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Guardian justifies columnist’s prison rape joke following complaint by Men and Boys Coalition

The Guardian readers’ editor has justified referring to prison rape as a way to mock male politicians, following a complaint sent to the paper by the Men and Boys Coalition.

In her July 5 column, ‘Ann Widdecombe’s political exhumation adds insult to ignorance in Strasbourg, Marina Hyde alluded to Matt Hancock MP as having been raped in prison, to quip about his supposed lack of political integrity.

In the column, she wrote:

“Johnson’s leadership bid resembles a typically grim male prison drama, where he is the jail kingpin and everyone else is just doing what they have to do to survive. What has happened to Matt Hancock, for instance? Not four weeks ago, the health secretary launched his leadership bid with lots of forward-pointing arrows and a declaration that any attempt to prorogue parliament would “betray the memory of D-day veterans”; now he goes on the Today programme to gibber a defence of Johnson doing just that. Has Matt been “turned out”, to use a piece of prison slang I’m afraid you’ll have to look up? Is he known as Matilda in the Johnson-run supermax?”

We were extremely disappointed by this flippant use of the subject for satirical laughs, especially in light of the fact several of our members are male survivors themselves.

In particular, we were deeply concerned by the lighthearted reference to being “turned out”, which is a horrific term for prisoners who have been raped in prison and are therefore considered within prison sub-cultures as legitimate targets for on-going sexual assault, combined with the implicit transphobia in referring to Matt Hancock MP as “Matilda”.

These concerns were amplified by the fact that The Guardian rightly has a firm editorial policy against rape jokes, yet this article appears to show that the policy does not extend to joking about male, or prisoner victims of rape.

Following our complaint, The Guardian upheld the references in the article as follows:

“We have found that one useful approach to any satirist’s work is to be clear about the subject of any joke and the object of the joke. Here, the object was very much the political figures, and nobody else.”

Our full letter to the readers’ editor and his response are below.

July 8th

Dear Guardian

It was deeply disappointing to see Marina Hyde employ the analogy of prison rape in pursuit of satirical laughs. [Ann Widdecombe’s political exhumation adds insult to ignorance in Strasbourg, July 5th 2019]

Rape jokes of any kind invariably trivialise the horror of the crime and risk serious trauma and offence to survivors. This particular quip was further emphasised with a reference to turning Matt [Hancock] into ‘Matilda,’ furnishing an already inappropriate and unfunny quip with the trappings of homophobia and transphobia. That this should have appeared in the Guardian, of all papers, on the morning of Britain’s largest ever Pride event, is profoundly saddening.

Yours

Dan Bell, Chief Executive, The Men and Boys Coalition

Duncan Craig, National Strategy and Policy Lead/Male Survivor, Male Survivors Partnership


July 16th

Dear Duncan Craig and Dan Bell, 

Thank you for your patience while we looked into your complaint.

The editors of the Opinion section, who have overall responsibility for Marina Hyde’s columns, sent me this response:

“Given Marina’s style and the sharp edge of her satire, along with her frequent use of popular culture (particularly cinema) as a source of metaphor and analogy, there are often fine judgments of taste and propriety to be made. In this instance, the reference which has caused the complaints was placed within the overall frame of Boris Johnson’s leadership bid being compared to a ‘typically grim male prison drama’.


“We judged that to be a sufficiently clear set-up to make it clear that what followed was a quoting, as it were, of what happens in that kind of drama, placing it in a new political context that was so surreal that it was a long way from events in actual lives in actual prisons. There was certainly no intention to trivialise such actual events.”

The editors also passed on your concerns to Marina herself.

As you can guess, in this office we reasonably often get strong reactions to works of satire. When those articles (or cartoons) allude, one way or another, to sensitive topics that in real life cause pain and suffering, there is often potential for misunderstanding. It can be especially difficult for those with real-life experience of the context that the satirist conjures imaginatively to see the humour.  To them, it is all too real because it is so close.

We have found that one useful approach to any satirist’s work is to be clear about the subject of any joke and the object of the joke.

Here, the object was very much the political figures, and nobody else.

Sincerely,

Mark Smith

on behalf of: Paul Chadwick, Global readers’ editor, Guardian News & Media