Bank Holiday Monday, in case you didn’t know, was also World Press Freedom Day. Unesco understandably marked the occasion. But more interesting than its official communiqué – and a great deal more informative about the way that organisation thinks – was a recent report it sponsored in support of two journalists said to be the subject of attacks on press freedom: Maria Ressa in the Philippines, and, at home, Carole Cadwalladr. The views expressed in that document are worth a closer look.
Maria Ressa is a long-standing and courageous thorn in the side of the Philippines’ strongman president Rodrigo Duterte. A man who has said openly that 'just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch,' Duterte is determined to silence her by attrition. In the last four years, Ressa has been subjected to ten arrest warrants, one hounding on a dubious allegation of tax fraud and a conviction on an equally dodgy charge of 'cyber libel'.
Carole Cadwalladr certainly has some features in common with Maria Ressa. She is articulate, combative, progressive, and relentlessly anti-government. But there the parallel stops. Unlike Maria, she works in a liberal democracy and is very comfortably placed. She can say anything she likes without fear of arrest or governmental harassment, and indeed with the assurance of plaudits from an admiring metropolitan audience. No regime moves to silence her. She lives the good life as a successful, high-earning, well-fêted darling of the progressive left.
Yet Cadwalladr is said to also represent press freedom under attack, and to be as much in need of international support and protection as Ressa. How so? The answer, as usual, depends on your point of view.
This report, typical of documents from Unesco and its acolytes, sees press freedom in a light most readers will find strange. It places surprisingly little emphasis on the obvious matter of legal restrictions and extra-legal bullying emanating from governments which do not like what the press says about them. Instead it concentrates on two less tangible features: societal misogyny fuelled by right-wing media, and governments’ failure to monitor closely (and, where necessary) restrict what is said about female journalists on social media, which leads to so-called 'online violence'.
This term 'violence', as might be expected, goes way beyond the periodical death threats and the like received by many public figures from an unhinged minority. It includes purely verbal online attacks on their competence, credibility or reputation, and anything designed to shame or humiliate them. Misogyny seems to mean anything which, however tangentially, refers to a female journalist’s sex.
Thus Ressa is portrayed as the victim, not so much of an authoritarian government (which she clearly is), as of a hostile and misogynistic right-wing social media campaign condoned by the Philippine authorities. Having said this, the report can then go on to equate Cadwalladr’s case to hers. While the report admits 'their cases are not directly comparable', the comparison the reader is intended to make is all too clear.
Britain is, by implication, just as bad as the Philippines, since it too has failed to control what people are allowed to say on social media and thus protect female writers from misogynistic online violence. In Cadwalladr’s case, this violence is said to include the permitted use on Twitter or Facebook of words like 'liar', 'stupid woman', 'hysterical hag' or 'crazy cat lady'; hackneyed political slang like 'remoaner' and 'libtard'; and jocular references to 'Carole Codswallop'. Even a measured but effective attack on her and her views by Douglas Murray in The Spectator is apparently to be regarded as part of a campaign of verbal violence aimed at silencing her.
What are we to make of this? Some points are obvious. While the abuse Cadwalladr has received should be condemned, the suggestion that Cadwalladr is a seriously victimised journalist as much in need of protection from the international community as Maria Ressa is preposterous.
But this episode also reminds us to be wary of taking Unesco too seriously. The organisation, one should remember, has form as a vehicle for anti-west and anti-liberal propaganda: so much so that between 1985 and 1997, while it was being run by the openly pro-Soviet Amadou-Makhtar M’Bow and his successors, the UK simply dropped out. Today the partisanship may be less blatant, but Unesco is still an organisation with a desire to avoid upsetting certain authoritarian regimes. It also has a need to be seen as progressively cosmopolitan, genteelly anti-capitalist and not beholden to ideas of Western liberalism.
Hence this report is perfectly in character. As soon as you suggest journalists might be discouraged from writing if verbally attacked – and extend the idea of violence to cover mere speech – you immediately gain enormous scope to suppress free speech and attack the Western liberal tradition. For another, you can also posit a false equivalence between authoritarian governments, who openly censor the press, and liberal western regimes that do not, but do allow criticism of it.
This also allows you to be politically partisan. It’s no accident, one suspects, that both journalists featured in this document are politically to the left. As regards Cadwalladr, the authors can hardly contain their enthusiasm for the causes she espouses (she is 'multi-award winning', engages in 'courageous investigative journalism', and has 'linked the Cambridge Analytica scandal to both the election of former US president Donald Trump, and Brexit' despite being opposed by a 'right-wing information system that is all powerful', and so on). It is, to say the least, unlikely that a right-of-centre journalist would have received similar treatment had he or she suffered a similar social media storm.
There is one pertinent question worth asking. Would Maria Ressa, a journalist genuinely under threat and deserving of our sympathy, hounded from pillar to post by none-too-gentle government agents out to get her and prevent her from plying her trade, be willing to change places with Cadwalladr? The answer, except perhaps to a Unesco groupie, isn’t difficult. Would Cadwalladr, for her part, be willing to change places with Maria? I’m not so sure.