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,"
"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.