, he had UN backing for that; this time he faced standing alone. So he passed the buck.

    Which is not to say that, paradoxically, shoving the responsibility for this decision on to Congress wasn't in its own way a brave move. After Cameron's humiliation in the Commons last week, Obama will be acutely aware that a losing vote now, after he so clearly staked out his own position, would be worse than embarrassing: it could be seen as a de facto vote of no confidence in his administration. The stakes could not be higher.

    With Congress away for the Labor Day holiday, he has until 9 September to make his case. Obama would not have taken this risk unless he had reasonable confidence that he is going to succeed – but the American legislature is notoriously unpredictable, obstructive, and – in the case of the House of Representatives – controlled by the Republican party. There are factions who are going to make his job difficult: libertarian Republicans and dove Democrats want to leave Syria alone to fight its own civil war; and on the other side, interventionist Republicans like John McCain think targeted strikes don't go far enough.

    Coward or not, the President now has a hell of a fight on his hands - before an American shot has been fired.


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    In Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's universe, everyone is neon-cool and glitter-fantastic.

    First, full disclosure: I consider myself friendly with, but not friends with, the writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie, who are the creators of this comic. They might perhaps refer to me, in turn, as "that woman who appears when we are in the pub". I don’t consider myself to be compromised as a reviewer, however, because I enjoy situations where I get to insult their work.

    Bearing that in mind, reading this series has been the first time where I’ve been surprised by how good they are. Please don’t tell them I said that.

    In order to demonstrate the sheer effervescent energy of Gillen and McKelvie’s Young Avengers Issues 1-9, here are a few things they have in common with Ke$ha tracks:

    1) They tell you that it’s a shame that you came here with someone, because tonight we’re going to behave like we’re going to die young;

    2) The elated chorus of ‘we were born to break the doors down, fight until the end’ is something that every single McKelvie-drawn clean-lined superhero popstar practically screams;

    3) In the very first page of Young Avengers, Kate Bishop wakes up in a hot alien guy’s bed, and feels like P Diddy. She grabs her clothes, runs out the door, and commences participating in a neon space battle;

    4) Gillen’s Whedonesque overconfidence transmits an incredibly strong feeling that the characters R Who They R and anyone who doesn’t like it can take a bath in a tub full of glitter;

    5) HOT. AND. DANGEROUS.

    Young Avengers is a book about some young misfit superheroes who are flung together to clean up a mess one of them created by accident. You’ve got Hawkeye Kate Bishop; Hulkling, ‘shape shifting alien hybrid guy’; Loki, the god of mystery (Gillen just finished writing his Journey Into Mystery comics); Marvel Boy (banished kree music lover and semi-naked dancer); Miss America, mysterious interdimensional kicker of butt; Wiccan, angsty chaos magic user (my crush); and recent recruit, Prodigy, who knows pretty much everything. The whole feeling of the book is of a morning after someone you know has trashed their parents’ house, and they’ve clawed together a sigh of hungover associates to help them clean it all up. Only all those friends are neon-cool and glitter-fantastic, and recover from hangovers irritatingly quickly. One even wears a cape.

    Of course, of primary concern is the fact that all of them are far more into making out with each other and eating Korean barbecue than solving the problem, which this time is that Billy (superhero moniker Wiccan - and he is not even a pagan) has summoned up evil dimension-hopping impostors of each of the Young Avengers’ parents by accident. Much of the book is, characteristic of the creators, preoccupied with the sexy: every issue is populated by semi-naked Avengers dancing, kissing, or otherwise lamenting the fact that they are not naked and kissing. In between there are some fight scenes.

    One of Hawkeye’s very first actions in the comic is to take hold of the unfamiliar wheel of an alien spaceship. It moulds into the shape that she wants it, warping itself to fit her hands. She commences to make things happen. This is entirely what this comic is to the creators: it’s a virile little Corvette that has just been waiting there in the parking lot for a stern hand and bit of a twitchy pedal foot.

    I’ve read Gillen and McKelvie’s Phonogram, the last project they worked on together, and though I liked it - Singles Club is evocative of a too-close-to-home twenty-something turmoil - there’s still something very restrained about those comics. Now that I go back to them, they seem meticulously planned and executed, as if Gillen’s vision has imprisoned them in a glass case. It seems it took Marvel to put out a call (not a Batsignal, that would be gauche of me) to have this team negotiate their way into making the Young Avengers book they wanted. It is as if Marvel had unleashed some sort dormant power in both writer and artist, where they’d all of a sudden gone: ‘Right, we got what we wanted: we got to work together on a Marvel superhero book about teens,’ and then commenced evil cackling in a manner that all bystanders might have taken a step back. They took the wheel, and started lasering shit up.

    The pinnacle of this chemistry is clear in the double page spreads that allow McKelvie to, for all intents and purposes, entirely show off.

    Issue four has a double pager that illustrates pretty-boy alien Noh-Varr’s progress through a nightclub full of enemies: from his dramatic entrance smashing through the club’s window, to his changing the record to Candi Stanton’s Young Hearts Run Free, to his final triumphant exit, it’s SMASH, HIT, SMASH, HIT, his boot through enemies across the isometric diagram.

    The collaborative epic was hatched by Gillen and spearheaded by McKelvie, iterated throughout the team: around the edges there was room for close ups of Marvel Boy’s clashes. Then Gillen realised there was room for a key on the diagram, where he added more lines: Noh Varr’s exclamations of disgust at his shoes getting mucky, and thoughts hoping that Hawkeye is watching (his newest crush). The whole diagram is a spectacular illustration conveying movement and humour; a microcosm of the run of Young Avengers so far. Exuberant peacocking. A ‘look what we can do’ in two pages of action.

    But my emphasis on pop music and kissing in the previous paragraphs might give the impression that this series is “Style > Substance”, just as the comic boldly states in the very first issue. This couldn’t be further from the truth: just as Joss Whedon somehow manages to craft his characters into believable, complex adults with juvenile senses of humour, Gillen weaves pop culture jokes through the angst and concern of his teen idols, addressing sensitively the issues of gay teenage romance, latent queer desire, love triangles, heartache and loss. Kate’s momentary contemplation on whether she should feel shame at a one night stand in the very first page of the series is an important fuck you to conservative social mores: of course she shouldn’t be ashamed of her own desires. Her young heart: it runs free. And the young man she has bedded respects that, and has the cutest ass I’ve ever seen. The only line I winced at was Noh Varr’s quip ‘COME WITH ME IF YOU WANT TO BE AWESOME’.

