It’s exam season, so here’s a test, suitable for anyone interested in how the media and public conversation work in 2019.
Here is a sequence of events:
Now, given that sequence of events, which of the following would best describe media coverage that follows:
A) Media outlets report the story under headlines along the lines of 'Child safety charity sacks celebrity ambassador who broke safety rules and undermined its work.'
B) Media outlets run stories and commentary reporting the celebrity’s dismissal but failing even to mention the reason for that dismissal (breaching rules around child safety) and accusing those who raised concerns about the celebrity’s appointment of hateful prejudice. Several single out the female journalist mentioned in point 5, questioning her motives and her right to speak.
The answer is A, right? I mean, this is 2019, not 1979. Child safety is well-understood and valued, as is the importance of an environment where concerns about the breach of the relevant rules can be aired freely: no one would try to silence whistleblowers, journalists or anyone else who raised concerns about the messages sent to and examples set for vulnerable children, would they? And shouting down women who ask questions isn’t acceptable any more, is it?
Well, actually the answer is B.
This is, if you haven’t followed it, the case of Munroe Bergdorf, appointed and then dismissed as an ambassador for the NSPCC, which operates Childline.
To be crystal clear about this, the board of the NSPCC dismissed Bergdorf because it judged that her actions breached its standards relating to child protection and would actually undermine the work of the charity (i.e. the protection of children).
NSPCC guidance to parents is that they should tell children not to contact and share personal information online with people who are not known to them:
“'Explain that it isn't easy to identify someone online. People aren't always who they say they are, so don't share personal information. If it's someone who genuinely knows your child, they shouldn't need to ask for personal information online. Tell your child that if they're in any doubt they should talk to you first.'
Munroe Bergdorf has, on more than one occasion, used social media channels to encourage young people to contact her to discuss their personal struggles and worries.
In a public statement, the NSPCC said that it dismissed her because of such statements. It said:
“'When appointing an ambassador we are required to consider whether the relationship supports our ability to safeguard children and be influential in safeguarding children. The board decided an ongoing relationship with Munroe was inappropriate because of her statements on the public record, which we felt would mean that she was in breach of our own risk assessments and undermine what we are here to do. These statements are specific to safeguarding and equality.'
Bergdorf has not retreated from those statements, telling the Guardian that she sees nothing wrong in encouraging children to message her 'as a friend to turn to'. (Bergdorf is 31.) As far as I can see, she has not yet addressed the NSPCC’s point about her online conduct 'breaching' its guidelines. She says she has been unfairly treated and dismissed because she is transgender.
In any other context, this would a simple and uncontroversial thing for any media outlet to cover: 'Celebrity sacked by child safety charity for undermining child safety rules' would be how I’d expect most journalists to frame the story. Or perhaps 'Celebrity sacked by child safety charity says she did nothing wrong.'
Yet at the time of writing, most of the media outlets who have covered this story have not done so. Some have not even reported the NSPCC statement that contains the central fact of this matter, that Munroe Bergdorf was dismissed by the charity for 'undermining' its work.
The Guardian managed to produce an entire video interview with Bergdorf without even asking about the charity’s stated reason for her dismissal. The same piece quotes from that NSPCC statement, but omits the central reason Bergdorf was dismissed.
The BBC meanwhile has run at least one story online and carried a fairly extensive interview with Bergdorf, discussing at some length her view that she has been unfairly treated by the NSPCC and in which she claims she was the subject of a 'campaign' aimed at her removal from her NSPCC role.
Despite devoting time and resources to this story, the BBC has not, however, reported the NSPCC statement I quote above – the statement that sets out the charity’s reasons for dismissing her.
The BBC has however found time to mention the journalist who asked the NSPCC a question about Bergdorf’s appointment, at point 5 in my timeline above. That journalist is Janice Turner of the Times. She’s a friend of mine and a writer I admire, so I’m not pretending to be objective here. But it is objectively true that she has been showered with personal abuse on Twitter and elsewhere over this matter.
Here, you may shrug and say, 'well, that’s Twitter for you'. But the mistreatment of Janice Turner goes rather further here, and takes in some frankly culpable behaviour by supposedly responsible media outlets.
The BBC, the Guardian and the Independent have all, by implication, presented the mere fact of a journalist asking questions as some sort of campaigning action. This is not a trivial matter. In this, they are contributing to the dismal trend of treating journalistic inquiry and expression as fair game for attack: see Donald Trump and sadly, Boris Johnson’s press conference this week for examples.
Spin-doctors and heavy-handed politicians have long sought to characterise the act of asking questions as a form of political participation that opens the questioner up to challenge and attack. That’s bad enough, but it is frankly heart-breaking to see respected professional media platforms putting a target on a journalist’s back because she asked a question.
Some went further still. I think it is at least arguable that several media outlets have defamed Janice Turner.
For instance, the Independent: 'a campaign was led by anti-trans fanatic Janice Turner.'
Also, QX Magazine: 'Attacks like Janice Turner's are putting people in direct physical danger.'
This is a woeful state of affairs that should trouble anyone who thinks journalists should be able to ask questions and express opinions without abuse and harassment.
Such abuse can easily exert a serious chilling effect on journalism. I don’t think this will silence Janice Turner: she’s too tough for that, and she’s supported by a strong editor and a big paper.
But why should she need to be tough, need that support? And I know for certain that there are other journalists who avoid covering the sort of issues she does, for fear of abuse.
I’ll end this miserable tale with a final exam question:
Fact 1: Munroe Bergdorf was sacked by a child safety charity because the charity said she undermined its child safety work. She has since been lionised and feted, treated as a victim of injustice.
Fact 2: Janice Turner sent a single tweet to ask the charity a question about Munroe Bergdorf’s appointment, an appointment the charity has now accepted was inappropriate and mistaken. Janice Turner has since been vilified, abused and defamed.
Question: what are the differences between Munroe Bergdorf and Janice Turner that might explain the different ways in which they have been treated?