Friday, 21 November 2008

‘Rape Crisis’ Becomes a Governmental Catastrophe

By Raymona Crozier

On Friday 21st November, the Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre, situated on Donegall Street, welcomed Northern Ireland’s media into their humble abode in order to name and shame certain factions of the civil service in relation to withdrawing crucial funding from the organisation.

In light of recent events in the university area, The Gown were among the first media teams to arrive at the press conference and nab front row seats to hear this exclusive government leak.

The past week has seen an influx of interest in the centre’s story due to the screening of a specific BBC documentary on Wednesday night. This documentary referred to the misleading information that was provided by civil servants, which in turn led to a government minister withdrawing much needed funding. The proposed incorrect information revealed in an internal memo relates to certain cash withdrawals by the centre, and claims that these “were not recorded in the organisation’s financial records.” These vicious claims were denounced by the centre’s co-director Eileen Calder, who viewed them as a “deliberate lie” which “misrepresented” the centre and the staff.

When viewing the memo, dated from the 13th June 2006, it is clearly stated that the main issue for withdrawing core funding is in “light of its (the centre’s) non-compliance with governance and accounting requirements for the receipt of Governmental grants.” However, Eileen Calder stressed that this was a provable lie, as the department knew exactly what money had been extracted and for what purpose, as it had been recorded in various financial documentation. This has also been backed by Sean Mulhern from the European Unit of DHSS, who stated that every unit was recorded and accounted for, “even down to a 27p stamp.”

However, this issue of accounts is not the only problem that has consequently arisen from the DHSS as controversial. Other matters include the amount of evaluations, or reviews and verifications (as they have been disguised as by the department), that have occurred between 2003 and the present day. A spokesperson from the centre underlined how the DHSS were continually trying to find flaws with the centre and its internal functions, and this was the reason for the multitude of visits. In October 2003 PA Consulting were the first to be commissioned by the DHSS to assess and evaluate the Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre, and this cost taxpayers approximately £11,000. When the findings were published, they suggested reassessing “the current level of Departmental funding and directing it to provide one administrative post.” This option had of course already been explored and requested by the Rape Crisis Centre in a business plan in December 2002. This evidence proves that the civil servants, in the Family Policy Unit in particular, were seemingly blinkered and biased in their vision towards the centre by allowing incorrect and self-appropriated comments to be forwarded to the minister. For the staff in the Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre, they feel it was these remarks that led directly to the minister’s withdrawal of funding from the centre.

It is hard to discover the motivation behind the withdrawal of funding, as it could consequently lead to the closure of the Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre, which provides such beneficial assistance throughout the local and regional community. Yet, Eileen Calder believes it is connected to getting the centre conveniently out of the way in order to implement an S.A.R.C. (Sexual Assault Referral Centre) regime, which is also a professional and renowned system. However, both the staff of the centre and the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, agree that the S.A.R.C. system must be implemented alongside the Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre, and not as a replacement option. In addition to this, there seems to be an undercurrent suggestion that a personal vendetta has been placed against the centre, due to their outspoken past against issues such as low conviction rates and the lack of personal information they hold on each client that entered the crisis centre.

Eileen Calder has called on First Minister Peter Robinson to intervene.

QUB Amnesty International Protest at City Hall

By Catherine McCracken

Amnesty International define themselves as a movement of ordinary people from across the world standing up for humanity and human rights; their purpose is to protect individuals, wherever justice, fairness, freedom and truth are denied.

One of the main campaigns that Amnesty International have taken on board worldwide is for the closure of Guantanamo Bay, and the release of prisoners who have been detained without charge. On Thursday 20th of November, the QUB branch of Amnesty International, along with the help of a few others, held a demonstration which began at the Students’ Union and ended at City Hall. For the occasion, a number of members dressed up in orange jumpsuits to represent detainees.

When they reached their destination they then proceeded to collect signatures for the release of a particular prisoner named Binyam Mohamed who is an Ethiopian national and UK resident. He was arrested in 2002, allegedly seriously tortured in Morocco and has now been detained for nearly four years without trial at Guantanamo Bay. The signatures are hoped to increase the likelihood of having him moved out of the maximum security prison ‘Camp 5’ in Guantanamo. It would be preferable if he were to be moved into ‘Camp Echo’ in an effort to minimise the serious risk that currently exists to his mental and physical health. Binyam has already written to Gordon Brown and requested his assistance in the hope that he can return to the UK. Requests have been made by the British Government to have him returned but the US Government have refused. This is what Amnesty International is trying to change.

