The issue of press freedom has been making headlines in recent days—for all the wrong reasons. Murdered journalists are a visceral reminder of the risks that many around the world take to tell the truth. It is one of the reasons that whenever I am asked to judge media awards, I say yes. Over the years, I have judged the Foreign Press Association Awards, the Society of Editors’ National Press Awards and, most recently, Editorial Intelligence’s Comment Awards, now in its 10th year. I am happy to read dozens of articles, to spend time really thinking about who should be shortlisted, get the accolades and so on because it seems important to honor great journalism, to give credit to those scribblers who make a difference through their writing.
Mainstream media (MSM) and, indeed, many new media outlets are a crucial part of our public square. It is true that, in recent years, the much derided MSM regularly stands accused of self-congratulatory smugness. All the more reason to shake up any complacency by congratulating those whose writing cuts through, that enlightens, entertains, drags us screaming out of our comfort zones. At a time when screeching tweets can replace well-argued analysis, and trolling is given as much credence as thoughtful commentary, finding ways of encouraging stand-out commentators on all sides of the political spectrum who share their thoughts in trying to make sense of a world riven by change and challenge is a worthy cause. With the brutal tragedy of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder as a backdrop, publicly acknowledging the achievements of journalists is one modest way of pressing home why a free press matters. Which is why the tawdry tale of how identity politics has turned the 2018 Comment Awards into a vehicle to attack nominated journalists is rather tragic and self-defeating.
Firstly, two of the shortlisted nominees for the Society and Diversity award, Guardian journalists Gary Younge and Nesrine Malik, demanded that they were removed from the shortlist, because Times columnist Melanie Phillips appeared on the same list. We have become accustomed to people refusing to share platforms with others. But refusing to be on the same shortlist? They argued that shortlisting Phillips “legitimizes her offensive attacks on immigrants…and Muslims” and that her “body of work…amounts to bigotry and divisiveness.” I don’t agree, but I accept that it’s fair comment if that is what those journalists believe. But to conclude that they don’t even want their name next to hers on a list compiled in good faith by the awards’ judges? That seems itself to be an example of divisiveness and a snub to one form of diversity: that of diverse opinion.
To ask to have your names removed after the shortlists are drawn up also insults the judges. Those very same judges who selected Younge and Malik’s work as worthy of acclaim thought Phillips’s was, too. As the Comment Awards’ Julia Hobsbawm noted: “Melanie Phillips was eligible to be nominated, and she was judged fairly… The judging can’t be undone.” I assume that the two objecting journalists have no problem with the judging process per se, as both won Comment Awards last year and didn’t object then. So, their objections this year, framed as, “To nominate a columnist who holds such views undermines the integrity of the award itself,” can only imply that certain writers should not be nominated at all.
Both writers stressed that “we would like to draw a clear distinction between those viewpoints with which we disagree and those which we fundamentally object to.” However, should nominees act as gatekeepers in deciding who else is considered worthy of acclaim, based on their fundamental objections rather than the quality of journalism and the judges’ decisions? One fears that this logic may see a spate of novelists refusing to be nominated for the Booker Prize without vetting which of their fellow writers might appear on the list, and what political opinions they hold. Are all awards organizers to be issued with a blacklist of those who fall foul of what others might find offensive? And who exactly will judge, a priori, which views are fundamentally objectionable, and to whom?
Inevitably, in an era of social media contagion, the issue didn’t stop there. The subsequent Twitter comments drew support from a range of eminent journalists who one might have hoped would be more concerned with celebrating press freedom rather than virtue signaling. However, a wide group of people, from former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger to Al-Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan, were happy to line up against Melanie Phillips even being considered for an award.
