The Guardian and the Return of the Victorian Lady

Guardian Journalist
Guardian Journalist

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.

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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.

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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.

My book Porn Panic!, which documents sexual prudery, the decline of the progressive left, and the rise of a new fascism, is now available for pre-order on Amazon UK and Amazon US.

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20 thoughts on “The Guardian and the Return of the Victorian Lady”

  1. I always thought America wouldn’t stand for this, and I’m convinced Britain was never founded on the tradition of liberty unlike America. That’s why someday I want to leave this country and go to America – well, at least unless Donald Trump gets elected president.

    1. Britain was founded on the tradition of liberty but it has been hijack so we must fight so we can bring liberty back to the UK, if you leave this country you will be giving the control freaks what they want so plz stay here and fight

      1. Why? I have wanted to leave for a while anyhow, I always felt I belonged there rather than here. And if Britain had the tradition of liberty in its blood, why do they not have a strong constitution to protect it that America did from its inception? And if America was founded on liberty in the secular sense, why does it still welcome the presence of a Christian monarchy, who also happens to be the head of the Church of England, and why does this monarchy which approves our elections and blesses our leaders?

        1. well if you want to leave that fine and im not going to stop you, I was just saying its better if you stay and fight with us against things like this but sorry if I sounded rude

          1. To be fair, I’ll probably be stuck here anyway. I can’t emigrate to America yet without getting a job there or enough money to start a life there. Even if it becomes easier for people like to emigrate, I’d still need money. So I’m probably going to still be here for a long time, and right now being in America is simply ideal circumstances.

        2. And in Trump you have a guy who if he was elected would seek to diminish freedom of religion in the name of Christianity, by banning Muslims from entering the country

  2. thing is the Guardian and Yvette Cooper will never get there way in the end and speech in Britain has does have some protection and its called European Convention on Human Rights and they will never be able to get rid of it, the Guardian “War on Twitter” is already lost before they even said anything, no law will stop free speech

    1. The European Convention of Human Rights? Hah! That is not like the legal enshrining of liberty that the US Constitution embodies. Their article on freedom of religion does not prevent the establishment of a state church, and the Convention’s articles generally allowing the CURTAILING of freedom of speech, expression, and religion, if it’s deemed in the interests of public safety, public “morals”, and public order. Freedom of speech with a BUT, not what the protection embodied by the US Constitution implies.

      1. its better then noting but it does not allow the curtailing of freedom of speech its has help protect free speech many times before, its not perfect but it helps stop them getting there way,

          1. Besides, the European courts don’t seem to be objecting to Germany’s extensive hate speech laws or their current attack on free speech, and they actually upheld France’s ban on the right to wear a burqa. They don’t completely endorse the liberty of the individual.

          2. well there not objecting to Germany’s extensive hate speech yet but am sure when a case comes along they will, they endorse the liberty of the individual more then others do, its got a few undesirable caveats true but its better then having none and we can build on it case by case

  3. Another item to disturb the Guardian recently was the number of comments on the Cologne situation, where many German women were sexually assaulted by refugees, pointing out that the sisterhood, so vocal on issues such as strip clubs and the like were silent on this event.
    Any questioning of the Guardian’s package of opinions is regarded as heresy.

    I can imagine that petty authoritarians like Yvette Cooper, John Mann, and indeed many others across the political spectrum, are genuinely outraged by Twitter etc, because for all their pious twaddle about defending democracy and standing up to fascism and all the rest of it, they regard the mass of the public as naughty children who need to be regulated and controlled for their own good. The question is, for all the talk, just how far dare they go in this endeavour to make this country the most openly censored in the free world?

  4. Here’s something a friend of mine noted: These carceral “feminists” would also argue that police and government are inherently male-dominated, yet they want police and government to protect women from male domination.

  5. A beautifully crafted article that deserves to be sent around the world. Well done, Jerry. When Guardian journalist Nick Davies came to Australia in the 1990s to write a series of so-called ‘investigative’ reports for Fairfax Media, he chose the adult retail industry as his first moral crusade. He obtained much of his information without speaking to the people involved and then arranged for photographers to hide behind bushes to photograph the ‘kingpins’ in this ‘network of vice’…you get the pitch. But the worst of it was his call to save women and children from being ravished by this most heinous of industries. When adult industry association CEO, Fiona Patten (now a member of parliament in Melbourne) and myself travelled to the UK in 1999 to talk to Jack Straw’s office about introducing an X or explicit rating for adult films, we also approached a number of adult retail owners and mentioned Nick Davies and the Guardian’s approach as a need to have an organised lobby in the UK. We didn’t get much traction at that time. Its very heartening to see writers like Jerry Barnett publishing these deeply insightful replies.

    1. Thanks Robbie – great to hear from you. My forthcoming book, Porn Panic!, looks in-depth at the Guardian’s attacks on liberal values. It’s so disappointing, from a newspaper that has formed a bedrock of British liberalism for so long. This was one of the things that motivated me to write the book – so many people still imagine that the Guardian is a liberal publication, and so allow it to misinform them on so many issues. These are worrying times. Fascism is once again in the mainstream. What has come (to me at least) as a surprise is the extent to which sections of the left have embraced fascist values.

      What you guys have achieved in Australia is astounding, and something I’d love to replicate here in some way.

  6. Whilst America may be a little stronger on free speech, it still has an Orwellian set of laws and the prison sentences tend to be far more severe. America has over 4 times as many people incarcerated per capita as the UK. So it’s really a choice between a country like Britain with broader laws prohibiting political activism vs America with astronomical sentences and unimaginable incarcerating power.

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