Yasmin Alibhai Brown

Burning the Wrong Witch

Television is a shockingly perilous place for most female journalists, whatever their age and experience, as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who was on the Question Time panel when host Fiona Bruce came under fire, reveals. 

It seems there is no safe space for women broadcast journalists. The young amongst us are still seen by many men as sex objects; ethnic minority reporters and presenters are pursued cruelly, and those over fifty – queenagers – provoke, frankly, insane antipathy. I know, because I, an immigrant, Muslim, confident, mouthy older woman am daily targeted.

Society has coarsened; social media brings the insults, abuse and into the home. One award-winning TV journalist, a friend, left after suffering a mental breakdown.

The depravity of viewer misogyny was demonstrated recently on BBC Question Time. I was on the panel with Ken Clarke, the one nation Tory, Labour’s Sarah Jones, TV presenter Richard Madeley and Tory immigration minister Robert Jenrick. Multilingual and highly experienced Fiona Bruce, who replaced the patrician David Dimbleby, the previous chair, has become a lightening rod for BBC haters, left wingers and career sexists. Her detractors fabricate stuff, accuse her of being a Tory and her husband of being a Tory donor – not true- and blame her for the choice of panels which are determined by BBC bosses.

On the show, a man in the audience asked if his dad, too, could have a knighthood, a brilliant question, referring to the rumours that Boris Johnson had nominated his dad, Stanley, for the honour. Clarke, in his affable way, opined that politicians should not bestow awards on family members, and then praised Stanley Johnson for being a good MEP and pro-European.

I reminded Clarke that the man he extolled was a wife beater, an allegation made by his ex-wife, the late Charlotte Wahl, which is in the public domain and not yet denied by Johnson snr. Bruce quickly intervened and said: ‘Just so everyone knows what this is referring to, Stanley Johnson’s wife spoke to a spoke to a journalist, Tom Bower, and said that Stanley Johnson had broken her nose and she’d ended up in hospital as a result. Friends of his said it did happen, it was a one-off’.

Read that again. Bruce was quoting what his friends had said, not expressing her view. She had to make this clarification for legal reasons and to maintain impartiality. Minutes after this exchange, mob frenzy swept through Twitter and other platforms, becoming increasingly visceral and irrational. Among those who pursued Bruce were good liberals, feminists, artists and intellectuals.

As a result of the storm, Bruce, a known defender of female victims of violence, had to give up her role as ambassador for Refuge, the domestic abuse charity. They should have defended her, but didn’t. People have since come up to me expecting me to agree that Bruce was ‘out of order’. When I don’t, they get antsy with me. Group frenzies are today’s witch hunts. Female journalists live in terror of them.

Women in Journalism (WIJ) , a networking and campaigning organisation, commissioned research by the online safety expert Dr Rebecca Whittington on the relentless abuse (and worse) both online and in real life that has been suffered by these women. Three quarters of respondents said they had been threatened and a third had considered quitting the industry. I have often wanted to give up and walk away. Women like us are supposed to be invisible, quiet and servile.

Some years ago, Michel Fabricant the peculiar Tory MP, watched me on Channel 4 arguing with a white, male right-winger and tweeted that I should be punched in the throat. That was revealing. He wanted to cut my voice, render me voiceless. That’s what Bruce’s haters want too.

On another TV show in March, chaired by the veteran LBC presenter Nick Ferrari, I was called ‘an old loony’ by some chap who called in and ‘mad’ by another. My fellow panellist Quentin Letts – firmly on the right and a Boris groupie, middle aged and upper class, was treated with deference. A woman later sent me a bitter email:’ I don’t know why they would have you, a foreign hag on TV. You make my blood boil’.

It’s constant, from dawn to bedtime. I dream that the haters break into my house and throw me in front of cars on motorways, or into the sea. Three serious death threats have had to be dealt with by the police. As the Mirror editor and WIJ chair Alison Phillips, points out: ‘We have grown increasingly concerned in recent years about a newer, sinister attempt to silence women journalists’ Fair minded people should stand up for Bruce and against twitter witch-hunters who prey on females. We must not be silenced. We will not be silenced.

By Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

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