    Miss America and Loki are two prickly characters that up until issue 9 have been bickering like an old married couple, their stories and motives as yet hidden and their discomfort with each other palpable. We’ve got that unravelling to look forward to, if Gillen is generous. But for now, know this: this series is like pouring Pop Rocks into your mouth and sloshing Coca Cola in after it. You’re in for a grinning mouth full of love.


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    "This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground," says the US president, announcing he will take a decision on action to Congress.

    Good afternoon, everybody.

    Ten days ago, the world watched in horror as men, women and children were massacred in Syria in the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st Century. Yesterday, the United States presented a powerful case that the Syrian government was responsible for this attack on its own people.

    Our intelligence shows the Assad regime and its forces preparing to use chemical weapons, launching rockets in the highly populated suburbs of Damascus, and acknowledging that a chemical weapons attack took place.

    And all of this corroborates what the world can plainly see - hospitals overflowing with victims; terrible images of the dead. All told, well over 1,000 people were murdered. Several hundred of them were children - young girls and boys gassed to death by their own government.

    In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted.

    Now, after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets. This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground.

    Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope. But I'm confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behaviour, and degrade their capacity to carry it out.

    Our military has positioned assets in the region. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose.

    Moreover, the Chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now. And I'm prepared to give that order.

    But having made my decision as Commander-in-Chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests, I'm also mindful that I'm the President of the world's oldest constitutional democracy.

    I've long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

    And that's why I've made a second decision: I will seek authorisation for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress.

    Over the last several days, we've heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard. I absolutely agree.

    So this morning, I spoke with all four congressional leaders, and they've agreed to schedule a debate and then a vote as soon as Congress comes back into session.

    In the coming days, my administration stands ready to provide every member with the information they need to understand what happened in Syria and why it has such profound implications for America's national security.

    And all of us should be accountable as we move forward, and that can only be accomplished with a vote.

    I'm confident in the case our government has made without waiting for U.N. inspectors. I'm comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralysed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable.

    As a consequence, many people have advised against taking this decision to Congress, and undoubtedly, they were impacted by what we saw happen in the United Kingdom this week when the Parliament of our closest ally failed to pass a resolution with a similar goal, even as the Prime Minister supported taking action.Yet, while I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorisation, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective.

    We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual. And this morning, John Boehner, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell agreed that this is the right thing to do for our democracy.

    A country faces few decisions as grave as using military force, even when that force is limited. I respect the views of those who call for caution, particularly as our country emerges from a time of war that I was elected in part to end.

    But if we really do want to turn away from taking appropriate action in the face of such an unspeakable outrage, then we just acknowledge the costs of doing nothing.

    Here's my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community: What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?

    What's the purpose of the international system that we've built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98% of the world's people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?

    Make no mistake - this has implications beyond chemical warfare. If we won't enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorist who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?

    We cannot raise our children in a world where we will not follow through on the things we say, the accords we sign, the values that define us.

    So just as I will take this case to Congress, I will also deliver this message to the world.

    While the UN investigation has some time to report on its findings, we will insist that an atrocity committed with chemical weapons is not simply investigated, it must be confronted.

    I don't expect every nation to agree with the decision we have made. Privately we've heard many expressions of support from our friends. But I will ask those who care about the writ of the international community to stand publicly behind our action.

    And finally, let me say this to the American people: I know well that we are weary of war. We've ended one war in Iraq. We're ending another in Afghanistan. And the American people have the good sense to know we cannot resolve the underlying conflict in Syria with our military.

    In that part of the world, there are ancient sectarian differences, and the hopes of the Arab Spring have unleashed forces of change that are going to take many years to resolve. And that's why we're not contemplating putting our troops in the middle of someone else's war.

    Instead, we'll continue to support the Syrian people through our pressure on the Assad regime, our commitment to the opposition, our care for the displaced, and our pursuit of a political resolution that achieves a government that respects the dignity of its people.

    But we are the United States of America, and we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus. Out of the ashes of world war, we built an international order and enforced the rules that gave it meaning.

    And we did so because we believe that the rights of individuals to live in peace and dignity depends on the responsibilities of nations. We aren't perfect, but this nation more than any other has been willing to meet those responsibilities.

    So to all members of Congress of both parties, I ask you to take this vote for our national security. I am looking forward to the debate. And in doing so, I ask you, members of Congress, to consider that some things are more important than partisan differences or the politics of the moment.

    Ultimately, this is not about who occupies this office at any given time; it's about who we are as a country. I believe that the people's representatives must be invested in what America does abroad, and now is the time to show the world that America keeps our commitments. We do what we say. And we lead with the belief that right makes might - not the other way around.

    We all know there are no easy options. But I wasn't elected to avoid hard decisions. And neither were the members of the House and the Senate.

    I've told you what I believe, that our security and our values demand that we cannot turn away from the massacre of countless civilians with chemical weapons. And our democracy is stronger when the President and the people's representatives stand together.

    I'm ready to act in the face of this outrage. Today I'm asking Congress to send a message to the world that we are ready to move forward together as one nation.

    Thanks very much.


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    Anyone sneering at Mumsnet as a forum for feminist discussion probably hasn't visited the site very much, says Hannah Mudge.

    Mumsnet has recently published the results of its Feminism Survey, conducted in July with over 2,000 participants. Unlike the universally-panned (but much hyped by the media) Netmums feminism survey of 2012 that reported the movement was off-putting to most women and instead championed "the rise of the feMEnist" (I blogged about this) - this survey is actually a little bit heartening.

    It found that members of Mumsnet felt that being a part of the site had made them more likely to identify with feminism, more aware of feminist perspectives on everyday issues, and and had changed their opinions on what constitutes domestic abuse, as well as enabling them to understand different perspectives and choices to their own.

    Everyone has an opinion about Mumsnet, particularly people who have never actually explored the site before. I seem to remember becoming aware of this around the time of the last general election, long before I knew much about it, in fact. A lot of mockery was going on: politicians trying to appeal to "Mumsnet types", having livechats and acting all interested in their concerns. There was justified irritation that some politicians seemed to be making out that the only political issues women are interested in are those relating to motherhood and children, but also plenty of stereotyping of the sort of women who congregate on Mumsnet.

    For certain (usually reasonably right-wing) commentators, and most people "below the line", the site is full of silly, smug, middle class women with "baby brain" talking about their overprivileged, indulgent lives. They have the ability to form a hysterical, bullying mob at any given moment and make the lives of anyone who disagrees with them hell.

