A disturbing new trend is for the far right to intimidate, abuse and threaten journalists, particularly women

4 min read

Following years of increasing threats, abuse and harassment, at the end of last year editors, unions and free press campaigners called for harsher legal penalties for those who repeatedly threaten or attack journalists.

They made the call following the successful prosecution of far-right activist (and Patriotic Alternative regional organiser) James Goddard, who was ordered to pay £780 in fines and costs and issued an indefinite restraining order, after threatening behaviour towards The Independent’s home affairs and security correspondent Lizzie Dearden. 

Editors had made a similar call in the wake of numerous examples of media harassment following anti-Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations last summer, when editors across the country spoke out in the wake of online abuse and comments being made by readers, as well as attacks against photographers and news crews.

Telegraph reporter Ed Clowes said on Twitter that he had “never seen a protest so hostile to press”, describing one encounter with a protester, who he said grabbed his press badge, as “menacing”.

Meanwhile, Leeds Live reporter Ben Abbiss was threatened by a group of counter-demonstrators opposing a BLM protest he was covering. He was “hounded out” and given a police escort after being accused of being a member of Antifa. Beer was poured over him and he was threatened with being kicked down steps. A fellow reporter, Susie Beever, was threatened the year previously, in which she was told she would pay “the ultimate price” for covering such a rally for the website.

Journalists covering Tommy Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, know full well how his supporters can react and have complained of intimidation from his followers.

At one point during his contempt of court hearings, a BBC camera crew outside the Old Bailey in central London was attacked and forced to leave by Yaxley-Lennon’s supporters, who branded them “BBC paedo scum”, and “fake news wankers”.

Dominic Casciani, the BBC’s home affairs & legal correspondent, wrote in response: “At every hearing in this saga, journalists have been abused. People have been spat at, had cameras attacked. A cameraman was punched. Today it was beer can throwing. Lies have been told about us, our reports and events in court.” 

Far-right agitator James Goddard, who ha
s convictions for threatening behaviour and assault against journalists, following Guardian commentator Owen Jones, who was brutally attacked by a far-right thug in 2019.
Far-right agitator James Goddard, who has convictions for threatening behaviour and assault against journalists, following Guardian commentator Owen Jones, who was brutally attacked by a far-right thug in 2019. ©: George Cracknell Wright / Alamy Stock Photo

In August 2019, Guardian columnist and author Owen Jones was assaulted in a late night attack by a group of men who attacked him as he left a pub in London.

“They kicked me in the back, I was knocked down, then they kicked me in the head and back,” Jones said. Some of his friends were also hurt. “Three of them were punched, my partner was punched in the end. They were only trying to defend me.” 

Jailing the ringleader for two years and eight months last July, the judge ruled the attack was “wholly unprovoked… by reason of [Jones’] widely published left-wing and LGBTQ beliefs by a man who has demonstrable right-wing sympathies”.

Another man was also jailed last year for three months in Northern Ireland for sending Jones a threatening message on Instagram.

More recently, a survey by Newsquest Oxfordshire editor, Samantha Harman, who asked regional journalists about their experiences with online abuse related to their work, found that 84% want more to be done to tackle the problem.

Many said they had experienced anxiety or depression as a result, with 89% getting abuse on Facebook, 80% on their own sites and 67% on Twitter.

Former Society of Editors executive director, Ian Murray, said that the aggression and violence targeted towards journalists was unacceptable and called on politicians and civic leaders to speak out in support of the media.

“It is completely unacceptable that journalists going about their lawful profession should face such intimidation and it bears out fears we have expressed time and time again that the important role the media plays for society is being undermined by those who have strong voices and yet fail to use them.” 

WOMEN AS TARGETS

Nine News Europe correspondent Sophie Walsh immediately after she was attacked live on air while covering a Black Lives Matter protest in Hyde Park, London. Photograph: Channel Nine
Nine News Europe correspondent Sophie Walsh immediately after she was attacked live on air while covering a Black Lives Matter protest in Hyde Park, London. Photograph: Channel Nine

There seems to be a disturbing trend of male far-right activists targeting female public figures. James Goddard already had a long track record of attacks and threats against the media before he was sentenced in November. In June 2019 he was found guilty of common assault against a press photographer, at one point telling him: “When there’s no police around here, I’m going to take your head off your shoulders.” 

