Online abuse: "It is about silencing any woman who dares to speak out and to have an opinion", NUJ General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet

Michelle Stanistreet is the General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists in the UK and Ireland. The NUJ has just launched a new tool to support journalists’ online safety. She tells us about her union’s work to tackle online abuse of female journalists.

Credit: Jason Harris.

IFJ: What is your union doing about online abuse of women journalists?

The NUJ is very active in tackling this problem. A lot of the work done over the last 18 months (2020-2022) have stacked up that work in terms of a more cohesive series of actions that we’ve been doing, some of them targeted through the creation of the Committee for Safety of Journalists. We have been pushing forward, and leading on this work across the UK and Ireland in order to address what’s become a growing challenge and, in a way, just to exemplify the needs of journalists right now. 

IFJ: What are the ongoing actions? 

M. St.: To further update on what we are doing, we launched a short film to show during meetings of journalism students, to use through our structure channels as a conversation starter, featuring journalists speaking about their first-hand experience and impacts of being attacked or harassed, online and in person, and its  impact on them personally and on their work. That piece of film is designed to get people talking about it, to be the start of trying to change the culture that exists – one where it’s almost become normalised that people see this as an inevitable part of the job. What we are trying to do is to make our members, both individually and collectively, think, “No, it’s not acceptable, I don’t have to put up with this in the course of my job.”

In a nutshell, the NUJ: 

  • has put in place a practical fight back. As part of the work that we are doing is the digital toolkit that we just launched;
  • provides practical advice to help people report these incidents, because a lot of incidents go unreported, so we are encouraging more journalists to file complains;
  • makes employers do more to protect their staff and freelances;
  • and this makes people see that the union is not just campaigning on those things but actually trying to affect change.

IFJ.: Tell us more about the short film. 

M. St.: It’s important to get the testimony of the first-hand experiences of journalists, these cases are very shocking and it’s important to hear and to acknowledge the impact this has. It’s a good prompt to make people think about an issue that’s become a common place, a daily occurrence, particularly for women, journalists across the media industry, and especially in some sectors like sport and politics.

IFJ: Beside the prevention action and opening a debate, does the NUJ do something about monitoring, collecting data, receiving complaints, reporting cases?

M. St.: The NUJ logs cases when members raise them and ask directly for help.

We also conducted a major Safety Survey at the end of 2020. We were part of the UK home office call for evidence in spring 2021. These findings reflected the findings of the NUJ survey. A new survey was launched in May 2022 which will be disseminated and will be benchmarking any changes that have taken place.

IFJ.: What will the new survey focus on?

M. St.: The new survey launched in May 2022 has been commissioned by the National Safety Committee, which the NUJ is part of, carried out by an external research agency. It won’t be precisely the same survey that we issued. Although it’s going to feature a lot of similar ground, it will be a more extensive survey and analysis.

IFJ: Is advocacy still a large part of the work of the NUJ with government, lawmakers, judicial institutions? Or do you consider that this work is done now that the NUJ is part of the National Safety Committee?

M. St.: Of course! Advocacy is kind of central to any trade union. Yes, we are in a committee that collectively signed up to doing some work that includes an Action Plan of a series of points that different stakeholders have responsibilities for. But the NUJ, as its own entity, is doing work on this issue in parallel, they are not supplanting things, it’s in addition. The NUJ has been integral to the committee in identifying many of the challenges and steering quite a lot of the practical elements of some of the Committee’s plans and findings. 

But yes, we have members who contact us weekly, if not every day, because they have been assaulted or harassed while doing their job, trying to cover a demonstration for example. We have to step up incidents of harassment of our members, for example, who work at the BBC Persian service where the threat and harassment is comingfrom the Iranian state, which has weaponised their family members in Tehran. There are many ongoing cases where the NUJ offers advocacy, support and legal representation, that’s part of our day-to-day work.

IFJ: Regarding legal support, is the NUJ in charge of advice but also the financial cost and the lead of legal representation?

M. St.: If there is a legal process in which our members are being legally represented, whether it is an employment issue or a potential criminal case, the NUJ is routinely involved in the provision and funding of that representation.

When the case is a criminal case, part of our work is maintaining scrutiny of the processes, holding the police to account. Part of the work we’ve been doing is also making the police take these cases more seriously, changing the way they approach these investigations, even monitoring the instances of cases. Because until recently, police were not logging these cases as specific ones targeted against journalists professionally. Many journalists don’t report the cases because they think that the police will not take them seriously, or they have had a previous bad experience with the police. That’s also one of the things to try to tackle: we are trying to encourage our members to report the incidents. 

IFJ: With the police, are you interacting case by case or is there a systematic programme, collaboration, education plan?

