Talking about periods with boys — how easy is it?

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Michael Richards, Edge Hill University

Periods are something women and girls have been having for thousands of years – it’s the reason you and I are even here. And yet around the world, there’s still an element of shame associated with a woman’s monthly cycle.

Menstruation is associated with smells, mess, blood, gore, impurity and disgust. Which is probably why many women say they feel uncomfortable talking about their periods. This leads to women suffering in silence when it comes to “that time of the month” – hiding away from what some deem a “dirty secret”.

This is in part why a recent report has called for boys, as well as girls, to learn about periods and the menstrual cycle at school. Plan International UK, the charity behind the report, suggests there is a need to talk more about the issue as many girls feel embarrassed – with the menstrual cycle tarnished with stigma and taboo.

Their findings also reveal that one in seven of the girls and women interviewed said they did not know what was happening when they first started their period – clearly demonstrating a need for more to be done to teach young women about what’s to come.

Bad education

Yet according to the Department of Education in England, discussing menstruation is technically part of the curriculum for science. Despite this, though, almost 15% of young people said they were taught nothing at school about menstruation.

Previous research has also shown that teacher attitudes and classroom resources may prolong the negative stereotypes associated with menstruation. And for many girls, this lack of support in the classroom can lead to feelings of shame around the whole subject. Some girls are even missing school because they cannot afford sanitary products.

This clearly then goes way beyond playground embarrassment or bullying – it is a far wider political and health inequalities issue.

While the idea of tackling this head on and talking to boys in schools sounds good in practice, from my experience as an educational sexual health worker in central Manchester it is difficult to discuss sensitive issues such as menstruation with boys and young men.

The overriding responses tend to be that girls get “moody” or “smell funny” during periods, and in general, they want to evade talking about the subject because it is a “girl’s problem”.

Periods, not just for the girls? Shutterstock

But I have noticed that boys tend to have these attitudes more when they are in mixed groups, rather than single sex groups. In front of the girls, they tend to be more disrespectful and unsympathetic about the issues associated with periods for girls – and primarily see any association with the vagina as sexual.

When they are alone, however, with no girls present, I’ve noticed how boys have more understanding about periods than they let on in front of the girls – even being sympathetic about the difficulties women face.

But even though many of these boys have the knowledge to understand what menstruation means, and many are even sympathetic towards girls, in my experience, it is difficult to challenge the taboos associated with menstruation with boys and young men.

Not just for girls

For this to change, schools needs to be more open about the importance of menstruation and they need to be more sympathetic towards the stigma girls face. For a start, schools should provide resources and information that girls can access. This will help them understand – rather than feel scared and fearful – what is happening to their bodies during puberty.

This is one step towards taking the taboo out of menstruation, because to achieve gender equality on this issue, girls need to feel able to talk about their periods and challenge the discrimination that is associated with menstruation and developing girls bodies. And boys can play a big role in this – if they also get the right support and resources.

The ConversationThe fact remains that many adult men – and women – are still highly uncomfortable talking about periods. And given that Plan International UK found that almost half of girls aged 14 to 21 are embarrassed by menstruation, it’s time this changed – period.

Michael Richards, Lecturer in Applied Health and Social Care, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Macho myth busting: working class men aren’t all too tough to seek help

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Paul Simpson, Edge Hill University and Michael Richards, Edge Hill University

Men are bad at looking after their health, or so the received wisdom goes. Indeed, evidence has shown that men have significantly higher death rates than women from cancer due to delays in seeking medical help.

These doctor-avoiding tendencies have also been shown to be more common among working-class men – who are thought to place more emphasis on “toughness” and are more inclined to take risks when it comes to smoking and drinking. But there is evidence that questions some of these “macho” stereotypes. Men are beginning to look to support groups for help and our own research has pointed to a subtle change in workinmg-class masculinity.

Our study was based on the findings from three focus groups conducted with 15 men, aged 23-68, from three cities in northwest England. The men attended different support groups and experienced disadvantage because of low income and/or mental health difficulties. We asked them to take photographs of what “health” meant to them to aid discussion and we received more than 100 images.

The study found that experience of disadvantage because of low income and mental health issues had encouraged men to engage in what have been called “communities of practice”. These communities emerged within various support groups that were organised around football and mental health, being a father and for people trying to manage on lower incomes. They provide opportunities for men to support each other “informally” outside official, medical and care environments. They also provided opportunities for the men to think as a group about their mental and physical health.

Attitudes observed within these communities suggest a broadening of working-class masculinity that recognises the value of emotional expression and mutual support. They also encouraged group members to question the mental health advice they were receiving from doctors and dominant ideas about healthy eating.

Challenging stereotypes

Men, particularly those in working-class communities, face pressures to be strong: to be “breadwinners” and to control their emotions. But one man who took part in the study – Geoff, aged in his early 50s and from Merseyside – used photographs of his achievements in a football and mental health support group to talk about his recovery from severe mental health problems. He said he recovered thanks to the emotional support available in his community group:

I have no shame whatsoever talking about mental health. Until we can talk as openly about mental health as we do physical health, there will be a stigma and if I can talk about… the dark times… hopefully that touches someone else and makes them reach out for help. One of the most difficult things to say is – like coming out – ‘that’s what it is’. It’s making that admission. Football has been a huge part of my life. It was always where I could be myself. The lads are like any other football team but we take it one step further because not only do we care for each other, we actually counsel each other.

Geoff’s words show how this support group has normalised talking about fears and anxieties. His use of the metaphor “coming out” shows the importance of owning one’s emotional vulnerability. This is a far cry from “manly” suppression of or distancing from so-called “feminine” emotions. Geoff also spoke of the group as helping men to express their authentic emotional selves.

Indeed, Geoff said that for group members football was “their medication”. This was echoed by another study participant. Mike, aged in his early 20s, compared the benefits of the support group in helping him to face bereavement with “the doctors who just give you pills”. And referring to a photograph of himself making papier-maché figures with his children, Darren (early 40s from Manchester) described how sharing thoughts within a self-help group for dads had “helped me bond with my kids” and had helped him “become the dad I am now where I can play with the kids and then get on with housework”.

Community groups can help men facing disadvantages to develop emotional resources. Their stories also show how health is a collective rather than a purely individual enterprise.

Places to relax

Another significant theme appeared in stories about men’s favourite places to relax. Referring to a photograph of his bike on New Brighton Promenade, overlooking the Liverpool waterfront, Daniel explained:

I’ll often peddle to New Brighton. Nine miles there, nine back and it’s just sea and sand all the way. You feel like you’re abroad. So, that’s nice mentally rather than physically. I just look back at the city where I grew up and think about life and it really helps.

Daniel’s words suggest freedom and the view of Liverpool provides emotional as well as physical distance: a space of escape to consider his life’s journey. In all focus groups, men contrasted such places to unhealthy “mean streets” that represented urban blight, hostility, disconnection and social problems.

The ConversationContrary to the stereotype, working-class men who belong to support groups are no strangers to seeking help. It’s clear that support groups are helping men get the help they need and they could be key in taking steps towards reducing male suicide rates and addressing wider health issues. But more needs to be done to raise awareness of these groups and more funding needs to be set aside to make them accessible for all.

Paul Simpson, Lecturer in Applied Health & Social Care, Edge Hill University and Michael Richards, Lecturer in Applied Health and Social Care, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Understanding childhood trauma and its impact on offending

Although not all traumatised individuals offend, it does seem to be a feature of anti-social behaviour and serious offences. A disproportionate number of children who offend and enter the justice system present with complex, often unmet health and social care needs, and have experienced adverse childhood events. Indeed, many of the children in the justice system have experienced some sort of trauma. As many as 91 per cent of young people who have committed violent offences experienced abuse or loss prior to becoming involved in the justice system. Such unresolved trauma can manifest at a different point in time. However, until quite recently this was not properly acknowledged or understood. For example, the Youth Justice Board recently published a briefing paper on trauma-informed youth justice practice.

Although trauma defies easy definition, it can be explained as a psychological or emotional disturbance, resulting from exposure to intense or chronic stress. This could include being a victim of domestic violence or assault, sexual abuse or serious injury. Responses to trauma can include flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance, anger, depression and them avoiding places that are a reminder of the event. It can affect a child’s ability to understand processes or comply with court order requirements. Ignoring underlying trauma can not only result in poor outcomes in terms of levels of engagement and participation but also severely restrict children’s life chances. A range of factors including how resilient children are in terms of emotional strength and the support they are receiving from family members and/or professionals, can determine the severity of such trauma. What can happen is children self-harm by way of substance abuse as a coping mechanism. This self-medication is a way children adapt to a traumatic event but does not help and can, of course, make the situation worse. It is a dysfunctional way of coping.

For too long there has been a lack of resources and attention paid to the issue of childhood trauma. With children who commit offences, we tend to focus on the behaviour and not the underlying issues or problems that have affected them.

There must be greater emphasis on raising staff awareness, and training on the importance of recognising how traumatic experiences can be damaging to children, personally, emotionally and developmentally. Trauma-informed youth justice practice involves promoting positive outcomes in a person-centred and strengths-based way – reducing the likelihood of children feeling rejected by those in authority and preventing non-compliance and the instigation of breach proceedings.

