Vehement abuse, harassment and even threats of physical attacks on journalists is fast becoming a major problem across Britain. So much so, that the UK's largest newspaper group, Reach plc, has been compelled to create a senior post to address this alarming situation.
(HTFP) has been diligently keeping the industry informed on this pernicious problem and I am grateful for its help in devoting my entire column this week to a special report on the latest industry initiatives to protect our journalists as they go about their gainful business.
In an industry first, Reach plc has appointed Rebecca Whittington as its first online safety editor. Reach plc owns several national newspapers, including the Daily Record
, Sunday Mail
, the Scottish Daily Express
and the Daily Mirror
, and close on 250 regional titles including a significant number of Scotland's weekly newspapers.
Whittington brings extensive hands-on journalistic experience to her pioneering role having edited weekly titles including the Pontefract and Castleford Express
, and was subsequently head of news at The Yorkshire Post
and Yorkshire Evening Post
before leaving the industry in 2014 to undertake a PhD at Leeds Beckett University.
HTFP reports: 'Rebecca's thesis explored the impacts of digital tools on news production and journalistic identity at local newspapers in the UK and she is currently a lecturer and course leader for the university's journalism department'.
Reach plc revealed in June that it was creating the role – seeking a successful applicant to lead discussions with social media platforms, resolve individual cases and campaign for action to improve the problem of online abuse.
Whittington told HTFP: 'Online abuse is an endemic issue which has increased significantly over the past decade. Journalists are vilified online on a daily basis simply for doing their jobs, with types of abuse ranging from personal attacks to hate crimes. Not only does this cause harm to the victims of abuse, but it also causes harm to the audience witnessing it.
'It is time these issues were addressed and by leading the way in creating the position of online safety editor, Reach plc is taking an important step in doing just that. In my role, I aim to support staff facing online abuse and harassment and I also want to address the issue externally by working with platforms and audiences to prevent and protect.'
Reach plc's group editor-in-chief, Lloyd Embley, added: 'I am so pleased to welcome Rebecca to the team and take the next step in making the internet a safer place for journalists across the industry. Online abuse has become endemic in our industry. It can severely impact the mental health of our journalists and at times even threatens their physical safety. We will not allow our journalism to be silenced or our colleagues to live in fear. As Reach plc continues to grow and recruit more young journalists than ever before, it is absolutely essential that we lead the way to create a safer online environment for our people and our readers'.
The UK Government held a consultation on this vexed and vicious issue earlier this year – asking journalists to share their experiences of online abuse and of reporting it to their employers, social platforms and the police – to help it decide how to take action. There is no meaningful data on the scale of the problem at present with many incidents never reported formally.
However, some alarming incidents do make it to court and have even resulted in abusers going to jail. Last year, a man was jailed for two and a half years for threatening to kill Liverpool Echo
staff and this year a man was given 22 weeks in custody after threatening on Facebook to shoot a journalist at South Cumbria daily newspaper, The Mail
HTFP has highlighted how an English journalist faced abuse from readers after opening up to them about being 'groped, kissed and grabbed' against her will. Katrina Taylor, a staff member of the Mansfield Chad
, was subjected to 'unkind, personal comments' and 'victim-blaming' after speaking out about the harassment she has faced both in person and in the world of online dating.
HTFP explains: 'Katrina wrote a first-person piece on the issue following the cases of recent murder victims Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa in which she discussed multiple assaults she had been subjected to while on nights out. But she received abuse after the article was published by the Mansfield Chad
, although some readers did come forward to thank her for going public on her experiences.
'Katrina's experience is the seventh case of reader abuse against female journalists [we] have covered so far in 2021. Speaking to [us] about the article's reception, Katrina said: The response, on the whole, was a mixed bag. A number of people thanked me for writing about my experiences, whereas I did receive some unkind, personal comments which very much victim-blamed. While that's a shame, it does just reiterate the importance of addressing these subjects. I think it is vital to use my platform in the media to write about these kinds of subjects
HTFP has named several women journalists, including two from Scottish newspapers, who have suffered abuse. The industry website tells us: 'Journalists including Hull Daily Mail
journalists Lucy Marshall, Aditi Rane and Bobbi Hadgraft, The Scotsman's
Laura Waddell, Daily Record
associate editor Annie Brown, and Greatest Hits Radio's Harrogate and Yorkshire Dales reporter Natalie Higgins, have all opened up on their experiences of being subjected to sexist – and in one case racist – abuse this year. Like Katrina, Lucy was abused by readers after writing about an incident in which she was sexually harassed.
'Last year, the Yorkshire Evening Post
editor Laura Collins said female journalists were bearing the brunt
of online abuse aimed at those in the industry after herself being targeted in a social media attack.'
News of Rebecca Whittington's appointment came in the same week a Hull woman was sentenced for an abusive email towards a journalist at Hull Live
, one of Reach plc's regional news brands. The email to Anna Riley, who has since left to join GB News, threatened to publish her address on social media unless she took down a 'hate filled racist article' about a Labour councillor who hit out on Twitter about the Duke of Edinburgh's past 'racist' remarks hours after his death. The email to Anna read: 'Go kill yourself you racist scumbag' and also called her a 'needy fat s*** who lives on takeaways'.
