Last week I wrote in this space about Cathy Newman’s catastrophic interview with the Canadian academic Jordan Peterson. Since then a number of things have happened. One is that millions of people around the world have watched Newman’s undisguisedly partisan interview. The other is that Channel 4 has tried to turn the tables by claiming victimhood.
Any fair-minded observer might think that if there was any ‘victim’ in this case then it was Professor Peterson, who accepted an invitation to an interview in which he was then serially misrepresented. It was Peterson who, whenever he said anything got the response ‘So what you’re saying is’, followed by something that he had not said. And it was Peterson who, after he came off air, might have seen the contempt in which the Channel 4 News team as a whole held him by reading the tweet from the Head of Communications of Channel 4 News - Hayley Barlow - deriding this former Harvard professor as ‘lobster guy’. Anybody who regrets the anti-intellectualism of British public life should reflect on that tweet, which I see the Head of Communications at Channel 4 News has now deleted. As have other Channel 4 employees who originally tried to make light of the whole thing.
Anyhow, shortly after Newman’s disastrous interview went viral the Editor at Channel 4 News, Ben de Pear, announced on Twitter that the level of ‘vicious misogynistic abuse, nastiness and threat’ to Newman were on such a scale that ‘Channel 4 News are having to get security specialists in to carry out an analysis.’ He went on, ‘I will not hesitate to get the police involved if necessary’ adding ‘What a terrible indictment of the times we live in.’ He may have been right to say that she received some vile, nasty abuse - there's a lot of it about on social media,
unfortunately - but the notion of a credible threat against
her raised this to a different level. The fact that Channel 4 had decided that criticism of their presenter was so serious that they had to get in ‘security specialists’ inevitably became a news story in every paper from the Guardian to the Daily Mail. The Labour MP Angela Rayner among those who sent ‘solidarity’ to Newman.
And so Newman turned from exposed bully into embattled victim.
Of course genuine threats against public figures should be treated with the utmost seriousness. Actual threats require the police to get involved. Threatening anybody with violence is not only wrong but a crime. People mocking you mercilessly on the other hand (‘So what you’re saying, Professor Peterson, is that lobster women should be paid less lobster money than men’) is neither a police matter nor even a matter for security specialists. It’s something that everybody in the public eye has to deal with, and only certain types of people try to weaponise to their own advantage.
Today’s Mail on Sunday carries details of the most serious claims. According to that paper one online message read ‘RIP Cathy Newman’ and another read, ‘Cathy Newman we know where you live’. That paper also reports that ‘Ms Newman, 43, suffered further distress yesterday when her 13-year-old daughter found a pornographic mock-up on Instagram of her mother with Dr Peterson.’ Whether or not any of this is criminal, certainly it is wrong, and like Professor Peterson, I think anybody who thinks such things are a reasonable reaction to an interview should take a long, hard look at themselves. However this story is headlined, ‘Channel 4 News presenter Cathy Newman is rocked by death threats’ Newman’s Channel 4 colleague Krishnan Guru-Murthy is among those to have publicly lamented that this should have been the reaction to something he describes as simply a ‘sincere piece of work’, which is simply one thing Newman’s interview simply wasn’t.
Anyone can predict where this piece of table-turning will lead. It will be used next time someone wants to withdraw a platform from Peterson. It will allow him to be branded ‘controversial professor’. It will embed the idea that if you contradict certain ideas you are in fact legitimising and encouraging that most amorphous and convenient enemy of our time, ‘hate’. Meanwhile Cathy Newman will avoid becoming ‘controversial interviewer’. Instead she will become ‘brave Cathy’. Just one regrettable thing about which is that it will allow no opportunity for reflection on the editorial and journalistic disaster that was that interview.
There is one other thing about this that must be said. Which is what strikingly different values are now applied. I can think of quite a number of people who have been ‘rocked by’ very serious death threats. Not everyone talks about these things publicly. When they do, not everyone gains much sympathy. Some recipients of serious death threats are even said to have ‘brought it upon themselves’. The difference in reaction - sympathy or coldness - appears to have become entirely contingent on the political views of the person being threatened.
Consider just one example. Only a few months ago 21-year old Madihah Taheer, her husband and sister were sent to prison for preparing to commit terrorist acts. Among other things they had dreamed of beheading ‘controversial commentator Katie Hopkins’. Very few people felt that they needed to extend sympathy, admiration or ‘solidarity’ to Katie Hopkins. Perhaps Angela Rayner’s tweet just failed to send. I notice a related trend today. Because of a stupidly unwise and untrue tweet sent in 2015, Hopkins was last year successfully sued by the blogger Jack Monroe. Hopkins’s effort to appeal was recently rejected. And so this weekend it emerges in the press that Hopkins is having to sell her family’s house, presumably to pay for the costs of proceedings.
On the same day that people are being encouraged to sympathise with the distress of a mother and daughter over one vile pornographic internet mock-up, Katie Hopkins children are losing their home. From a quick internet search I learn that Hopkins has three children, one of whom suffers from severe autism. Yet what do I find when I go on Twitter? I won’t link to them here, but the internet is full of otherwise impeccably ‘liberal’ media types and others laughing at the Hopkins family for having to sell their house. There are ‘hilarious’ internet memes based on estate agent photos of particular rooms in the Hopkins family home. If internet trolls, let alone decent liberal journalists, were laughing at photos from inside Cathy Newman’s house or the idea of her children losing their home I imagine that there would be a certain amount of censure. A bit of ‘don’t you think this is kind of dehumanising and in bad taste?’ One response may be, ‘Well Katie Hopkins behaved stupidly and has brought this upon herself.’ I cannot even imagine someone saying the same about Cathy Newman, and rightly so. But the difference in treatment – depending solely on political persuasion, is the really terrible indictment of our times.
Finally – a correction. In my original post I used both Channel 4 and the Today programme’s treatment of Peterson as a criticism of broadcast journalism in Britain as a whole. Since then I have had a chance to listen to BBC 5 Live’s interview with the professor. The interviewers are Sarah Brett and Nihal Arthanayake. Both are absolutely superb, asking deep and thoughtful questions, allowing their guest to speak and treating him, and his ideas, with the seriousness towards which broadcast journalism used to aspire.