GRACE UN­DER PRES­SURE

In the face of on­line ha­tred, the BBC’s Emma Bar­nett found sup­port from a sym­pa­thetic sis­ter­hood

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Ear­lier this year, in the heat of the gen­eral elec­tion, I con­ducted an in­ter­view with Jeremy Cor­byn for Woman’s Hour on Ra­dio 4, as part of our se­ries ques­tion­ing po­lit­i­cal lead­ers. We had been in­formed that the fo­cus of Labour’s ef­forts on that day was to launch the party’s child­care pol­icy, and Mr Cor­byn also had a chat with Mum­snet users in the di­ary.

As an in­ter­viewer, es­pe­cially in the run-up to the gen­eral elec­tion, it is my job to hold politi­cians from all sides to ac­count over the finer de­tails of their man­i­festos, in or­der that vot­ers can make in­formed de­ci­sions. So, with this pol­icy launch in mind, I asked the sim­plest of ques­tions: how much would it cost? And to my sur­prise (and that of many oth­ers), Mr Cor­byn couldn’t an­swer. I pressed him, as he thumbed through his man­i­festo, tried to ac­cess in­for­ma­tion on his iPad and put away his buzzing phone, which ap­peared to be re­ceiv­ing calls while he was on air.

Pol­i­tics isn’t a mem­ory game, nor do jour­nal­ists ex­pect it to be so. Notes are fine. But when a leader comes on a pro­gramme to launch a pol­icy, it is ex­pected they will have all the an­swers, whether to mind or hand. In the end, I sup­plied him with the fig­ures he needed and we moved on to dis­cuss ev­ery­thing from nu­clear disarmament to pen­sions for fe­male re­tirees.

But un­be­known to ei­ther of us, our con­ver­sa­tion had al­ready gone vi­ral and we were the top trend on Twit­ter. When we went off air, and I sneaked a look at my phone, I saw to my shock that I had re­ceived so many Tweets, it was al­most im­pos­si­ble to keep track. And the ones that stuck out were those that were per­son­ally abu­sive. One user, ‘Labour In­sider’, posted: ‘***BREAK­ING NEWS*** Al­le­ga­tions have sur­faced that @emmabar­nett is a Zion­ist. Are the al­le­ga­tions true Emma? ’ An­other de­light­ful per­son chimed in, call­ing me a ‘Zion­ist shill’ – a word I’d never even heard, but learned means ‘stooge’ or ‘plant’. Yes, the fact that I am Jewish sud­denly be­came a fea­ture of the dis­cus­sion. My pre­vi­ous em­ploy­ment at The Tele­graph was held up as an­other con­spir­acy the­ory to ac­count for how the in­ter­view had gone.

I am pos­sessed of a rhino-thick hide and am no stranger to this type of strong re­sponse, since I’ve been writ­ing col­umns and broad­cast­ing for years. But I wouldn’t be hu­man if strangers hurl­ing vile re­marks at me didn’t ran­kle. It shocked me just how per­sonal the abuse quickly be­came. What both­ered me most wasn’t the sex­ism or the mad ac­cu­sa­tion of bias, but the anti-Semitism, be­cause I al­ways hope that par­tic­u­lar can­cer has left our so­ci­ety.

It felt very strange for me to be­come the story, rather than to

re­port it. I ig­nored the of­fers from news­pa­pers and web­sites to write about the re­sponse, and put out a sin­gle Tweet: ‘So abuse from @jere­mycor­byn sup­port­ers be­gins. He didn’t know his fig­ures plain & sim­ple.’ My view was that the work would stand for it­self. I need not add any ex­tra com­men­tary. A male broad­caster wouldn’t need to, so why should I take the bait?

Af­ter all, the night be­fore my in­ter­view with Cor­byn, both lead­ers had been grilled by Jeremy Pax­man. And yet, while some of the com­men­ta­tors and the gen­eral pub­lic were crit­i­cal of Mr Pax­man’s peremp­tory style of ques­tion­ing, no­body brought up his fam­ily, his faith or any other per­sonal de­tails when ex­press­ing their dis­may. Only his work was scru­ti­nised. How lib­er­at­ing!

I couldn’t help but no­tice, too, that the Shadow Home Sec­re­tary Diane Ab­bott had sim­i­larly come a crop­per on po­lice-fund­ing fig­ures dur­ing an­other ra­dio in­ter­view. The in­ter­viewer, my ebul­lient friend Nick Fer­rari, came in for praise for do­ing his job; Ab­bott, on the other hand, faced im­me­di­ate calls to re­sign.

Dur­ing a sub­se­quent con­ver­sa­tion about my in­ter­view on Ra­dio 4’s The Me­dia Show, the vet­eran Chan­nel 4 News an­chor Jon Snow ad­mit­ted he has never re­ceived any abuse af­ter con­duct­ing in­ter­views and briefly mulled the idea that per­haps it was his sta­tus as a white male that af­forded him such cover.