Binyam’s case is extremely important, but one must realise that there are many more like him who have been detained for no reason, and for indefinite periods of time facing unimaginable forms of torture. During the demonstration, particular individuals reenacted various stress positions which prisoners are forced to do. This was an attempt by the demonstrators to give people a greater insight into how horrific the life of a detainee is.

As it is less than five weeks until Christmas, Belfast city centre was buzzing with late night shoppers and those who were visiting the continental market; so there was probably no greater time to hold such an important event. Those taking part in the demonstration received a considerable amount of attention from shoppers and media alike, and a substantial number of people were more than willing to sign the petition.

Thursday, 20 November 2008


Brand and Ross: Scapegoats in a system of pass the buck


The suspension of Jonathan Ross and the resignation of Russell Brand may seem, to many, an appropriate response to their irresponsible actions on Radio 2. However, I believe that the conduct of the duo simply illustrates the shortcomings of the BBC.
It is clear that the motive for ringing Andrew Sachs, and the subsequent lewd message left on his answering machine, is a modern media tendency to take the road most dangerous in order to ‘entertain’, grab attention and attempt to secure viewers. Whilst this may be a mix which has worked to the advantage of Channel 4, with such shows as Skins and Big Brother proving popular, the BBC’s endeavour to pursue such risqué, eyebrow-raising entertainment has proved to be much more contentious.
It is undeniable that the message left of poor humour and executed with obscene language, yet it is somewhat ironic that when the show was originally aired, on 18 October, only two listeners were offended enough to compel them to complain. That is two listeners out of two million. This raises the question of the appeal of Russell Brand, whose main attraction for his employer is his popularity. Most of Brand’s listeners appear to ride roughshod over such provocative behaviour, indeed expecting it, with his unpredictable and sometimes unseemly behaviour forming his attraction. The issue therefore lies with the BBC forming the stage from which Brand performs, crucially, a stage which is funded by licensefee-payers’ money.
The result of the stunt? Initial apologies from Brand, Ross and the BBC; a BBC inquiry; an OfCom investigation; a report for the BBC Trust; the suspension of Brand and Ross, and eventually the resignation of Brand. The real consequence of the fiasco, however, lies with a clear underlining of the flaws of the BBC.
The BBC’s apology was one responding to the fear of a media backlash, not one of moral obligation, as illustrated by the release of Brand’s initial unremorseful sing-song apology to Sachs. In a more immediate way, it demonstrates the incapacity of the show’s producer, Nic Philps, but more significantly, however, the BBC has continued to pass-the-buck, a trait which is becoming increasingly inseparable from the BBC in times of controversy.
A single sheet of paper holds the key to finding whether the BBC has systematically broken the rules, or whether the incident was the failure of an individual. This ‘compliance form’ is required to be filled out by a producer and signed off by either an editor or commissioning editor, noting possible offensive content- a form which was either overlooked or filled in with little concern.
Whilst the BBC has a lot of experience with responding to criticism, it seems to have little experience in implementing sufficient changes to prevent the incompetence of a few from blackening the profile of many. Brand and Ross may have misjudged their prank, but the BBC have consistently neglected to apportion blame to the real culprits. It’s about time they stopped equating the most visible figures as the most responsible.

Monday, 17 November 2008

No Bursary, No Books

“SOME students experienced minor delays with the payment of the Sport and Books Bursary, associated with the transfer of data between the University and the Student Loans Company. These issues have now been resolved. Any student who believes they qualify for this Bursary but who has not yet received it should contact the Income Office on 028 9097 2767.”

That was the response from QUB when The Gown questioned them on the delay of credit being put on the student cards of students eligible for the Sport and Books Bursary. As late as week 5 a large number of students had to delve into their own pockets in order to buy essential books for their course from Queen’s Bookshop. With a semester totalling 12 weeks, we are now at the midway point, and the issue still appears to be unresolved. Additional to the problem of having zero credit on their cards, students have also been turned away from the bookshop due to their card being deemed “invalid”. In cases where this has occurred, the students have been fully academically and financially registered, suggesting that there is a problem with the system. When The Gown rang the student finance centre to find out more about the issue, and to hear what those responsible had to say, we were put through to more than one person, all of which put us through to someone else. We received the above statement in an email.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Did You Know that a QUBSU Employee is a Male Escort?

