"The web is a bit like the forest in the 14th century: it's totally outside the law"

Shadow media minister Helen Goodman on internet sexism, the future of news -- and the perils of anon

The media are under the most scrutiny they have faced in decades -- but whatever Lord Leveson decides, there still needs to be political will for any reform to go ahead. I spoke to Helen Goodman, who replaced Ivan Lewis as Labour's media spokesman in October, about the challenges facing the press in the digital age, how to tackle sexism online... and whether Ed Miliband is a feminist.

When we spoke before this interview, you were very strong on the need to combat misogyny and threats of violence against bloggers. Were you surprised when you read the Guardian and New Statesman pieces on sexism online? Did you know this was happening?

I did, because two or three years ago I wrote a piece on the Guardian website about how to get more women into Parliament and I was absolutely appalled at the responses which this brought forth. I had absolutely no idea that this kind of abuse was going on the web and I was really taken aback.

What kind of things?

Violent, sexist, abusive language that no one has ever used to my face in my entire life -- and I am 53.

Presumably those comments are still there -- or were they taken down?

I don't know if they're still there because I haven't been back to look, to relive the unpleasant experience. What annoyed me more was that I, at the instigation of two male journalists actually, wrote to [Guardian editor] Alan Rusbridger to complain, because I felt that the moderating wasn't done properly on the site, and he didn't respond. I think that displayed the wrong attitude really; I don't think that women can be expected to put themselves out on the net and open themselves up to that kind of abuse.

Obviously I'm a parliamentarian, I'm used to handling strong arguments with people -- there's a lot of noise and a lot of shouting in the chamber and we get a lot of criticism, but this is on a completely different level and scale.

As a parliamentarian, do you get casually dismissive remarks in print journalism?

This wasn't casually dismissive, it was more unpleasant and violent than that. Dismissive and sexist is annoying, but I think that violent language is taking us into another realm.

Suzanne Moore's piece - she was absolutely wrong about this, I think that actually it's not something we should just put up with. I cannot conceive of anyone saying to black journalists if there was racist abuse, "Oh, just put up with that". Not only that, it's misconceived in terms of: what do we want to do to change attitudes to women?

By and large what we've tended to do in this country and in the western world in the last 150 years is, by addressing people's behaviour, influence their outlook. In doing so, attitudes to women, to black people, to people with disabilities, to all sorts of previously oppressed groups have been transformed. We don't want to see this go backwards on the net.

What do you say to the challenge that this isn't just a women's problem: "everyone gets abuse from the internet"?

I think it's a different problem, I think it's worse and one thing that really worries me is that it will undoubtedly put off women from going on to the web and from exposing their thoughts and ideas because of the risk of being treated in this way.

That is particularly problematic if print journalism is in decline and more stuff is done on the web. Half the population can't have more debate about public matters in a medium which is discriminatory towards them.

The other thing is, it could be the case that people who are professional communicators, like journalists or politicians, learn how to deal with, or learn not to read, the comments. But we want to encourage more participants in democracy, so that means that a 17-year-old or a 65-year-old, they should be equally free to put their ideas on the web and to experiment with it.

What do politicians have to offer the people who have found themselves in those situations [of getting harrasment or death threats]?

There has just been a joint committee of both houses that's looked at defamation and in particular at publication on the net and in this context they're proposing a new notice and take-down procedure.

I'm not sure whether this kind of sexist abuse counts as defamation or not, but I think that we could perfectly well say that we'd like it to apply to this sort of abuse as a particularised defamatory or libellous or slanderous statement.

I think there's also a big question mark about what the legal responsibilities are of the site hosts and of the ISPs [internet service providers]. I'm shadow minister for the media and I get a lot of people from the ISPs saying they don't want any more laws or any more restrictions and a voluntary approach will do. Now I don't think that the voluntary approach is working at the moment.

One of the things that the joint committee recommended was that the legal liability for the ISPs or the site moderators as the publishers should be limited, because at the moment there is a perverse incentive not to moderate sites.

