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Bitesized Blighty: March 8, 2018

Toyosi Adebayo

  • Senior female MPs from the Conservative Party were featured in a video released by the party, in which they read out sexist abuse about themselves, ahead of International Women’s Day. The MPs read out tweets including one branding the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, “less attractive than Medusa’s fugly sister” to highlight the problem ahead of International Women’s Day. The video released by the Conservatives features Rudd, Caroline Nokes, the Immigration Minister, Social Care Minister Caroline Dinenage and Scottish MP Kirstene Hair, talking about the abuse they have been sent. Rudd also read out some abuse in a video for Joe, a website aimed at young men, including tweets calling her a traitor, a “heartless s****”, a “disgusting human being” and a “Brussels swamp rat”. The Conservative video goes on to show the women talking about what they consider their achievements despite the sexist abuse casting doubt on their abilities. The videos have been made to mark International Women’s Day on Friday, which has a “better balance” theme this year.
  • Ireland’s Prime Minister has turned the tables on Theresa May in Brexit talks, warning that she should in fact be making concessions to the EU if she wants changes to the agreement. Leo Varadkar on Friday said talks were actually “a question of what they are willing to offer us” as Ms May urged concessions from the bloc. He said the UK had made no offer and should change its approach. Ms May has been unable to get the deal she negotiated through parliament because of concerns about it from all sides. She wants the EU to change aspects of the withdrawal agreement to make it more palatable to hard Brexiteers within her party. But speaking in Dublin the taoiseach said the withdrawal agreement as it stood was “already a compromise” that had taken a year and a half to negotiate. “We’ve already agreed to a review clause so I think we have made a lot of compromises and what’s not evident is what the UK government is offering the EU and Ireland should they wish us to make any further compromises, we receive no offer as to what they would give us in return for any changes,” he said.
  • For insight into the conservatism of Middle England, it’s worth considering the case of The Henley Standard, a weekly newspaper in Oxfordshire, which recently found itself in hot water over its decision to retire “Sir” as the form of address for letters to the editor. The events unfolded as follows:

18 February: The Standard publishes a letter from a Henley resident, Liz Hatch: “Sir — Why do you continue with the outdated and archaic tradition of prefacing all letters to the editor with ‘Sir.’, “While I am by no means a feminist, I can’t believe it is necessary to maintain such a practice when other papers have eradicated this sexist attitude.”

Simon Bradshaw, the newspaper’s editor, responds with brisk solicitude, commenting that: “Letter writing is such a traditional practice that our use of ‘Dear Sir’ has always seemed appropriate, especially since I am male!”. But in deference to Ms. Hatch’s complaint, “in the interests of causing as little offense as possible,” he announces that as of the next edition of The Standard, the letters column would drop “Sir.” Little did he know.

Little did he know.

25 February: Among the 24 letters to the editor to appear, 11 are denunciations of Mr. Bradshaw’s decision.

“What utter tosh!” writes Patricia Edwards of Howe Hill, Waltington. “If Liz Hatch (please note the absence of the use of a title in order to avoid further offense) really believes that the use of a gender-specific title constitutes sexism, then she should perhaps invest in a dictionary, or take the time to research the meaning of the word a little more thoroughly.”

Lyn Patey protests that “Dear Sir” is “beautifully old-fashioned and should not be removed,” and A. M. Scanlon, a journalist, notes, “I am baffled how addressing a person of the male sex (not gender) as ‘Sir’ is in any way sexist.’”

Dick Fletcher of Hambledon, channeling Jane Austen, remarks that “It is a truth universally acknowledged that showing a little respect to one’s fellow human being (whether editor, animal, female, male or neither) never did anyone any harm.”

Allowing that the phrase may be old fashioned, he adds, “so is 1.5 oz of Bourbon or rye whiskey, two dashes of Angostura bitters, one sugar cube and a few dashes of plain water. How could one live without either.”

They go on like that. One correspondent says the decision “made me hold my head in despair,” while another is “saddened that I may no longer show my personal respect for you by addressing you as ‘Sir.’”

In the end, Mr. Bradshaw executes an about-face, writing that, “at the risk of reoffending Liz Hatch, I have not decided to heed the advice and leave it up to correspondents to decide whether to address me as ‘Sir’ or not and will publish their letters accordingly.”

Neither Mr. Bradshaw nor Ms. Hatch have commented further on the matter. But the dispute has spurred further analysis of “Sir,” as it is still used for letters to the editor in The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Spectator and Private Eye, but has been dropped by The Guardian, The New Statesman, The Economist and The Financial Times.

Brooke Masters, the comment and analysis editor of The Financial Times, which phased out “Sir” in its letters section in April last year, said she had expected a much bigger backlash over the decision. “We got a couple of ‘What took you so longs,’ and a few ‘This is a depressing depersonalizations’ — there was some bemoaning in a nostalgic way,” she said. “I was really surprised. I thought we were going to get hundreds.”

The controversy has also, as a side note, drawn international attention to the literary skills of The Standard’s correspondents, in particular Simon Brickhill of Goring Heath, who wrote a letter that was headlined “Keeping to (short) point.” It read, in its entirety, as follows:

“Sir, — I’ll keep this brief. — Yours faithfully,” 

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