On being nasty to the ‘first lady’ (not)
In today’s Observer the columnist Catherine Bennett makes a spiteful attack on Sarah Brown, the prime minister’s wife, principally for her failure to denounce the practice of female genital mutilation when she spoke briefly to introduce her husband before his main speech at last week’s Labour Party conference. You might, I suppose, agree with Ms Bennett that there is indeed no mention to be found in the transcript of Mrs Brown’s mini-warmup of this most regrettable practice. Mrs Brown neither recommended it, nor denounced it. Whether the omission was attributable to carelessness, or to a conscious desire to distract the conference’s attention from the whole subject of female genital mutilation, one can only guess.
In the comments on Ms Bennett’s column in Comment is Free, the house blog of the Guardian and the Observer, an acute person called (a little improbably) ‘AllyF’ observed —
Erm, maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t this a bit like yelling at a shoebox for not being a bicycle?
What is Sarah Brown meant to have done? (Apart from inducing an emetic epidemic with her ‘hero’ spiel last week, of course.)
I don’t think she’s ever claimed to be some radical feminist activist, has she? Is there any hypocrisy here? Any deception or dishonesty?
I’m sure there are lots of issues on which she has never spoken out. Has she ever made a stand against the barbaric practice of dog fighting? What about the hidden problem of elder abuse in our care homes? The suffering of ebola victims in North Africa? The ubiquity of Strictly Come sodding Dancing on BBC “news” programmes? All serious issues, so why hasn’t she spoken out on those?
Look, I’m all in favour of taking the strongest possible action, and issuing the strongest possible condemnations on issues like FGM, honour killing and forced marriage. If you’ve actually got any bright ideas how to stop these things happening Catherine, maybe you could use your column to let us know. I’m sure Harriet would be very interested.
In the meantime, I’m not quite sure why you’re picking on Sarah Brown.
Catherine Bennett deserves every word of that. Well said, AllyF, whoever you are.
Others have pointed out the incorrect use of ‘brutalised’ in the sub-heading of Catherine Bennett’s column: “Suddenly, Sarah Brown loves the limelight – so why won’t she condemn the plight of brutalised women?” Have the women subjected to brutality really been turned into brutes themselves? But let’s be generous, for once, and assume that the sub-heading was the work of an Observer teen-age sub-editor on work experience.
However, it gets worse. A glaring factual error shone out from the second sentence of Ms Bennett’s column, which, before turning the spotlight on the hapless Sarah Brown, begins:
Cherie Blair: an apology. On a number of occasions this column has contributed to criticism of the former first lady, to the effect that her relish for the perks and visibility of her office was matched only by her towering lack of dignity.
This howler was picked up, predictably, in a couple of other comments on the web version of the column. I added my own pennyworth:
Others have correctly pointed out in their comments that Cherie Blair was never Britain’s (or anyone else’s, apart presumably from her husband’s) ‘first lady’, any more than the admirable Sarah Brown is the ‘first lady’ now — not because it’s an Americanism, but because it’s the term used for the wife of a head of state (or for the head of state herself if she’s a woman), not for the wife of a head of government such as Tony Blair or Gordon Brown. Our head of state and ‘first lady’ is the Queen.
But this was by no means the worst defect in a notably malicious attack on a perfectly harmless, rather likeable, even quite admirable Sarah Brown. What harm has Mrs Brown ever done to Catherine Bennett to deserve such an irrational and gratuitous mauling? How much does Ms Bennett get paid to write this unpleasant rubbish every week?
I suggested in an earlier post here that in spite of everything, you sometimes have to feel sorry for Gordon Brown. Now, thanks to her wholly unmerited face-scratching at the hands, or nails, of Catherine Bennett, you have to feel sorry for Mrs Brown, too.