Rod Liddle

The age of selfie-obsession

Brooks Newmark, revenge porn, and a heady brew of hypocrisy and narcissism

The age of selfie-obsession
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[/audioplayer]So it now seems pretty clear to me that we can no longer send women photographs of our genitals without worrying that we might be the subject of some horrible sting operation and consequently suffer public humiliation and possibly lose our jobs. One by one, the harmless little pleasures in life are being withdrawn from us. It is even being said that we would be wise not to photograph our own genitals at all, let alone send the snaps to anyone, because a third party might somehow acquire them and cause us mischief. If this is true, I am not sure how I am going to pass the long winter evenings ahead, when we become enveloped in darkness. Read a book, I suppose. But that is hardly the same sort of thrill, even if the book is by Will Hutton.

The whole problem has been caused by a woman who does not exist. The Conservative MP Brooks Newmark sent a photograph of his penis to a wraith, a phantom, a figment of a strange person’s imagination. The supposed woman, ‘Sophie Wittams’, a ‘twenty-something Tory PR girl’, was actually a male freelance journalist working for the Sunday Mirror. This Sophie was created, visually, by a composite of various women, none of whom had given their permission. The face was that of a Swedish model called Malin Sahlen. The bikini-clad torso belonged to a woman from Lincolnshire called Charlene Tyler. Charlene is angry at the newspaper — perhaps for very good moral reasons, or possibly, at the back of her mind, there is pique at having been used only for the torso shot and she fears that the Sunday Mirror journalist considers her a ‘Bobfoc’. That’s a term from Viz magazine meaning ‘Body off Baywatch, face off Crimewatch.’ But I am only guessing here.

Charlene has also revealed that she too sends photographs of her nether regions via her mobile phone: don’t we all, dear, don’t we all. It would seem that the air around us is fecund with millions of digitally rendered todgers and front-bottoms, pinging back and forth, one for you, one for me, the atmosphere thick and frantic with voyaging gonads travelling at a little less than the speed of light. It is a lovely thought, no? This pastime is so popular that the moment a new iPhone or Blackberry is unwrapped, the trousers are around the ankles and — ping! — here’s one of my old fella looking a bit sullen, hope you like it. The wife was out at the time. Shall we meet up?

Do you ever worry that our culture has become a little, y’know, puerile and narcissistic? Especially narcissistic. For all the immense benefits of modern mobile phone and computer technology, it still seems to me that the chief purpose to which this intelligence is put is simply to scream, over and over again: ‘I AM’. Look — it’s me. And here, to prove it, is a picture of my cock.

One writer for the Times, commenting on the Newmark story, urged us all to be less prudish and outraged by these developments. Young people see nothing wrong in ‘sexting’, m’kay?

Don’t they? They should. If you thought the selfie was the ultimate expression of an infantilised narcissistic society — well, here’s the clunge-selfie, the todger-selfie, just to take it one stage further. For lady readers, incidentally, there’s a website of which you might wish to take advantage: it’s called ‘Rate My C***’. Just take a snap, upload — and bob’s your uncle, it’ll be ‘rated’. Come on, you wouldn’t want to be considered prudish by the Times, would you?

Imagine the narcissism in a 56-year-old Conservative MP believing that an attractive woman 30 years his junior would really value, really lap up, a photograph of his implacably right-wing member. Which is poking, rather shiftily one suspects, out of a pair of paisley pyjamas. Can you comprehend the self-belief, the arrogance? It makes it all the better, of course, that poor Mr Newmark was also the ‘minister for civil society’, a position from which he has sadly resigned. It would be better only if his portfolio had been ‘minister for not taking photographs of your John Thomas’.