By Catherine Wylie

A student and staff member at QUB has chosen to come and speak to The Gown about his decision to become a male escort. With such extortionate university fees (which are likely to rise) and the impending recession, is turning to a life in the sex industry really the answer? The answer it might not be, but the last seven years has seen a 50% rise in the numbers of students doing so. Felix (not his real name) revealed to The Gown, however, that it wasn’t vital financial outgoings that encouraged him to pursue working as an escort. “I’m terrible with money. I don’t smoke or drink, but I have a passion for shopping and buy exactly what I want. As soon as my loan comes in I’m straight on to eBay,” he said. So, before you register with an online agency in a panic worrying about fees and the like, don’t bother. “It’s not necessary for students to become escorts,” Felix continued, “But when I discovered that my mate made £500 in five hours, I found myself researching it on the net and before I knew it I had registered.”
Felix’s secret life as an escort began in the summer of 2007, and since then he has had a string of meetings with women, all across the water. He was happy to show The Gown his profile on the agency’s website, where the homepage exhibited an extremely provocative image of a scantily clad woman. After a quick read at his profile, there were some points of note. Felix refuses to allow clients to visit him in his own home, but will consider visiting the house of a client, so long as he believes that he won’t be put in danger. “Ideally, I prefer hotels as there are lots of escape routes,” he said. On his profile, there is shockingly a “Yes” beside “Offer a Massage?”. Felix claims that it was his naivety that led him to agree to this, but says he should have known what it really meant (Sex!). When asked why he hadn’t edited it since discovering the true implications of the deal, he claimed, “I don’t know, that’s interesting. I’ll do that.”
There is no denying that the whole scenario screams “seedy”, and Felix agrees that it’s the seedy side of things that everyone will always think of first. However, he is keen to defend his antics. “I have never ever had sex with my clients,” he said. So what are his clients like, and why do they feel the need to turn to an escort agency for the company of another human being? “It’s generally people who don’t have many friends, and some of them are attractive, particularly the ladies under 34. Of course there are the weird ones. There are psychos who think fate has brought us together and after five minutes are telling me they are in love with me.” Although he has cited 50 on his profile as the maximum age of clients he would accept, he plans to lower it to 40 due to a “50-year-old” lady who looked more like 80-year-old requesting his company.
Intrigued at the workings of the system, The Gown probed Felix about exactly how a date is arranged and how the website benefits from the whole affair. He pays a monthly £30 membership fee to the website, and then awaits emails from ladies who wish to have him on their arm at a wedding, school reunion, or simply just a night out on the town. If the date suits him, he will then check the price of flights and choose a hotel before passing the details of the cost on to the lady in question. He told us about his first job and how nervous he was. “I told my mates that if they received a blank text from me then I needed assistance from the police in the particular area of London I was in,” he recalls. However, his first experience was easier than he thought. “As soon as I stepped off the plane, she greeted me and talked to me as though we knew each other for years, before leading me to an awaiting taxi. We went to a club which was oddly rather like the Limelight, but with lots of Z-list celebrities. She was a 29-year-old secretary.”
So how does it feel to be an escort and how does he cope when people find out? “I don’t like lying to people about what I do,” he said, “And I don’t think that what I do is wrong. I earn £60 at the very least per hour and therefore I am able to easily pay my rent, other bills and buy things that I want. I certainly wouldn’t earn money like that in the Union.” On the subject of telling other people about being an escort and dealing with their reactions, Felix remembers having to take a night off from the Union at very late notice due to a planned rendezvous with a client. Not wanting to lie or come up with an elaborate excuse, he simply told his boss that it was somewhat of an emergency and that he could earn a lot of money that night. Unconvinced, Felix resorted to showing him his profile on the website.
In regard to his family, he didn’t want them to know anything about his secret life as an escort. However, his brother found out and initially disowned Felix, warning him that if their parents were to find out that it would put them in an early grave. Thanks to a radio interview Felix conducted on a Northern Irish station, his parents recognised his voice and were surprisingly understanding, to the point that they now fully support him.
Felix hasn’t been on a date with a client since before the summer, but hopes to continue with his racy shenanigans for the foreseeable future. And, just so you know, the boss let him have that night off from the Union!

