Sexist trolls shouldn’t be able to ruin a petition

Picture of Laura Kuenssberg, a white woman in her 30s with shortish blonde hair, wearing a blue top with a black suit jacket over it, with a backdrop composed of the logo of Policy ExchangeUpdate 2: I’ve run a search for the phrases “kuenssberg whore” and “kuenssberg bitch” on Twitter, using both TweetBot (which searches recent tweets) and TweetDeck (which searches all tweets). I really advise that you do these searches for yourself. The first resulted in just five results from TweetBot, and this includes people commenting on people calling her a whore. The second fetched just ten in the last few days, again including people commenting on the abuse rather than dishing it out. Some of those calling Kuenssberg a bitch were women. This is clearly an exaggerated problem. Perhaps more people were leaving such remarks on the petition itself, but the owners should have been able to weed these out; that they couldn’t is the fault of 38 Degrees.

Update 1: there is still a petition on Change.org urging the BBC to review Kuenssberg’s position.

Laura Kuenssberg petition taken down over sexist abuse, from the Guardian

I don’t watch the TV news much nowadays, even Newsnight, so I can’t comment personally on whether the coverage of politics by Laura Kuenssberg on the BBC, where she is political editor, is biased or not. People I trust on Twitter, however, say that her coverage is persistently biased in favour of the Tory party and against Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, in particular. (She has chaired seminars and written for the website of Policy Exchange, a Tory-affiliated think tank; Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home wrote this glowing blog entry about her in 2009.) I’ve seen a Twitter account titled @ToryKuenssberg, which offers a rather amusing parody of her coverage, such as the following from last night:

Some people have launched a 38 Degrees petition to get her removed from her position. Some time today it was taken down, as the above news report states, because it was ‘hijacked’ by people from Twitter and Facebook who had left abusive comments of a sexist nature and posted similar writing on social media. Some of the defences of Kuenssberg boil down to “she’s just doing her job”, a common response when a woman in a public role is criticised for doing a bad job. I think it’s wrong for such petitions to have to be taken down (the owners have published a statement). (More: Stavvers, Vox Political.)

I’ve never run a petition, but I’ve signed a few and I’ve got more than a few criticisms of all the three main petition hosts (38 Degrees, Avaaz and Change.org). They don’t offer any means of registering dissent from the cause, and they will spam you with demands to sign other petitions until you expressly opt out. This is why, for example, I hesitated to sign the recent Predatory Peacekeepers petition because it’s on Avaaz, a site I hadn’t hitherto signed up to and therefore which I wasn’t already receiving several emails a day from. But what has happened here is that 38D has suspended a petition because of a flaw in their own system: the lack of any ability to moderate comments left at the bottom. Petition owners can’t control who signs, and who leaves what comment, and the sites allow you to broadcast your comment straight to Facebook or Twitter, and it’s easy for anyone trying to discredit a petition to leave an abusive comment against the target or subject of the petition.

I’ve not seen any abusive or sexist remarks in my Twitter feeds where there has been a lot of criticism of Kuenssberg for bias. It’s all been about her reporting. Perhaps the people leaving sexist remarks are people without any sense of what is appropriate, or actual misogynists, or morons looking to disrupt any cause for the “lulz”, or maybe it’s from supporters of Kuenssberg seeking to discredit the petition. Was any attempt made to investigate where the abusive remarks were coming from? I very much doubt it is what the people who put the petition up intended. Yet I’ve seen people assume it’s “typical leftist misogyny” rather than a few extremists or people trying to deflect criticism from Kuenssberg’s reporting.

In addition, I reject the “just doing her job” argument used by her supporters. If you want to present news in a way that’s sympathetic to a Tory government, there’s always the Times or Telegraph; the BBC is paid for by everyone. There is an attitude that a woman in a position of prominence or public authority is such a novelty that they should always be treated with kid gloves as their removal would probably put a man in the job, constituting a reversal for women. I hear this regularly in interviews on the BBC’s Woman’s Hour, where Jenni Murray interviews women in powerful positions, such as Alison Saunders, the current Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), in a sycophantic manner reminiscent of a schoolgirl excited to be given the privilege of interviewing an important person for the school newspaper, and not questioning them about serious failings, some of which have led to lives being lost. (Her interview with Madeleine Albright was another example.) We even sometimes hear this about women whose jobs involve victimising people, such as was said when a certain feminist activist known for harassing transgender people was exposed as working as a lawyer for the pay-day loan industry.

Women who do bad jobs, or who do vital jobs badly, should be open to criticism, whether it’s Kuenssberg or Alison Saunders or, say, Katrina Percy of Southern Health. I’ve been involved in a campaign (led mostly by women) to get rid of her and a number of other men and women in senior positions at that trust, and while I’m sure some people would like it if a woman took over from her, a man will do as long as it results in better care and no more drownings in baths. We’ve yet to see any misogyny or any attempt to discredit us with it, but I really hope the public will see through it if this happens (so far, the only abuse that could be described as such has been directed at Sara Ryan, the mother of the young man who drowned, not at Percy or anyone else at the trust). If Kuenssberg goes, it would be great if they found another woman, but not at the expense of persistent bias in favour of the government and, where the Labour party is concerned, the embittered right. It would, however, be a disaster for free speech if it were possible to destroy perfectly legitimate campaigns by making them look racist, sexist or otherwise malicious and getting petitions cancelled and other means of protest blocked. It’s up to the petition site owners to give campaigners the ability to make sure it doesn’t happen.

Image source: Wikipedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 licence.

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