September 2009


Another pantomimic skit in the bathetic spectacle that is the Labour conference.

Harriet Harman today urged movie star and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to “terminate” a website which allows people to rate prostitutes.

The Labour deputy leader told delegates at the Labour conference: “There is now a website… where pimps put women on sale for sex and then men who’ve had sex with them put their comments online. It is PunterNet and fuels the demand for prostitutes.”

Harman said the site was based in California but had “pages and pages” of women for sale in London.

“I’ve raised it with the US ambassador to London and I’ve called on California’s governor, Arnie Schwarzenegger, to close it down.”

Harman said it should not be difficult for the star to “terminate PunterNet”.

“And I’ve got news for him: if he doesn’t, I’ll be back,” she quipped.

BOOM BOOM! Yes, what a hilaaaarious subject! Tell us that one again, Hatty!

Ok, so it was like this.

I was on the internet checking out Prestwich, where we have, subsequent to said checking, bought a house (hooray!). I’d done the usual local paper trawl, checked out Yell for delis, cafes, libraries, restaurants, pubs and the like (no decent real ale pub = minus 4 points, but almost compensated by presence of M&S Simply Food = plus 3), battled with the extraordinary stratification of Bury Council’s website, played with Acorn ratings on Upmystreet, zoomed around the crime maps on Fixmystreet (are you keeping up?) and I was now googling various significant word combinations (“horrible hideous crime fire rubbish terrible filth zombie gin palace yob Tory council Prestwich”).

One such combination turned up the sliver of dubious intelligence that there is a stretch of Bury Old Road, the north-south main road that bounds Prestwich to the east, that is known to be the local punter’s mile. Now, clearly the local punter’s mile has got to be somewhere, but were we talking about a few houses or a notorious wasteland where I might fear to tread after dark? It was germane because the tram stop I would use to get into central Manchester is on Bury Old Road.

So I googled further into the unlovely bowels of cyberspace, and ended up on, yes, Punternet (and I’m not linking because despite the sympathetic hearing I am about to give it, there are limits). Punternet is, I don’t know how else to put this, a gobsmackingly weird place to be for a sheltered gel like me. The jargon, the atmosphere, the underlying assumptions are all framed in the same terms as the contributions to TopTable or Fancy a Pint, except that these were  human beings rather than the cask ales being critiqued. No, that’s not quite right – not Fancy a Pint. It’s a little weirder than that.  It was exactly like trawling through the reviews of model railway enthusiasts.

So, not the most salubrious-feeling place on the internet, and, as you might guess from the model railway analogy, the contributions of the punters are generally permeated by a certain damp, sad sense of inadequacy and poor communication skills. But what I took away – what, perhaps, I chose to take away – was the emphasis on information-sharing in the interests of legal, mutually satisfactory dealings.

This is what it says on the front page:

This web site deals only with lawful activities involving consenting adults. Neither this site, nor any of its members or advertisers, are doing anything which is illegal under UK law. Nothing in this site should be construed as inducement to engage in any illegal acts. This webmaster will cooperate fully with the authorities in any matter regarding under-age persons or those forced to work against their will.

And then inside, it says this:

This web site aims to promote better understanding between customers and ladies in hopes that everyone may benefit, with less stressful, more enjoyable and mutually respectful visits

Now, it’s not altogether clear to me how said benefits accrue to said ladies as a result of being reviewed on the internet, and the fact that they don’t seem to contribute  back suggests they are as puzzled about this as I am. That’s typical bloody men on the internet for you. But then when you get on to the “Field reports” (see what I mean about model railway enthusiasts?) page, it says this:

Have you been offered an underage girl?
Do you suspect that a girl you have seen is being forced to work against her will?

Report child prostitution and sex slavery – ring Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111

You, the punters, CAN make a difference – Click here for a short film from Crimestoppers about trafficking

At the very least, we  should concede that there is a self-policing element intrinsic in the aims of this site. The moral majority here do not appear to want to be offered underage girls, or women who are working against their will. The site owner is quite open about the fact that he will co-operate with the police in such matters. The police, I imagine, watch the site.

In short, though it’s not immediately obvious how this site makes the lives of prostitutes as a whole any better, it’s certainly not obvious how it makes them worse, and it may even make the odd life here or there quite dramatically better if and when the police do have occasion to intervene on the basis of information they read there.