Comment Awards proud to offer ‘defence’ of Melanie Phillips. Muslims don’t matter to the UK media. They’re irrelevant to media elites. It should be a scandal but it isn’t. https://t.co/2ggacsr22L
— Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan) October 19, 2018
And then—guess what? Another retrospective identity controversy emerged. Helen Belcher, co-founder of charity Trans Media Watch (and a Liberal Democrat candidate), announced that she wanted to be removed from the Comment Awards judging panel over the nomination of another Times columnist, Janice Turner, after attending the judging meeting. Turner has been shortlisted for the Commentator of the Year category, after a vote by all judges (including Belcher). Belcher subsequently declared that “As soon as the shortlists were published, I asked for my name to be removed as a judge. The Comment Awards have refused to do this.” And they are right to refuse. Belcher had cast her vote; the demand that because she didn’t like the outcome of that vote, she could demand that the Comment Awards rewrite history, shows a high degree of entitled intolerance and little regard for a democratic process.
With no sense of irony, Belcher whinged that: “The values I thought underpinned the Society and Diversity award were inclusion and diversity. Instead, the only values that seem to have mattered are controversy and ‘changing the debate.'” Yet it is Belcher who is not prepared to accept the inclusion of a nominee because she is offended by Turner’s views. It is Belcher who stirred up controversy by accusing Turner of transphobia and worse. True, Belcher doesn’t seem interested in “changing the debate,” but more in silencing it.
In today’s toxic media wars, it seems that by claiming to speak on behalf of an identity group or in defense of the marginalized, one is given a green light to lash out in the most vituperative way. In a slanderous blog post, Belcher explained her objection to Turner being shortlisted by writing: “Since The Times started printing such pieces [on trans issues], starting with one by Turner in September 2017, I have heard of more trans suicides than at any point since 2012.” Not only is this claim not backed up by any figures or other evidence, it is the age-old excuse of draconian censors: Your journalism is too dangerous to go into print. Turner herself has written the allegation “is the most upsetting accusation I’ve faced in 30 years.” Thank goodness she faced down such threatening abuse to carry on writing her hugely important columns. Her place on the shortlist is well deserved.
Meanwhile, in a much-shared article on social media approving of Malik and Younge’s stance, titled “Comment is white: far-right extremism’s subversion of the British media,” Nafeez Ahmed objected not only to the nomination of Melanie Phillips but also another Times columnist, Daniel Finkelstein (for the Brexit category), because the shortlisting of “both figures provides alarming insights into how a global network of neo-fascists have attempted quite deliberately…to gather mainstream legitimacy for their xenophobic discourses; and how a self-soothingly complacent white-dominated media has functioned as a subservient, willing collaborator in this process…illustrat[ing] the functioning of white supremacism as a structure.”
Traducing two longstanding, widely published journalists as part of “a global network of neo-fascists” is insultingly ludicrous (both writers are Jewish). Moreover, the article’s malign attempt to set up “white opinion formers“ against “brown and black journalists” is a far more egregiously racializing of journalism than any contentious nominations at a media award. While Younge and Malik can’t be blamed for such conspiratorial venom in their name, it’s perhaps a pity they haven’t been as quick to distance themselves from this divisive, racially inflammatory comment as they were in denouncing their fellow comment writer Melanie Phillips.
No doubt, for Ahmed and those who have approvingly retweeted his rant, my “whiteness” disqualifies me from commenting. However, to note, in the category in which I judged, I voted for three writers whose views I fundamentally disagree with, but whose comment pieces were brilliantly written and made me think anew about issues. Two of those writers happen to be black, but as their ethnicity wasn’t a consideration when I read their articles, it seems more a concession to racial thinking that I should even note that fact. But perhaps it illustrates that when judging the quality of commentary, skin color is irrelevant. And of course, Malik and Younge were shortlisted precisely due to the quality of their writing, not as BAME representatives. If this is the Comment Awards’ “white supremacism as a structure,” as Ahmed alleges, it is singularly unsuccessful in its outcome.
