Investigative journalism on the cheap

Lyall Duff, as probably everyone in Scotland knows by now, posted some stupid crap on his Facebook profile under the mistaken impression that he’d made it private.

When the Daily Record (8th April) published some tweets from a couple of years ago made by Josh Wilson (@joshyyw) when he was 17, identifying him as an “SNP activist” I saw this criticised on my twitterfeed even by Labour activists protesting that this was unfair – a young man being blamed for “crude and sexist” comments he’d made two years ago.

Before I read the Daily Record story I agreed. Everyone says the odd stupid thing when they’re 17: this shouldn’t necessarily be held against you when you’re older. And it seems to me that newspapers are getting worked up about scandalous stuff from social media because it is the cheapest and least-effortful form of investigative journalism.

But then I looked at the detail of it, and one line jumped out at me.

Josh Wilson, an assistant to MSP Christina McKelvie, told her she “made it look too easy to slag and s***” and made another offensive remark to her.

One reason why this is being treated by many people as a trivial matter is that this kind of thing happens all of the time. Teenage boys talk crap and teenage girls are expected to put up with it.

One of my favourite things about Anne-with-an-e Shirley of Green Gables, now on BBC iPlayer, is that when Gilbert Blythe negged her she smashed her slate over his head and wouldn’t talk to him for two years. Of course violence is very wrong, but just the same… go Anne!

There is a delightful fantasy of riposte by XKCD. But it is a fantasy and this is why: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” (Crowdsourcing online says this is from Margaret Atwood, but Ask Nicola is where I saw it discussed.)
Negging - pickup artist by XKCD
In real life these kind of take-downs are l’esprit d’escalier – even if you think of them at the time – for reasons every woman understands.

The Daily Record avoided quoting the second tweet. Josh Wilson has deleted it. But my guess is it was probably the kind of rape threat that men direct at women online all the time. Too full of four-letter-words for the Record to feel they could quote it.

There was a recent kerfuffle in the world of science-fiction, concerning the Arthur C. Clarke award. A somewhat-famous male science-fiction writer wrote a blogpost attacking most of the authors who had been short-listed this year and all of the judges for putting forward such a (in his view) mediocre shortlist: he especially apostrophised another male sf author as a puppy that hadn’t been housebroken. (Summary with links here.)

You have probably not heard about it (unless you’re also a science-fiction fan *waves*) and I wouldn’t be mentioning it except SF writer Catherynne M Valente pointed out on her journal that if this had been a woman who had written such an explicit attack under her own name, she would still be getting rape and death threats. Because that’s how misogyny on the Internet works.

…because he is a man. And we respond to it with some anger, but mostly reasoned philosophical or humorous posts, macros, examining what it means, the value of juried awards, defending the authors and jurors but mostly accepting what he said as either a sad gesture by an old man, a hilarious and miserable rant, or valuing that at least someone cares that much–even wishing someone would go equally ballistic about a different award. There is a marked lack of viciousness–and what he said was every bit as bad as some of the stuff that gets Requires Only That You Hate a fever pitch of loathing and seething fury just about every time she posts.

I’m not saying everyone should just put their Asshole Hats on and have at it–but some people have their Asshole Hats on already, and they take them off for men who have a beef. I keep trying to think of what a male blogger would have to say about science fiction to have someone say they hope he gets raped to death. I’m not coming up with anything.

Misogyny in the West is coming up and it’s a gross, miserable, chthonic thing swirling at our feet. It’s getting worse, not better. Sites that consider themselves evolved, liberal-leaning, and intellectual (hello Reddit! Hello Gawker!) have comments and whole sections full of such boiling hate for women that it knocks you back. I hear people say with a straight face that the younger generation isn’t sexist or racist anymore, and unpacking how woefully wrong that is would take another post entirely. And geek culture isn’t immune, not even close. Sometimes it’s worse, because it’s so convinced it doesn’t have the same work to do as the mainstream. And, I suspect, because a lot of guys were rejected by girls when they were young and see gender as the only thing all those girls had in common, and so as adults take it out on a whole gender by either outright hostility or by excluding what they see as the source of their troubles from their presence, their media, their art.

Last Sunday Victoria Coren noted – in my view correctly – that while Liam Stacey was a racist scumbag for tweeting what he did about a black footballer who suffered a heart-attack mid-game, his going to jail for seven tweets is profoundly disturbing. Even if in the considered view of the judge – he didn’t get a jury trial – this merited a criminal conviction to indicate to him the seriousness of his offense, that’s what suspended sentences are for.

