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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.

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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.