Because once you've looked at it [potentially defamatory content], therefore you become a publisher?

As a matter of fact I'm not wholly convinced by what the joint committee has said on that point. I think that actually we do need people to be more responsible.

There's obviously also a big question mark about anonymity on the web. Of course, a lot of people blog and tweet under nicknames, and that's OK, but what I do have a question mark about is whether you should be required to give your real name and address when you get an e-mail account, so that if someone's a persistent offender, it would be easier to trace them.

Now this cuts right across the culture of the web at the moment. But again, the ISPs have said to me with respect to issues around children, "Well it's like road traffic, you wouldn't let your child cross the road without teaching them to look left and right. " But it goes both ways, you have to have a driving licence to drive, giving false information to get a driving licence is a criminal offence. We have rules about what it's legal and illegal to do on the road.

I really feel at the moment that the web is a bit like the forest in the 14th century: it's totally outside the law. I think that the more central the web becomes to normal life, the less it can retain that outlaw status; it doesn't seem to me to be realistic when you can't really avoid using the web when public services are being put on the web and so forth.

But then the criticism is, people talk about the Arab Spring and how anonymity allows people to say things that they wouldn't normally; which they couldn't say because of their job, for example. I find that only partially convincing, but how do you feel about it?

I'm a legislator in Britain and we do have a democracy and I'm concerned about the way women are treated. I'm not proposing this for Syria. I agree it would be inappropriate in Syria but I think it wouldn't be inappropriate in Britain.

So you're talking about going back to the source, you would need an e-mail to comment on sites; so you would need to register to comment on sites?

No. You'd only do it once when you get your initial e-mail, you wouldn't have to do it every single time; that would be terribly heavy, wouldn't it?

I have three or four e-mail addresses. What are the practicalities of this? Or would it be a passport type system where you would need to give your real name to access certain things: is that the model you're looking at?

To be absolutely frank, I haven't thought it through in that much detail. I'm just raising the question as to whether or not, if we can't find voluntary ways of people improving their behaviour, whether we shouldn't look at other things. Anonymity is one of the reasons why people feel free to behave badly.

Some have talked about moving towards more of an idea of newspaper letters' page -- which no one has ever said was terribly repressive. The idea is that you give your name, unless you need to ask for specific dispensation, in which case [your comment] is then pre-moderated. So then that's a better balance between freedom of expression and being free of bullying. It's always going to be a compromise.

Yes, and I don't think we've got the balance in the right place at the moment. And I think it's worth reminding ourselves that of what's in Article Ten [of the European Convention of Human Rights] on the right to freedom of expression. This is a right which carries with it duties and responsibilities and it says these are the "restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society".

It could be for the prevention of crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection and/or reputation or the rights of others. You know the old joke; free speech doesn't mean going into a crowded theatre and shouting, "Fire! Fire!". Free speech on the web equally does not mean the abandonment of all moral sense.

Also free speech doesn't mean being able to go into a crowded theatre and shout obscenities about people all the way through, and expect that everyone has got to tolerate you doing that, which is the comparison that gets to me.

The existing laws that we have, covering rape threats and death threats, is there a way to give the police more resources to be able to deal with those things? Because as it stands it seems to be a very hard crime to investigate and convict.

Yes, that's a good point, and obviously the police cuts aren't very helpful and it's a new kind of crime so there probably needs to be a bit of training of the police.

I think that these things kind of segue into other things, so you might say that this kind of casual abuse is on one end of the scale and it moves into stalking. Some of my colleagues are looking at online stalking at the moment and they're doing some work with Harry Fletcher from the Probation Officers' Union because hitherto that hasn't been taken with sufficient seriousness.

I also think that, to contextualise it, once people get the idea that it's OK to abuse women like this online, how do we know that they're not going to start doing it in private, face to face? Isn't it quite a small step from that to hitting your girlfriend or your wife? As it is, we know that there are 1,000 rapes every week in this country. I feel that it's promoting a culture, an attitude and a mentality towards women which makes women feel unsafe -- and sometimes with good cause.

