On Saturday, the opening sentence of the lead story in the Dominion Post Weekend contained an obscenity referring to female genitals. Not an abbreviation, not an acronym, but the full word spelt out.
I was shocked. And that was exactly the reaction editor Anna Fifield hoped to achieve with her courageous decision to demonstrate the full impact that an avalanche of online abuse is having on New Zealand women.
If I was shocked, imagine how female MPs and councillors feel when they open their email inbox or social media accounts and are confronted by obscenities, personal abuse and threats.
Yet it required more than publication of the offending word to get the full message across. Wisely, Fifield published a front-page explanation for its use, admitting that readers were probably shocked by it.
“Now imagine you are pelted with this word multiple times a day- on your social media, in your inbox. Imagine it is the last thing you see before you go to bed at night and the first thing you read when you wake up. That is what women politicians have to deal with. Constantly. Menacingly.”
That editor’s note perhaps explains why the Dominion Post by yesterday morning had received not a single complaint but a stream of supportive messages, two of which were published in Monday’s edition.
The support would have been fuelled also by details in the story about what women have had to endure. Wellington city councillor Jill Day, for example, was told by a troll that she and a colleague would have been “necklaced with a burning tire around your neck”. Threats against an openly queer councillor, Teri O’Neill, were so serious she had a security guard at a public gathering. The mayor of Porirua, Anita Baker, was called “a stupid whore” and the word in the introduction to the story had been directed at her. Present and former female members of Parliament spoke of ‘relentless’ online abuse and threats of sexual violence.
I spoke to Anna Fifield yesterday. She is a journalist with an international reputation who has reported from more than 20 countries including Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and North Korea. So she’s not short on courage. Yet she admits the decision to publish that obscenity on the front page was a tough one – particularly when she would never use it herself – and was not made until a few hours before the paper was put to bed.
Although she had some concern over the effect on older readers who make up the bulk of her print audience, she was more worried about children seeing it. She decided, on balance, that the increasing tide of obscene abuse warranted its use.
The story as written by Erin Gourley and Bridie Witton did not contain the full word. They had used asterisks. It was Fifield who made the change.
“The women on the receiving end of that abuse don’t have the luxury of asterisks,” she told me. “So why should we shield our readers from it?”
That is a good question. She is not suggesting obscenities should pepper stories about online abuse but the decision to use it on that occasion had a singular purpose: To shock people into a realisation of the impact this abuse is having on women.
“I wanted it to be shocking but in no way was it gratuitous,” she said.
Her decision had that effect and, although I find the word utterly abhorrent, I fully support what she has done. Online abuse against women reached alarming proportions during the protester occupation of Parliament grounds and shows no sign of abating. Right thinking members of the public need to know what these women are having to endure.
And it is not only female politicians who are targeted. Fifield told me young women on her staff were subjected to the same sort of obscene abuse that often threatens violence and is usually sexualised. Unsurprisingly those young journalists have supported her stand but so, too, have male members of the Dominion Post staff.
Would I have made the same decision when I was an editor? The answer to that is no, but the reasons are not down to squeamishness.
When I led the New Zealand Herald editorial team social media had yet to become a haven for bottom-dwelling cowards who spit hatred from behind a shield of anonymity. Online abuse at that stage would not have had the scale that it now presents and I couldn’t justify shocking readers in that way.
However, I think the main reason I would not have chosen the same course as Fifield is because I am a man. That would, I believe, have led to a questioning of my motives and claims that I was being gratuitous and had paid insufficient regard to the offence it caused. Even though the decision to publish would have been made for the right reasons, the move could have backfired. For a woman editor to make the call to publish a word that was deeply offensive to her and to all women (and most men) placed the decision on a different level. It spoke of a real determination to cry: Enough!
Christchurch councillor Sara Templeton had certainly had enough when she decided to track down an online troll and went to court to force Facebook to reveal the abuser’s IP address. That resulted in a (now former) National Party member Jessee MacKenzie admitting he was behind messages to Templeton and two Labour MPs.
MacKenzie was given to bullying and misogyny rather than obscenity but the Dominion Post’s forthright story will convince many that the approach taken by Templeton to ‘out’ an online troll should be pursued vigorously by those subjected to threats and obscenities. The shock of being confronted by that particular obscenity may persuade those who were previously dismissive to now agree it is time to fight back.
Despite a lack of complaints to the Dominion Post there are those who will disagree with Fifield’s decision, and my support for it. A journalist for whom I have huge respect saw it as an unacceptable breach of good taste and a level of shock tactics that even the London Red Top tabloids would not employ. He felt that there were more significant issues on which to risk a backlash and that use of the word could start a ‘taste’ debate that obscured the real issues of online abuse.
I respect his point of view but I disagree. Online abuse, particularly of women in elected office and the journalists who hold them and their male counterparts to account, is a deliberately debilitating process. It is designed to make the targets question their decision-making and, ultimately, their self-worth. The worst of it is designed to frighten and intimidate. Given the targets, these are attacks on society itself and they are growing in intensity.
Yet our society is prepared to tolerate social media that allows trolls to be anonymous and write things that could – and should – see them facing criminal charges if expressed elsewhere. We allow huge multinationals to either hide behind spurious free speech arguments or claim (equally spuriously) they have achieved a balance between self-regulation and freedom of expression that obviates the need for state intervention.
Anna Fifield did not fire the opening shot in the battle to end destructive online trolling but her volley on Saturday may signal a new campaign with significant public support, one that may see Stuff and the Dominion Post at the forefront of moves to make people as accountable for their online remarks as they are in other forums. Nothing stays the hand (or the tongue) more than the knowledge that there is a price to be paid for going beyond what is acceptable in law or in right-thinking communities. That is why we do not knowingly defame people in the columns of newspapers or swear in church.
A footnote: You will have noticed that nowhere in this commentary have I used the offending word. That is because I did not need to. Anna Fifield, on the other hand, thought long and hard before deciding she did need to prominently publish a word she and I find distasteful beyond imagining.