    For certain feminists, Mumsnet's frequented by silly, smug, middle class women talking about their overprivileged, indulgent lives and worrying themselves with "trivial" issues as they "moralise" about society, assuming they're better than everyone else because they have children and attacking those who make different parenting choices to theirs.

    As the Guardian report on the survey began to attract attention this morning, it was great to see so many people talking positively about it and acknowledging the work that Mumsnet is doing - through successful campaigns, for example. Yet at the same time (because this is Twitter we're talking about here): "God help feminism if it's being represented by bloody Mumsnet," said others, no doubt envisaging the overprivileged and overindulged being hailed as the new leaders of the movement.

    Notable this weekend has been backlash against the Guardian's inclusion, in the piece, of Ticky Hedley-Dent's comment (from "a Twitter debate earlier this year") that "I think Mumsnet is key to understanding feminism. Feminism hardly comes into play until you have kids. Then you get it." Why are these women insinuating that having children is what really makes you a feminist? Why are they excluding women who don't have children? This is everything that's wrong with feminism, people.

    I don't think that particular quote was the best way to illustrate what some of the women interviewed by the Guardian about the survey are trying to say. Of course gender inequality impacts you before you have children or if you don't ever have children. Who's going to deny that? But pregnancy and motherhood undoubtedly highlight new issues, and bring to the fore problems that may well have not been a feature of some women's lives before. No one is saying that you haven't experienced inequality until you've had children. What they mean is that motherhood makes you much more aware of particular issues and aspects of inequality. And for many women, this will undoubtedly have the effect of "galvanising" their beliefs about feminism.

    I've been meaning to blog about the way that "mothers", as a group, and their concerns are often dismissed and belittled by both the left and right for being "too middle class" and "trivial" for some time now, because I can't help but notice it any time someone mentions a campaign that affects children - backlash against the ubiquitous pink/blue distinctions between toys, and the types of toys that are marketed as being "for boys" and "for girls"; backlash against lads mags and Page 3 being easily seen by children in shops; backlash against anything that's seen as presenting children with harmful messages about sex.

    The middle class mother is a prime target for sneering, whether she's not working outside the home and therefore, apparently, living a pampered life funded by her husband, or else harming her children in myriad ways by "leaving them" to heartlessly pursue a career. It's a different sort of sneering to that aimed at working class mothers, but the comments aimed at both groups imply stupidity and the idea that their worries and concerns aren't "real" ones. Why would a woman, in this day and age, choose to define herself at any point by the fruits of her womb? Aren't we past all that? As I think I mentioned in a post I wrote while on maternity leave, sorry that some of us want to talk about things that are an enormous part of our lives. Some feminists assume that the voices of women who aren't white and middle class are ignored by these parent-focused campaigns and issues. This is a legitimate concern for those of us who observe the way the media has publicised activism in recent years, but to assume is dangerous and all too often inaccurate.

    If you don't spend time on Mumsnet and feel contemptuous about its members, how much do you know about them, really? And how much do you know about their campaigns? Here are a few:

    This Is My Child aims to "support parents of children with additional needs, inform everyone else, and open up a conversation about how we can all act to make life easier for everyone caring for children with additional needs." The campaign has been debunking myths about disability and raising awareness of how we can challenge assumptions about the issues involved.

    We Believe You is aimed at busting the victim-blaming myths about rape and sexual assault, was launched amid an overwhelming response to members being encouraged to talk about their own experiences and why they did or did not report them to police or tell friends and family.

    Better Miscarriage Care put pressure on the NHS to provide more sensitive and responsive treatment to women experiencing early pregnancy loss. As someone with friends who have had distressing experiences with healthcare professionals while miscarrying, I know this is vital.

    Let Girls Be Girls, a campaign that launched in 2010, was a response to growing concern about the way advertising, music, clothing, and magazines encourage a view of sex and sexuality that encourages girls to focus on appearance above all else, tells them that they exist to please boys and men, and tells them that their most important quality is how "sexy" they are.

    Bounty Mutiny is asking politicians and the NHS to rethink the fact that Bounty sales reps have a presence on postnatal wards, pressurising women into giving out personal details and invading their privacy at a time that's at best a time for family, bonding with a new baby, and recovering from labour, and at worst, a time of worry, trauma, and possibly grieving.


    I wouldn't describe any of these campaigns as "trivial" and "silly". Would you say the same for some of Mumsnet's forums, where you can find long-running threads on recognising the "red flags" of an abusive relationship, posts offering help and resources to women in abusive situations, and personal support to individuals as they go to the police, walk out on a violent man, or rebuild their lives?

    How much do you really know about the boards where women discuss their experiences of assault and rape, support members who are survivors, offer advice on workplace discrimination, and help each other thrash out some of their first, conflicted thoughts about body politics and equality in relationships? Do you really know much at all about all the consciousness-raising discussions? The "shouting back" about everyday sexism? The support for women who've gone through miscarriages and stillbirths or are coping with having a terminally ill child?

    If you don't, but your first reactions to discussion of a community of (mostly) mothers online are sneers and "God help feminisms", then it's probably time, in the tradition of the internet, for me to direct you to Google, with the instruction that you're perfectly capable of educating yourself about all this stuff. Mothers are a vital part of your movement and are providing important comment on so many important issues. If you don't know this because they're "not on your radar", ask yourself why.


    Further reading - Glosswatch: Why Mumsnet feminism matters


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    As dismaying as it may be to interventionists, both parties have decided that the wisest political choice is to move on.

    Barack Obama's decision to seek Congressional approval for military action against Syria, rather than launch immediate missile strikes, has raised the question of whether a second parliamentary vote on UK involvement could be held. This could take place after the UN weapons inspectors have reported on the Ghouta massacre and after the Security Council and Congress (on 9 September) have voted. The irony of Thursday's outcome is that there was a hypothetical majority for not ruling military action out (Labour's position) even if there was clearly not one for ruling it in.

    But in their appearances on The Andrew Marr Show this morning, both Douglas Alexander and George Osborne stated that a second vote would not be held. Alexander emphasised that Cameron had "given his word to the British people that the UK will not participate in military action in Syria". He added that he was "intruiged" by Cameron's decision to rule out military action after the defeat (Labour sources tell me that they did not expect him to do so) but that staging another vote would raise questions over his "judgement" and that this would "weigh heavily on the public and parliament".

