Abuse has become the price I pay for being a journalist

A far-right activist has been convicted over a confrontation with The Independent’s Lizzie Dearden. But the incident, she writes, is just one flashpoint in an endless torrent of vitriol she receives for writing about terrorism and the far-right

Monday 30 November 2020 15:49 GMT

It is a Sunday afternoon and a police officer is kicking my front door. Not to break it down, but to check how easy that would be for someone else. “It’s solid,” the officer says approvingly as he emerges, leaving the entrance to my home mercifully intact.

The police were visiting, in 2018, because I had been getting hundreds of threatening messages from people calling for me to be raped, attacked or killed. They had been sparked by a report I wrote from a terror trial – an account of what had been said in the court – that was published on The Independent.

“Hope you get gang raped by jihadists then thrown off a rooftop,” said one anonymous poster. “Time for payback!” added another.

In a deluge of abusive messages that lasted for several days, 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.

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In fact, someone had already tried to do just that. Months before, a right-wing website had published my old address, alongside photos and a menacing vow to track down my loved ones.

Luckily their threats were not followed up before the website was taken down, but it was clear that people were trying to find me and they got close to succeeding.

Online abuse had been mounting for years, as the topics I reported on drew the ire of far-right extremists. I first caught their attention while reporting on the Mediterranean refugee crisis for The Independent more than five years ago. Then, after I became home affairs and security correspondent in 2017, my articles on crime, terror attacks and court cases fell into their sights.

I made reports to the police but, apart from the visit to my home in 2018, no action was taken. The abuse kept coming, sometimes sparked by a story that offended extremists’ views, but often directly incited by far-right figures.

I tried to keep my head down, do my job, ignore it. But the abuse did not stop and, last year, it moved offline for the first time.

I now spend a lot of time looking over my shoulder

I had been sent to Westminster Magistrates’ Court by my editors to report on an appearance by James Goddard, a far-right activist who had been charged with offences against a pro-Remain MP.

I have been reporting from courts for almost a decade and this was supposed to be a routine assignment, like the countless other hearings I’ve covered without incident. Journalists are a core part of open justice in the UK, acting as the eyes and ears of the public in the criminal courts.

But Goddard, one of the “yellow vest” protesters, recognised me as I attempted to enter the courtroom, shouting: “That’s Lizzie Dearden from The Independent,” and storming towards me while spewing abuse – calling me “scum” and “vile”.

He was backed by his supporters, who shouted for me to be prevented from reporting on the hearing, while court staff stood by and did nothing to stop the tirade.

They’re being attacked for daring to speak. For daring to report. For doing their jobs

But he was later charged over the confrontation. On Thursday, Goddard was found guilty of a public order offence at Wimbledon Magistrates’ Court and ordered to pay £780 in fines and costs. The judge imposed an indefinite restraining order banning him from contacting me. District judge Andrew Sweet ruled that Goddard had been “aggressive”, adding: “His words and behaviour taken together were abusive and disorderly.”

The incident shattered my belief that the abuse and threats were confined to the online world, that I would not be recognised in real life, that I was safe.

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.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s my fault. Have I done something wrong? Have I put myself in this position by reporting on such controversial subjects? Is it worse because I’m a woman?

But I know that I’m far from the only journalist experiencing abuse online and offline, including physical attacks. I have seen horrific messages directed at colleagues who write about music, sport and lifestyle or any number of subjects that may have previously been considered uncontroversial.

1 in 5

female journalists report offline abuse they believe is linked to incidents online

Across the board, people seem to be transferring their anger over issues, events or public figures to the journalists who report on them.

Many partisan groups appear to have confused freedom of speech with freedom from criticism.

They may proclaim to support freedom of expression, but in reality limit it to themselves and those who agree with them, seeking to insult, bully and discredit those who do not. And research suggests that women are more likely to be targeted than their male colleagues.

A report published this week 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.

“They – just like women across society – experience higher levels of harassment, assault and abuse in their daily lives.  

“Women journalists are also at much greater risk in the course of their work, especially on digital platforms. In the online environment, we see exponential attacks – at scale – on women journalists, particularly at the intersection of hate speech and disinformation.”

It called for online threats to be taken seriously and said suggestions that female journalists should merely “grow a thicker skin” must stop, adding: “They’re being attacked for daring to speak. For daring to report. For doing their jobs. The onus shouldn’t be on women journalists to ‘just put up with it’.”

As a result of this court case, I expect to receive even more abuse. I have resigned myself to it becoming a constant feature of my life, like background noise. But it shouldn’t be the price I have to pay to do a job that I love.

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