Of course, the story has now been politicised, it revolves around a liberal-right wing axis. Newmark is in trouble not because he behaved in a manner at which his wife might justifiably cavil, and not even because of the pictures per se. But because he was inappropriately trying to pull a bird, innit. He was using his power, as a politician, to inveigle, to sort of coerce, an imaginary female human being into giving him one. That was the supposed public interest justification for the Sunday Mirror’s sting (which has now been referred to the Independent Press Standards Organisation): men, especially older men, and especially right-wing older men, abusing their power and taking advantage of wholly imaginary women. An abuse of office; exploitation of the female sex.

In their absolutism, the liberal left will not concede that the power relations between the ageing, clapped-out politician and the beautiful young PR girl are a little more complex than that. Reading the cringe-worthy texts sent by Newmark — a sort of slavering desperation tinged with a palpable fear — there is no doubt in my mind where the real power lay in this embryonic relationship. The fictitious woman knew she had Newmark exactly where she wanted him; ‘her’ texts are flirtatious and confident and knowing and suggestive, while his are what I think we might fairly call subordinate and hapless.

And so the argument has progressed still further away from reality and common sense. It is no longer the case that men are guilty of abusing their power when they hit on some unfortunate woman and try to get her into bed, or even — à la the serially traduced Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard — have the temerity to ask if they would like to join you for a cup of coffee. They are now no less guilty if they simply respond to concerted and calculated overtures performed by a woman. Surely, in terms of gender politics, the transaction between the fictitious Sophie Wittams and the almost fictitious Brooks Newmark was utterly equal and consensual? We might reasonably condemn the man for being so infantile as to upload a photograph of his penis on social media — thank God we never made him Foreign Secretary — and also for seemingly being poised to cheat on his wife, sure. But abusing his office? I don’t think so. Truth is, in this exchange, he was more sinned against than sinning, although in moral terms he sinned as well, of course, although that’s one for his rabbi rather than the Old Bill.

So there they all are then, zinging about our heads — the money shots, the porno pics, the female genitalia, the even more horrible penis shots bringing to mind that famous scene from Alien. Everyone is doing it, we are told. In which case, everyone had better watch the hell out. A few weeks back we had the case of a bunch of female celebrities — attractive actresses and the like — who were appalled beyond words to find that the sex films they had made with their boyfriends, or simply shots of them with no clothes on, had been hacked and were appearing online.

Once again there was a howl of outrage from the soft-feminist lobby that this was tantamount to rape. My suspicion is that, such is the world, the hacked images will not have greatly diminished the earning power of those who appeared in them.

Invasion of privacy? Up to a point, Lord Copper. But only up to a point. Because by now you should all know the score; such shots are a hostage to fortune, so don’t do them. If you possibly can, try to resist pointing your lady garden at some bloke holding a camera and smirking at you: it probably won’t work out well in the end. In a perfect world we might all be free to film ourselves acting out porno fantasies in the days off from filming Downton Abbey, but the world we live in is a few inches of crinoline short of perfect. There are people out there who make a tidy living from hacking stuff illegally, and those people might just include your current boyfriend as well as Julian Assange. Oh — sorry — that’s different, is it? Assange is different? Why, exactly?

And then there’s that new thing we have to deal with, for the non-celebrities — revenge porn. Bin your boyfriend or your girlfriend unceremoniously and by the end of the day you might find intimate snaps of yourself doing the rounds of the social network sites. Without your consent. The government may be about to bring in new laws which recognise ‘revenge porn’ as something separate from simply malicious communications, which is how the offence has been classified in the past: a bill will be brought before parliament later this month.

The current narrative is that there are too few police prosecutions for revenge porn and even fewer convictions. Well, fine. But is there a huge difference between posting intimate photographs of someone online and telling people that some poor sap had sent them a shot of his penis online? If one is an invasion of privacy, surely the other is? Or is it only the actual images that carry any clout, so to speak?

The truth is, if you don’t want your gonads appearing on public display, and don’t want anyone to know that you’ve taken snaps of your own gonads, then don’t take the snaps in the first place. Privacy is a compromised commodity these days. If you wish to retain your job, or maintain a squeaky clean image, then behave in private with the same sense of decorum as you would behave in public.