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Laurie Penny on why British journalists are taught to be dishonest

Free speech is shackled by the UK's libel laws.

The first thing I learned in journalism school was not to say anything bad about the police. If I did, even if I'd seen abuses of power with my own eyes, I could face a suit for damages that would ruin me, my editors and whatever paper had been unfortunate enough to publish my work.

Nick Cohen's new treatise on censorship, You Can't Read This Book, airs one of the more painful secrets of the British press - the slide, especially over the last 15 years, towards a culture where archaic libel laws give the wealthy and privileged "the power to enforce a censorship that the naive supposed had vanished with the repressions of the old establishment."

I recently spent some time in the United States, where the cultural attitude to freedom of the press is rather different. A country that produced Fox News and allows presidential attack ads to run on television can hardly be held up as a gold standard for fair and unbiased reporting, but if American journalism lacks deference, British journalism is crippled by a surfeit of it.

Where writers in the United States are used to having their articles cross-referenced by fact-checkers for accuracy, journalists in Britain have our work picked over by lawyers. I found myself blushing when I explained to fellow writers covering police brutality at Occupy Wall Street that where I come from, it does not matter whether or not what you write is true so much as whether or not it is actionable.

Actionability, moreover, is relative. It's about money as well as legality. The decisions writers and editors make about what to publish inevitably depend on whether the potentially aggrieved party is wealthy enough to sue. This means, in practical terms, that journalists can and do say pretty much anything we like about, for example, single parents, immigrants, the unemployed, or benefit claimants. Last year, however, when a group of chronically ill and disabled benefit claimants set up a small website campaigning against Atos Origin, the private company running the controversial new welfare tests, the French company lost no time sending out intimidating legal letters.

The real problem here is not just censorship, but self-censorship. Cohen points out that British journalists, campaigners and others learn to modify our speech before it ever reaches the point of contention. I will never forget being quietly reminded by other activists, on a demonstration against corporate tax avoidance last year, to chant "tax avoider!" not "tax dodger!". The imprecision of "dodger" might have given grounds for a suit, and we'd already spent all our money on the placards.

These were young people quite prepared to be arrested in the course of a peaceful protest. The risks of a defamation action, however, were much too high. Under British civil law, the burden of proof in cases of libel or slander is on the defendant, not the claimant - if you're sued, you have to prove that what you said isn't libellous, and defendants must pay some court costs whatever the verdict. The price of losing a libel case often runs into millions, so editors, activists and journalists are forced to take steps to avoid them at any cost.

In the British media, the cost of courage is prohibitively high - so young journalists are taught to be duplicitous from day one. We are taught, or we learn on the job from decent editors shackled by the threat of libel costs, to withhold or obscure what we know in case it inconveniences the rich and spiteful.

What could be more dishonest? Without a change in the law, journalists will continue to learn deference and duplicity in the very profession many of us entered to expose such things.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Coders for Corbyn
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Can emojis win elections?

Jeremy Corbyn has claimed his campaign's use of technology would be the "path to victory" in 2020. But can emojis play a meaningful part? 

When photographic campaign badges were first unleashed in 1860, a Facebook commenter posted on Abraham Lincoln’s wall: “What is this? Today’s youth are doomed” and then, a moment later, “You call this news?”*

It might be tempting to react in a similar way to the fact that Jeremy Corbyn emoji – or rather, Jeremoji – are now a thing. Small digital stickers of the flat-capped Labour leader expressing joy and sadness might seem like the End Of Serious Political Campaigning As We Know It, but are they really that different from the multitude of deft and daft political campaign buttons throughout history?

Well, yes. Because there will be a marrow.

Beyond the marrow, however, Jeremoji aren’t actually that revolutionary. Before Kim Kardashian crashed the App Store with the 9,000 downloads a second of her Kimoji in December 2015, we here at the New Statesman created a much-needed Yvette Cooper emoji. Around the same time, Bernie Sanders supporters released BerniemojiThe slightly-less pleasing to the ear Hillarymoji were also unveiled by Hillary Clinton campaigners two months ago, though none of these apps were officially endorsed by their respective candidates.

“We’re not affiliated, we’re totally independent,” says Gregory Dash from Coders for Corbyn, the group behind Jeremoji, and a wider online volunteer toolkit for Corbyn supporters. “A lot of us have social links with the campaign and we ran ideas past them and got feedback but as an organisation we’re totally independent and all volunteers.”

Dash reveals that a variety of professional and amateur artists contributed to the emoji and that unfortunately, as the marrow design is currently being finalised, it won’t be in the first version of the app. Once the app has been approved by Google Play and the App Store, it should be available to the public in the coming weeks.

“Mainly they’re just fun but we’re also hoping we’ll be able to communicate some of the main message of Jeremy’s campaign,” says Dash.

But are Dash and other developers misguided in their attempts to promote sexagenarian politicians via a communication tool favoured by teens? Hillary Clinton has already been mocked for her attempts to capture the youth vote via memes, and has proven on multiple occasions that trying to be “down with the kids” can backfire. Corbyn’s own digital manifesto was met with scorn by some yesterday.

“To be very honest, the emojis are pretty cringy,” says Max Rutter, a 17-year-old from Oxford. “I know that they are targeted towards teens but politics isn't something most teens talk about on social media, and these emojis could only be used in a political conversation. Corbyn doesn't need emojis to get teens on his side, he just needs to stick to his guns and keep telling it like it is.”

A 2013 London School of Economics study on Youth Participation In Democratic Life supports Max’s assertions. The final report found that although in theory young people wanted politicians to use social media more, in practice it led to more negative perceptions of politicians and “an increased perception of the gap between political elites and the young.” Moreover, teens exposed to a social media campaign were less likely to vote than those who only received political flyers.

Jeremoji, then, may not ultimately capture the youth vote, and nor are they likely to make lifelong Conservatives pause and say, “On second thoughts, yes. This Corbyn chap is the man for me.” So what will they achieve?

“We’re hoping to do some emojis around Corbyn’s ten pledges and allow people to share them that way,” says Dash. The app already contains emojis affiliated with the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, a society seeking justice for miners after the Battle of Orgreave in June 1984. Dash also hopes to get emojis supporting the No More Blacklisting campaign and Save Our Steel.

“We want to have it so you go to the Orgreave campaign and you click the emoji and it will give you a little bit of information about the campaign as well,” Dash says. “Emojis then become a tool to communicate all these different campaigns that are going on. There are amazing things going on that the wider Labour membership may not know about.”

Coders for Corbyn seek the approval of each of these campaigns before creating the emoji, as they don’t want to seem as if they’re exploiting campaigns to make themselves look better “like Owen Smith did”. But despite their current affiliation with Corbyn, the group plan to rebrand as Coders for Labour after the leadership election.

“I’m not sure there would be the same demand for Owen Smith emojis, but we'd definitely still be producing Labour themed emojis for people to use,” says Dash, when I ask what he’d do if Smith won.

Dash tells me when iOS10 launches in the autumn, emojis will be available at three times their current size, and will be more like stickers. This means they can communicate complicated messages from various campaigns, and may also lose any potential stigma associated with the word “emoji”. In the late 20th century, campaign buttons like Lincoln’s were replaced by cheaper disposable label stickers. It makes sense for these in turn to be replaced by digital stickers. Even if emoji can’t win elections, they may still prove powerful in raising awareness.

The UK’s currently most used emoji is the despairing crying face. Personally, I see no problem with it becoming a marrow.

*May not strictly be true 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.