Parliament Week with Professor Mary Beard & friends


A fantastic panel for this Parliament Week event, but did we answer the question of how to safeguard women’s online engagement with the democratic process?

Because in a nutshell, I don’t think we did. (The question is set out here)

We had a splendid panel trying to unpick what I believe to be a very serious public policy issue. The problem was that I don’t think we spent nearly enough time discussing the public policy aspects of the impact of online abuse. Hence my very jumbled intervention wanting to cover too much, resulting in Chris Bryant MP forgetting what Puffles’ name was, and calling him ‘Mr Grumbles’. (Puffles has been called a lot worse, believe me!) Much of the discussion, understandably was spent mentioning some of the horrific experiences most of the panellists or their friends, had experienced.

Define the democratic process

Perhaps part of the problem here was that we didn’t start out with some clear definitions about what was within, and what was outside the scope of the democratic process. (ie Within the context of the debate). Is being on BBC Question Time being part of the democratic process? Is being on Twitter part of the democratic process? Is posting a comment on an online newspaper article engaging in the democratic process? Or is it a much more narrow scope of constituent-candidate/constituent-elected representative communications?

The first generation to grow up with the internet

The current generation of teenagers are the first generation to grow up not knowing what society was like without the internet. That does not mean they all have or had access to it, but rather it is difficult for them to comprehend what life was like without it being there. It’s a bit like asking adults what life was like before everyone had cars or telephones or washing machines – or even piped hot water. My point is that the existence and widespread availability of the internet services has had an impact on people’s behaviour, just as greater availability of cars and piped hot water had. With the latter, the local bath house is now a mental health resource centre. Whether it’s having streets safe for children to play in without getting choked by pollution or run over, to a community using a communal bath house, technological advances and how we use them have social impacts.

‘Would you say that to a person’s face? If not, why say it online?’

When you unpick this point all the way to macro-policy and even to a global level, the scale of the problem can become overwhelming. With that in mind, is the violence and abuse that too many women receive a reflection of the existing epidemic of violence against girls and women worldwide? My point here is that the online abuse that not just girls and women face, but the rest of us too, is far too great to examine in its online silo alone. (By that I mean we need to tackle the ‘offline violence against women as well as the online violence & abuse at the same time).

‘I can be obnoxious if I want to, it’s my freedom of speech!’

But when does one person’s freedom of speech crush someone else’s? For example where one person from a position of power is able to silence someone else just through verbally communicating the threat of physical violence alone? Isn’t that a form of silencing that takes away the weaker person’s freedom of speech and their ability to participate in society? That, for me is when it becomes a public policy issue. As Professor Mary Beard said in her remarks, “politics belongs to all of us”.

“Yeah – it’s great that she said some really interesting stuff & all that, but look at what she’s wearing!”

Actually, this happened with me too when BBC’s Question Time came to Cambridge. Off the top of my head, about six people on Twitter commented on the point I made, about ten or so were followers and were like “It’s Puffles’ Bestest Buddy on the tellybox!” and about a hundred or so commented on what they thought I was wearing. (They thought it was a red suit, but it was a red blazer only – the trousers were black. Poor sods didn’t see the red shoes.)

The serious point from this is that women (from what I have seen on Twitter when doing name searches of politicians, journalists & interviewees on current affairs programming) face far more abusive comments on appearance than men do. I got off lightly.

This abuse hurts.

More politicians are beginning to say this. Caroline Dinenage MP‘s remarks were quite striking on this. And it needs to be said. At the same time, the bravado from some politicians – in particular those with executive functions who are self-styled ‘attack dogs’ really don’t help politics by responding aggressively on difficult policy issues where people are genuinely hurting. As each of the panellists spoke, the issues around low levels of democratic engagement/turnout looked very different in that context. Why would anyone want to engage with political institutions if all that happens is that you get political brickbats thrown at you? One of the first council meetings I went to I took a verbal one full in the face. On another day I’d have given up with local government altogether.

Open policy and participatory democracy will be wrecked if we don’t deal with hatred in our society. And that means tackling some very difficult local and global issues too

I wrote about how politicians are avoiding the real difficult issues in this blogpost. (Puffles also gave Geoff Mulgan, a former No.10 adviser a kicking over the all-male panel.)

On open policy and participatory democratic systems, both will be flawed if women’s voices are silenced. You’ll simply end up with very skewed policy-making processes with policy shaped by those with the loudest voices (and/or the most money). We are already seeing the impact of this with low voter turnout and democratic engagement with young people vis-a-vis older generations. It’s a divide magnified by the mainstream media that demonise young people. I also think there’s a responsibility for politicians to stand up for young people and challenge negative stereotypes of young people. When local councillors in my area failed to do so at one recent meeting, me and Puffles did it for them. (See item 1 of 13/53/SAC).

On the global issues bit, the challenge there is responding to both real and perceived injustices. Again, Mary Beard was very strong on this point too. Just because someone might be throwing abuse at a politician does not necessarily mean that they are not facing an injustice. This perhaps is what the liberal-left ignore at their peril when looking at say the rise of UKIP. In Cambridgeshire, it seems incredulous to academic liberal-left types that wards in some of the lowest-lying parts of the country sea-level-wise would vote for a political party hostile to the science behind, and the policies to tackle climate change. But that’s what happened (see here) and it cost the Conservatives control of Cambridgeshire County Council in May 2013.

This then makes me think further about issues of political literacy, education and the politics/policy feedback loops. Something is malfunctioning in our political system if our political institutions are not able to pick up injustices (and how people feel about them) and respond accordingly. Especially so if those most vocal & abusive at the same time about perceived or real injustices pick on the very groups of people who were not responsible for the decisions that led to the situation in the first place. Women, asylum seekers, minority ethnic communities, people with disabilities, the unemployed, young people…the list goes on. This is where the mainstream media – especially the print media – need to be called to account. And through much more effective mechanisms than either saying ‘well people should not buy such papers’ on one side, or censorship on the other.

Should we be helping create safe spaces? Also, who is the ‘we’ in this context?

I like to think that the exchanges that happen across Puffles’ Twitter feed is an example of a safe space – in particular for young people and those wanting to learn about politics and policy processes. For a start, Puffles has house rules (see here) and many regular followers are familiar with them. But that only goes so far, and I have to be eternally vigilant about who I allow to follow & interact with. In an open policy context, how do you create a safe online space with online tools you cannot moderate? Jackie Ashley, the chair was particularly strong on the responsibility of mainstream newspapers to moderate out abusive comments.

At the same time, I have run a number of training sessions on social media for politicians from across the political spectrum. Media firestorms and online abuse have been two reasons often cited by politicians from all parties I’ve met, as a reason not to engage online. How do you persuade the sceptical and the fearful to overcome their reservations? This for me is especially important at local government level where councils (such as the ones in my neck of the woods – Cambridgeshire – have launched online community platforms, eg Shape Your Place).

Will time solve the problem?

Personally I think democracy and the problems facing this world are far too important to wait for one generation to pass away and for another generation to take its place.

Mary Beard talked to me about the historical context of social conventions and manners just before the start of the event, putting social media in that context. (You know when you’ve spent several minutes speaking with someone incredibly inspirational? That). We are in this very strange place in history where a number of social conventions are ‘up in the air’ and we’re all trying to pin them down again – just in different places. Part of it is institutions & people (mainly affluent men) are being challenged in a way that they’ve seldom been challenged before. What are the social conventions of social media? This was one of the reasons why I spent two years inside and outside the civil service chasing them on social media guidance. (It’s one of the reasons why Puffles got a mention when Cabinet Office finally published it in 2012 – see here). In a nutshell it was a big opportunity to set some of the social conventions, in particular in a Whitehall policy-making context.

Are we in the UK victims of our own social…prudishness? As a society are will we be forced to have conversations that we’ve brushed under the carpet since the Victorian era?

Some people made a bit of mischief over a question posed to the Prime Minister on the radio recently about internet filters. A very loaded question was put to him by the interviewer about a husband wanting filters off and a wife wanting filters on. (See here). The transcript says Cameron’s response was that this was a conversation they’d have to have. Which is fair enough. I picked up some interesting tweets following that, one saying that Cameron was mistaken in thinking it was only straight men that wanted the filters off, while others said such men would switch to mobile devices instead.

A yawning gap between public policy and where a younger generation happens to be

For me, this is a repeat of the battles of the 1990s, just in a more evolved context. In the 1990s as a teenager, the dying days of John Major’s Conservative administration I remember the massive gulf between a political class that wanted to hide knowledge from young people. The two key battle grounds of my time being narcotics and sexuality. With the first it was ‘just say no!’ and with the second, it was Section 28. In the current political and public policy context, I feel that the political and institutionalised religious class is still trying to behave in a manner that has not accepted the existence and social impact of the internet and social media. You only have to look at the furore around sex education (and the outrage from institutionally sexist religious institutions).

Stand up, speak out vs ‘do not feed the trolls’

My blogpost of 18 months ago (see here) shows just how quickly social media culture is evolving. It also shows the impact that well-reasoned and passionately argued cases can have too. It’s all very well for someone like me to say ‘Do not feed the trolls’ (even though trolling and online abuse are two very different things), but then how many men (compared to women) have to cope with the daily deluge of hate from many multiple sources? This is where I’ve personally been inspired by those figures that have spoken out about it, risking further abuse at the same time. That showed real courage and bravery – facing the fear and speaking out anyway, knowing what the backlash might entail from some quarters. It’s not something I could ever have done myself in their situation.

To finish off, this underlines why it is all the more important to have more women and a much greater diversity of people in politics and policy-making. If we had parliaments with the diversity of pre-1992 intakes, issues affecting not just women but other parts of society simply would not be raised. They are issues today because enough people have been brave enough to speak out about them. How many of us men knew about what women have to put up with on a daily basis until the Everyday Sexism campaign was launched?

Unless we get much more transparency, accountability and diversity of intakes in large, powerful decision-making organisations (whether in politics, finance, academia, industry etc) some of the deep root causes of online hatred will remain.

Violence and hatred are symptoms of a rotten culture. That culture is set by powerful institutions. People in decision-making positions in those institutions are the ones that need to act – or forced into acting. Because until that happens, those people at the top will remain part of the problem.


3 thoughts on “Parliament Week with Professor Mary Beard & friends

  1. I love this reflective overview of the evening. The question posed by Mary Beard about why is this nastiness there and the role of power does deserve more deliberation and debate.

    One aspect the panel didn’t pick up on, which appears very relevant to me, was the remit of Leveson looking at the culture and ethics of the press. Surely those with influence in the public sphere have a responsibility to meet basic levels of respect towards others and not whip up hatred/derision of the other. A responsibility we certainly don’t see taken up by the tabloid press, or often in the “zoo-like’ House of Commons.

    Role modelling for younger generations is something we do not take seriously enough, “children do not listen to their elders but they never fail to imitate them”. If those with power and responsibility are not courteous and respectful of others (police and teachers often fall foul of this with young people) why would we expect our young to be any different?

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