You've taken over the media brief. Do you feel that when you raise "women's issues" that becomes a marginalised area?

I'd say two things. Toughening up on the net should help the newspapers: the kind of language that we're talking about is not seen in the newspapers and the newspapers I think feel at the moment at a competitive disadvantage because the net is more free-wheeling.

I don't know whether Lord Leveson [who is conducting an enquiry into press standards] will specifically get any representations from women's groups about treatment of women in the press, it will be interesting to see if that happens.

But one thing that has really struck me since getting this job and going to various conferences and seminars is how male-dominated the world of newspapers is. There are quite a lot of women visible in the tabloids and there are quite a lot of women writing in the broadsheets, but in the management structures and in terms of editorial positions, it's more male than politics.

Wow. Notoriously gender-neutral politics. Although that said, I was impressed I looked at how many of the members of the shadow cabinet are women versus how many members of the actual cabinet are women. You're on 13/31 and it's 5/29 for the coalition. Do you see Ed Miliband as a feminist?

Yes, I think Ed Miliband is a feminist. And obviously we've done a lot of work on the impact of the cuts on women and I think that it really does disadvantage the government that they don't have enough women in parliament.

In my previous job I was shadowing the justice team and the government justice team is an entirely male team and Ken Clarke made some ill-advised remarks on rape earlier in the year, Jonathan Djanogly is restricting access to legal aid for women who've been victims of domestic violence, and I just have the feeling that in their ministerial team meetings they lack a woman's perspective on a lot of issues and it's noticeable.

But now we have the news of Cameron appointing a special adviser to see if his policies are female-friendly. Some would say that's a tokenistic appointment and worse than nothing. Is that how it strikes you?

No, that's not how it strikes me. I think that if I were David Cameron I would probably do something like that, I think it's pretty sensible. But whereas most things with this government are too far too fast, that's too little too late.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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After the defeat of Hillary Clinton, what should the US left do next?

For disappointed Bernie Sanders supporters and others on the left, the big question is now: should they work within the Democratic party?

For the majority of the US left, Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat came as a surprise. Sure, they’d had doubts about her candidacy from the start. They’d expressed disgust at her platform, history, priorities and dubious associations – not least, at her campaign’s focus on cosying up to wealthy elites, courting the support of billionaires such as slum landlord Warren Buffett, at the expense of trying on to hold on to the party’s core working-class vote – but the general belief was that, however undeservedly, she’d still manage to pull it off.

After all, polling suggested she maintained a fairly consistent lead in key swing states even as Trump somewhat narrowed the gap, and there was reason to think that demographic trends would work against her competitor, who openly courted white supremacist votes.

Hindsight is 20/20, but many now feel they took their eye off the ball.  Leslie Lee III, a writer from Louisiana currently residing just outside Washington DC, argues that people “got so worn down by the polls that we forgot our message, that Clinton was the worst possible candidate to put against Trump”. For him, identifying what went wrong is simple:  “Trump promised people something, the establishment candidate was telling people America was already great. It doesn’t matter if he was doing it in a dishonest, con-artist, racist, xenophobic, sexist way – he said he’d fix people’s problems, while Clinton said they didn’t have problems”.

Leslie isn’t alone in believing that a wonkish focus on polls and data distracted from what was really going on. Everyone I speak to feels that the supposed ‘experts’ from the liberal mainstream aren’t equipped to understand the current political landscape. “We are witnessing a global phenomenon,” suggests writer Amber A’Lee Frost, who first got involved with the Democrats to support the Sanders campaign but voted Obama in 2008. “The UK offers the most clear parallel to the US. Nationalism, racism and xenophobia are festering.” Student and Democratic Socialists of America activist Emily Robinson agrees: “All across the world we’ve seen massive right-wing upswells, from Trump, LePen and May in the West to Modi and Erdogan in the East.” Whatever differences exist between these respective politicians, it’s hard to argue with the contention there’s been a widespread shift to the right.

US left-wingers argue that liberals fail to understand their own role in the current situation. From a British perspective, it’s hard to disagree. Repeatedly, I’ve seen discussions shut down with the claim that even acknowledging economy policy may have contributed to the resurgence of ethno-nationalist ideology amounts to apologism. Nor can faulty data be held entirely responsible for any complacency. In the run-up to the Brexit vote, polls suggested that the result would be too close to call; nonetheless, within the liberal bubble almost everyone assumed we’d vote to remain. The fact the value of the pound rose on the eve of the referendum was seen as evidence for this belief, as if currency traders have some sort of special insight into the mind of the average UK voter. Looking back, the whole thing is laughable.

Over in the US, the disconnect seems to be much the same. “People in the street weren’t following that stuff,” Leslie says of the finer details of both the Trump and Clinton campaigns. “Trump said he would fix their problems, Clinton said they didn’t have any. If we’d stayed focused on that it would have been obvious.” Instead, many of her supporters believed that it was Hillary’s turn and consequently dismissed substantive criticisms, sometimes claiming the vast majority of opposition was simply latent sexism. Even the campaign slogan “I’m With Her” seemed to be about what voters could should for Clinton, not what Clinton would do for them. As polls narrowed, party insiders continued to insist that Clinton was the rightful heir to Obama’s voting coalition, however little she actually did to earn it. 

A lack of message simplicity definitely seems to have been part of the problem. When I speak to Christian, who currently works in outreach and recruitment for the Democratic Socialists of America’s national office, he admits he was barely aware of the platform Clinton was campaigning on. “I’d ask my friends, and sometimes she’d talk about stuff, but it’s so vague,” he explains. “The average working-class person shouldn’t have to go to a website and read a 30 page policy document. It feels like it’s written that way for a reason, it’s muddled, neoliberal bullshit that lobbyists have written.” It’s true that media coverage probably didn’t help, with reporting frequently focuses on gossip and overblown scandal over substantive policy issues, but an effective political communicator must ensure their core messages cut through. Obama managed it in 2008, and however abhorrent we might find it, pretty much everyone heard about Trump’s wall.

It’s also hard to ignite excitement for the continuity candidate when many people don’t believe that the status quo actually benefits them. “I think neoliberalism no longer works as an electoral incentive to voters, especially working-class voters,” argues Amber. Emily tells me that prior to this election she’d worked on two Democratic campaigns, but before Sanders she’d been ready to give up on the party. “When they had the power to, the Democrats failed to implement policies that helped the working class, Hispanic, Black and Muslim communities, and women.”

She explains her disappointment during the early part of Obama’s first term, when the Democrats held the House, Senate and Oval Office. “They jumped away from the single payer option for healthcare, which would have helped the entire American population. The implementation of the DREAM act would have helped immigrant communities. There’s also a lot they could have done on policing and carceral reform, repealing federal use of private prisons, for example, and labour rights, by introducing federal protections for trade unions and effectively repealing so-called ‘right to work’ laws in many states. They did not mandate free, universal pre-kindergarten nor did they even attempt to work forwards free collect – or, at the bare minimum free community college.”

For Douglas Williams, a graduate student at Wayne State University, it was Obama’s relationship with labour unions that caused him to drift away from the party. “In 2013, Barack Obama appointed a union buster to a federal judgeship in the District of Columbia. I started to think, labour gave $1.1 billion to national Democrat party politics between 2005 and 2011, and labour got literally nothing from it.”

One left-leaning activist, who prefers to be identified by his blogging pseudonym Cato of Utica, campaigned door-to-door for Clinton. He explains in visceral detail his disillusionment with the party he’d worked within for roughly a decade: “I was heavily involved in North Carolina in places where the recovery never even touched. These were working poor people, and the doorbells didn’t work. If the doorbells are broken, what else is broken inside the house? What else isn’t the landlord taking care of? I looked at our candidates and none of the people I was pushing were going to address the problems in these people’s lives.”