This being the case, since no harm is being done and possibly a small amount of good may be being done, Harman’s posturing completely and comprehensively fails the liberal test. Imagine our universal surprise. (She also seems slightly misled about how the site is run. The owner claims to be an ordinary punter himself, and provides a classified ads section for the pimps, but the “field reports” are in a forum format and don’t appear to have anything to do with pimps.)

So the only question left turns on the legality of what Harman is demanding should happen. I have no idea whether the Governor of California has the authority to  shut down a website that isn’t breaking any law, but I do reckon that California is the single worst place in the world for a politician to try getting heavy-handed with the internet. Harman has not, as some wise soul points out on the comments to the Guardian piece, cited a law, either English or American, that the site has broken. She just wants it closed because she doesn’t like it.

Of course, I don’t much like Punternet either. That’s why I haven’t linked to it. Would I feel more comfortable if it weren’t on the internet? You betcha. But decisions  like that shouldn’t get made on the basis that sheltered gels like me and Harriet don’t much like seeing the evidence of prostitution. Closing down or banning something that does no harm and may do a small amount of good is a daft idea. In fact, if it means that women like me don’t ever run up against evidence of prostitution, it’s an extraordinarily counter-productive idea.

But then, Harman isn’t really and has never been on the side of women. She is actually, like all small- and big-c conservatives, on the side of the curtain-twitching classes.

Oooh, update: I take it back about the women not contributing back. They do, just not on the reviews. There are plenty of them on the forum (all currently highly indignant about Harman). H/t Paul Waugh.

She looks so harmless, doesn’t she, with her friendly woman-I-always-see-in-the-greengrocers smile, her twitter account and her unmistakeable air of Bodenity*. Even her name is pleasantly, inoffensively commonplace.

But Sarah Brown has a plan. I know this because the Guardian Media Group have spent the last week marching through my nightmares shouting “SARAH BROWN WANTS TO BE A POLITICIAN.”

Take a look at this. It’s a link to all the Guardian/Observer’s articles tagged with Sarah Brown. See? Up until summer this year, normal coverage. Charities, blah, veal, blah, G20, blah, looking badly-dressed next to Carla, looking boring and undynamic next to Michelle. In July, there was a potshot from Tanya Gold about her appearance in some Tatler barf-list or other (“A magazine that thinks David Cameron, Sarah Brown and Princess Beatrix are among the coolest people in the world has got a very big problem”). Then nothing for a couple of months, and then, suddenly, on Saturday 19th September,  something that in retrospect looks suspiciously like groundwork.

How London Fashion Week got its groove back – with a little help from Sarah Brown

Is that the scraping of a shoehorn I can hear? The first paragraph says:

Downing Street tonight hosted a strategically-timed celebration party for British fashion talent, illustrating how important Sarah Brown has been in the extraordinary comeback this year for London fashion week, which started yesterday.

Did everybody get that? Or should we send it back to the subs for more awkward mid-clause insertions? On the following day in the Observer, Gaby Hinsliff notes Brown’s “increasing influence”:

…behind the scenes she has become an increasingly powerful influence – a trusted partner, who sits in meetings with ministers…

Hm. Since when was it a good thing that unelected people got to wield power in government? I thought we were all supposed to hate Peter Mandelson, Labour supporters included, for precisely that reason. Did I miss a memo, or is it just because Mandelson doesn’t look like he’d chat to you in the greengrocers (does he need real food anyway?)?

But all that is nothing to the emetic we’re presented with the following weekend, Friday 25th:

Can Sarah Brown rescue Labour?

Say what?

She has transformed from a near-silent political wife to arguably the most admired and powerful woman in Britain…

Bu- Fn- Wh- What in the name  of gibbering incomprehension are you talking about? “Arguably”? Ya think? Sarah Beeny has more traction, never mind Lily Allen (of whom more anon). Seriously, I am  a wizened political punter and I know absolutely nothing about this woman that wouldn’t fit comfortably on a postage stamp and be about as interesting. Have I just been deposited here from a parallel dimension? More to the point, has the Observer?

How did she do it? And can her extraordinary reinvention help save the Labour party?

