Monday 18 February 2019

George Hook's bar room bore act just went too far this time

The Newstalk host's ugly comments on air about rape give decent conservatism a bad name

George Hook
George Hook

Eilis O'Hanlon

Is the gruff, plain-talking, no-nonsense bar room bore act a clever pose, or does George Hook really believe what he says?

Sometimes it doesn't matter. Hook is an entertainer. He says certain things for effect, to stir the pot. Other times, his words are less easy to excuse.

Last week was one of them, as the veteran Newstalk broadcaster opened Friday's edition of High Noon by talking about the case of a 19-year-old student who had accused a former competitive swimmer of raping her at a hotel after a night out.

It was, as George said from the outset, a thoroughly "awful" story. Indeed, he went further, saying that the man was a "scumbag" who should "of course" be sent to prison. (As it happened, he was cleared the same day at Cardiff Crown Court of one charge of rape; the jury couldn't agree on a second).

What's more astonishing was Hook's preoccupation with the fact that the girl had had consensual sex with another man in the same room a short time earlier, asking: "Why does a girl who just meets a fella in a bar go back to a hotel room?"

That one is easy to answer. She went back to the hotel room to have sex with him, after meeting him in a nightclub earlier. Plenty of adult men and women do the same. George Hook is 76 years old. He must have noticed this happening at some point during his life.

"She's only just barely met him," he continued about the girl. "She has no idea who he is, she has no idea of what dangers he might pose. But modern social activity means that she goes back with him. Then is surprised when somebody else comes into the room and rapes her."

What was George Hook thinking? This was national radio, and one of the country's highest-paid stars was seriously expressing astonishment that women should have a reasonable expectation not to be raped?

A woman is entitled to feel far more extreme emotions than mere surprise if, after going back to a hotel to have sex with one man, she then finds herself being raped by another. Having consensual sex with one man does not mean that she loses the right to outrage when she is then the victim of a crime, or that she shares some blame for it.

There is far too much overheated nonsense said and written about "rape culture", the interlocking network of derogatory attitudes towards women which are said to normalise sexual assault. The concept has been justifiably criticised for going too far in its eagerness to detect a tolerance for rape where none actually exists.

But what George Hook said on Friday was a textbook example of rape culture. "Is there no blame now to the person who puts themselves in danger?" is how he framed his concern; but characterising what this girl did as reckless self-endangerment is the problem. What is George Hook's point?

That women shouldn't have casual sex without absolute guarantees that no risk is involved? Is that what men do?

Making such unrealistic demands of women before they are entitled to feel aggrieved is part of the hypocrisy which puts them in danger.

It can't also be the remedy that helps keep them safe, if only they'd stop being so silly and listen to Uncle George.

That was the worst of it. Hook framed his monologue as if he was simply seeking, in a paternalistic way as a kindly father and grandfather, to raise difficult questions about the erosion of "personal responsibility".

In doing so, he fell back on a lazy reductionism which gives decent conservativism a bad name. It's possible to discuss "personal responsibility", indeed it's imperative that we do so, without crossing the line into victim blaming.

There's no justification for making a false distinction between victims of rape based on their perceived immorality or foolishness.

A controversialist always risks overstepping the line, and growing calls for Newstalk to fire its lunchtime host are excessive. But whilst his apology is welcome, George Hook should reflect honestly on why he did not see the offence his comment would cause. "When you look deeper into this story," he said, "you have to ask certain questions."

His crime was not looking deeply enough. Crude victim blaming makes debating personal responsibility much harder.

Sunday Independent

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