Sean Creaney is a Lecturer in Psychosocial Analysis of Offending Behaviour in the Faculty of Health & Social Care at Edge Hill University. He is a former Trustee at the National Association for Youth Justice. He is currently an advisor at the social justice charity Peer Power, and a PhD candidate at Liverpool John Moores University. He also writes The Youth Justice Blog in Children and Young People Now.

‘Wear red, get noticed’ – and other subtle psychological ways colour affects us

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Red makes a big impact, studies show. Twinsterphoto/shutterstock

Geoff Beattie, Edge Hill University

I notice that my office is mainly colourless, or perhaps more accurately insipid in colour, a dull brown, the colour of old tea – the desk, the shelves, the table. A once bright red bromeliad now dead or dying on the window sill has turned a dull autumn brown. Beyond that, outside the window, is the dull brown of autumn on a wet, windy day.

One object stands out: the bright red university diary. It’s the first thing that I notice when I enter the room. It draws my eyes to it involuntarily, like a red traffic light or the red marks on an essay. I go to reach for it but pause: perhaps it’s the week ahead that I can’t cope with, the new term, the tutorials, the lectures, the meetings, the grant application deadlines, the proofs of my new book. Surely it’s not the colour of the object itself, the red cover that is a non-conscious warning for me to stop?

A great deal has been written over the years about the effects of colour on human psychology, and this has been carried into the popular imagination in various ways, from guidelines on how to decorate your house to ensure a calm and peaceful space, to how to attract a partner, or even win at sport.

The appeal of colour

Some of the earliest applied research into colour was carried out by Louis Cheskin at the Color Research Institute of America founded in the 1930s. A pioneer in the field of marketing psychology, Cheskin argued that consumers make automatic and non-conscious assessments of products based not just on the product itself but derived from all its characteristics as determined by each of the senses. One major sensory feature is colour. These non-conscious sensory impressions from the product or its packaging, Cheskin argued, can be transferred directly onto our perception of the product itself, including its perceived value, price and quality.

In one study, outlined in Vance Packard’s 1957 classic The Hidden Persuaders, housewives tried out three different detergents in packaging that was either yellow, blue, or blue with a splash of yellow. The verdict was that the detergent in the yellow box was too harsh for their clothes (“It ruined them”, many of the respondents complained), whereas the detergent in the blue box was considered not strong enough, leaving the clothes still dirty. The detergent in the packaging coloured blue with splashes of yellow was “just right”. The detergent was, however, identical in all three. It seems that non-conscious associations, manipulated by the marketer, could determine our preferences.

Packard also described how changing the colour of the 7-Up can, with a 15% increase in the amount of yellow on the can but no alteration to the drink itself, led to complaints that the flavour had become “too lemony”, the consumers having been non-consciously primed with the lemon association through the yellow on the can. This research questioned the model of consumers as rational agents, and started to delve more deeply into how the human mind works. But this was science driven by profit.

Wear red, get noticed

Contemporary psychological research seems to support some of these ideas about the effects of colour on perception. In a 2008 study by Andrew Elliot and Daniela Niesta from the University of Rochester, men rated pictures of women as “more attractive” and “more sexually desirable” when the photos were presented for only a few seconds on a red rather than a white background. However, it didn’t affect women’s perceptions of the attractiveness of other women, nor whether men saw the women in the pictures as “likeable”, “kind” or “intelligent”. They concluded:

Human and nonhuman male primates respond to red … As much as men might like to think that they respond to women in a thoughtful, sophisticated manner, it appears that at least to some degree, their preferences and predilections, are, in a word, primitive.

Some have taken these kinds of results to suggest that women (and men) should exploit the unconscious in subtle ways to make themselves more attractive to the opposite sex – but it is the subtle red watch strap rather than the red dress that the study suggests would be most effective.

‘Don’t mind me, I’m just quietly asserting my dominance.’ Viorel Sima/Shutterstock

The colour red, is also an evolutionarily-evolved sign of dominance among males in the animal kingdom, which appears also to have effects in humans. A study by Russell Hill and Robert Barton from the University of Durham found that sports teams that wore red kits were more likely to win than those that did not.

Nature’s warning

But, of course, dominance and sex are not the only biological and symbolic associations of the colour red. Red is also associated with danger and warning. Another study by Andrew Elliott and colleagues outlined the effects of the colour red on children’s test performance. They found that when children were left to solve anagrams for five minutes, if their participant number was written in red they solved on average less than 4.5, but when their number was written in green or black, they solved on average more than 5.5. They also examined the effects of altering the colour of the cover of an IQ test booklet, finding that when the cover was red the children performed less well.

Subsequent measures of brain activity using EEG scans revealed that those working with a red-covered booklet showed relatively more right frontal lobe activation than those with green or grey test covers. According to the researchers, this sort of activity is associated with avoidance behaviour. They concluded:

The findings suggest that care must be taken in how red is used in achievement contexts and illustrate how colour can act as a subtle environmental cue that has important influences on behaviour.

The Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman reinforced a lot of these findings in his best-selling book Thinking Fast and Slow, in which he delineated two systems of thinking: one fast, automatic and non-conscious, the other slow, deliberate and conscious. Colour affects our fast, non-conscious thinking in ways that we are only now starting to understand, with potentially broad implications for education, sport, and all manner of human relations.

The ConversationDoes Manchester United’s home football strip (red) give them an unfair advantage? Some psychologists would no doubt say yes, although this is contested. Is my red diary warning me off, or am I just overworked? I am of course an entirely rational man, but I notice that I’ve chosen a blue diary for next year.

Geoff Beattie, Professor of Psychology, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ambitious leader speech sees Vince Cable aiming for the top job

Paula Keaveney, Edge Hill University

As the Liberal Democrats met for their first conference since the 2017 general election, many were feeling disappointed at the state of things. The party came away with a mere 12 election victories after mistakenly believing the Brexit referendum had given it a branding which would help it capture more votes. Yet despite disappointment, party managers reported a higher than average conference attendance and membership numbers remain high.

Members met to reflect on the past, look to the future and begin working on how to take the party forward in an increasingly muddled political environment. Lib Dem conferences are a mix of decision-making votes and key note speeches and the leader’s speech is traditionally the final session of the event. This year that fell to Vince Cable.

Leaders’ conference speeches are difficult at the best of times. They have to communicate to party members in the hall, to (often) cynical journalists who have “heard it all before”, to members of the “political community”, and to potential voters, members and others who will only catch bits of the speech on the news. And whatever the leader wants to say, there will be questions which need to be answered and fires which need to be put out. Anyone reading the Alastair Campbell Diaries, or indeed the accounts of John Major’s time as Conservative party leader, will know just how fraught and last minute the speech preparations can be.

And of course if it is your first run out as Leader, the pressure is worse.

So today Cable had a lot to do. He had to look and sound like a leader, positioning both himself and his party in the most beneficial way. And he was certainly ambitious about it.

When, a few days before his speech, he told an interviewer that he does genuinely believe he can become prime minister, some may have thought that this was simply the answer to expect from a politician. But a theme which sprung out from Cable’s speech was government. “We are the government of the future,” he said at one point. And he ended with a call to head “back to government”.

This is actually quite risky. Many will remember David Steel’s rallying cry at the Liberal Assembly in 1981 when he called on members to “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government”. Government for the Liberals, now the Lib Dems, didn’t arrive until 2010, and only then because of the need for a coalition. The Steel phrase is often recalled with raised eyebrows at party conference. (It also became a regular in sketches at the Liberal Revue or the conference Glee Club.) And of course when Steel made his speech, the SDP Liberal Alliance was riding high in the polls.

So for Cable, head of the group of just 12 MPs, to make such a bold statement is a risky piece of positioning. But it is also necessary. For Lib Dems to have an obvious purpose, they must be seen as working towards that end. And that end must seem possible.

Safe pair of hands

Another theme of Cable’s speech was the need for people with experience who could take a grown up approach to things. He devoted significant time to talking about ministerial work and achievements. This is not an unknown practice for a political leader but it is a little unusual to look back more than two years. However, if Cable’s pitch is about being able to govern, there will be an ongoing need to stress examples of this work by key people such as Norman Lamb and Jo Swinson, both MPs, and Lynne Featherstone, now in the House of Lords.

As ever in a Leader’s speech there were short points on issues which would go down well with the party and also garner soundbites. Donald Trump’s state visit should be cancelled, the hall was told. Votes at 16 would be the centre of the party’s campaign for political reform.

The ConversationIt’s never clear how to measure the success of a conference speech in a non-election year. Is it about membership increase, good media coverage, more donations, poll ratings? For this piece of positioning however, what will matter is whether the message can be credibly sustained over the years to come.

Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Mecury Prize is an analogue award in a digital age

Richard Witts, Edge Hill University

Perhaps you have dutifully trawled through each of the 12 albums that make up the 26th Mercury Music Prize shortlist, thinking as you go, “I’ve just got used to streaming, so why should I back-pedal into old track-by-track ways?” Yet this is how the winner gets picked from the 12 albums by the 12 – such is Mercury’s devotion to the duodecimal – judges.

These judges are asked to argue about each album as some sort of fully-rounded artistic statement. Finally, the judges must unanimously choose one above the others. Whichever artist wins, gains a statuette, £25,000 in cash and the promise (but only a promise) of increased sales and a ride up the charts the following week. But it is formally the album format that wins – as the prize has ended up as a defender of old-school music production and consumption.

The Mercury Prize was set up in 1992 as an alternative to the BRIT Awards by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI). It made sense that the record industry should want to promote its independent labels at a time when it had been profitably reviving old albums in the new CD format.

“Mercury” itself was a telephone company that lost its name in 1997 when it was amalgamated with its parent company, Cable & Wireless Communications. It was the show’s first sponsor. Since then, there have been six prize sponsors, the current being Hyundai. None of the sponsors have been able to replace the “Mercury” name with their own, however. It has become a brand like the Turner Prize for art, with which it shares a certain reputation for “making and breaking” artists.

Meanwhile, the BPI’s thumbprint on Mercury can be found in the rule that a solo artist or 50% of a band must be British. Mercury has also largely promoted those musicians either side of the mainstream, including artists like PJ Harvey (twice a winner) and alt-J (nominated again this year). Controversially, this year saw the nomination of the very mainstream Ed Sheeran.

Mercury’s organisers are spoilt for choice because over 200 albums are submitted annually by record companies. Over the first 10 years, one modern classical album – nearly always one – was also included. A classical expert was appointed to the jury in the hope of persuading the others of the album’s merit. But a classical artist has never won and that item was soon exposed as mere tokenism.

Artists at their best

Since then, it has been jazz that has embraced the “token” role (this year, Laura Jurd’s Dinosaur). The organisers insist that the jury looks beyond genres and welcomes acts from across musical styles. But in 2013 it was pointed out that a heavy metal album has never been chosen for the prize. As a defence, it was ingeniously claimed by Mercury chair of judges, Simon Frith, that metal is not a genre but a “niche”.

There is one thing that takes place at the ceremony that I believe has an impact on the jury’s final choice but has little to do with the album. Each of the 12 artists are asked to give a live performance, perhaps to justify the television coverage. The show takes place during the post-summer festival circuit, so the artists are often at their best.

It was at the 2007 event that Amy Winehouse made her first appearance after illness and redeemed herself in the eyes of the industry with a rendition of Love is A Losing Game. It did not end up winning her the prize but the fact that a live performance takes place on the night of the vote – when the judging panel is trying to come its final decision – surely affects the view of the jury members and could sway them in a new direction. Furthermore, the artists do not, of course, perform the full album on which they are being judged.

The ConversationIf the Mercury Prize is to last it will have to hope that the music buying public will carry on consuming albums which provide “artistic statements” or it may have to consider changing its vetting and voting policy to a completely new set of terms that reflect the practice of streaming. It may have its detractors but the project does bring the work of 12 artists to the public’s attention who might otherwise struggle to be heard. After all, Mercury was the god of communication and business.

Richard Witts, Reader in Music and Sound, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A council has been intercepting emails to elected officials – here’s why that matters

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Terry Kearney, CC BY-NC

Paula Keaveney, Edge Hill University

Emails from local people to elected councillors have been intercepted by officials at Liverpool City Council. It’s not clear whether this involves a large or small group of people, but a recent example, and the council’s response to it, has shown that this is a practice that has been going on for some time.

The issue came to light when a particular email was stopped and gained an addendum before being passed on. The story appeared in the Liverpool Echo and has led one group of councillors to refuse to use the official council email system. In fact, reaction by some has been pretty fierce.

While this might look like a “little local problem”, it actually raises a host of issues about the relationship between politicians and citizens – and between corporate state bodies and elected people.

Local councils in the UK vary in what they do. But they all exist to run services for people in their area. They are also democratic organisations, with individuals elected as decision makers and representatives. This means the council has a legal existence as an organisation, but also that there are councillors who are the political side of things and who have votes at meetings. In all but the smallest council, the paid staff (often referred to as officers) will considerably outnumber the political “elected members”.

It’s not clear how many emails have been intercepted and over what period of time. I fully expect individuals and organisations to now make use of Freedom of Information laws and subject access requests to find out more. Anecdotally, I have heard that people are already contacting local councillors in Liverpool to ask whether their email communications have been intercepted.

In the particular case that brought the issue to light, an email intended for a councillor was diverted to the chief executive’s office, read and then added to with a suggestion of how the councillor might like to reply. It was then forwarded on to the councillor.

Most of us imagine we have a good idea of what members of parliament do but public understanding of the role of a councillor is much vaguer. Yet there are many more councillors than there are MPs. So this group makes up the majority of those elected to political roles. And given that councils are responsible for issues like planning, roads, schools and waste collection, the decisions they make have a very direct effect on people.

The Liverpool incident raises two very important questions. Should citizens expect to be able to communicate with an elected politician without interference? And should councils, as corporate bodies, be able to control the information of the people elected to effectively be in charge?

Liverpool City Council’s defence in this case was that it was trying to protect email recipients since a local citizen had been behaving “unreasonably” in her communications with councillors and officers at the council. Her actions were described as a “scatter gun” approach and the council system was then set up to divert all emails from her address to a central point. The council also said that it applied this approach in a “small number of cases”.