But there’s a huge blind spot for many men.

What does it feel like to be subjected to regular rape threats or death threats? To have people send you emails quoting your address, or outlining their sexual fantasies about you? That’s the reality of what many female bloggers experience.

I went to school with boys like Josh Wilson, who thought it was highly amusing and appropriate to call women “slags”. Like every other woman who’s expressed an opinionated view online, I’ve had experiences of the times when sexist trolls won’t leave you alone, tirades of ugly abuse and threats of rape and other violence.

I’m sure Josh Wilson is very sorry to have been found out. But I’d need quite a bit more convincing that he’s actually ashamed that he was ever that kind of person and is now striving to be a feminist, than just his deleting those tweets about Natasha Giggs – were those the only two incidents in which he called a woman a slag or made sexual threats about a woman? One reason why the Daily Record wanted to use those tweets was certainly because it was an excuse to use a pic of Natasha Giggs and remind people how she qualified to be in “Celebrity” Big Brother House.

I still think investigating what people were saying on social media is a cheap kind of investigative journalism. It seems unlikely that the Daily Record would follow this through with any serious look at Josh Wilson’s behaviour towards women who aren’t even very minor celebrities. Was this truly a one-off? Was it a pattern of sexist abuse towards women?

What if men – and even teenage boys – learned that targetting a woman for sexist abuse and threats was not something they could do with impunity, that – for example – calling a woman a “rabid animal” for writing an amusing takedown of a male writer had real-world consequences? What if the reaction to Josh Wilson’s ugly tweet about Natasha Giggs had been serious – suspension of his SNP membership and his volunteer work for an SNP MSP?

Late last year Helen Lewis blogged about the kind of sexual abuse women get for being women on the Internet, and in response to multiple reactions of “But men get abused TOO” she answered:

Well, as it happens, I spoke to quite a few male writers before writing the piece, and they told me the same thing — yes, we get abuse. Yes, some of it is ad hominem and it gets to us. No, we don’t get the volume that women get, and the tone is generally not slanted towards sexual violence.

At this point, if I were you, I’d repeat back my favourite phrase to me: “The plural of anecdote is not data.” It’s perfectly true, but all we have here is anecdote, so collecting a decent amount of it is the best I can do. The broad consensus is that although male writers get abuse, they don’t get it simply for being male. Even Brendan O’Neill, who is otherwise what you might call “unsympathetic” to my point of view, can’t stand that up.

I’ve a post in the works about the inequality of gender representation. Hopefully it will get published tomorrow – tonight I intend to go watch Aliens at the Filmhouse. Sigourney Weaver, huge gun, dead monster. What could be better?

Of course it’s a female monster. I may or may not be able to leave the feminist analysis out of that one.


Filed under In The Media, Scottish Politics, Women

5 responses to “Investigative journalism on the cheap

  1. Joess

    “when Gilbert Blythe negged her she smashed her slate over his head and wouldn’t talk to him for two years. Of course violence is very wrong, but just the same… go Anne!”

    That’s a great movie. However, I need to point this out – you’re against Anne being negged, but you applaud it when the man, Gilbert, takes physical violence and is basically socially shut out for 2 years.

    What if the roles were reversed? Young girls tease and bully their male classmates as well. What if Anne had negged Gilbert, and in revenge he smashed her physically over the head, told all his friends about it (gossip) and didn’t speak to her for 2 years. Wouldn’t you be pretty upset that it was more sexist behavior from men?

    I agree that there is sexism against women through society, but there are also many negative stereotypes against men (like Homer Simpson – stupid, lazy, etc). And many of the same women who decry sexism, also have no problem gleefully chuckling when it’s the man that’s the victim.

    I agree with your article, about abuse against women – but if you were to be true to your cause, you would stick up for men too.

    • The man??? I take it you’re not familiar with Anne of Green Gables, but here’s the moment:

      “That’s Gilbert Blythe sitting right across the aisle from you, Anne. Just look at him and see if you don’t think he’s handsome.”