Russell Group seek to raise tuition fees up to £10,000 per year

By Eamonn Cunningham

CONTROVERSIAL information has revealed that Russell Group universities, of which Queen’s is a member, are pushing an initiative to raise the amount that students pay in tuition fees to a figure close to £10,000.
The Russell Group are a collective of research intensive universities in the UK who support the campaign to remove the cap on fees for higher education.
A questionnaire conducted by The Guardian, shows that Vice Chancellors of Russell Group universities, say that maximum fees would have to be at least doubled, following a review of the system that is to be concluded in 2009. It has also come to light, that the fees for some science courses could reach catastrophic costs of £10,000.
The Guardian’s recent findings are causing uproar amongst students, who feel that they are already paying an excessive cost to attend university, leaving them with insurmountable debts to tackle upon stepping into the job-sector. Reports now suggest that, as things are, undergraduates are paying £13,000 a year in tuition fees and maintenance costs. The idea that Queen’s would like to make courses cost as much as £10,000 per year is hard to swallow, and is rightly provoking some QUB students to oppose these plans.
First year biomedical student, Emma McKillion said “…Any plans by the Russell Group to raise fees are completely callous and unjust. That we may have to pay more, particularly with the oncoming financial crisis is unacceptable…”.
In the questionnaire, the heads of the universities supporting the new scheme, defend the plans by saying the funds available to teach an undergraduate in the UK are £7,300 compared to £11,500 in the U.S. They claim the only perceivable way to bridge this gap, is through a “higher tuition fee charge”. Surely the fact that U.S universities may charge extortionate amounts, is no excuse to raise student fees in the U.K
The argument propounded by the vice chancellors of the Russell Group universities is that increased fees will be used to make their institutions more competitive, and allow them to provide students with the best research facilities.
Speaking on the matter, Students’ Union president Ciarnán Helferty told The Gown that the rumoured increase in fees is unacceptable. He adds that, if universities need extra money to fund research projects, such money should come from central government.
Queen’s presently set their tuition fees at £3,145, the absolute maximum under the current system regulations. Being a member of the Russell Group, and a strongly research focused university, QUB was implicitly involved in this motion.
At the time of print, the Vice Chancellor’s communications office refused to issue an official statement on the matter. Although this does not conclusively prove Queen’s compliance with the Russell Group‘s motion, it raises the issue of why the university has shied away from this matter.
This silence provides students with the scope to infer that QUB could potentially have some involvement in increasing fees.
The real issue on show here is the effects that these new cost proposals would have upon societal changes. The last 40 years has seen higher education in the U.K transformed into a mass participation system, providing more people with the chance to improve their academic standings. Even with the onset of top-up fees in the past five years, the number of students attending university has increased.
However, there is sufficient proof to demonstrate how significant increases in tuition fees would effectively deny students from low income backgrounds the option of going to university. Queen’s has always sought to present itself as an inclusive institution for people from all cultural and societal backgrounds. How then could the university support a movement which would exclude a considerable section of the community, and drag us back into the old elitist concept of attending university.
Overall, the issue of tuition fees remains ambiguous and inconclusive, and Queen’s position on the topic, even more ambivalent. This is likely to continue, at least until the review of the fees system is released in 2009. Queen’s silence leaves many questions unanswered, and inauspicious doubt in the air.
What is certain, however, is that the prospect of tuition fees doubling, is a very real and disturbing concept for students, and one that we may be forced to face up to sooner than we think.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

New Issue Out Now

You can now pick up the new issue of The Gown, available in the Students' Union foyer, bars, and usual distribution points within the student areas.
Look out for stories on the male escort employed by QUBSU, a report looking at the proposed increase in tuition fees, a discussion on the criticisms levelled at The SU Magazine and much more.


Monday, 10 November 2008

A New President, A New Era - By John Beecher

On Wednesday 5 November those who had not stayed up to watch the results come in live woke up to find that Barack Obama had been elected the 44th president of the United States of America. The world breathed a collective sigh of relief and the image of America as a land of opportunity and equality was restored. The historic significance of this election is difficult to overstate. For many voters who cast their ballots on 4 November the days of segregation and the struggle for civil rights is within living memory, for these men and women the political an emotional significance of seeing an African American president elected in their life time is hard to express with words. The election of Obama also puts an end to the ‘Republican Era’ which began with Reagan in 1981 and challenges the assumption that America is fundamentally a centre right nation.

