Disagreement is morphing into vitriol. The consequences could be severe
Horrific abuse, online and off, risks stifling public debate and deterring future generations from entering politics, warns Anushka Asthana
After Diane Abbott missed the first vote on the Brexit bill because of a migraine I – like many other journalists – was desperate to get hold of her. After all, there was a lot of anger, including from MPs representing other Remain seats who had done what in many of their constituents’ eyes may have been a dirty deed. But the shadow home secretary and her team were difficult to track down.
Eventually one of them apologised and forwarded me an email that had been sent by a man to one of Abbott’s staff members that morning, by way of explanation. It described Abbott as a “pathetic useless black piece of shit”; a piece of pond slime who should be hanged from a tree, “if they could find a tree big enough to take the fat bitch’s weight”.
I was shocked. Of course, I knew that many MPs faced horrific abuse but I was taken aback seeing a message like that (which after some consideration and debate we did not initially print in full in the Guardian because it was so outrageous).
Those working for Abbott couldn’t understand my surprise; they said this was a daily occurrence. In fact, this message would mark the eighth time they had reported correspondence to the police, expressing in a letter that each time they were frustrated to see no action taken. A survey filled out by someone who had worked with the MP revealed that she faced daily death and rape threats. They even outlined physical abuse on public transport and in the streets.
A quick search on Twitter and I had found an image of a Gorilla with the words “Get the Diane Abbott Look”, which had been retweeted by a Conservative parish councillor (later suspended) who defended himself by claiming it was about her “size and her appearance” rather than her colour.
Another tweet was of an obese black pole dancer. When we wrote about it – the abuse got worse.
Already the MP had felt the need to improve the security on her home and had stopped walking around Hackney on her own.
And we know it isn’t just Abbott. The man who was jailed for two years for a string of anti-Semitic online rants and death threats aimed at Luciana Berger was the tip of the iceberg for the Labour MP. Previously he had targeted Stella Creasy. Jess Phillips has talked of 600 rape threats in one night, and has installed protection in her home. She said that she had never felt scared in her old job, but as an MP felt that every day.
None of us need reminding that the wonderful Jo Cox was butchered to death in her constituency. And it isn’t just women. A male MP told me of facing abuse on his driveway. The SNP are at loggerheads with Ipsa over information being published they fear may pinpoint politicians’ homes and travel plans – partly because of credible threats.
I have so many other examples of MPs – but many don’t want to speak out because when they do things get worse. Somewhere, somehow, debate and disagreement has started to morph into vitriol on too many occasions.
Clearly part of the problem is that the anonymity of online discussion has allowed vehement hostility to explode against groups of people who put forward arguments that might trigger dissent. Journalists are targeted as well, but politicians are front of the queue.
But it is something more than that when the abuse is so vitriolic and offline as well as on.
Yvette Cooper is right to say that such harassment and abuse is “stifling debate and ruining lives”; it also risks self-selecting the type of people who might put themselves forward – discouraging anyone who considers themselves sensitive or thin-skinned.
Just think: even Abbott said she might have thought again 30 years ago, if someone had told her what she would be facing in 2017.
Anushka Asthana is Political Editor of the Guardian