One might be tempted to see these shenanigans as a minor media spat, confined to London’s cosmopolitan commentariat. But sadly it is a snapshot of a broader censorious atmosphere in relation to views that don’t neatly fit into today’s prevailing orthodoxies on any number of identity-related issues. The toxic “I Find that Offensive” default position, the ring-fencing of certain topics as beyond discussion, the delegitimizing of anyone who doesn’t conform, is inevitably eating away at democratic debate more broadly. The bile that has been heaped on a single journalist for going against the trans activists’ script on the Gender Recognition Act is replicated in academia, political parties, and a whole manner of public institutions.
The price for even raising the debate is to be labelled a bigot and to have one’s reputation trashed. A forthcoming academic panel debate that I am participating in (“Immigration and Diversity Politics: A Challenge to Liberal Democracy?“) was retitled after an initial twitterstorm, but even then a group of academics have written a letter on Open Democracy objecting to the premise of the event, the framing of which is described as “white supremacist discourse“ based on “racist presumptions.” It is actually based on academic disagreements about ethnicity and diversity. While I personally disagree with some of the premises embraced by my fellow panelists—we do not speak with one voice—and will say so at the event, to label participants as racist for even agreeing to speak can only chill discussion on thorny, difficult questions of which there are many facing society today.
Which is why a free press is essential for allowing such tricky issues to be mulled over and commented on from a wide variety of perspectives. If Donald Trump’s attacks on the media take the form of shouting “fake news” at any journalists who don’t flatter his narrative, the equally chilling identitarian mirror image are those who shout “offense,” “white supremacism,” “transphobia” at those who skeptically query intersectional narratives. The unpleasant bullying of anyone who demurs from a range of subjectively drawn red lines can only lead to a nervousness about what it is now considered acceptable to write, publish, comment on.
This climate is already causing too much media damage. Last year, Jonathan Kay chose to resign as editor of a Canadian magazine, The Walrus, after writing an article in the National Post defending the right to debate cultural appropriation, and expressing exasperation at the stifling attitudes of his contemporaries. His piece was in response to the fury faced by Hal Niedzviecki, who was also forced to resign (and apologize) as editor of the Writers’ Union of Canada’s publication, Write magazine, after writing an article defending “the unauthorized use of indigenous knowledge and traditions.”
More recently, the esteemed editor of the New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma, was forced out for daring to commission an essay by Jian Ghomeshi, a Canadian broadcaster, about his fall from grace. (Ghomeshi was accused and then acquitted in a court of law of sexual assault a few years ago, but his reputation was ruined.) Buruma’s crime—that disgracefully led to monumental pile-on led by other journalists and publications—was that he published an article that deviated from the correct #MeToo script. But if contemporary journalism blows “in the wind of ideological fads and political fashions,” as Colin Marshall described it in his excellent account of events for Quillette, we may be left with sanitized, anodyne, gutless writing, while allowing important commentators to be sacked, reviled and slandered.
Which is why the particular denouement in the Comment Awards story is so dispiriting. The Times has announced: “We have been disappointed by the treatment some of our columnists have received for being shortlisted for these awards. We do not wish to be part of this process.” This means that the nine Times journalists nominated for 12 prizes, including Caitlin Moran, Jenni Russell, Matthew Parris and Hugo Rifkind, have been told not to attend the awards ceremony. But to no-platform the awards seems a wrong-headed approach that simply looks like flouncing off in the face of opposition. Instead, Times editor John Witherow should be proudly trumpeting all his shortlisted comment writers and cheering them on.
The Comment Awards organizers have stayed calm in the midst of all these slings and arrows, continually stressing: “Editorial Intelligence, which puts on the Comment Awards, believes in freedom of expression…The votes are cast and counted for this year’s winners and will be announced as planned on 16 November.” I for one will be there to cheer the shortlisted nominees and winners—whether they are there or not—and will do so as a proud salute to all those who continue to speak truth to power, whether their opponents are authoritarian regimes, or over-sensitive, woke proponents of identity politics. Press freedom is far too precious to boycott.