The historic significance of the election was not lost on the QUB students who gathered at Elms to watch the results come in through the night. The crowd, a mixture of American and local students, was overwhelmingly in support of Obama. In most cases those who chose to lend their voices in support of Republican candidate John McCain did so in order to get a reaction from the Obama supporters rather than out of true political conviction. The genuine Republicans in the room were subdued; they knew this was not their night, they knew they were on the wrong side of the crowd and on the wrong side of history.

As the first results came in at around midnight giving an early lead to McCain a notable tension intruded on the festive atmosphere as everybody asked themselves if the substantial leads to Obama in the opinion polls were simply too good to be true, whether public sentiment had matched private action in the poll booths. This symbolic victory of taking an early lead was the only victory McCain would see. As the polls closed in the next block of states and the results came in, Obama surged ahead and took a lead he would hold for the rest of the night. However, the Obama supporters continued to use the conditional tense until a projected Democrat victory in Ohio affectively closed the deal. For many the most significant moment came when the notoriously partisan Fox News predicted a victory for Obama.

When the key state of California went blue and the Democrats retained Washington, taking the Democrats over the crucial 270 electoral collages needed for victory, it was as though the final whistle had been blown on a World Cup final. The physical and emotional reaction was overwhelming. People jumped from their seats cheering and hugging complete strangers. The moment was illuminated by the flashes of digital cameras. Chants of “yes, we can” gave way to “Yes, we did” and were mixed with” O-Ba-Ma”, “USA” and “Fuck George Bush”. The feeling was one of incredulous relief and euphoria. Americans spoke of being able to feel pride in their nation once again. To many across the world this was a redemption of the United States; the eight years of the Bush administration were absolved by the election of a candidate who based his campaign on a need for change. These were scenes repeated across America and across the world as people celebrated the election of a president they could believe in, I wander how many babies were conceived on that night.

Most stayed until 6.00am to watch Barack Obama’s acceptance speech to 250,000 supporters in Chicago’s Grant Park. The speech was watched in reverential silence. Some chose to video the screen on their mobile phones. Obama opened his speech by saying his victory affirmed the principals of American democracy. From any other politician this may have seemed like a political cliché but from the “skinny kid with the funny name” addressing a diverse crowd of passionate supporters, including the veteran civil rights campaigner Rev Jessie Jackson crying tears of joy and relief, it felt like an undeniable truth. Obama reiterated much of the rhetoric of the campaign in the style that has already established him as one of the great orators of American political history but warned of the difficulties ahead. Obama placed his victory within the context of American history by referring to the life of 106 year old Anne Dixon Cooper and the changes she has seen in her century in America and by considering the changes his young daughters may see in their life times. The exhausted but ecstatic crowd watching in Elms were appreciative of Obama’s acknowledgment of “those watching from beyond our shores”, underlying the importance of this result to people around the world.

The concession speech of John McCain delivered prior to Obama’s speech was just as well received. This gracious and eloquent speech (clearly the product of several days work) revealed McCain as the politician of honour that he is; a fact obscured at times over recent months by a largly negative campaign by the Republican Party. The speed with which McCain silenced his supporters as they began to boo Obama’s victory demonstrated his integrity. Meanwhile vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, in many ways the comic relief in a campaign of operatic intensity, could barley contain her fury; both at defeat and the inevitability with which responsibility for that defeat will be attributed to her. It was a marked contrast to the composure of McCain.

As I write this a small American flag hangs above my desk, a souvenir from that momentous night. I feel it now symbolises something new. In recent days many have spoken of the ‘American Dream’ with a sincerity unthinkable in the recent past. The unpopularity of the Bush administration both in America and around the world had led to apathy and cynicism. Obama ran a campaign based on hope and the need for change and in doing so politicised a generation. The change is seismic. That an African American named Barack Husain Obama could rise from relative obscurity to leader of the free world in only four years has challenged many assumptions about the nature of politics. When Obama assumes the presidency on 20 January 2009 he will do so with perhaps greater expectations than any other political leader in history. A great many people have placed a massive emotional investment in Mr Obama and if he fails to live up to his promise the grassroots movement created by his meteoric rise will hold him to account. Though there will inevitably be disappointments ahead, Obama cannot be all things to all people and he faces the difficult task of assuming leadership in a time of recession, the presidency of Obama will be infinitely better for both America and the world than the McCain Palin alternative. Also, a whole generation has learned that their democratic voice matters and can bring about radical change. The political landscape may never be the same again.