Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Criticism Is Not Abuse

Did you follow the Emma Barnett controversy yesterday? At 10.52am she tweeted, after her interview with Corbyn on Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio, “So the abuse from Jeremy Corbyn supporters begins.”

My first thought was how stupid can anyone purporting to be a Corbyn supporter, a group more under scrutiny than any other, be to abuse anyone, especially a journo doing her job, which is to take public figures to task. And, as long as all are taken to task to the same degree, all is good.

I scrolled down Emma’s timeline to see what abuse was there, half expecting to see some pathetic, misogynistic rudeness and abuse. But there was none. There was some criticism, sure, and some of that criticism was very partial in favour of Corbyn. Not incredibly helpful. But not in a million years “abuse”. Sure, some of the criticism was robust, even severe, as was some of Emma’s questioning of Corbyn. But surely that is all par for the course, unless some are suggesting its okay to dish it out but not to take it?

I went through the timeline again to make sure I hadn’t missed something that may have even been misunderstood as “abuse”. But, again, I couldn’t find anything. In fact, the only abuse I found was from one of Emma’s supporters telling Corbyn supporters to “fuck off”. The timeline is still there and if someone shows me I’ve missed something outright abusive then I’ll apologise unreservedly because I think abuse of journos is obscene. But, I believe holding the media to account in a democracy is essential, especially media we pay for, i.e., the BBC.

So, why did Emma claim to have been a victim of abuse when all that was visible on her timeline was criticism? Oversensitivity? Human error? Or something else?

As if on cue, at 12.10pm, nearly 80 minutes after Emma had claimed to have received abusive texts (though none were on her timeline) @Labour_Insider tweeted to be the effect that Emma was alleged to be a Zionist. Whether she is or isn’t is irrelevant. It was undoubtedly a misjudged tweet. By asking Emma if “the allegation is true” @Labour_Insider framed the question pejoratively. Being a Zionist is not an offence. So the question was loaded by using the word “allegation”.  There’s no point in discussing the sheer political carelessness of the tweet because that is not the issue. The issue is about online abuse. Sadly we know that journalists do receive abuse and for many complex reasons female journalists often receive especially gender-orientated abuse. As this happened to a female editor we worked with (who is also a journalist) some years ago it’s a subject I take extremely seriously regardless of political opinions. But criticism of journalists, some well paid for opinions, others well paid to be impartial, must be expected, indeed, in a democracy, essential.

The @Labour_Insider tweet was, in the context of legitimate concerns regarding anti-Semitism, insensitive and careless as it could encourage real anti-Semitic abuse and could put Emma in the frontline of that abuse. Not being Jewish myself I’d defer to people of that proud faith who are better qualified than I to judge if asking someone if they are Zionist is anti-Semitic. But even if we assume for the moment that it is, then it still does not explain why Emma claimed, at 10.52am, to have received abusive tweets despite none being on her timeline. I did ask Emma twice if she could show us the tweets because regardless of political differences it would be useful for Labour people to see the abusive tweets and call out the perpetrators. But no reply as yet, which is understandable as a busy working journalist has better things to do perhaps than answer every one of the hundreds of tweets they receive in a day during an election campaign.

Someone more indulgent of conspiracy theories than I suggested to me, I hope humorously, that perhaps Emma claimed to be the victim of abusive tweets from Corbyn supporters in the hope of inspiring some so as to help buttress the “Abusive Corbyn Supporters” narrative and to make that the headline in order to keep the Corbyn Surge off the front pages. Certainly, The Times led with “Corbyn in Anti-Semitic row” type headline. Although to be fair the poll showing May might lose her majority was above it on the page. Nevertheless, the issue made the front page. And we do live in an age when most senior journos are, coincidentally I'm sure, self professed Tories. Hence, we should be more alive to the possibility of even inconsciously unfair reporting.

My own view is that was not part of any Emma cunning plan. It has more to do with the disconnect that’s evolved between the public and - not politicians – but the London-based journalistic class. Most senior London-based journalists have about as much idea of the public’s growing frustration with cuts, never-ending wars, lack of homes etc as politicians do, which isn’t saying much. So, when some of the public express disdain, frustration and criticism of how they do their job, some senior London-based journalists cry “abuse”. They are wrong, just as Emma appears to have been wrong. Those of us with a keen interest in media and adherence to impartiality and fair reporting  surely have the right to criticise just as robustly as Emma and others criticise Corbyn, 

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