    One option would be for Cameron to call Labour's bluff by overriding these concerns and putting forward a new motion on Syria, but Osborne, who knows the PM's mind, ruled this out. He said he disagreed with those who argued that a "bit more evidence" would change MPs' minds and concluded: "Parliament has spoken. The Labour Party has played this opportunistically. The Conservative MPs and the Liberal Democrats who could not support us – they have a deep scepticism about military involvement. I don't think another UN report, or whatever, would make the difference. Of course I wanted us to be part of a potential military response. Now that is just not going to be open to us."

    For both parties, there is no political benefit to be gained from prolonging the question of whether the UK could participate in military action. A second parliamentary defeat would be immensely damaging to Cameron and he is under pressure from senior Tories to refocus on the domestic concerns that will determine the outcome in 2015. For Labour, there is no political incentive to challenge Cameron's decision to rule out intervention. Ed Miliband has narrowly avoided a split in his own party (shadow transport minister Jim Fitzpatrick resigned before the vote and I'm told by a party source that at least five other frontbenchers were prepared to do so) and, after a woeful summer, has regained authority as the man who prevented a precipitous rush to war.

    As dismaying as it may be to principled interventionists, both parties have decided that the best thing to do is to move on.


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  • 09/01/13--03:30: David Frost dies aged 74
  • The broadcaster suffered a suspected heart attack, his family announced.

    David Frost has died aged 74, his family have announced. 

    The broadcaster will be remembered for his satirical show That Was The Week That Was, part of the 1960s "satire boom", as well as for his revealing interviews with former US president Richard Nixon. The prime minister David Cameron tweeted: "My heart goes out to David Frost's family. He could be - and certainly was with me - both a friend and a fearsome interviewer."

    He is survived by his second wife, Carina Fitzalan-Howard, and three children. A family statement said: "His family are devastated and ask for privacy at this difficult time. A family funeral will be held in the near future and details of a memorial service will be announced in due course."


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    Son of former Cabinet minister Jack Straw will take on Tory MP Jake Berry, whose majority is 4,493.

    Will Straw has been selected as the Labour candidate for Rossendale and Darwen at the 2015 election.

    The son of former Cabinet secretary Jack Straw is a former editor of Left Foot Forward and associate director of the thinktank IPPR.

    He will be up against Conservative MP Jake Berry, who has a majority of 4,493. Labour came second in the seat in the 2010 election, and the party's candidate, Janet Anderson, had previously held it since 1992. 

    The seat is adjacent to Blackburn, where Jack Straw has been the MP since 1979.

    After the selection meeting, Will Straw tweeted:


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  • 08/30/13--05:42: Spaceships and a simple plan
  • Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

    ‘‘Are there any drugs you can give me?” I am begging my GP, Dr Ibrahim. I’ve had enough of feeling like crap. I can’t wait another five weeks for my appointment with the mental health nurse – I need chemical intervention, and I need it now. “Do people still take Prozac? Or was that a Nineties thing?”
     
    “Not while you are still breastfeeding. There is another drug I could prescribe. But darling, are you sure you can’t wait to see the specialist?”
     
    Dr Ibrahim always calls me darling. It’s an acquired taste in a doctor, but I like it. Her consulting room has a heavy, perfumed smell, with a faint undertone of cigarette smoke. I can tell she is a mother herself by the way she deftly moves her cup of tea just before Moe succeeds in tipping it all over the blood pressure machine.
     
    “I feel terrible. I can’t stop crying. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep for months. We haven’t got any money. And my boyfriend hates me.” As if to illustrate my point, I burst into tears, again.
     
    “Daaarling. But this is all very natural. You’ve just had a baby.”
     
    I notice a packet of red Gauloises peeping from the pocket of her blouse. God, I would kill for a cigarette right now. Would she give me one? No, I daren’t ask. I’m sure that would be against the rules.
     
    “What you really need is rest.”
     
    This is indisputable. I can feel the pressure of sleeplessness on my brain, reducing everything to a dull grey pulp. Outside, summer may be in full swing, birds may be tweeting from the blossomy trees, children may be frolicking in the park . . . but inside my head everything is dark as a December morning. It feels like my brain has stopped absorbing any of the nice stuff, while it sucks up doom like a sponge.
     
    Dr Ibrahim won’t give me any drugs. She tells me to leave the children with Curly for a night, get some rest, and come back next week if I’m still feeling low. As I push the buggy back through the sun-baked park I force myself to look up at the trees, and the birds in them. Then I force myself to stop at the café for an ice lolly. It’s tough, but I think I can hack it.
     
    Can I force myself to feel better? Perhaps I can. I sit down on a bench and come up with a three-point plan:
     
    One: I will get some sleep.
     
    Two: I will stop reading or listening to the news. Responsibility for two very small humans is as much as I can handle. The rest of the world will have to wait.
     
    Three: I will stop working. I will stop caring about houses or bills or breaking even. The only things in the world I’m allowed to worry about are Larry and Moe.
     
    It’s a simple plan, but I feel encouraged by it. I put the lolly stick carefully in my bag so Larry and I can make spaceships later, and start for home with the tiniest trace of a spring in my step. 

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    Rachel Cooke takes on BBC2's "Fat Season".

    Welcome to the World of Weight Loss
    The Men Who Made Us Thin
    BBC2
     
    I wonder why Vanessa Engle (Women, Jews, Walking With Dogs) felt moved to make a documentary about diet clubs (Welcome to the World of Weight Loss, 21 August). They seem to me to be far too easy a target for such a subtle and talented director. After all, it’s hardly news that the leaders of Weight Watchers or Rosemary Conley Diet and Fitness Clubs infantilise their members, praising them loudly for every pound lost, handing them pathetic little certificates when they reach their target size. (“Well done, Ginny!” said the leader of the East Finchley branch of Slimming World to a woman who had just shared her horror at her discovery that pine - apple added to cottage cheese made it a whole lot more naughty. “So, can we give her a big round of applause, please?”).
     
    Nor is it much of a revelation that women who are fat enough – or imagine they are fat enough – to join these Moonie-ish clubs are often desperately unhappy; contentment and a desire to be weighed in public appear to be mutually exclusive. And the tedium and stupidity of the jargon! We are talking “portion pots”, “treat days” and “brown foods”. Forty minutes in, I found myself looking forward for the first time ever to my twice-weekly bolt around the park. Beneath my backside – not small, exactly, but not the size of Jupiter, either – the sofa had begun to feel positively itchy.
     