Of course I ac­cept that with a pub­lic-fac­ing job will come scru­tiny and crit­i­cism. In­deed, most of the time I en­cour­age it. But there is a sub­tle and im­por­tant dif­fer­ence be­tween the way women and men are ap­praised by so­ci­ety.

Con­sider the fact that John Niven, a well­known Scot­tish au­thor and Labour sup­porter, de­scribed Mrs May, af­ter the elec­tion, as a ‘whore’. The point was swiftly picked up by JK Rowl­ing in a mas­ter­ful 14-part Twit­ter take­down, in which she de­clared she was ‘sick of “lib­eral” men whose mask slips ev­ery time a woman dis­pleases them’. Note this isn’t a par­ty­po­lit­i­cal point – such sex­u­alised in­sults are hurled from both sides of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum. So the mes­sage stub­bornly re­mains that girls are brought up to be­lieve their value is in­nately de­rived from their looks, and be­ing ‘like­able’ – sin­gu­larly my least favourite pres­sure uniquely put on women.

In my wed­ding speech five years ago, I told our as­sem­bled friends and fam­ily that I was like Mar­mite. And while they laughed a lit­tle too hard (these were sup­posed to be my pals, af­ter all), I meant it, and what’s more, I ac­tively ad­vise adopt­ing the phi­los­o­phy.

Through ne­ces­sity more than any­thing, I’ve de­vel­oped a tal­ent for be­ing OK with be­ing dis­liked. I’ve done this through hav­ing strong con­vic­tions that my work is good; I al­ways re­search ev­ery­thing thor­oughly, and reg­u­larly check how I am do­ing com­pared with men – whether that’s notic­ing how my male col­leagues have been judged dif­fer­ently from me, or tak­ing in­spi­ra­tion from the way they have gone for op­por­tu­ni­ties and not thought twice about do­ing so. I am per­pet­u­ally pri­vately push­ing my­self not to be boxed in by the lim­it­ing ex­pec­ta­tions of oth­ers.

Any woman who wishes to ad­vance in a world that re­wards men for dom­i­nant be­hav­iour and silently pe­nalises women for dis­play­ing the same strong traits must, un­for­tu­nately, do the same. Re­searchers call this the ‘dom­i­nance penalty’ – a so­cial tax levied solely and silently on women.

Just know­ing that this phe­nom­e­non ex­ists and has a name is re­as­sur­ing. The al­ter­na­tive is for women to be self­cen­sor­ing, and to lose cus­tody of their am­bi­tions be­cause of these in­vis­i­ble so­ci­etal forces against which gov­ern­ments are un­able to leg­is­late. We should all be grate­ful to high-pro­file women who are un­apolo­get­i­cally them­selves, even if you don’t agree with their views: women such as Hil­lary Clin­ton, Har­riet Har­man, An­gela Merkel, Tracey Emin and Chi­ma­manda Ngozi Adichie, to name but a few. JK Rowl­ing is an­other prime ex­am­ple. In her Twit­ter di­a­tribe, she went on to com­pare men who use misog­y­nis­tic lan­guage to those who send rape threats to ‘in­tim­i­date women out of pol­i­tics and pub­lic spa­ces’. And that is the big­gest risk of all, when crit­i­cism turns into per­sonal abuse. It’s a bat­tle to stop per­ni­cious views from eat­ing away at your con­fi­dence.

For­tu­nately, while it feels lonely at the cen­tre of a Twit­ter­storm, the ex­pe­ri­ence made me re­alise that I was not alone. On the con­trary, I ben­e­fit from a hugely sup­port­ive net­work. My hus­band is my self-ap­pointed dig­i­tal se­cu­rity guard, and he, not I, looks at what peo­ple Tweet about me and ab­so­lutely de­lights in re­port­ing them to mod­er­a­tion teams. Jeremy Cor­byn him­self con­demned the per­sonal at­tacks I’d re­ceived later the same day, and fel­low fe­male jour­nal­ists and MPs speed­ily sent me texts and emails telling me to hang tough through the grim­ness. From Cathy New­man at Chan­nel 4 News and Sky News’ So­phy Ridge to the Labour MP Lu­ciana Berger, an ex­pe­ri­enced sis­ter­hood formed around me, all well-drilled at grit­ting their teeth un­til the fo­cus of at­ten­tion moves on – which, in­deed, was their ad­vice.

It left me with the com­fort­ing re­al­i­sa­tion that the em­pow­er­ing soror­ity is out there for us all – we must just get bet­ter at spot­ting it, join­ing it and shar­ing our wis­dom, while ig­nor­ing, or bet­ter still, laugh­ing at the haters.

Emma Bar­nett is a BBC broad­caster and jour­nal­ist (@emmabar­nett).

The BBC’s Emma Bar­nett

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