Yes, they have definitely, definitely lost it. As my friend Carl puts it on his Facebook status update (thanks, Carl, I will now steal your words):

Guardian: Is Sarah Brown the most powerful woman in Britain? Carl: The answer is the same as when the Observer asked the question on Sunday. No. Still, commendable recycling.

Their accompanying picture gallery of Sarah Brown Being Important is unlikely enough, but there is perhaps no finer evidence of a left-wing commentariat headed for la-la land than the faux-chunky paragraph of reasons why Sarah Brown is… whatever it is they’re trying to imply she is. It includes such gems as “She cooks lasagne for cabinet ministers who need charming… She grows organic vegetables in Downing Street’s garden.” We are told she is “close to Michelle Obama”, whatever that is supposed to mean.

Seriously, without wishing to take away from the charity work that also litters the paragraph, come on.  She does nice things for charities and gets about the PR I would expect a PM’s wife to get in the modern age. Let’s not look desperate by trying to big her up as some sort of political powerplayer whose super world-saving skillz include raising an adequate tomato.

But it gets worse, because Sarah also has form in the one great area of national affairs always guaranteed to get the Guardian salivating – she’s got a lot of followers on Twitter:

Prime minister’s wife overtakes Stephen Fry with 774,000 followers on social networking service.

Yes folks, you read it here first, the Labour party now has more reach than Stephen Fry. That’s all right then. The left is saved. Incidentally, this piece of “news” made it to Liberal Conspiracy under the following headline:

@SarahBrown10 now UK’s top tweeter

And the first paragraph contains as splendid an example of  of doublethink as you’ll find anywhere on the internet:

The Prime Minister’s wife, Sarah Brown, has overtaken Stephen Fry as the top high-profile Tweeter. Though she is still short of musician Lily Allen.

So, as the commenters pointed out, that would be second to top high-profile Tweeter, then.

Of course, it was inevitable that this puzzling deification would quickly spill over into self-parody, but I’m genuinely at a loss to know whether Deborah Summers on the Politics Blog is poking a bit of fun at her colleagues with this one:

…despite the White House’s best attempts to quash suggestions of a snub, it is difficult to imagine how else you could take five refusals of a meeting with the prime minister.

So what could have changed the president’s mind?

Could it have been the unstoppable Sarah Brown, the woman with more Twitter followers than even Stephen Fry, who clinched it for the prime minister?

And a picture of the four of them, in a row, arms round each other, grinning like the human four-fifths of the Famous Five, with Sarah and Barack clasping hands in the middle. No, you are kidding me, right? This is a bet to see how long we all swallow this garbage without bringing it right back up again? Must be.

But, I dunno. It was Debs who wrote the Twitter article in the first place. Incidentally, if you click into the Sarah Brown Being Important picture gallery I alluded to above, you’ll find  that the permalink reads “sarah-brown-popular-twitter”. Say, it’s almost like someone’s trying to start a meme, isn’t it?

So what’s the deal? Has the Guardian’s dogged search for reasons to vote Labour taken another more desperate turn than ever before? Actually, I think not. They’re really not that stupid. And a couple of the key commentators have openly given up on Labour now. No, this is Sarah herself isn’t it – she is a PR person, after all, and knows how to get things into newspaper, and knows how to construct a wave of them, in the right order,  saying the right things. Saving Labour? Or just setting herself up for politics?

Finally – and I’m not making this up – in the time it’s taken me to write this post, another article has appeared under the Sarah Brown tag:

Sarah Brown’s bold wardrobe reflects her growing confidence

Well, after all, tomatoes can be tricky little sods, can’t they – tsh-bm! And in case you were wondering, yes, this does appear in the politics section.

Groomed and polished, she looked every inch an asset to both the Labour party and to the fashion world.

Ok, now I am going to be sick. This is just awful. Somebody stop her.

*Bodenity

1.Possessing the quality of being inoffensively middle class, and appreciative of well-cut dresses.

2. (perj.) An assumed air of supposed wholesome friendliness and honesty which actually conceals self-reverential smugness.

3. Relating to a tendency to leap into the air smiling whilst wearing a selection of weekend-friendly clothing.

See also, Boden Dad, n., a middle class male species that to all intents and purposes grows offspring on its shoulders.

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