The woman involved pleaded guilty to one count of sending malicious communications and was sentenced to 80 hours of unpaid work under a community order plus £100 in compensation and court costs of £85. Riley is encouraging others to report abuse and trolling towards them, 'so that these spineless individuals are punished and the message gets spread that it's not okay to troll'. She said the email left her 'sick to my stomach and was an especially shocking response to me just doing my job'.
Also this month, a woman appearing in court in Greenock, on a charge of assaulting two police officers, issued violent threats to Greenock Telegraph
staff journalist, David Goodwin, who was reporting her case.
Rosaleen Sutherland, 50, told Goodwin from the dock: 'You say anything about my son again and I'll do you in, ya scumbag, ya clown ye'. David had previously covered hearings involving Sutherland's son who is currently remanded in custody charged with two attempted murders.
Sutherland, who was herself the alleged victim of petrol bomb attacks at her home last year, pleaded guilty to assaulting the police officers and was placed on an 18-month supervision order.
editor Brian Hossack commented: 'It is completely unacceptable that anyone going about their job is subject to threats or abuse in this way. David handled the matter professionally and simply got on with doing his job of reporting what was happening in the court on the day'.
Earlier, the court heard that Sutherland told the two officers: 'I'll have you two murdered, and your families. Lenny is getting out in two weeks and he'll petrol bomb your houses, and yous will be getting slashed. My Lenny will cut the head right off you'.
On a good news note, The Yorkshire Post
is celebrating the part its campaign led to Philip Allott resigning as North Yorkshire's police, fire and crime commissioner just hours after he took aim at the newspaper. Allott had earlier faced a unanimous vote of no confidence by the county's police, fire and crime panel after he claimed Sarah Everard 'never should have submitted' to her policeman killer.
During the panel meeting, Allott hit out at the daily newspaper's campaign, saying: 'If I followed the instructions of The Yorkshire Post
, I should have resigned every day last week'. Just hours later, he performed a U-turn and announced his departure from the post.
Praising the work of his journalists on the campaign, The Yorkshire Post's
editor James Mitchinson said: 'The first thing to say is that we persisted with this story on behalf of Sarah Everard, her family and her friends. That someone in such a position of power and authority said what Philip Allott said, whilst representing our county in such a highly paid and utterly unchecked public office, was, and remains, unforgivable. I am sorry for the additional pain this additional publicity will no doubt have caused them.
'I only hope those who knew and loved Sarah can, in time, see why we decided we had to – in the absence of any laws or powers to do the same – hold him accountable. My team made a difference… and I could not be more proud of them.'
In Cornwall, Lee Trewhela, the chief reporter of Cornwall Live
, has quit the regional press after 30 years – citing social media abuse as a major factor in his decision. Lee hit out at the 'amount of abuse and negativity journalists face' online in a farewell piece for his publication. However, he then had to delete the article from the site's Facebook page following more 'negative and unnecessary comments' from readers.
Lee wrote: 'I think I am correct in thinking that I am the longest-standing journalist still working in Cornwall… but the time is right for me to move on to a new challenge. I have to say that one of the reasons I am going is down to the amount of abuse and negativity journalists face on social media these days. Regional reporters live in the communities we write about; share the same concerns as the people we write about; and despite many people's opinion of Cornwall Live
the reporting team cares deeply and thinks long and hard about what is published... Remember, if you are bashing Cornwall Live
or any other media organisation, there are humans at the end of it. It doesn't hurt to be kind'.
Lee, who is moving to a communications role, had previously hit out at 'keyboard warriors' after being threatened on social media three years ago. He told HTFP: 'I have been bowled over by the response from all corners of society – from readers to MPs and respected journalists including the BBC's Jon Kay, saying how much they will miss my presence in Cornwall'.
The editorial director of the Iliffe Media group, Ian Carter, warns that the venomous online abuse from 'morons' is leading to fewer new journalistic entrants to regional newspapers. Carter was prompted to speak out on the worrying recruitment issue following the departure of Lee Trewhela from Cornwall Live
Carter's Cambridge-headquartered group have a large stable of paid-for and free weeklies – including The Kent Messenger
, plus several magazines including Velvet
Referring to Trewhela's loss to the regional press, Ian pointed out: 'This is happening at one end of the spectrum while at the other we are seeing far fewer people enter the industry. I have no doubt that is, in part, due to a reluctance to open themselves up to abuse from morons. The anti-press sentiment is exacerbated by lazy politicians shouting fake news
every time something they don't like is published and police officers warning victims of crime not to speak to local journalists, etc, etc'.
Last month, a number of English regional editors vigorously defended their journalists after a spate of abuse against local reporters covering the fuel and food crises.
Ian added: 'I feel a very dangerous narrative has developed, and it is no wonder we are seeing fewer people entering the industry. Although the anonymous social media users are the biggest problem, we really are not helped by people who should know better feeding the myth that local journalists are untrustworthy. We have had numerous examples of [police] family liaison officers warning people off talking to the press, and every politician who labels something as fake news
because they don't like their own shortcomings being exposed, adds to the problem'.