This argument might work for an organisation wanting to protect its staff. The problem here is that councillors are not staff. They are not employed by Liverpool City Council. They are accountable to the electorate and it is reasonable to assume that if I send an email to Councillor X, Councillor X is the person who gets it.

Councillors do receive money but it comes in the form of allowances, not pay. And there are none of the things we expect from an employment contract such as performance reviews, progression pay and so on. So a relationship between a resident and an elected member is a direct one. It is not mediated by an employer.

It is clear to me that when a citizen makes contact, there is an expectation of confidentiality and privacy. The issue of confidentiality is vital here. Some citizens pass on sensitive personal information when requesting help. Others may be asking for assistance in pursuing a complaint about part of the council.

Some issues are difficult neighbour disputes. Others may be lobbying for a particular decision which runs against the policies of the ruling group. In my time on Liverpool City Council, I experienced all of these situations. And in all cases it would be difficult to have trust in the casework and representative system if it was felt that communications were likely to be read by other people.

Of course, it is possible that some incoming emails could be threatening, I have had some myself. But elected representatives can still take their own decisions about how and who to block. And many threatening communications are surely issues for the police anyway.

The issue of control is an interesting one. Clearly councils have to have rules about how they operate. But it’s also clear that there have to be some standards.

Constitutionally, elected members come together to make decisions which staff then carry out. Even where there are elected mayors with executive powers, councillors make a range of other decisions. And although many decisions are delegated, the responsibility for oversight rests with the elected individuals, not the staff.

The ConversationWhen I was a councillor, I used to roll my eyes at those few elected members who refused to use the central email system because they didn’t want staff to interfere. I now know they were right to be wary.

Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How PR giant Bell Pottinger made itself look bad

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So … the thing is. Shutterstock

Paula Keaveney, Edge Hill University

The reputation of global PR company Bell Pottinger has suffered a massive blow. The boss has resigned, clients have walked, the firm has been expelled from the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) – and it has now put itself up for sale. All because of its work on a controversial contract in South Africa.

Bell Pottinger, which has staff, partners and offices in many parts of the world, is headquartered in London. So when the South African political party the Democratic Alliance wanted to complain about the firm’s activities, the London-based PRCA was its chosen route.

The whole issue of ethics and regulation in public relations is a thorny one. In virtually every country, anyone can call themselves a PR practitioner. I am an accredited practitioner with all sorts of qualifications, but there is nothing in law to stop my neighbour, a plumber, from hanging out a sign saying he is a PR officer, too.

But thanks to a drive from industry professionals there have been efforts to promote ethics and ensure some sort of regulation, which practitioners and companies can choose to sign up to.

In the UK, there is the PRCA (mostly for organisations) and the CIPR (mostly for individual practitioners). Each has codes of conduct and disciplinary processes. Each can censure and expel. Ethical practitioners hope that clients will equate membership with high standards.

The PRCA’s expulsion of Bell Pottinger is the most serious sanction it can take, and follows an investigation, a provisional ruling and an appeal. But now Bell Pottinger is out, and it cannot apply to rejoin for at least five years.

According to PRCA Director General Francis Ingham:

Bell Pottinger has brought the PR and communications agency into disrepute … The PRCA has never before passed down such a damning indictment of an agency’s behaviour.

Bell Pottinger was founded in part by Sir Tim (now Lord) Bell in 1987. Advising former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher on her presentational style, he became one of the biggest names in PR. The firm did not shy away from controversial clients, who included former South African president FW de Klerk, Asma al-Assad, the wife of Syrian president Bashir al-Assad, and the South African athlete Oscar Pistorius, after he was accused of murder.

Lord Bell himself resigned from the company last year. And in an interview with the BBC’s Newsnight (which was twice interrupted by his mobile phone ringing) he said this latest episode was “almost certainly” the end.

Experts in keeping up appearances, the firm no doubt regrets the work it carried out for the wealthy Gupta family, which has close links to South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma.

The British PR firm got into trouble with a social media “economic emancipation campaign” in which the phrase “white monopoly capital” was said to have been deliberately, or irresponsibly, used, stirring up racial tension.

South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance accused Bell Pottinger of a “hateful and divisive campaign to divide South Africa along the lines of race”.

The scandal led to resignations – and the loss of clients. Britain’s biggest bank, HSBC, has said it would no longer use Bell Pottinger. A Swiss luxury company headed by a South African businessman, a South African investment group, and Acacia, which owns gold mines in Tanzania, are also reportedly off the books.

The damage to the company’s reputation is immense. While Bell Pottinger did take on work for clients which some of us find offensive or “to be avoided”, there is a difference between a client with a bad reputation deserving some help, and creating a bad reputation through the very act of communication.

Is all publicity still good publicity?

Will nations and companies still want to hire the company in the future? Some will probably take the attitude that recent events do not affect the organisation’s ability to carry out its work.

But will journalists and other PR audiences be ready to accept the firm’s messages? Probably not. The first response of any journalist contacted by a Bell Pottinger spokesperson will surely be to think of this damning incident. It will be tough for any lobbying campaign to carry conviction with the Bell Pottinger name attached.

Of course, being expelled from a professional association does not take away the ability to practice. The Democratic Alliance itself has pointed out that Bell Pottinger can still work in South Africa.

The ConversationBut PR depends on the ability to win client accounts – by convincing them that you will protect and enhance their reputation. It is difficult to see how an organisation which has effectively trashed its own reputation can protect someone else’s.

Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The interwar ‘motor-bandit’ – and what it tells us about the fear of new technology


Alyson Brown, Edge Hill University

“Dangerous” new technologies have been threatening society for generations – or at least that’s what sections of the media would have us believe. Whether it’s “violent” video games making our children more aggressive, “evil” video nasties twisting young minds or Virtual Reality headgear posing a threat to users’ “physical and emotional wellbeing”, new technology has often been perceived as something to be feared. But fear and anxiety about new technology isn’t new. Even the now very familar and everyday motorcar was once seen as a menacing and threatening tool for criminals.

Stories about the way in which criminals have been quick to make use of opportunities offered by the internet and social media are rarely out of the news. Coverage about hacking and security issues, e-commerce or child grooming and the availability of indecent images of children online proliferate the news media.

Social awareness and anxieties about cybercrime has seen society become more accustomed to thinking about the internet as a technology to be feared as much as it is to be admired. But a brief historical view shows that other “new” technologies have also been the cause of political and public fears. During the interwar era in England, the now ubiquitous motorcar was having something of an image problem.

The Motor Bandit movie from 1912 tells the story of a bank robbery and the subsequent hunt for the robbers. Speer Films (Anthony Saffrey/Screen Archive South East), Author provided
The ‘motor bandit’

Back then, the greater criminal mobility offered by the motorcar was said to pose a threat. The use of the motorcar by criminals not only increased their mobility but also suggested greater planning, access to resources and co-ordination. Consequently, it presented a potentially greater and more violent danger, especially when the police seemed to be at a technological disadvantage. Historian Clive Emsley said that these “new” criminals were seen as skilfully using the expanding opportunities provided by new technology and more “professional” as a result.

Authorities and the media represented “motor banditry” as a practice much more defined than it actually was and suggested vaguely the existence of professional “motor bandits” who did not indulge in other forms of offending. Therefore, images of motor bandits paralleled representations of a narrower and numerically smaller class of more dangerous recidivists – career criminals who supposedly followed crime as a profession.

In many senses, the motor bandit and the smash-and-grab raider (the stereotypical criminal who made use of cars to smash shop windows and make off at speed with stolen goods) represented wider concerns about the “modern” age and the impact of expanding individual car ownership on society.

The motor bandit was usually depicted as a man. In his book The Car and British Society, Sean O’Connell says that driving had quickly become a highly “gendered” activity and the skill of driving was often perceived as “a natural masculine quality”. The phenomenon of the woman motor bandit challenged these assumptions. The “New Woman” in her criminal guise, the bobbed-haired bandit, was shocking on many levels and she was depicted as “fast” – not only in terms of speed but also of morality.

A masculine folk devil

The essentially masculine nature of driving was translated to car crime at a time when car-ownership, due to the expense of buying and running a car, showed social status. This made the image of the motor bandit not only threatening but also challenging and exciting. The press found this phenomenon to be good sensation fodder tinged with an element of glamour – a fact that was highlighted at the Central Conference of Chief Constables, where it was noted that the press sensationalised and even sometimes fabricated stories about motor bandits to describe modern “highway robbery”.

Motor bandits were a product of fears, not only about the way in which the car enabled criminals to be more mobile, but also about the car itself. Magnified by the lens of new technology, the motor bandit became a folk devil of the inter-war period. It was a representation of the threat of a technology driven future.

Our 21st-century concerns about the internet and a future in which internet capabilities are extended beyond everyday understanding parallel what now seem to be peculiar and outdated concerns about an everyday tool like the car.

The ConversationCriminal use of motor vehicles has now been accepted for decades but, tragically, recent months have highlighted that the ubiquitous motor vehicle can be used not only to transport criminals but also as weapons in themselves, utilised by terrorists. Technology, and ways to use it, will continue to change and move forward, offering both potential and harm. We must make efforts to understand such capabilities in order to ensure, as far as possible, that it is used for the good of society.

Alyson Brown, Professor of criminal history. Much of published work has explored prison history in Britain specifically., Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Actually, we are amused – how the Victorians helped to shape Britain’s unique sense of humour

George Vasey, The Philosophy of Laughter and Smiling (1875).