    Of course, even a worse-than-usual Engle film is still miles better than your average Channel 4 “shock doc” (the titles of which alone make me want to throw up). For all her beadiness, she is an inordinately kind filmmaker, non-judgemental and always able to connect with her interviewees. It must have been tempting to ask Joan and Sharon, two sisters with a Ghanaian background and an almost religious devotion to the diktats of Weight Watchers, why they insisted on spending their “treat day” at an all-you-caneat Chinese buffet (with the emphasis on “all-you-can-eat” rather than bean sprouts) but somehow she desisted. (Sharon, by the way, was still so vast she had to walk with a frame.) They were enjoying themselves and clearly Engle was reluctant to spoil their fun.
     
    Over and over, she threw her subjects a life raft – or at least the odd water wing. In a huge, gleaming house in Dulwich, south London, a fortysomething Weight Watcher called Penelope took Engle through her extensive designer wardrobe: Alexander McQueen, Miu Miu, Stella McCartney. On my sofa, bottom shifting, I began to feel more restless. Penelope, who did not look at all fat to me, obviously just needed something more important to worry about than herself. Engle, though, was a little more generous. Did Penelope think her determination to drop a dress size or two was perhaps born of a fear of getting older? Looking grateful, Penelope conceded that this was doubtless the case.
     
    BBC2 seems to be having something of a Fat Season at the moment. Earlier this month, it brought us podgy kids in India (they’re like podgy kids anywhere, except a little bit late to the party). This week, it was Engle’s programme and the third part of Jacques Peretti’s latest series, The Men Who Made Us Thin (Thursdays, 9pm). In documentary-making terms, Peretti is what you might get if you crossed Adam Curtis with Louis Theroux, by which I mean he is a something of a conspiracy theorist, always going on – whoo-ooh!– about cabals of scary men who take decisions “behind closed doors”, but also the kind of chap who smilingly accompanies a Swedish man to the loo so he can watch him empty the contents of his stomach by means of a long, plastic tube (in bariatric surgery circles, this, so we were told, is the very latest thing).
     
    I am not sure I bought all of his thesis – I’m not convinced that it’s possible for people to be fat and healthy, let alone happy – but Peretti was surely on to something when he suggested that, quite soon, even people who want to lose just the odd few pounds will be asking their friendly local surgeon to shrink their stomachs, funds allowing.
     
    This, alas, is the way the world is going. We would rather be controlled than control ourselves. Our incontinence, whether we are talking about Twitter or Twixes, simply knows no bounds.

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    The facts are all in opera’s favour but that doesn’t solve its persistent image problem, writes Alexandra Coghlan.

    Grimeborn
    Tête à Tête: the Opera Festival
    Arcola Theatre, London E8
    Riverside Studios, London W6
     
    Opera is dead – we all agree on that, surely? It’s a genre peopled by princes and prostitutes (and nothing in between), whose stories are as outdated as its ageing audience and whose tunes offer a mawkish and anachronistic soundtrack to contemporary life. And don’t even get me started on the ticket prices.
     
    Sarah Montague put these objections and more to the opera singer Thomas Hampson in a recent BBC News Hardtalk interview. Protests flooded in, an open letter to the BBC went viral and opera lovers closed ranks. But was the outrage justified? Can opera, famously pronounced dead when Tosca leapt from the battlements back in 1900, still make a convincing case for relevance?
     
    The question is how it could fail to. Last year roughly 7.5 million people experienced work by the Royal Opera House, London.
     
    They attended live performances at Covent Garden, watched them in cinemas and on outdoor screens across Britain, or caught them online, on television or on radio. ROH cinema relays alone reached 900 venues in more than 32 countries – figures nevertheless dwarfed by those from New York’s mighty Metropolitan Opera. Audiences for English National Opera hover between a healthy 70 and 80 per cent of capacity, and in 2012 Glyndebourne was at over 96 per cent.
     
    The demographics are equally gratifying. Last year 40 per cent of guests in the Royal Opera’s audiences were under the age of 45 (at Opéra de Lyon, a startling 25 per cent are under 26) and under-thirties schemes at ENO and Glyndebourne are thriving. Even prices, that fallback argument for any opera naysayer, don’t live up to the hype, comparing favourably to West End theatre and cinema prices, tickets to pop concerts or football matches. You can get a decent seat for under £30 anywhere, often for much less.
     
    The facts are all in opera’s favour but that doesn’t solve its persistent image problem. Two festivals are doing their best to change this. Taking a sly poke at the preconceptions surrounding Glyndebourne, Grimeborn (30 July to 31 August) is east London’s annual answer to the supposed elitism of opera. Founded in 2007 and now based at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston (as alternative a venue as any revolutionary opera fan could wish for), the festival hosts a handful of fringe companies each year, offering up-close productions of new, traditional and forgotten works with none of the black-tie trappings.
     
    This season you can try a “silent” production of a Monteverdi classic – where individual headsets allow you to control your sonic experience by combining live and prerecorded elements – experience the myth of Eros and Psyche updated to the 1950s, or risk a saucy reworking of Petronius’s Satyricon in a new opera called Viagron.
     
    Over in west London, Tête à Tête (1-18 August) is less worried about opera’s social trappings than its repertoire. Although just a tiny percentage of new works makes it to the Coliseum or Covent Garden because of the commercial risk (though the latter has recently commissioned 15 new works, including four full-length operas for its 2020 season), Tête à Tête stages only new operas at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith.
     
    The result is risky and varied: among the subjects this year are Jade Goody, a sequel to Madama Butterfly, and the end of the world, while the performers include 120 homeless people who make up the cast of the filmopera The Answer to Everything.
     
    It’s all terribly innovative and exciting on paper but does it deliver in practice? This year, Tête à Tête has found a treasure in Vivienne – a monologue-opera for mezzo and piano by Stephen McNeff. Andy Rashleigh’s witty and endlessly allusive libretto gives Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot (the first wife of T S Eliot) a voice beyond her husband’s verse, trying on musical styles and dramatis personae for size and incorporating these into a sung, solo monologue – like Eliot’s Waste Land does in verse. The work was elegantly performed by Clare McCaldin and the pianist Elizabeth Burgess, and deserves a rich concert life after this. The Garden by John Harris offered another take on opera’s future, with a more fluid music-drama that slipped freely from speech to song while stripping the accompanying music back to purely synthesised sounds.
     
    It was a failure, however, that spoke loudest at Tête à Tête this year. So determined were the creators of Mme Butterfly that their hero should speak Japanese, deliver extended spoken monologues and perform a fan dance that they forgot that the essence of opera, past or future, is its music. Opera is nothing more nor less than the telling of stories through song. It’s an ageless concept, as true for Monteverdi or Mozart as for operas about Jade Goody or Anna Nicole Smith. As long as stories live and song lives, so will opera. We can all agree on that, surely?

