Labour have this morning announced that the shadow Home Secretary will temporarily step away from her role due to a health issue. She will be replaced by Lyn Brown, the Labour candidate for West Ham. It’s no surprise given the relentless attacks on the beleaguered MP. The woman has had the routine onslaught of online threats smears and misogyny, led by the likes of Boris Johnston, Nadine Dorries and Guido Fawkes, the hate-filled attack-blog of the far-right run by the barely intellectually continent Paul Staines.
As Zoë Beaty writes in The Pool yesterday: “When does criticism turn into abuse? A tweet by Guido Fawkes yesterday appears to have crossed that line – and they are not the only ones. Depicting a man in bed next to a pillow printed with Diane Abbott’s face, the caption of the tweet read, “It is OK, I have finally managed to console Diane. Sweet dreams everyone.” When the first comment underneath called out the sexist nature of the tweet (“Legitimate criticism of an interview is fine, this just has a nasty sexist edge to it”), Guido Fawkes replied, “She begged me.”
No-one covering his story is pretending for a second that Abbott’s performances haven’t been woeful at times, what they are pointing out is that there may well be a relationship between this relentless abuse and her shambolic media presence.
The abuse has been constant for years and is escalating but it’s not a new phenomenon. Beaty recalls:
“Writing for The Guardian, she gave examples of the type of abuse hurled at her – “Pathetic useless fat black piece of shit Abbott,” read one reference. “Just a piece of pig shit pond slime who should be fucking hung (if they could find a tree big enough to take the fat bitch’s weight”. Abbott said she had received death threats and rape threats, and is “referred to routinely as bitch and/or n*gger”. In February, news broke of misogynistic text messages sent about her by a cabinet minister”.
There’s a spectrum of abuse and this is being normalised. Only a few months ago David Davis engaged in behaviour that in most workplaces would have resulted in a sexual harassment charge (“Row erupts over David Davis’ ‘sexist’ texts about Labour MP Diane Abbott”).
Politics and media is tough, even vicious in an election campaign, and Gaby Hinsliff remembers the last period of Iain Duncan Smith in his last hunted days as Tory leader, “or a mortified Gordon Brown, near the end of his time in Downing Street, being asked live on television if he was secretly on medication” but this is of a completely different order, she notes:
“Abbott is becoming the bogeyman of the 2017 campaign, deployed just as systematically as the idea of Nicola Sturgeon sneaking in through Ed Miliband’s back door was in 2015, after Lynton Crosby discovered what a visceral response it provoked among wavering Tories. The question is why campaign messages attacking Abbott seem to go quite so viral, quite so easily; why it’s Abbott’s name that is booed most enthusiastically at rallies of the Tory faithful.”
There is of course a relationship between these blogs, posturing as ‘edgy’ libertarian or anti-authoritarian and the press barons and hacks who pump out their bile in the red-tops.
As the Zelo Street blog explains today: “Sun Corbyn Terror Smear BUSTED”:
“The problem for the inmates of the Baby Shard bunker is that their lead story is yet another pack of lies. “Sun Investigates Corbyn … JEZZA’S JIHADI COMRADES … Fiery speech to fanatics who inspired terror attacks” reads the headline, with the first lie coming in the first three words. So what’s the fact of this particular matter? The Sun is not investigating anyone. This “story”, such as it is, has been lifted from the Guido Fawkes blog, the original being posted yesterday. It was written by Fawkes teaboy Alex Wickham…”. The Sun story was written by another proven liar. The name on the byline is that of the odious flannelled fool Master Harry Cole, formerly the tame gofer to the perpetually thirsty Paul Staines at … yes, the Guido Fawkes blog. Master Cole’s first Sun front page splash, which claimed Jeremy Corbyn would have to kneel before the Queen in order for Labour to secure its allocation of “Short Money”, was another pack of lies.”
Still, as the Reverend Stuart Campbell claims “There’s nothing toxic about The Sun”.
The level of abuse heaped on politicians is a toxic mess. The anti-politics of attack blogs isn’t an antidote to a failed broken politics, it’s just a new dimension to it. There’s nothing critical or interesting about Guido Fawkes or blogs whose sole purpose is to smear attack and denigrate people running for office. There’s a difference between holding people to account and dragging people into the gutter. As critical investigative journalism founders, and trust in broadcast media falters, this may be an important distinction to remember.
The collective harassment of Diane Abbott – the country’s first black woman MP – has been utterly disgusting. The effect of social and anti-social media on a person’s mental health cannot be underestimated. The fusion of racism and misogyny isn’t a coincidence, it’s the desperate voice of a group in society who feel desperately threatened by women in politics and feel emboldened by the new Brexit culture that’s normalised racism and validated their abhorrent views of the world.
The Tories are terrified they have thrown this election. They are smearing Labour politicians in England the way they have smeared Scottish politicians for years. Corbyn and Abbott are being smeared just as Salmond and Sturgeon were, it’s the personal attacks that replace policy when you have failed the political argument. The echoes of the last days of the indy referendum are unmistakeable in the desperation of the media pouring out propaganda to get out is vote and send fear into a confused electorate.
Other things have changed fundamentally too. The narrative of the Labour right that “you only win elections from the centre” has collapsed. The real threat now is that a Corbyn victory will not just mean a sea-change in British politics but open up a new front in constitutional politics. As Kevin McKenna writes “If the previously unthinkable (and now merely unlikely) happens and Corbyn becomes Prime Minister he will,immediately look around for his allies and begin the task of rooting out his enemies. His ascension to Number 10 will have been achieved in no small part thanks to the efforts of the SNP in standing in the gap where Labour in Scotland used to be before it fell am,ing thieves and was adducted.”
This will not be good news for Kezia Dugdale and Ian Murray.
What we are witnessing is the hardening of the media grasp around the throat of our democratic process. Change doesn’t happen on an level playing field. Real change has to be fought for and has to over-come the obstacles of institutional power, whether that be the right-wing press, the economic and class interests that are reeling under the prospect of a real Labour government, the threat posed by self-determination, or the inconceivable challenge of a black woman in a senior position of politics.
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