Feltz pinches story from the Star

This morning, Vanessa Feltz took her BBC London radio show to a new low by recycling a story from the Black Hole, otherwise known as the Daily Star, about non-Muslims supposedly being banned from the swimming pool at Thornton Heath, near Croydon in south London, for a Muslim ladies’ swimming session. Here’s how she announced it:

You will remember, I’m sure, our list of current London crimes. Travelling on a bus or tube while Muslim we said was definitely a crime; walking in the street while Jewish was a crime; well, here’s the newest: swimming while non-Muslim. Thornton Heath Leisure Centre in Croydon has decreed that non-Muslims swimmers will not be allowed to attend the Saturday night session at the pool unless they cover their bodies from neck to ankle. Men must also cover up if they want to swim during the Muslim session on Sundays. They must wear shorts which hide the navel and come down below the knee. According to the council, “the facility was begun in response to public demand from the local Muslim community whose belief extends to the wearing of appropriate costumes. The sessions are not exclusively for members of any particular religion; the only restriction is that only appropriately dressed women can be present on the Saturday sessions, and only appropriately dressed men on the Sundays. Both weekend sessions are held at times when the pool would not normally be open to the general public; during the course of the last year, the single gender sessions have proved popular with users, and the only discontent has been that which has been deliberately stirred up by provocative reporting in national newspapers. Having a more responsible attitude towards community relations, Croydon’s local newspapers, while aware of the situation, concluded that the issue did not amount to a story. We will not be putting anyone forward for interview this morning.” Oh, OK. That doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about it. What do you make of it?”

This morning’s pressing issues also included Zara Phillips’ lacklustre acceptance speech at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award and the news that a golfer had begun a new relationship a few months after his wife died of breast cancer. This story seemed to me particularly intrusive; here was Feltz, who I presume does not know the golfer in question, inviting all her “lovely listeners” to phone in and pass judgement as to whether that’s too soon. Frankly she sounded like a petty, gossiping old ninny, the sort which used to appear in Brookside quite a bit: “I don’t know how they show their faces around here after what their [whoever] did”.

This, however, pales in comparison with repeating the idiotic “story” from the Black Hole complaining that a public swimming pool has a session reserved for a fairly large section of the community whose religion requires its adherents to cover up when they swim. Actually, the pool is not reserved for those of that religion - the requirement is that you cover up. As some of the Muslim callers pointed out, it’s a privately-booked event, not a rule which is imposed during public opening hours. The Muslims pay to book the swimming pool. It is not a case of Islamic rules being imposed on the general public.

This is, of course, typical of tabloid scandal-mongering, in which phony “outrages” are produced out of nowhere. The actual incident behind the scandal often turns out to be petty, exaggerated or actually rightful. We’ve all read about the “banning Christmas” stories which were debunked in the Guardian by Oliver Burkeman last Friday (Sunny Hundal of Pickled Politics has written on the same theme in today’s Media Guardian; see the second story down on this page), but twice in a week recently, the Sun made a scandal out of the fact that Rose West, wife of the late serial murderer Fred West who collaborated in his crimes, enjoys a few small comforts now and then in her miserable, incarcerated existence. The fact about Rose West is that she is imprisoned for life and is not seeking release, and that in British prisons they do sometimes lay on amusements for the inmates. They have done for decades. Prisons are rough and austere places, but are not meant to be artificial hells.

And yes, Islam does require men and women to cover up, including when swimming, and swimsuits exist which fulfil this requirement and can be ordered online. It is also strongly discouraged, if not outright forbidden, to go to places where people are always in states of undress, and this is what wearing solely a swimsuit or pair of trunks is, in the eyes of Muslims. One caller objected that Muslims often walk past her in the street when she was wearing small shorts and a crop top; the simple answer is that this is the street, not an enclosed swimming pool. To walk past someone when needing to because she is in the street between your house and wherever you need to go, and perhaps say hello to her because she is a neighbour, is not the same as swimming in a pool full of similarly attired women - or men, for that matter.

All this happened on a day when the main stories elsewhere were the deaths of two Cold War dinosaurs (General Pinochet and Jeane Kirkpatrick), a serial killer at large in Ipswich and Iain Duncan Smith’s report on family breakdowns and the effect they have on poverty. Of course, neither of these are London-specific, and perhaps fly way over Vanessa Feltz’s head, but I’m sure they matter more than the fact that a swimming pool has one more special session. Pools have had such sessions (usually women-only) for years, and to my knowledge women do not pay higher entry fees for the privilege. So a swimming pool in an “ethnic” area having a session which takes account of the dress requirements of one of its major religious communities merits discussion on a phone-in? Please!

I called the station early on in the programme to complain about both the “golfer’s love life” story and the inflammatory “Muslim bathing session” discussion, which appears to have been brought out specifically to “get a response”, because that is all that matters on a phone-in. Her attitude when reading the statement from Croydon council speaks volumes: the local papers in Croydon have decided not to make capital out of a non-story which only serves to demonise a section of Croydon’s community (actually they don’t need to, because they have the classified ads for Croydon), but it doesn’t mean we can’t knock the issue about a bit. You can’t expect unbiased reporting from someone whose response to a mention of Palestine was “is there such a place as Palestine?”, but Vanessa Feltz does not belong on a current affairs show anyway. Her background is in the world of agony columns and daytime TV, and that is where she should remain (although her afternoon show, which ran until last year, was listenable). The morning show requires a host with weight and serious interest in the news; Feltz has neither. She should be replaced.

Update: Someone from Austrolabe commented here that such stories had been appearing in the “trash media” in Australia for a number of years, usually started by people complaining that they could not swim whenever they wanted because it had been reserved or booked for a Muslim session. The people responsible were very often welfare recipients, who went at those times because they did not work, something I presume the media did not pick up on in the reports. I deleted the comment by mistake in my sleepy state while trying to remove unwarranted remarks about Vanessa Feltz’s weight.

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