One of the most depressing themes of the digital age is how often political debate is submerged beneath bile and hate. In the second week of July, the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism found that MPs and candidates of all parties had faced horrific abuse online and offline during the election. Much of it was misogynist, racist, anti-Semitic and/or homophobic.
Perhaps inevitably, the Daily Mail decided to present the findings as proof of the “scale of left-wing bullying”. The suggestion that abuse is a uniquely left-wing problem was rather undermined during the subsequent Commons debate, in which Labour’s Diane Abbott detailed the horrifying racist and misogynistic abuse she has received in her decades as an MP. “I have had rape threats and been described as ‘a pathetic, useless fat, black piece of shit’,” she told Westminster Hall. The most surprising thing about working for her, her staff had told her, was the daily stream of racist insults on Twitter, Facebook and email.
I have only experienced significant online abuse once in my career, after reporting on a petition calling for the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, to be sacked over her alleged anti-Labour bias. A barrage of tweets and emails followed, some cordial, some less so. One anonymous Twitter user called me “a smug c***” and, for some reason, provided a detailed account of a gap year I was meant to have gone on.
Why, out of the many hundreds of articles I’d written, did this one attract so much ire? Going by some of the more coherent messages, I think it was mainly down to the suggestion that there might have been an element of misogyny driving the petition. There is a certain irony in how, as a straight white man, it took an article mentioning misogyny to provoke online abuse against me.
It is almost impossible to judge whether left- or right-wingers generate the most vicious abuse online, but it has been proven repeatedly that anyone who is not a straight white man will face more of it.
This makes it arguably a bigger problem for the left than for the right. Labour has built an electoral coalition around presenting itself as diverse, liberal and educated (and if we take Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal for a “kinder, gentler politics” at face value, more civilised). It’s a brand that is especially vulnerable to being undermined by vile people who claim to represent it.
Canary in the mine
One of the reasons why my piece about Kuenssberg attracted so much attention was that pioneer of hyper-partisan left-wing online news, the Canary. It pushed the petition heavily, and when the host site took it down because of the misogyny it was attracting, the Canary editor, Kerry-Anne Mendoza, claimed that it was part of an establishment conspiracy to stamp out dissent.
If that’s the case, the establishment isn’t doing a very good job. The Canary has run at least 17 articles specifically criticising Kuenssberg since then. This relentless focus on a single individual – who is held to be emblematic of a greater problem – is strikingly reminiscent of the sustained attacks that the tabloids deploy against their enemies. The perceived influence of the new generation of far-left media stars can be measured by the way that the right-wing tabloids now regularly attack them in return.
Earlier this month, the man behind the pro-Corbyn Skwawkbox blog, who has tried to keep his full name private, was the subject of an “exposé” alleging that he ran an IT company selling software to privatised sections of the NHS. The Sun, which followed up the Daily Mail’s initial report, has since issued a clarification stating that the “software is provided for free, and the NHS organisations that use it are not privatised”. At the time of writing, the Mail article was still online without a clarification.
The hyper-partisan digital left has adopted and adapted many of the old tabloids’ tricks to turn itself into a major player in Labour politics. But when it comes to fighting really dirty, will it have either the skill or the stamina?
Sky’s the limit
Rupert Murdoch’s bid for full ownership of Sky seems likely to be referred to the Competitions and Markets Authority. He could have tried to avoid this by offering assurances to the Culture Secretary, Karen Bradley, over the independence of Sky News, but appears to have chosen to dodge a political skirmish and risk it being referred straight to the regulator.
David Bond of the Financial Times reports that Murdoch thinks the Tories are too weak to risk battles that might delay the deal. The tycoon is keen to get things wrapped up as quickly as possible, driven by his promise to Sky shareholders of an extra 10p per share if the takeover is not finished by the end of the year.
A few months ago, opponents of the deal were grimly resigned to its inevitability. Now, the absence of a Conservative majority and Ofcom’s surprisingly robust findings on potential media plurality have given them hope. Murdoch already owns extensive media interests in the UK, and full control of Sky will concentrate his power.
The critics are still cautious rather than optimistic, but the deal is looking much less certain than it was before the election.
ITV has hired the EasyJet boss, Carolyn McCall, as its new CEO – which means two of Britain’s broadcasters will be run by women. Like the incoming Channel 4 boss, Alex Mahon, McCall, a former Guardian Media Group chief executive, is respected and liked in the industry. One former colleague described her as “no-nonsense but kind”. The BBC is making its own efforts to get more women into senior roles, but as signals of diversity go, it’s difficult to compete with putting a woman at the top.
Jasper Jackson is the NS digital editor
This article appears in the 19 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder