After Leveson, we must ensure the voices of victims are never drowned out again

No industry should be so unaccountable that it can ride rough shod over people’s lives.

With Leveson’s report on press intrusion about to be published, it’s no surprise that those whose methods and practices were called into question during the inquiry are voicing such large opposition to it. They’ve been vehemently arguing against the possibility of statutory legislation and braying about “press freedom”, but what is really is at stake is not freedom of speech: it’s about making the press accountable for their actions. Obviously, no media barons want restrictions on the unfettered power they currently have: no wonder they’re resisting it. The next few days are going to be a highly charged time indeed.

One might imagine that most of us have been finding this media circle jerk tedious and dull: watching the press discuss its own future is not the most interesting or captivating story. But people are interested what the outcome of Leveson’s report will be: this recent YouGov poll shows that 79 per cent are in favour of an independent press regulator established by law. Why do the British public care about this? It’s because they haven’t forgotten that the victims of press intrusion are just like them: regular members of the British public.

Even if the press focuses on the more high profile members of the campaigning group Hacked Off like Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan or Charlotte Church, the majority of the people who are part of the organisation are not celebrities: they are just people who have suffered abuse by the self-regulated hand of the press, and who are now bravely putting their heads above the parapet in order to effect change in the industry.

So when certain elements of the press voice scathing contempt for these people who have suffered trauma, tragedy and loss, sneeringly calling them, like Rupert Murdoch did, “scumbags”, what is being drowned out are real voices of real victims: normal people whose lives have been permanently damaged by being unwillingly dragged into the limelight. Let us not forget that.

My own experience of press intrusion (the Independent on Sunday libelled me; the Sunday Times published an exposé “outing” me as the anonymous author of a sex memoir), doesn't compare to the more serious victims of press abuse and hacking, like the Dowler family, or Chris Jefferies, or Margaret Aspinall, the mother of a Hillsborough victim, but through Hacked Off we’ve joined together in solidarity to ensure the voices of the victims are not silenced by media bullying. We also all agree that we need independent regulation of the industry to make it more accountable and ensure that future victims do not suffer as we have.

Clearly the self-regulatory PCC – which oversaw the phone hacking cases and did nothing about them – is ineffective and needs to be ditched. The Hunt-Black plan being banded about as an “independent” choice is nothing but a smokescreen: what lies behind it is a structure, not dissimilar to the ineffective PCC, which leaves editors and proprietors answerable to no one but themselves, and is not truly independent of the industry.

The response by the newspapers to possible statutory regulation is nonsense almost to the point of hysteria – myths about the end of press freedom combined with government control, political interference, and even likening it to dictatorial regimes are being screamed from all corners. But, as the journalist David Allen Green puts it, “statutory” should not be a bogey word and should be viewed with impartiality:

“Unless the Act of Parliament formally allows for such a role for politicians or departments, a “statutory” regulator can be just as independent (if not more so) as one based on contract or consent.”

People affected by press abuses have suffered enough. Not just their own personal tragedies and traumas, and losses, but then the ordeal of being violated by the media (and relived again in court, their only form of redress – this itself is now threatened by changes to Conditional Fee Agreements, which would make access to justice available to only the very rich). So when the press make emotive pleas about “freedom of speech”, that rings hollow, because no industry should be so unaccountable that it can ride rough shod over people’s lives.

The British public overwhelmingly want a strong press watchdog, backed by law; the victims of press abuse want an independent regulator of the industry that makes the press accountable and offers future victims protection and justice. Let’s hope that the recommendations in Leveson’s report are taken seriously, but – more importantly – are also acted upon.

Jenny Hicks and Margaret Aspinall, members of the Hillsborough Family Support Group. Photograph: Getty Images

Zoe Margolis is a journalist and writer, famed for writing the Girl With A One-Track Mind blog. You can find more information about her work, including on sexual health, at her website. She's on Twitter as @girlonetrack.

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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.