      Anne looked accordingly. She had a good chance to do so, for the said Gilbert Blythe was absorbed in stealthily pinning the long yellow braid of Ruby Gillis, who sat in front of him, to the back of her seat. He was a tall boy, with curly brown hair, roguish hazel eyes, and a mouth twisted into a teasing smile. Presently Ruby Gillis started up to take a sum to the master; she fell back into her seat with a little shriek, believing that her hair was pulled out by the roots. Everybody looked at her and Mr. Phillips glared so sternly that Ruby began to cry. Gilbert had whisked the pin out of sight and was studying his history with the soberest face in the world; but when the commotion subsided he looked at Anne and winked with inexpressible drollery.

      “I think your Gilbert Blythe IS handsome,” confided Anne to Diana, “but I think he’s very bold. It isn’t good manners to wink at a strange girl.”

      But it was not until the afternoon that things really began to happen.

      Mr. Phillips was back in the corner explaining a problem in algebra to Prissy Andrews and the rest of the scholars were doing pretty much as they pleased eating green apples, whispering, drawing pictures on their slates, and driving crickets harnessed to strings, up and down aisle. Gilbert Blythe was trying to make Anne Shirley look at him and failing utterly, because Anne was at that moment totally oblivious not only to the very existence of Gilbert Blythe, but of every other scholar in Avonlea school itself. With her chin propped on her hands and her eyes fixed on the blue glimpse of the Lake of Shining Waters that the west window afforded, she was far away in a gorgeous dreamland hearing and seeing nothing save her own wonderful visions.

      Gilbert Blythe wasn’t used to putting himself out to make a girl look at him and meeting with failure. She SHOULD look at him, that red-haired Shirley girl with the little pointed chin and the big eyes that weren’t like the eyes of any other girl in Avonlea school.

      Gilbert reached across the aisle, picked up the end of Anne’s long red braid, held it out at arm’s length and said in a piercing whisper:

      “Carrots! Carrots!”

      Then Anne looked at him with a vengeance!

      She did more than look. She sprang to her feet, her bright fancies fallen into cureless ruin. She flashed one indignant glance at Gilbert from eyes whose angry sparkle was swiftly quenched in equally angry tears.

      “You mean, hateful boy!” she exclaimed passionately. “How dare you!”

      And then—thwack! Anne had brought her slate down on Gilbert’s head and cracked it—slate not head—clear across.

      Avonlea school always enjoyed a scene. This was an especially enjoyable one. Everybody said “Oh” in horrified delight. Diana gasped. Ruby Gillis, who was inclined to be hysterical, began to cry. Tommy Sloane let his team of crickets escape him altogether while he stared open-mouthed at the tableau.

      Mr. Phillips stalked down the aisle and laid his hand heavily on Anne’s shoulder.

      “Anne Shirley, what does this mean?” he said angrily. Anne returned no answer. It was asking too much of flesh and blood to expect her to tell before the whole school that she had been called “carrots.” Gilbert it was who spoke up stoutly.

      “It was my fault Mr. Phillips. I teased her.”

      Mr. Phillips paid no heed to Gilbert.

      “I am sorry to see a pupil of mine displaying such a temper and such a vindictive spirit,” he said in a solemn tone, as if the mere fact of being a pupil of his ought to root out all evil passions from the hearts of small imperfect mortals. “Anne, go and stand on the platform in front of the blackboard for the rest of the afternoon.” (From CHAPTER XV. A Tempest in the School Teapot).

      Gilbert is 13-going-on-14. Anne is 11, I think. It’s a one-room schoolhouse, so literally every child either of them knows sees what Gilbert did and how Anne responded.

      If you’re interested in how the scene would read if it were regendered here you go.

  2. I recall seeing this story and wondering what “made it look too easy to slag and s***” actually means. I assume “s***” is “shag”, but it would help if the Record had left more than one letter unasterisked, as “shit” is the default. Is “slagging and shagging” a known synonym for “negging”? Is it so well known that most readers would understand what was meant, no explanation required? Clearly I’ve led a sheltered life.

    • It’s a good point. I hate the tabloid practice of dropping asterisks over words. I thought it was probably originally “slag and shag” but the only person who could definitely tell us at this point would be Josh Wilson – or the “investigative journalist” who looked at the original tweet – and I suspect Josh is going to fake memory loss.

  3. Sean Linnen

    In context, I think Josh Wilson meant slag as in take the mick – nothing sexual. Still a stupid thing to say, but surely not something that is newsworthy and blogworthy.

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