Much ink has been spilled trying to pin down exactly what motivated people to vote Trump, whose campaign rhetoric was more explicitly xenophobic, racist and sexist than any other recent presidential candidate. Most of his supporters also voted Republican in previous elections, but two other groups are more interesting from a left-wing perspective: those who previously voted Obama but opted for Trump this time round, and non-voters who were inspired to make it to the polling booth for the first time. Overwhelmingly, both groups are concentrated in lower income categories.

“I think people voted for Trump because he acknowledged that there is something very wrong with America,” suggests Amber. “I obviously disagree with Trump voters on what is wrong with this country, and the fact that his campaign was fuelled by nationalism and racism certainly gave it a terrifying edge, but I know why they voted for him, even though he will ultimately betray his most vulnerable supporters.”

It would be absurd to discount racism as a factor in an election where the winning candidate was endorsed by the official newspaper of the Ku Klux Klan and its former leader David Duke, but Leslie disagrees with those who claim it was the primary motivation for the most Trump voters. His earliest political memory is from around 4th or 5th grade, when David Duke was running for Governor of Louisiana. “As one of the few Black kids in your class,” he recalls, “it really makes you realise how important politics is early on”. One of his closest friends was a previous Obama voter who opted for Trump this election, and the common factor seems to have been a message of optimism.

“Obama offered something more important than these people’s prejudices: hope and change, basically. He didn’t deliver it but he offered it. Romney was seen as the establishment. Obama said, ‘I’m an outsider and I’ll bring something new to the table’. There’s a line between Trump and Obama in that vein – and my friend will tell you the same.”

At a time when many people have a strong desire to kick out at the political establishment, Clinton was the ultimate establishment candidate. Leslie is scathing about the extent to which she actively highlighted this in her campaign: “She talked about being experienced – what does that mean? It means you’ve been part of the establishment. She attacked Obama with her experience in 2008 so I don’t know why she thought it would work. It’s not like being the local dog catcher, you don’t turn in your resume and if you have the most experience you get it. You need to have a message and get people inspired, and she didn’t have it.”

Most of the people I speak to believe that Sanders would have had a better chance of beating Trump, and many poured significant time, effort and money into his campaign. They note that polling showing Sanders had consistently higher approval ratings amongst the general public than Clinton throughout the primaries, and argue that people citing recently released unused opposition research as evidence he’d have lost don’t understand voter motivations. The idea that Sanders’ experience of being poor and unemployed would have worked against him is seen as particularly mockable. Whatever the truth, the more relevant question now is what the left does next.

Opinion is split between those who think working within the Democratic Party is the best approach and those who believe its unaccountable, bureaucratic structures make it a lost cause. Emily is in the first category. “I think leftists should, in a limited capacity, be running within what is now the desiccated carcass of the Democratic Party, rather than naively attempting to build a party from the ground up and risking splitting the left-liberal vote,” she tells me. “They should be prepared to run for elections with a (D) next to their name, even if they refuse to bend at the knee to the neoliberal, imperial tendencies of the Democratic elite.”

Particularly exciting right now is the work of the Democratic Socialists of America, an organisation which aims to shape the future of the party in a leftwards direction. Membership had increased by a third since the election – aided partly by support from celebrities such as Killer Mike and Rob Delaney. “We’re planning on Trump being a one-term president,” DSA representative Christian tells me. “We have a 50 state strategy, but right now we only have chapters in 31 states. It’s not just about elections, it’s threefold: electoral, workplace and community organising to win on all counts.”

Douglas is sceptical about whether it’s possible to restructure the Democratic Party in the way he considers necessary, but he agrees with the DSA’s focus on community organising: “Why can’t an organisation be like ‘we’re going to sponsor a little league team’? Why can’t we open a soup kitchen? We’re making noise, we’re out here, but we heard your aunt is having trouble with her roof. We’ve got guys who can fix that, and then we’ll leave a little sign saying it was us.” Cato of Utica references something similar that happened in Flint, where the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union visited people’s homes to make sure their water filters were properly fitted.

