I have a confession: for many years, I was a loyal Guardian reader. At one point, prior to the arrival of smartphones and apps, I bought the paper, at a quid a time, perhaps three or four times a week. I always enjoyed, and wanted to support, its high quality, liberal-minded news coverage. It was saddening, therefore, to became aware of the deeply conservative slide the paper was taking, most of all when it came to the subject of sex. In the Guardian’s war on sexual expression, honest journalism at the paper has been sidelined, and bigoted opinions have appeared in place of fact. This bigotry hasn’t just been directed towards strippers, models and pornstars, but also has included deeply racist attitudes. I documented much of this in my book Porn Panic! (which is now available for pre-order on Amazon).
The Guardian’s descent into social conservatism dates back more than a decade. Brooke Magnanti – better known as Belle de Jour – who had blogged about her life as a sex worker, was awarded the Guardian’s blogger of the year award in 2003. She recounts in her book The Sex Myth that a group of Guardian journalists threatened to resign en-masse should she be offered a column. She instead went to write for the Telegraph. The irony that the right-wing paper was more accepting of sex work than the supposedly liberal Guardian was not lost on Magnanti.
In 2013, the paper published an editorial titled “Internet pornography: never again” in which it openly called for Internet censorship. The paper’s liberal values had been overruled by its hatred of sexual expression.
But porn is not the only area in which the Graun has succumbed to moral panic and pro-censorship attitudes. It has joined a far bigger and more worrying war on free expression. This time, the justification for censorship is the very Victorian idea that women are incapable of dealing with the same situations as men. Gender equality is under fierce attack, as it has been many times in history; this time, bemusingly, the attacks come from the political left. This massive assault on gender equality, and on free speech, began to rear its head a few years ago, and began with Twitter.
The War on Twitter
Twitter has long been hated by control freaks. Unlike Facebook, Twitter has been reluctant to censor the content of its posts. This has led the platform to be far edgier than Facebook, and thus more exciting and anarchic. The UK government first signalled its discomfort with free speech on this scale when it blamed Twitter, in part, for the UK riots of 2011. You get the message: free speech is all very well when you’re sending photos of kittens, but too much can be a dangerous thing. This is the age-old mantra of dictators and fascists, and it apparently never gets tired. Threats by David Cameron to provide a “kill switch” for emergency situations were thankfully ignored by Twitter, which is protected from state censorship by the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
The control freak tendency instead reached for the oldest trick in the book: Twitter’s free speech is a threat to womankind! The opportunity to play this card came when a journalist, Caroline Criado-Perez, was abused on Twitter. Now, here was the perfect victim: a photogenic, blonde, middle-class journalist. The press initially reported the abuse as if it had come from a multitude of people, implying that Twitter’s free speech policy was somehow turning hordes of men into misogynistic monsters, and coining the term “misogynistic Twitter trolls”.
Yet once the moral panic had dissipated, it turned out that the abuse received by Criado-Perez had largely originated from two people, and (inconvenient for the “MASSIVE MISOGYNY” narrative), the worst offender was a woman, Isabella Sorley. Furthermore, Sorley had 25 previous arrests, mostly for being drunk and disorderly. Here was a minor story of two unpleasant people – at least one of whom was probably mentally ill – sending horrible tweets to another person; but in the hands of the pro-censorship feminist lobby, it had become a false message that misogyny was everywhere, and that too much free speech can be a bad thing – at least, for ladies.
A line had been crossed: ugly, foul-mouthed working class people are not supposed to come into contact with nice, blonde, middle-class ladies. When the two were imprisoned for their speech crime, the press was notably silent in questioning the sentences.
The Criado-Perez case set a precedent, and suddenly feminist commentators were climbing over each other to discover widespread online misogyny. The only problem with this “analysis” was that beyond anecdotes, there was no evidence to be found that women were being systemically targeted more than men. Indeed, when Demos carried out comprehensive research into abuse on Twitter, it was found that men were far more likely to be targeted than women.
This mirrored the situation with real-world violence, which men are far more likely to experience than women. Indeed, in a rare moment of clarity a 2008 Guardian article stated:
“Although it is the attacks on young women that we are most likely to respond to, it is young men who, overwhelmingly, are victims of violence (as the stories of knife attacks over the past year so well illustrate).”