Goddard had “come to fame” by harassing former anti-Brexit MP Anna Soubry, calling her a Nazi and traitor, and chasing her down the street just a few yards from parliament. Before she was abused by Goddard at a court in March 2019, where he called her “vile” and “scum of the earth”, Dearden had already faced years of online abuse from various far-right activists, including threats to find out her home address, rape and murder. 

Dearden has written of the effects of such abuse: 

“In a deluge of abusive messages that lasted for several days [in 2018], I was called everything from a “traitor” to an “ugly motherf***er” and a “f***ing stupid bitch”. 
“I tried to ignore the onslaught, until a relative alerted me that people had been trying to find out where I lived. “Right let’s get Lizzie Dearden’s address and take photos of her house with the address plus her family’s details,” said one of many similar posts. 
“I now spend a lot of time looking over my shoulder. Every work assignment comes with a mental threat assessment – who could be there? Could I be in danger? Is it worth the risk? The abuse arrives in emails and tweets, on Facebook and Instagram, and even through phone calls attempting to reach me at the office.” 

Despite such appalling abuse, Dearden has carried on producing exclusives, such as revelations about Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s finances (Yaxley-Lennon has also just been issued with a stalking prevention order over threats to Dearden and her partner).

A report published in November by the International Center for Journalists and the United Nations found that online violence against female journalists was “increasingly spilling offline, with potentially deadly consequences”.

A fifth of female journalists surveyed internationally reported offline abuse and attacks that they believed to be connected with online incidents.

“Online violence is the new frontline in journalism safety – and it’s particularly dangerous for women,” said the report.

In May last year, a newspaper reporter and her infant daughter were placed under police protection following dozens of threats of violence from far-right extremists.

Amy Fenton, former chief reporter at The Mail in Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, faced threats of violence over her coverage of trumped-up grooming allegations in the town.

Far-right supporters of Yaxley-Lennon had targeted the town, accusing police and the media of a “cover up” when police found no evidence of grooming (a woman was later charged with several counts of perverting the course of justice over false allegations of rape).

“Over the last week I’ve received in excess of 100 death threats,” said Fenton in May. “Not only have they threatened to ‘throat punch’ me, slit my throat, and set me on fire, but they have involved the welfare of my little girl and that is beyond acceptable.” Two separate individuals have now been jailed over these incidents.

In the latest, and perhaps most grim example to come to light, in February this year sinister graffiti appeared in a number of locations in east Belfast, featuring the name of award-winning crime reporter Patricia Devlin scrawled alongside cross hairs.

It’s not the first time that Devlin, a highly-respected reporter on the Sunday World newspaper, has faced threats. Just two months earlier, she had faced serious threats from Loyalist paramilitaries and in October 2019, she was sent a message to her personal Facebook account, threatening to rape her newborn son. It was signed with the name of the neo-Nazi terror group, Combat 18.

Martin Bright, head of content at Index On Censorship, who knows Devlin, said: 

“She’s had several death threats. And these are death threats that the police have reported to her. So it’s not just, you know, the sort of thing people say on social media. These are credible death threats to her and her child. Threats of the most appalling kind. 
“We think that the position of Northern Ireland journalists is of real concern. The situation does seem to be escalating. Journalists are being directly targeted in a way that they weren’t even during the Troubles. And we’ve seen the death of one journalist [Lyra McKee] already, killed by dissident Republicans.” 

In 2019, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) had already warned that media and camera crews were coming under attack on “an increased basis” from far-right activists, and police needed to take a strategic approach to dealing with the growing problem.

The union’s general secretary, Michelle Stanistreet, has called on law enforcement agencies to do more to tackle what she described as a “coordinated surge in violent extremism against journalists and media workers” as British politics becomes more polarised.