"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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

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.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle