Today
Thu 6 May 2021

As attacks by right-wing tabloids on female academics intensify, Sian Norris explores why they appear to be able to publish such material with impunity

Media attacks on high-profile academics who speak out on issues of race, imperialism and British history are intensifying.

Earlier this month, Professor Priyamvada Gopal – a University of Cambridge academic who has written extensively about race, imperialism and empire – spoke out on Twitter to reveal how the Daily Mail was “planning a third piece in the space of seven days” on her, attacking past statements she made. She said that the newspaper’s actions had led to her “pondering giving the Daily Mail what they want – to resign my job at Cambridge and just go”. 

“This is real ‘cancel culture’ at work,” Professor Gopal told Byline Times. “Make academics afraid of being dragged into false controversies and stoked ‘fury’ so they don’t say critical or inconvenient things publicly.”

Gopal also raised concerns that her employer has failed to support her, telling Byline Times that, “in the most recent instance, I would say [the University of Cambridge] added strength to the Mail‘s attack by providing them with an unprecedented, unnecessary statement that was also an attack on my academic freedom while paying lip-service to it. Most British institutions pander to the Mail‘s blackmailing and racism: Cambridge is no exception.”

“Universities, on the one hand, are demanding public engagement and ‘impact’,” she added. “They don’t seem prepared, however, to deal with the sometimes dangerous conditions in which academics have to contend with when speaking up and speaking out. It has become very clear in the last year that talking about race and empire will put you in the direct line of attack, and I see no willingness in university managers to acknowledge that reality, still less support targeted staff.”

Professor Gopal’s comments reignited a conversation about the role the mainstream media plays in fuelling online abuse. Responses directed at Professor Gopal on Twitter after she called out the Daily Mail’s coverage included a demand that she be sacked and claims that she brought “shame” to her employer. 

According to Dr Tara Van Ho, a business and human rights expert, “the media is using academics to campaign on an anti-intellectual platform. It’s a way of getting people who are critical of the Government and who are teaching others about how to be critical of the Government to shut up. That’s not in anyone’s interest.” 

Professor Gopal told Byline Times she believes that there is so much “additional outrage” around her because she works “in an institution that they would consider to be English and white in the first instance” so that they view her as “insufficiently servile” and someone who should be “grateful for being employed there”.

Nastier attacks have included personal comments about her appearance and intelligence, as well accusations of her spewing “racist hatred”.

“The fake controversies and ‘fury’ concocted by the Daily Mail routinely elicit large amounts of hate mail and social media bile,” she said. Dealing with these, including the threats of violence which sometimes accompany them, “is wearying and time-wasting, sometimes making it difficult to concentrate on the tasks at hand”.

The fresh attacks on Professor Gopal follow the Labour Party accusing Hull Live of publishing a “misleading and inflammatory reporting of a private Facebook comment about institutional racism” regarding local councillor Aneesa Akbar. It went on to criticise the platform it “continues to give to appalling personal abuse” which “fuels the hostile environment endured by our city’s only female councillor from a [black, Asian or ethnic minority] background”. 

Richard Wilson, director of Stop Funding Hate, described the attacks against Professor Gopal and Akbar as two of “several shocking cases of women of colour being forced to consider reducing their public profile – or withdraw from social media entirely – after being subjected to vicious online abuse following hostile media attention”.

“There seems to be a recurrent pattern here – inflammatory, highly personalised media stories targeting women of colour are all too often followed by a wave of online abuse and violent threats,” he added.

Professor Gopal told Byline Times: “I tick a lot of boxes in terms of the kinds of people and issues they like to target for attack routinely: I am a woman, not-white – they persistently draw attention to this fact – support progressive causes, and am a critic of imperialism, racism, and ethnonationalism, including in the country of my birth, India.”


Targeting of Female Academics 

Fellow academics raised concerns that the targeting of Professor Gopal by the Daily Mail constitutes an attack on freedom of expression. 

In response to the attacks, Dr Van Ho opened up on Twitter about her own experiences of threats and abuse.

“It was her honesty that prompted me to be honest,” she told Byline Times. “I had no intention of actually speaking about this publicly but she should know she is not alone and the Daily Mail needs to know that what it is doing is unacceptable.”

The newspaper has been intensely critical of ‘cancel culture‘ and ‘woke‘ students representing a threat to academic freedom.

However, Professor Gopal argues that its articles about her are “intended to silence, even as the Mail makes hypocritical claims to supporting free speech”. She said she has had to turn down interview opportunities “in order to ride out the storm. What is that if not silencing?”

The academic described the “routine smearing and concocted fury” as an “attack on academic freedom”.

Dr Van Ho, who has received threats in response to her own work, agrees and believes that the hostility women academics face is having a “chilling” effect on academic freedom.

Referring to an article she wishes to write on racism, Dr Van Ho said that “there’s a lot of emotional labour in thinking through: how much am I setting myself up for these kinds of threats in the future? How is the language I am using going to be used to whip someone into a frenzy? At what point do I cross that line where I have secured enough anger from someone that they are going to try and take matters into their own hands? That’s a set of questions a lot of my male colleagues don’t have to ask.”

For Richard Wilson of Stop Funding Hate, “this nexus between toxic press coverage and online abuse inevitably has a chilling effect, by forcing some women to self-censor, and deterring others from speaking out in the first place”.

“Research shows that women of colour already face a massively disproportionate risk of online abuse – and it’s clear that hostile press attention targeting an individual can exacerbate that danger,” he added.

Last year, the Daily Mail paid Professor Gopal £25,000 in damages after it published a column falsely accused her of inciting a race war. It did not respond to Byline Times’ request for comment.

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