Bob Nicholson, Edge Hill University

Laughter: it’s said to be the best medicine and the cheapest form of therapy. Studies have shown it can help to boost immunity, relieve tension and even reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression – it seems there’s a lot to be said for having a good old laugh.

The idea of laughter being good for our health has deep roots. It was certainly in wide circulation during the Victorian era, meaning that despite popular stereotypes of this straitlaced century – in which the people and their Queen were terminally “not amused” – laughter was thought of as an essential component of good mental and physical health.

The introduction to the Railway Book of Fun (because who doesn’t need more fun on a train), which was published in 1875, proclaimed that cheerfulness was a “christian duty” and advised readers to “use all proper means to maintain mental hilarity” if they valued “health and comfort”. It even argued – rather optimistically – that a good sense of humour could help ward off infectious diseases.

Not all Victorians were so keen to loosen their stiff upper lips though. In 1875, a man named George Vasey declared war on laughter. In his book The Philosophy Of Laughter And Smiling he argued that only “the depraved, the dissipated, and the criminal” were “addicted to uproarious mirth.”

Over the course of 166 pages, he attempted to scientifically prove that laughing was an idiotic, vulgar, and ugly habit enjoyed by empty-headed fools. Laughter distorted the face and, Vasey warned, “often ended fatally” by blocking the passage of air to the lungs. Sensible people, he concluded, “never laugh under any possible circumstances”.

Laugh and grow fat

Vasey certainly wasn’t the only Victorian to argue for a new culture of seriousness, but the truth is that these anti-mirth campaigners were swimming against the tide. As Vasey himself admitted, the “immense majority” of his contemporaries held “the habit of laughing in high estimation” and regarded it as “an absolute necessary of life”.

The proverb “laugh and grow fat” circulated widely in the 18th and 19th centuries and was usually intended as a recommendation. This link between fatness and health might seem odd to us today. But as one 19th century journalist explained:

[This was not to suggest] that a mere state of obesity was especially desirable, but rather a wish to rebuke the evil effects upon the physical systems engendered in the persons of those whose lives are made up of fretfulness, of melancholy, and of sour-faced bigotry.

For advocates of this philosophy, a good sense of humour could even lead to a slap-up meal. Jokes were an important part of Victorian “table-talk” and accomplished raconteurs were sought-after guests at dinner parties. One Victorian writer explained how a skilled and original humorist could “extract venison out of jests, and champagne out of puns”.

For less accomplished comedians, scores of joke books and ready-made “manuals of table-talk” were on sale at Victorian bookstalls.

Fond of fun

Just like today, the possession of a good sense of humour was considered an attractive quality by Victorian men and women when seeking a romantic partner. Back then, “matrimonial advertisements” – the equivalent of a modern day Tinder profile – routinely described their authors as “jolly” and “fond of fun”.

Matrinominal advert from ‘Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday’ (1888).

Some Victorian men even pretended to have written jokes for Punch magazine in the hope of “ingratiating [themselves] with the fair and trusting sex”.

A small community of Victorian humorists also managed to earn a living by writing jokes. As one of these professional gag writers put it, he spent his day “turning out jokes as other men would turn out chair-legs”.

The most prolific jesters in the UK and US were reportedly capable of writing 100 new jokes in a day before selling them to the editors of comic magazines like Punch and Fun. These papers circulated widely, and as Vasey begrudgingly explained:

[The publications] realised princely incomes by their successful efforts in stimulating the pectoral muscles and shaking the diaphragms of their numerous readers.

Private jokes

While most Victorian joke books limited themselves to respectable humour, racier jokes were, it seems, told in private. The story goes that at one of Punch magazine’s legendary weekly dinner gatherings, political debate about the merits of the then prime minister’s reform bill was abruptly redirected when the journalist Shirley Brooks interjected with a joke:

Q. If you put your head between your legs, what planet do you see?

A. Uranus

The British novelist William Thackeray was reportedly consumed with laughter and then proceeded to crack a joke about his own problems with urethral stricture – so much for the link between laughter and good health.

In short, most Victorians loved to laugh. Despite the best efforts of George Vasey and other champions of seriousness, a vibrant culture of comedy existed in 19th century Britain. And yet, much of this humour has never been studied by historians. Which is why, for the last few years, I’ve been working on a project with the British Library that aims to celebrate this under-appreciated aspect of Victorian life.

We are building an online archive of long-forgotten 19th century jokes. It’s still under construction, but we’ve already begun sharing some of the “best” gags on Twitter and Facebook.

Here are some of my favourites:

The ConversationPerhaps George Vasey had a point after all.

Bob Nicholson, Senior Lecturer in History, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.