On the face of it, Nicole Kidman would seem to be a rum choice to be talking about violence against women. After all, she's been raped in one film (Dogville), and had kinky sex with Tom Cruise in another (Eyes Wide Shut). She had a bath with a rather young boy (in Birth) and shagged Billy Zane in Dead Calm, her Hollywood debut – all in the name of art, of course. But Nicole isn't just a highly successful actress who's managed her career so brilliantly she now earns over £7m a film; she's decided to do her bit for the less fortunate by becoming a "goodwill ambassador" for the UN Development Fund for Women.
A new piece of legislation aimed at tackling the global abuse of women (the International Violence Against Women Act) has got stuck in the US Congress – and Nicole pitched up in her goodwill role to plead its case. This is undoubtedly an important cause – Amnesty International claims that one in three women are beaten and abused during their lifetime, with the figure rising to 70 per cent in some countries. Clearly, these are shocking statistics, and women deserve better. But using Nicole Kidman to front a campaign – no matter how worthwhile – really does call into question the whole dubious notion of goodwill ambassadors.
Over the past decade, the number of "ambassadors" has grown like Topsy, as the UN tries to capitalise on our obsession with celebrity culture. A quick trawl on the internet reveals what a motley bunch they have become – once a small group, which included people like Roger Moore, Nelson Mandela and Leslie Caron, now the list is endless. All the various UN agencies – from Unesco and Unicef to the parts of the organisation dealing with culture and science, education, population control, famine, refugees and women's rights – have their bizarre list of goodwill ambassadors ready to fly around the world drumming up media coverage by being photographed in some of the poorest and most deprived places on the planet.
These unpaid worthies, according to the UN, "use their fame to draw attention to important issues". I question whether the majority of these actors, singers, sports stars, minor members of royalty, prime ministers' wives and high-profile dress designers really add anything worthwhile to the UN's cause. Do women the world over think twice about birth control because Geri Halliwell is an ambassador for the UN Population Fund? Do governments listen to the thoughts of a woman who chose to have a baby without including the father, who is still waffling about "girl power" rather than real power.
Other figureheads seem equally random choices – Unicef has just appointed Orlando Bloom, and Unesco can boast some assorted discus throwers, Shirley Bassey, Pierre Cardin, and Celine Dion. Other goodwill ambassadors include Claudia Schiffer, Charlie Boorman and the businessman Duncan Bannatyne. Claudia Cardinale promotes women's rights – now, that's a surprise. And we hardly dare make a donation these days without double-checking that Bono has deemed the cause worthwhile.
Nicole Kidman might claim that she has never taken a role which demeans women, but she's working in an industry where women are routinely chucked on the scrap heap after the age of 40, consigned to play character roles and ageing mums, while leading men in their sixties still have on-screen sex with girls young enough to be their granddaughters. The film industry is run by men, financed by men and marketed by men. Apart from Jane Campion and Agnès Varda, has any high-profile woman made a successful film recently? The whole notion of choosing well-known actresses to speak up for the rights of underprivileged and abused women in the developing world sucks.
Nicole told the Congress committee that violence against women was "the most widespread human rights violation in the world". Funny then, that she continues to work in an industry that chooses to routinely depict women as objects which can be tortured, treated like sex toys and disposed of in all manner of gruesome ways, and all in the name of entertainment.
Respect means nothing until the whole community shares it
Respect is one of those words I'd be happy to ban. First Tony Blair appointed Louise Casey "Respect" Tsar, then Gordon Brown moved her sideways, when he split dealing with anti-social behaviour between the Home Office and the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Now Ms Casey says the PM isn't doing enough to tackle yobs, in spite of Alan Johnson's new "action plan" following the deaths of Fiona Pilkington and her daughter who were tormented by local bullies for more than a decade. They certainly didn't get any respect.
Just how far the word has been debased was shown by the behaviour encountered by headteacher Kevin Harrison in Macclesfield, Cheshire, who asked pupils to stand when he entered the room. When 15-year-old Daniel Walton refused, he was suspended. His unemployed dad backs his son because he thinks the head has to "earn" respect. Another girl at this school committed suicide earlier this year after being bullied on a social networking site. So much for respect in Macclesfield.
Last Friday, I gave out prizes at my local high school in Yorkshire. The hall was packed with proud parents and pupils. Upper Nidderdale High encourages leadership skills through special courses and field trips, and it was good to see a range of skills – not just academic – getting rewarded. The head clearly had the support of parents, and local businesses sponsored many of the awards. Respect depends on the whole community.
My male chef friends make such a meal of their gravy
The Royal Society of Chemistry has published what it claims is the perfect recipe for gravy, and it includes dark soy sauce, which is said to really bring out the flavour of the roasted meat in a way preferable to gravy browning. Making the gravy is the start of a war in our house every weekend. If I invite any friends (male) who are chefs to Sunday lunch, they will arrive with a plastic container of meat stock, and then insist on boiling it down to half its volume, a process that takes half an hour and ensures my Aga loses its heat, the roast potatoes go soggy and the kitchen floor is covered with grease. I'll stick to making gravy my way, and sod the soy sauce.
Never mind the biscuits, what about Gaza and brilliant Beth?
Gordon Brown must be the most indecisive PM in recent history. It took him a full day to deal with the biscuit question after refusing to answer it online. Then he couldn't decide if the UK was going to abstain in a UN debate on Gaza. Finally, we didn't vote at all. When Beth Tweddle won a gold medal at the World Gymnastics Championships down the road from Downing Street, he took three days to send her a letter of congratulation. She captured her gold three hours before Jenson Button won his F1 world title – but Gordon managed to call the racing driver straightaway. Another unnecessary clanger.