This is hardly a radical new idea: we know that men are more likely to experience violence, and always have been. Despite this, neo-feminists have chosen to cherry-pick evidence to fit their “massive systemic misogyny” narrative. In other words, it isn’t that women are being targeted: it’s just that women are considered weaker and less capable of handling things that should be the preserve of men. This is, of course, not a feminist message at all: gender equality was once the core thing that feminists believed in, and the infantilisation of women was frowned upon. But from the 80s onward, the feminist movement has become ever more conservative in its attitudes, to the extent that it now largely opposes feminist positions from the 1960s. 1960s feminists argued that women were capable of handling any situation that men could. 2016 feminists disagree.
The neo-feminist view of women, while being nothing like the second-wave feminist view, is remarkably similar to the Victorian one. In Victorian times, women were considered to be frail creatures, prone to “hysteria”, “lunacy” and prone to fainting. Thus, they could not possibly be expected to handle gender equality. Since the Women’s Lib era, there have been frequent campaigns by conservatives to put women back in their place. What has changed is that now, the conservatives are on the political left, and call themselves feminists. The old forces that resisted gender equality – such as the Tory Party and the Daily Mail – have been replaced by new ones, including the Labour Party and the Guardian.
As demonstrated by violence statistics and the Demos study of online abuse, the feminist claim that women suffer more abuse than men is simply false. This is a huge problem for a movement whose single message is that women are “oppressed” by “patriarchy” and “structural misogyny”. Quite simply, if there did exist widespread hate of women by men, then women would suffer more violence and online abuse than men, not less.
And now, enter the Guardian to save the day. Last week, the paper published its own study into online abuse, and unlike any previous study, it found that women were, indeed, more likely to be victims. The study (and accompanying daily drumbeat of moral panic) was chillingly titled “The Web We Want” (“we”, meaning Oxbridge-educated Guardian journalists). Here was the Guardian in campaign mode, pretending to be publishing news but in reality whipping up a Daily Mail-esque moral panic over free speech:
“…along with online camaraderie, the vituperative modes of interaction took hold: bullying, shaming and intimidation… For women it frequently assumes a particularly violent and sexualised form, sometimes extending to public rape threats; for ethnic minorities it is often racist.”
In a nutshell, here is the methodology of the conservative left: attack free expression, but using left-wing language. Don’t say “Christian family values are under threat”, say “OMG people are being sexist, racist and homophobic! We must stop them!”
But it is, indeed, puzzling that the Guardian’s findings overturn conventional wisdom. Puzzling that is, until the methodology is examined: it is simply laughable. The explanation is packed with irrelevant technical detail (they used Postgres database software, and wrote scripts in Perl – so what?) which apparently is only included to distract the reader from the important bit. The entire article contains one useful, and very revealing, sentence:
“In our analysis we took blocked comments as an indicator of abuse and/or disruption”
So the reasoning is entirely circular, and hugely dishonest. Guardian moderators, acting (one presumes) under Guardian policy, block posts they subjectively consider to be sexist, racist and homophobic. They then examine the blocked posts and (shock horror!) discover they are largely sexist, racist and homophobic. The newspaper is guilty of the worst sort of misinformation: making a headline claim and then providing small print that doesn’t back it.
This is far from being the Guardian’s first campaign for censorship – it has actively campaigned for porn, “sexualised” imagery and (black) music videos to be censored. But this is the broadest attack so far, targeting the very basis of online free speech. Furthermore, the moral panic is obviously carefully planned and orchestrated, with day-by-day updates. Unsurprisingly, a Labour voice has now joined the campaign, with an Orwellian call by Yvette Cooper for “greater monitoring of online harassment”. Labour MP John Mann is already on record as calling for internet bans on “trolls”: crushing people’s right to speak out if the authorities consider them unsavoury. The implications for controversial political speech are profound.
Little of this could fly in America, where free speech has been protected since 1789. But speech in Britain has no such protection, and so (as predicted by George Orwell in 1984) is a soft touch for “nice” censorship, designed by a paternalistic state to protect us from ourselves.