“We need to rebuild the labour movement,” agrees Emily. “Not only to carry out all the normal functions of unions, but also to provide a community, and spaces for education, child care and other forms of support. If we don’t build solidarity among the working class – not just the white working class, but the Hispanic working class, the Black working class and so on – we risk allowing another reactionary movement caused by cleavages promoted by the ruling classes.”

Left-wing organisations traditionally target places like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, where it’s easier to build support. Christian argues that the Democratic Party, and the DSA specifically, need to “focus on the Rust Belt, where the Democrats lost, and the South, where Bernie lost”. There’s a widespread belief that Southern states which have been Republican for decades now could be winnable in future presidential elections, partly because of demographic trends pointing towards increasingly ethnically diverse voting populations. As for the Rust Belt, it’s hard to argue with the claim that a different candidate could do better than Clinton – who didn’t even bother to visit Wisconsin, which swung Republican, in the months preceding the vote.

The DSA’s 50 state strategy involves creating a national framework, but with devolved power allowing local chapters to focus on the issues most relevant in their area. “In Texas our chapter is really strong and we do a lot of work on immigration reform, working with undocumented communities, whereas Boston obviously doesn’t have to deal with that so much,” Christian explains to me. “In places like Kentucky and West Virginia, coal country, Republicans like Trump will say coal is coming back. We say we actually need to transition to a new economy and create green jobs, and places where people live where they don’t get cancer from coal.”

Christian believes that the unexpected success of the Sanders campaign indicates there’s an appetite for the kind of politics the DSA is offering, and that a similar candidate could gain the Democratic nomination in four years time. “Having a candidate announce earlier than Bernie did, and with a good ground game in place, we could have 50,000 volunteers ready to go. We wouldn’t be scrambling around this time, we’d be ready to go to war with [Trump]”. Like many on the left, he thinks that Keith Ellison’s selection as DNC chair is a crucial part of the puzzle. Ellison was the first Muslim elected to Congress and is chair of the Progressive Caucus. “He’s a way better politician than Bernie,” Christian contends. “He understands the intricacy of talking about labour, poverty and unions very well.”

Others I speak to argue that focus should be on working from the ground up. “I’m not even talking about state legislatures,” explains Douglas. “I mean city councillors, school boards, things like that. This is going to be a long-term project and has to start at the absolute lowest level and work its way up. People don’t even realise, in some of these cities you can get elected to the city council on 500 votes. We want to start on the big stuff but it has to be an independent, left local movement. We can run all the candidates we want, but unless we’re out here informing people ‘it’s not actually about Mexicans or Muslims, it’s your boss, it’s his fault you can’t afford to save the money to send your kids to college,’ what’s the point?”

Whatever disagreements about strategy exist, the US left seems to be united by two things: fear of Trump’s presidency and a determination to succeed. Many members of the DSA are worried about their involvement with the organisation being publicly known. Unsurprisingly, this is more acute for members of groups attacked in Trump’s rhetoric. “We see apprehensiveness with some of our Latino membership,” Christian tells me. “People don’t want to out themselves because that's risking your own livelihood. We’re a working class organisation and most people have other jobs.”

With Trump associates making noises about recreating the House Un-American Activities Committee, some fear left-wingers could be targeted as dissidents as in previous decades. However realistic the threat of government persecution, there’s already a far-right website, KeyWiki, that keeps tabs on members of socialist organisations. Everyone I speak to agrees that groups particularly vulnerable to being targeted by Trump and his supporters – including Muslim, Latino and African American communities – must be defended at all cost. “The aim of the left should be to make it impossible for Trump to govern,” says Cato of Utica. “Establishment Democrats are already making conciliatory noises. If the Democrats aren’t going to do it in the Senate, the people have to do it in the streets through direct action.”

When I ask Amber what happens next, her response seems to sum up the mood amongst the US left: “To be honest, I have no idea. I’m terrified but I am ready to fight.”