M. St.: We respond in a reactive way when incidents arise. The NUJ has developed a much better liaison with the police forces in the UK, individually and through the National Police Chiefs’ Council, over the past two years. During the pandemic and first lockdowns, individual journalists were facing challenges while doing their job on the ground, documenting and photographing what was happening in the streets. Despite being key workers, there were difficulties on the ground due to a lack of understanding of individual officers about the roles, responsibilities, and rights of news gatherers. I intervened centrally directly to the National Police Chiefs’ Council. The response to that was an immediate memo, which circulated and communicated to every police force and to all officers. We saw the differences quite immediately in terms of improved treatment and understanding of the role of the journalists, not impeding their work.

There are different ways of trying to do that. The work we are doing under the umbrella of the National Safety Plan, with the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists, also includes work to improve the training of all police officers (it covers dealing with the press and the media and the need to facilitate that in a way that doesn’t impeach journalists to do their work). 

The police have changed their structure, as a result of this work: it’s now a senior investigator who takes control of the investigation of incidents of harassment. They also introduced a journalist safety liaison officer (who is to be more likely a member of the communication team), not with power of investigation the case but to act as a link person on that case. It helps to improve the approach that is taken, and change the lazy, inappropriate response and attitude, to make the officers understand the problem and the fact that harassment situations might easily end up to in-person harassment and abuse.

There is also a high commitment that has been made by the prosecutorial services to take a more robust approach to these cases. 

IFJ.: What has been the trigger element of that dynamic? 

M. St.: The NUJ has been lobbying and campaigning across the union, to involve their members in pushing for change. We had been pressing for a national approach and a national strategy to tackle online abuse and harassment. Finally, when the government took action for creating this committee, the NUJ was excluded from that at the start, and we had to campaign hard to be included. We saw a spike in journalists’ harassment and abuse at the outset of the pandemic, but that was not the start. We had a number of cases of harassment over the years.

IFJ: Do you think that the reception of online harassment against journalists is kind of parallel to the reception of gender harassment and gender issues in general? Or is it really a journalist’s issue that might be received differently than the question of gender harassment against women in general?

M. St.: It’s part of the wider treatment of women in society, of harassment against women, domestic violence and any form of gender violence and misogyny. However, it’s also distinct. Perhaps if you categorise it, it’s specific to women in positions of influence, in politics, in visible types of roles in society. Women in public life is a wider lens to look through. A lot of online abuse is a matter of the subject women write about. It’s layered with misogyny, rape threats, threats to their children, comments about their appearance.

It’s linked to, and a cause too, of a wider societal problem. It’s about silencing any woman who dares to speak out and to have an opinion. Our male members will acknowledge that they don’t get anywhere near to the level of threats that women journalists receive, and sometimes they don’t have any real understanding of the daily ground of abuse and comments targeted at their female colleagues. There is still a very heavy disproportionate number of women targeted by violence, and of black and minority ethnic journalists.

IFJ.: Did you adopt any specific measure for freelancers?

M.St.: A large proportion of our members are freelancers. In government work, or with the media, we try to draw attention to their situations, often different from staff employees, in matters of working and engagement conditions, safety training, dealing with structures for online abuse and harassment. We try to widen that out. Some of the guidance is a bit more tailored and targeted to freelancers. The NUJ tries to make employers more responsible for their freelancer. The NUJ is also trying to create a fund of money individuals could have access to in case of need/emergency (for example, need to flee from their home). The NUJ thinks that employers should take all the costs and responsibilities in case of online abuse but freelancer wouldn’t have the same back-up support. This fund could reverse this inequality. 

IFJ: Did the NUJ negotiate some collective agreements that include specific provisions about online abuse or about harassment in general (where online harassment could be included)?

M.St.: There is active work going on to update and improve policies that exist in this regard, to draw up some measures. There is some proactive work happening at Reach PLC for example where the first publishing group appointed a journalist’s safety officer, somebody with managerial responsibility for this. We are in discussion with a number of employers about ways that they can follow suits, taking a much more progressive engaged approach.

IFJ: How could the IFJ support their affiliates as well as media employers in their own support to their workers? 

M.St.: The IFJ can always share positive actions being taken, things that work well in unions from different regions, and share them more broadly. Sharing resources is beneficial because none of us wants to spend money and time replicating work that is happening elsewhere and that could be translated into other parts of the world. The IFJ could share those examples. For example, we are particularly interested in what is being done in Canada, such as their ongoing work to develop a press freedom and safety tracker, something that I would like to have in Ireland and the UK. 

IFJ: Is the NUJ doing something about the ILO Convention 190?

M.St.: The NUJ has been doing different things to press for this important Convention – including statements highlighting why it’s critically needed, lobbying work with government departments, briefing members of parliament, in particular through our cross-party parliamentary group, and raising awareness amongst our members, linking it to the prevalent problems they too face on the ground in carrying out their work. 

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