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Spot the Real Savages

When a lads’ mag took on a ‘cannibal’ tribe, it bit off more than it could chew

New Statesman, 15 March 2004

The reception area of the plate-glass headquarters of Emap Consumer Media in Shaftesbury Avenue, London, is normally milling with cycle couriers, bored security guards and London meejah types in kitten heels and fur-edged suede jackets carrying lattes back to their desks. It's not where you'd expect to see a tribesman from the highlands of New Guinea, wearing a bird-of-paradise feather headdress, a shell necklace and breastplate, and feather armbands.

But on 5 March such a person appeared, and demanded an audience with Paul Merrill, the editor of Emap's newest title, Zoo Weekly, a lads' mag that makes Loaded look like the London Review of Books. A week earlier, the magazine ("You want girls? . . . You want footie? . . . You want a laugh?") had published an article entitled: "Win a cannibal sex holiday!" It offered readers the chance to win a "flesh-eating orgy fortnight" in New Guinea, with a few "random orgies" thrown in, courtesy of the local savages.

The winner would accompany "seasoned jungle hand Reg Barker" (a paediatric nurse from Devon) to West Papua. The locals, Barker was quoted as saying, "do eat people occasionally", but only if you "really pissed them off". They "slept on the skulls of their enemies" and often indulged in a ceremony in which "everyone has sex with everyone else - anything goes". What a larf, eh lads?

Benny Wenda, a tribal leader from West Papua, the western half of the island of New Guinea, didn't think so. There are no sex ceremonies, no cannibalism, no sleeping on skulls. Barker, the "seasoned hand", didn't even appear to know what tribes lived where, and at one point confused West Papua with Papua New Guinea, an entirely separate country.

What made it even less funny is that Zoo's "cannibals" are the victims of a largely ignored human holocaust. West Papua has been occupied by Indonesia for more than 40 years. In that time, up to 800,000 Papuans, most of whom live lives unchanged for thousands of years in some of the world's last pristine rainforests, have been killed, tortured or "disappeared" by the Indonesian military. They are killed for talking of independence, raped for raising their national flag, beaten for speaking to journalists.

Wenda, who leads a peaceful, pro-independence movement, was arrested by the military last year. He was locked up and tortured for months before he escaped and fled to Britain with his wife and daughter. Still bearing the scars (literally) of the brutal occupation of his country, he is now seeking asylum.

So with a group of supporters, myself included, Benny went to see the editor of Zoo and showed him photographs of Papuan torture victims. Paul Merrill listened, but refused to apologise for printing the article (though the magazine may now reconsider). Zoo, he said, could not be expected to run a piece about the political situation in Papua New Guinea.

"We're talking about West Papua," we said.

"Look," he said, "we don't do politics. We're an irreverent magazine."

A group called International Lawyers for West Papua, which includes senior London barristers, has now written to the Press Complaints Commission demanding an investigation into an uncorrected piece that accused an entire culture of eating human flesh and indulging in random orgies. This time, perhaps, the lads have bitten off more than they can chew.