Journalists like Nicholas Watt shouldn’t have to face abuse in the street – it’s not part of the job

There is nothing wrong with people feeling strongly on a topic, that can lead to important change – but if the default position is anger, we all lose

Chris Stevenson
Tuesday 15 June 2021 14:28
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Newsnight political editor chased by anti-lockdown protesters

"Traitor!" is one of the first words that can be heard shouted during a distressing video showing the political editor for BBC's Newsnight, Nicholas Watt, being abused by a group of anti-lockdown protesters.

The tone – and actions – of those involved is threatening, the language is awful. There is nobody in the world who would relish the thought of having to put up with that, thanks merely to their job title.

Open debate is a cornerstone of any free society, but this is little better than thuggery. A free press is key to holding those in power to account, also an important part of a democracy. Disagree with a journalist by all means and scrutinise their output. But abuse is never acceptable.

Is this really where we are as a nation, now? That people are happy to join in with hectoring a man purely for his place of work? The BBC is not everyone's cup of tea, but what good does it do to act this way? What issue is that looking to solve?

It is hard not to come to the conclusion that our political divisions are becoming wider, and that the debate around them is becoming ever more vitriolic. Political positions are becoming ever-more defined as being against something else. Nuance is disappearing.

There is nothing wrong with people feeling strongly on a topic, that can lead to important change – but if the default position is anger, then we all lose. Politics is becoming more and more a battleground – entrenched opinions, unmoveable. But without taking on board differing views, or the idea that compromise may be necessary, stalemate is all that is left.

It has become obvious during the past few years that there are a great many people who feel their voices are not being heard. The Brexit vote, the rise and fall of Jeremy Corbyn – even the launch of GB News this week – are all events that point to that.

However, if raising your voice so that it drowns out discussion is the go-to move – then that simply smacks of desperation. It is where political discussion is being pushed to, and it has to stop. I don't know how Watt feels about what happened to him, but I know it would leave me shaken.

There is no excuse for this type of behaviour in any walk of life – no journalist should have to worry about being abused when carrying out their job. The echo-chambers (on both sides of the debate) that have been carved out both off and online when it comes to issues like lockdown do us all a disservice – and the depths such debates can descend to may make some people believe this is acceptable.

It isn't. Journalists, and anyone else, need to be able to do their jobs without fear of abuse. And society needs construction and open debates, not a further retreat into anger.

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