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