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    The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

    1. Under the disguise of fixing lobbying, this Bill will crush democratic protest (Independent)

    There is no question that British democracy is at the mercy of wealthy and corporate interests, but the Lobbying Bill takes aim at our hard-won freedoms instead, writes Owen Jones.

    2. Our Westminster elite isn't up to dealing with Syria's crisis (Guardian)

    Britain may no longer have a political establishment that can credibly speak to the public about the gravest affairs of state, writes John Harris.

    3. Obama risks more than his credibility (Financial Times)

    The US president may be getting into a game he cannot control, writes Edward Luce.

    4. What the bully boys of broadcasting today could learn from Frost (Daily Mail)

    David's hallmark characteristic was his affability and niceness, writes Melanie Phillips. And it was this good-natured quality that encouraged people to drop their guard.

    5. Once Washington made the Middle East tremble – now no one there takes it seriously (Independent)

    Our present leaders are paying the price for the dishonesty of Bush and Blair, says Robert Fisk.

    6. The delayed attack on Syria is good for Britain – and the PM (Daily Telegraph)

    By postponing military action, MPs did the right thing – and paid tribute to David Cameron, says Boris Johnson. 

    7. How to end the silly season (Guardian)

    MPs can save us from the media monster eating itself – by cutting short their long holidays, says Helen Lewis.

    8. Lessons for Greece from derelict Detroit (Financial Times)

    The US city symbolises modern industrial decline, writes Wolfgang Münchau. There is no reason to think it could not happen elsewhere.

    9. Our reputation is in your hands, Mr Miliband (Times)

    As Barack Obama awaits Congress’s vote on Syria there is one man who could restore Britain’s status as a key ally, writes Malcolm Rifkind.

    10. Calling in SNP’s best communicator is sign of panic in 'Yes’ camp (Daily Telegraph)

    The separatists’ campaign is coming apart and Kevin Pringle is not a miracle worker, writes Alan Cochrane.


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    News stories from around the web.

    Vodafone and Verizon set to approve $130bn deal (FT)

    Vodafone is set to announce on Monday plans to sell its US wireless joint venture stake to partner Verizon after the British telecoms company’s board met on Sunday to approve the $130bn deal.

    Health apps run into privacy snags (FT)

    Before Celeste Steenburger takes off on her morning run, she taps the orange button on the MapMyRun app on her iPhone to track the exercise.

    Agency workers not being paid equally, TUC says (BBC)

    The UK is failing to implement European rules designed to give equal pay to agency workers, according to the trade union umbrella body, the TUC.

    Agency workers who have been with a company for more than 12 weeks should be entitled to the same pay as permanent staff.

    India considers night-time fuel pump shutdown (BBC)

    India is considering a proposal to shut fuel pumps at night as it looks at ways to cut its oil import bill, its oil minister Veerappa Moily has said.

    Mr Moily said the idea was one of many options the government was considering.

    Portas dismisses Grimsey attack on high street report (Telegraph)

    The Queen of Shops has dismissed Bill Grimsey’s attack on her as “absolute rubbish” and has called for the former boss of Wickes and Iceland to “stop playing politics” and work to help save the high street.


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    The compensation package will be paid in three installments of £363m.

    The British banks, building societies and credit unions have paid the first of three installments of £363m to compensate UK savers of Icelandic banks who lost money during the banking crisis in 2008.

    The British Bankers’ Association said the UK financial institutions will pay a total of £1.08bn over the next three years to the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS).

    The compensation paid by the banks will finance the shortfall created due to the inability of the three Icelandic banks, Icesave, Heritable Bank, and Kaupthing Singer & Friedlander, to pay to the FSCS.

    During the peak of the banking crisis in 2008, the UK Government decided to bail out 230,000 UK savers by paying them their deposits totaling to nearly £3.5bn.

    The amount was paid by the Treasury as the FSCS did not have enough funds to finance the bail out.

    FSCS was to recover the compensation from the Icelandic banks and repay the UK Government. Now, however, the payments made by the banks will be used for the purpose. The Icelandic banks are expected to pay £500m after April 2016.

    Anthony Browne, CEO of BBA, said: “The UK’s banks are paying £1bn to compensate for UK savers who could have lost everything when the Icelandic banking crisis hit.  This compensation ensured that no savers who had money in Icelandic banks lost out.

    “These payments show that the system works, and we hope it gives confidence to consumers that if there is ever another bank failure that their savings will be protected.”


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    The British telecom giant to exit US market with the deal.

    Vodafone said on Sunday that it is in advanced talks with Verizon Communications to offload its interests in the US, including 45 per cent stake in Verizon Wireless, for $130bn.

    The deal, which would be the third-largest corporate acquisition of all time, will provide Verizon Communications complete ownership of Verizon Wireless, a joint venture of the two companies formed in 2000.

    The British telecommunications giant, however, said that there is no certainty that an agreement will be reached.

    Meanwhile, Verizon is planning to finance the deal through its stock and cash. It is likely to raise debt through JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Barclays, and Bank of America Merrill Lynch for cash.

    Doug Colandrea, analyst at RBC Capital Markets, told Reutersthat Verizon Communications has the ability to rapidly repay the debt raised to fund the deal as it has 2012 free cash flow of $28.6bn with Verizon Wireless.

    Vodafone’ US holding company Vodafone Americas owns the Verizon Wireless stake and a few other assets.

    The deal will mark the exit of Vodafone from the US market. It will own assets in Europe and emerging markets like India, Turkey and Africa.

    Vodafone could use the funds from the sale to further strengthen its European presence. It acquired Kabel Deutschland for $10.1bn in May 2013.


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    Both leaders have a shared political interest in avoiding the party splits that a new vote on military action would cause.

    Despite George Osborne yesterday explicitly ruling out the possibility of British participation in military action against Syria, the idea that parliament should vote a second time on Syria continues to gain ground. Boris Johnson, Malcolm Rifkind, Paddy Ashdown and Michael Howard are among the big beasts urging David Cameron to put intervention back on the table.

    The view is that the decision of Barack Obama to seek Congressional authorisation for action after 9 September means that parliament now has time to reconsider its stance, potentially after the UN weapons inspectors have reported and the Security Council has voted. In addition, all rightly note that there remains a hypothetical majority for intervention based on the conditions outlined in Labour's amendment. 

    In his Telegraph column, Boris Johnson suggests that Cameron should call Ed Miliband's bluff by staging a second vote: 

    I see no reason why the Government should not lay a new motion before Parliament, inviting British participation – and then it is Ed Miliband, not David Cameron, who will face embarrassment. The Labour leader has been capering around pretending to have stopped an attack on Syria – when his real position has been more weaselly.

    If you add the Tories and Blairites together, there is a natural majority for a calibrated and limited response to a grotesque war crime.

    Elsewhere, Rifkind and Ashdown suggest that Miliband, who was careful to avoid ruling out military action during last week's debate, should take the initiative. Ashdown says: "Of course the Government cannot ask Parliament (for which, read, in effect Mr Miliband) to think again. There’s nothing to stop Parliament deciding to do so in light of new developments."

    In the Times, Rifkind writes: "I assume that Mr Miliband meant what he said to Parliament last week. If he did he should acknowledge that his concerns about premature military action are now being met, albeit in an unexpected way...He and the Prime Minister should meet privately and discuss whether there is now sufficient common ground that would allow them to agree a common British policy together with our international allies."

    On the Labour side, shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy has distanced himself from Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander by refusing to dismiss the possibility of a second vote. He said yesterday: "if there were to be really significant developments in Syria and the conditions that we set in our motion on Thursday about it being legal, about the evidence being available, compelling evidence, about a UN process, then of course the prime minister has the right to bring that back to Parliament". The four backbenchers who abstained from voting against the government motion, Ben Bradshaw, Ann Clwyd, Meg Munn and John Woodcock, are also making the case for another vote. 

    But while a second vote might be right in principle, the political reality that is that Cameron and Miliband have a shared political interest in avoiding one. 

    Cameron is understandably reluctant to avoid appearing indecisive by putting military action back on the table and, in view of Labour's unpredictable stance, is not confident of winning a second vote. A significant number of Tory MPs made it clear that while they voted with the government last week, they would not have done so had the vote been directly on military action. For Cameron, a second defeat would be immensely damaging and could even prove terminal. He is also under pressure from senior Tories to refocus on the domestic issues, principally the economy, that will determine the outcome of the election. 

    For Miliband, the political incentives to avoid another vote are equally strong. Were parliament to reconsider military action, the Labour leader would risk suffering the major party split he has narrowly avoided. Shadow transport minister Jim Fitzpatrick resigned before last week's vote over Miliband's refusal to rule out intervention and I'm told by a party source that at least six other frontbenchers, including one shadow cabinet minister, were prepared to do so. After a woeful summer, Miliband has regained some authority as the man who prevented a precipitous rush to war even if, as Boris writes, "his real position has been more weaselly". He understandably now considers the question of military action closed. 

    As dismaying as it may be to principled Labour and Tory interventionists, it suits both Cameron and Miliband to move on. 


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  • 09/02/13--00:37: Business quote of the day
  • “It was so clearly intended to take a bite out of employment protection that most employers said they didn’t believe it was desirable”.

    “It was so clearly intended to take a bite out  of employment protection that most employers said they didn’t believe it was desirable”
    Mike Emmott, of the Chartered Institute of  Personnel and Development, is cynical of the employee shares-for-rights scheme, which officially launches this week.


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    The paper's annual media power ranking puts "you" at the top of the list. Sound familiar?

    The 2013 MediaGuardian 100 list came out today, and it's all a bit retro.

    Instead of rewarding a top Silicon Valley exec, as in the past, the top slot on the list this year has been given to "You", or the "digital consumer". 

    MediaGuardian acting editor Jason Deans explains that this is:

    reflecting the extent to which mobile and social media are transforming an industry traditionally dominated by moguls, editors and celebrities

    He continues:

    "You" also reflects how online consumers – interacting, sharing content and shopping via mobile devices – are driving the UK digital economy

    All very worthy, as you would expect. Except that Time magazine already had this idea, in 2006, when it made "you" its person of the year.

    They even made the computer screen on the cover a reflective panel, so you could see yourself in the front of the magazine. 

    (H/T @pete_hoskin)


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    What you've been reading during yet another record month for the NS website.

    In August, 1,840,886 of you viewed 3,766,630 pages over the course of the month - another record month for the NS website.

    1. I hate Strong Female Characters by Sophia McDougall

    2. We still don’t really know how bicycles work by Michael Brooks

    3. Of course all men don’t hate women. But all men must know they benefit from sexism by Laurie Penny

    4. Miley Cyrus at the VMAs: a six-minute guide to the prejudices of the entertainment industry by Sarah Ditum

    5. Atheism is maturing, and it will leave Richard Dawkins behind by Martin Robbins

    6. Learning how to live by Jenny Diski 

    7. The Bot Wars: why you can never buy concert tickets online by Cal Flyn

    8. I was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl by Laurie Penny

    9. The big question that the generation raised on porn must answer by Rhiannon and Holly

    10. Why it's different for girls: slut-shaming in the digital age by Sarah Ditum

     


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    Why non-alcoholic beer could be a golden market in the UK’s capital.

    In the 1980s non-alcoholic beer hit European shelves but failed to impress. Rave culture had begun to take hold of the UK and even high-profile advertisements by the likes of Billy Connolly could not compensate for the dour taste and lack of kick. Young and old alike just couldn’t see the point.

    However, the atmosphere in London is changing. Could this once failing product turn into a success?

    The facts are already pointing that way. A report by independent retail analyst Kantar Worldpanel revealed that sales have grown by 40 per cent across all retailers in the past year. Consumers have downed 15 million bottles from Tesco alone where sales have soared by 47 per cent. The stunning rise has been attributed to an increasing product range and improving taste as well as a changing target market: a health–conscious population, constantly subjected to graphic NHS campaigns, are more inclined to give up alcohol to gain a few years. This is all against the backdrop of a world where the consumption of alcohol is diminishing - UK beer sales fell by 4.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2013 alone – which makes the feat only more impressive.

    However, the viewpoint of this article is that marketing gurus are missing a key group of London’s population: Muslims. The 2011 census Office for National Statistics showed that the proportion of Muslims in London had risen to 12.4 per cent of the population, with young British Asians increasingly flocking to the capital. Islam condemns the act of drinking alcohol as haram (forbidden) but, according to The Economist, several significant Saudi and Egyptian Ayatollahs have issued fatwas allowing Muslims to shake of their shackles and fill their glasses with the non-alcoholic stuff. The product has now swept across the Arab world.

    The Middle East has already seen sales of non-alcoholic beer booming. Figures released by Euromonitor reveal last year 2.2 billion litres were downed with almost a third landing in the sin-free stomachs of middle-eastern Muslims. Even in Iran, where the state laments Western decadence, Iranians are drinking five times as much as they did four years ago.

    What’s the draw? In the Gulf States, young Islamic socialites yearn for a taste of the west’s glamorous lifestyle without compensating their faith. Meanwhile it allows conservatives to drink in Saudia Arabia and UAE – countries infamous for their strict Islamic laws banning alcohol – without irking the authorities.  

    So, big business can definitely be made by targeting London’s Islamic minority. The trick is tapping into it. Taybeh - a Palestinian brewer - have successfully done that by emphasising the Islamic side of their product: their label is coloured green, the colour of Islam, and on every bottle the word Halal (permissible) is inscribed in Arabic. A similar product is yet to launch here. In the UK, the British Heart Foundation has found that the number of shisha bars, which British Asian Muslims relish, has rocketed by 210 per cent in the past five years. A launch of a perfectly halal partnership between shisha and non-alcoholic beer could prove fruitful.   

    Aside from the money, introducing non-alcoholic beer would have a significant cultural impact. Alcohol is embedded in society’s social gatherings from apéritif cocktails to Friday night pub trips. Faced with this conundrum, Muslims retreat into packs: Prevention is better than cure. Non-alcoholic beer could help bridge the gap between Muslims and their counterparts in a society which is increasingly worried about their social marginalisation. With the hate towards ‘radical Islam’ only rising following the brutal killing of Fusilier Lee Rigby, it’s a desperately needed step to Islamic integration.


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    In the space of three shows - Sports Night, Studio 60 and now The Newsroom - Aaron Sorkin's female television executives have gone from clever and competent to ditsy and childish. What's going on?

    Does Aaron Sorkin have a women problem? In the early years of this century when The West Wing’s CJ Cregg was the poster girl for modern womankind such a question would have seemed unthinkable. But then came Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, in which the two female leads were respectively "angry and incompetent" and "ditsy and repressed" and The Social Network, which ran into a storm of bad headlines about its negative depiction of women.

    Sorkin vigorously refuted those claims, insisting that in The Social Network: "I was writing about a very angry and deeply misogynistic group of people." In other words just because characters are sexist, don’t presume the writer is as well.

    It’s a fair point but what then about The Newsroom? Sorkin’s journalism drama, which returns for its second season this evening wears its heart on its rolled-up, ink-stained sleeves. It’s Sorkin’s funny valentine to the good old days of news before the internet came along and ruined it for everyone and it wants desperately to pay homage to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s.

    There’s just one problem – those screwball comedies knew that there was nothing like a dame. When we think of His Girl Friday it’s Rosalind Russell’s smarts and savvy which springs to mind as much as Cary Grant’s savoir faire. In Bringing Up Babythe pratfalls are shared between Grant and Katharine Hepburn just as Hepburn and Spencer Tracy trade the one-liners in Pat and Mike. These are relationships of equals, of sparring partners, where no one loses. By contrast The Newsroom is a show set in modern day America that allows its female characters less agency than Mad Men, a period piece that explicitly addresses sexism in the workplace.

    Thus one of the first things we learn about Emily Mortimer’s MacKenzie McHale is that’s she’s an award-winning war correspondent who has reported from Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Frankly I’m glad that Sorkin tells us this because you would never know it from her behaviour in the opening episode which includes panicking, dithering, asking the nearest men for help and dithering some more before accidentally sending an email to the entire staff announcing that she was once in a relationship with Jeff Daniel’s character, Will McAvoy. No, this wasn’t a lost subplot from 1990s sitcom Ally McBeal, although I do understand the confusion.

    Similar evidence that Sorkin has confused screwball with simpleton can be found in Alison Pill’s Maggie. Maggie is a young reporter and makes the odd mistake, which is understandable. Less understandable is her inability to separate her work and love life, ensuring that she spends each episode flapping, flailing and floundering until an obliging male walks by to bail her out.

    Then there’s the fiercely intelligent, super sharp economist Sloan Sabbith. Lucky Sloan is actually allowed to deliver the odd zinger but only if she then redresses the balance by worrying about whether her (extremely pert) arse is too big or obsessing over her lack of broadcast experience.

    While season two appears to address some of these issues and the arrival of a smart lawyer played by Marcia Gay Harden is welcome, Sloan’s fears cut to the heart of Aaron Sorkin’s biggest problem. His male characters might have flaws but they are always explained. In The West Wing we know Josh’s commitment issues stem from his sister’s tragic death, that Toby has a complicated relationship with his father and that Sam’s sense of himself was shaken by his dad’s long-term affair. By contrast, as website feministlawprofessors.compointed out in 2006, CJ’s mistakes are silly and often rather demeaning: in season one she doesn’t know what the census is, in season two she sits in wet paint. These aren’t things that illustrate her character, they’re little scenes to pull her down a peg or two. You might think: "Oh come off it, these are pretty minor moments" and, yes, they are, but can you imagine Josh not knowing what the census was? Sorkin will allow his male characters many flaws but never incompetence. That’s something for women. 

    And this attitude has worsened. Somewhere along the line – perhaps as he became more successful and thus less open to advice - Sorkin has stopped writing men and women as equals (as he did in both Sports Night and The West Wing) and instead started to write relationships where men are wronged but righteous and women need advice. As TV critic Jace Lacob astutely noted: "In Sorkinland men act (nobly!) and women support (comically!)."

    Thus MacKenzie McHale, Studio 60’s Jordan McDeere and Sports Night’s Dana Whitaker are all the executive producers of their respective shows but only Dana, an early Sorkin creation, was allowed to be funny, clever and good at her job. Dana stood up for her workmates, fought her corner in a male-dominated world and made her own decisions. She had flaws but they were believable and never affected her professionalism, plus she was a grammar pedant, and who doesn’t love them?

    By contrast Jordan McDeere was outwardly competent but secretly ravaged by neurosis and prone to rubbing people the wrong way while, rather than producing Will, MacKenzie tends to hang adoringly on his every word coming across like a precocious child hoping for a pat on the head from daddy.

    In the space of three shows featuring female television executives, Sorkin has gone from the competent, clever Dana Whitaker to the less competent and less clever Jordan McDeere before ending up with the almost entirely incompetent MacKenzie McHale. If that isn’t a law of diminishing returns then I’m not sure what is.

    The Newsroom is on Sky Atlantic from Monday 2 September at 10pm


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