Vicious online abuse aimed at female MPs is putting women off entering politics, says Channel 4 News presenter Cathy Newman – who has been targeted by trolls herself. Chris Burn reports.
Cathy Newman is a busy woman. Speaking to The Yorkshire Post in between two interviews she is conducting for Channel 4 News and ahead of a talk she is doing in Leeds next week about her acclaimed new book Bloody Brilliant Women: Pioneers, Revolutionaries & Geniuses Your History Teacher Forgot to Mention, Newman says while it can come at the costs of getting enough sleep and time with her family she feels genuinely “blessed” to be enjoying such a varied career.
But the former chief political correspondent at The Financial Times knows from her own experiences that being a woman in the public eye can come at a considerable personal cost. After a combative interview with the controversial Canadian psychologist and author Jordan Peterson last year in which she challenged him about his opinions on issues such as the gender pay gap, Peterson’s army of online followers subjected to her a torrent of abuse, including the circulating of fake pornographic images of her – one of which was seen by her teenage daughter.
Ben de Pear, the editor of Channel 4 News, said afterwards that the station had called in security specialists due to “level of vicious misogynistic abuse, nastiness, and threats” directed at Newman. Despite the interview taking place in January 2018 and Peterson subsequently urging his followers to “lay the hell off”, Newman says abuse directed at her because of it is continuing to this day.
“They are very determined, these alt-right characters,” she says phlegmatically. “You get slightly inured to it. I’m 45 and I don’t take it to heart. I try not to look at it as much as I used to.”
But Newman knows that for good reason not everyone is willing to run the “toxic” online gauntlet – and she fears what the long-term impact will be.
During the course of researching her book about women whose places in history have been long overlooked – such as the first female Cabinet Minister Margaret Bondfield who was inspired into politics by her experiences of working as a shop assistant – she was struck by the similarity between then and now when it came to sexist attacks on women in the political arena.
“Some of the early female MPs got an appalling amount of abuse. It felt so similar to the abuse that women MPs get now,” she says.
Depressingly, Newman feels that things are actually worse today for female politicians than ever before.
“We have actually gone backwards. It is very toxic at the moment and it is very frightening for MPs.”
Her comments come after thousands of abusive messages and a series of death threats were aimed towards Dewsbury MP Paula Sherriff after she urged Boris Johnson to moderate the language he was using over Brexit given the murder of Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox in the days before the 2016 referendum. Ellie Cooper, daughter of another Yorkshire MP Yvette Cooper, also recently revealed the impact on the children of politicians from such threats – describing how their home has been “fitted with panic buttons, industrial-locking doors and explosive bags to catch the mail”.
Newman says the current situation “absolutely does put people off going into politics”.
“A young woman said to me recently she wouldn’t go into politics because she couldn’t handle the abuse and I spoke to a senior MP who said she was giving up because she couldn’t take the abuse,” she says.
She says unless action is taken the result will be bad for democracy in this country. “More than 50 per cent of the population are women and they need to be represented fairly in Parliament.”
When it comes to what the solution is, Newman won’t go as far as supporting the proposals set out in the Government’s ‘Online Harms White Paper’, which seeks to introduce a new duty of care towards internet users and hold companies to account for “behaviours which are harmful but not necessarily illegal”, saying it is not her place as a journalist to offer a view on such legislation.
But she adds there is a “glaring discrepancy” between the regulated standards of behaviour expected of broadcasters and what is currently allowed on online platforms. “We are regulated by Ofcom and sometimes we have to jump over more hurdles. At the same time, Ofcom keeps us honest.”
Newman says it is “really difficult” for broadcasters to balance journalistic objectivity and stating their own views – citing the recent controversy around BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty’s criticism of Donald Trump calling for a group of Democratic Congresswomen to “go back” to the “places from which they came”. In comments in July which have sparked an ongoing row about BBC editorial policy and the neutrality of presenters, Munchetty said in response: “Every time I’ve been told as a woman of colour to ‘go home’, to ‘go back to where I’ve come from’, that was embedded in racism. Now I’m not accusing anyone of anything here but you know what certain phrases mean.”
“There are things I would like to say but I can’t,” says Newman. “But equally there are things I do share which are fairly passionate.”
Newman is best known as a presenter on Channel 4 News, but also regularly breaks major stories herself. Her investigation into a British sex offender, Simon Harris, in which she obtained first-hand testimony from Kenyan street children the charity worker had targeted contributed to him being jailed for 17 years, while she also challenged British barrister John Smyth over his alleged “horrific” violent physical abuse of young men while involved with a Christian charity.
She says one of the investigations she remains proudest of was broadcasting in 2013 the stories of women who had worked with Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard alleging that they had been sexual harassed by the powerful party official, claims he strongly denied.
“The Rennard story I was really proud of, it was years before #MeToo,” she says, recalling that at the time the women’s claims of being inappropriately touched and propositioned were dismissed by Lib Dem peer Lord Greaves as “fairly mild sexual advances”.
“That wouldn’t happen now, times have moved on,” she says.
Newman says there is a balance to be struck between becoming emotionally involved with stories and maintaining a professional distance.
“You have got to have that empathy, I have done lots of interviews where I have felt myself welling up. But you have got to hold it in. I felt that with the John Smyth investigation. Viewers won’t be moved unless you are moved with them. But equally you can’t take on the troubles of the world. When I walk through the door at home at night to the domestic stuff, I leave work behind.”
Leeds move ‘a welcome step’
Cathy Newman says Channel 4 presenters are looking forward to the station’s imminent move to Leeds.
The station has chosen the city as the new base for its national headquarters, but will retain a presence in London.
“We are all very excited about it,” says Newman. “One of my best friends lives in Leeds so that is great for me as I will see her more often.
“It is not going to be a tokenistic gesture, I hope there will be a lot of local talent working with us.”
Newman will be in Leeds next Tuesday, October 15, as she speaks at the Leeds Business School of Leeds Beckett University about her new book.
The free event has sold out but to join the waiting list, visit www.leedsbeckett.ac.uk/events.