In recent years, the journalism industry has witnessed an alarming increase in harassment against its members, an issue that has manifested both online and offline and reflects deeper societal issues and a disturbing shift in how the public interacts with news media.

The well-documented incident involving Sarah Smith in Scotland underscores a broader, global issue that threatens the integrity of journalism and democracy itself.

Sarah Smith, former BBC Scotland editor, recently shared her experiences of dealing with “criticism, bile, and hatred” while covering politics in Scotland. Her ordeal included insults, misogyny, and public demonisation, painting a grim picture of the hostility that journalists can face from the public and political figures.


This article is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines.


This abuse was so severe that it prompted calls for a “reckoning” over online harassment, highlighting the need for systemic changes to protect journalists.

Politics is personal

A significant factor contributing to the increase in journalist abuse is the intense intertwining of personal and political identities, you’ll have seen this recently with a young reporter on Sky News getting death-wishes for reporting on the new CalMac ferries. That incident is actually what made me want to write this.

Many individuals perceive criticism of their political beliefs or affiliated parties as personal attacks, which triggers defensive and aggressive responses.

This dynamic is particularly evident in politically charged environments, where journalists become targets for merely performing their roles.

In response to these concerning trends, various organisations and government bodies have stepped up efforts to protect journalists. Initiatives like the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists in the UK, which recently expanded its action plan, aim to provide more robust protections. These measures include improved support from employers, cooperation from online platforms, and enhanced police action against crimes targeting journalists.

NUJ general secretary, Michelle Stanistreet, said:

“Attacks on journalists are designed to silence and intimidate those who work to uphold the public’s right to know. NUJ members have shared horrific experiences of being attacked, abused and threatened – on and offline – simply for doing their job. It’s clear that reported incidents are the tip of the iceberg and that harassment and abuse has become normalised. This action plan, with its range of practical measures and protections, is an important step towards changing that and ensuring journalists can get on with their vital work free from harassment or intimidation.”

Furore over frigates

I have personally been a victim of this troubling trend, with individuals threatening to come to my house to confront me simply because I published information about where ships were being built—a clear demonstration of how charged and dangerous the climate has become for those in our profession.

The ongoing abuse of journalists, exemplified by the experiences of Sarah Smith and threats against many others, including myself, is a stark reminder of the challenges facing the press today.

As the cornerstone of democracy, a free and independent press is crucial for informing the public and holding the powerful accountable. However, the increasing hostility towards journalists threatens this fundamental pillar of democratic societies.

Addressing the “but” in conversations about abuse

Even when discussing measures to combat the abuse of journalists, the response from some—especially those deeply invested in their political ideologies—often reveals a troubling train of thought. Many acknowledge that abuse is unacceptable, but they then qualify their condemnation with exceptions, particularly against journalists whose reporting might not align with their views. This “Abuse is terrible, but” rhetoric is problematic as it attempts to justify targeted harassment under the guise of faulting the journalist’s perspective or work, ultimately missing the fundamental issue.

This selective condemnation not only undermines efforts to protect journalists but also perpetuates a cycle where abuse is tacitly accepted as part of the journalistic landscape. Breaking this cycle requires a commitment to unequivocally support the safety and freedom of all journalists, regardless of the content of their reporting or the reactions it may provoke. While it’s legitimate to critique journalism on its merits, it is never acceptable to cross into personal abuse or threats.

How do we stop it?

Enhanced legal protections and stricter enforcement could deter harassment, but these need to be carefully balanced with the rights to free speech. Media companies also play a crucial role and could offer more comprehensive support systems for journalists facing threats.

Public education on the vital role of journalists in a democracy might help shift cultural attitudes, reducing hostility. Additionally, collaborating with social media platforms to improve safety protocols could mitigate online abuse, though finding the right balance between protection and censorship is complex. Ultimately, these efforts might contribute to a safer environment for journalists, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and progress will likely be gradual and uneven.

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George has a degree in Cyber Security from Glasgow Caledonian University and has a keen interest in naval and cyber security matters and has appeared on national radio and television to discuss current events. George is on Twitter at @geoallison
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John
John (@guest_810081)
1 month ago

There are no real journalists nowadays. Just MSM shills dishing out the company line. Any look at the biased news outlets like the BBC confirms it.

SailorBoy
SailorBoy (@guest_810091)
1 month ago
Reply to  John

And yet you are here, reading articles written by journalists? I thought people who complain about MSM were all about understanding the whole picture.

John
John (@guest_810094)
1 month ago
Reply to  SailorBoy

Not biting.

SailorBoy
SailorBoy (@guest_810104)
1 month ago
Reply to  John

Sorry, that was a bit aggressive from me
What I meant is that casting aspersions about “no real journalists” in the comments section of an article written by a well respected journalist doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Bloke down the pub
Bloke down the pub (@guest_810117)
1 month ago
Reply to  SailorBoy

How many articles that you read in newspapers and on websites are just regurgitated company press releases?

AlexS
AlexS (@guest_810111)
1 month ago
Reply to  John

Journalism has been taken over by Activists – BBC is a perfect example of that.

In case of BBC it much worse than just that, since it uses the legal violence of State to get money from everyone including from people that the BBC hates.
BBC forces people that it hates to pay for BBC.

Barry Larking
Barry Larking (@guest_810093)
1 month ago

I can see no easy solution. It is not helped by the authorities adopting at times a frankly baffling attitude towards abuse, ribaldry or orthodox criticism of those in the public eye. The issue exposes a far deeper problem in our society, common elsewhere in the world but hereabouts coming as an unwelcome aspect of progress in communications technology. I have just watched tapes broadcast in the 1970s of a discussion series by the American commentator William S. Buckley. The level of intellectual acumen and serious conversation from Buckley and his guests, the courtesy – above all trying not to… Read more »

Gareth
Gareth (@guest_810133)
1 month ago
Reply to  Barry Larking

I’ve seen many of those discussions too and you’re right. They are much more civil – except one infamous moment when Buckley threatened to “sock you (Gore Vidal) in your goddamned face!” But somehow it was still oddly polite….

Last edited 1 month ago by Gareth
Eric
Eric (@guest_812593)
29 days ago
Reply to  Gareth

Just for some added context: that was right after Vidal labeled Buckley as a crypto Nazi. Yes, those discussions were generally civil and of an intellectual level we rarely encounter in today’s soundbite culture, but they could be heated at times.

AlexS
AlexS (@guest_810112)
1 month ago

Lets start one of the most pernicious result of what is Journalism of last decades:

“Hamas is perhaps the first regime in recorded history to fight a war designed to maximize casualties among their own population.”

AlexS
AlexS (@guest_810113)
1 month ago

The tactics of language manipulation of mainstream activist journalists: Example 1 : Dictator Vs Leader For the Leftist and/or anti western dictators mainstream journalists often call that person a Leader instead of Dictator. For exemple we often had “the Cuban Leader Fidel Castro” But for right wing dictators the journalist obviously tags that person correctly as dictator: So we have instead often “the Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet” One curious case is the Syrian Dictator Assad. When it is about combat against groups that journalist supports the journalist calls him the Syrian Dictator, But when the news is about Syria vs… Read more »

AlexS
AlexS (@guest_810114)
1 month ago
Reply to  AlexS

Note that the use of Leader vs Dictator is an effort by the journalist to legitimise the leftist dictatorships.
A leader is someone that is legitimate by the definition.
A dictator is someone which is not.

AlexS
AlexS (@guest_810115)
1 month ago

The tactics of language manipulation by mainstream activist journalists: Example 2 : Extremist Vs Activist with Protest as a sidekick. In Cold War we had extremist left and extremist right. Perfectly logical. Decades after shock of the Soviet Union fall the journalist left – which is up to 90% of journalism in some western countries – regrouped and taken an harder stance supporting “protests” that are often violent, and with intimidation and harassment. So they realised they need to cover and legitimise that. That is made by changing the usual associated language with those actions. That is why the Activist… Read more »

Bloke down the pub
Bloke down the pub (@guest_810116)
1 month ago

The standard of modern journalism may be a root cause.
Knoll’s Law applies.

Last edited 1 month ago by Bloke down the pub
AlexS
AlexS (@guest_810118)
1 month ago

The tactics of language manipulation by mainstream activist journalists: Example 3 :

The Opposition and Resistance Vs Dissident

A person that opposes a Leftist regime is called a Dissident by journalists. Why? because a Dissident is someone that breaks the norm, the natural order of things and as corollary destroys the peace and stability.
Instead for those Rightist regimes,we don’t have Dissidents, the journalist says the Resistance or the Opposition all by definition legitimate and even right.

Farouk
Farouk (@guest_810135)
1 month ago

Interesting subject and I feel that a major contributor to the rise in hostility across British society (and not just at journalists) is how Academia has been behind the rise of a generation who have been brought up to believe that they can never be wrong, which in turn has lead them to subscribe to the polarised mindset if I am not wrong then the person across from me is wrong and what he is trying to say can only be misinformation as that is not what I believe to be true. and so he must be silenced and this… Read more »

Dragonwight
Dragonwight (@guest_810178)
1 month ago

Shooting the messenger because people don’t like the message has been a common theme throughout human history. Smashing up printing presses, attacking anyone who published anti slavery material the list is endless. Politicians and journalists complain about violence today but they were regularly attacked in the past. Like all ‘rising tides’ the violence ebbs and flows with the times.

Last edited 1 month ago by Dragonwight
Ryan Brewis
Ryan Brewis (@guest_810216)
1 month ago

It’s a shame, because more folk should be up in arms about the ferry fiasco. 8 and 9 years to get Glen Sannox and Glen Rosa in service, meanwhile a Turkish yard is building four and MV Isle of Islay is expected in service THIS YEAR, two years after first steel was cut. Loch Indaal? Two years after laying down. The other two expected in service 2025 as well. CalMac have a lot of old ships that Ferguson should be getting contracts to replace. That they aren’t, and there’s furore over it potentially closing without realising the cause, is just… Read more »

Cognitio68
Cognitio68 (@guest_810616)
1 month ago

Maybe if journalists could refrain from a discourse which seeks to devolve our politics into childish nonsense things would improve. Seeking to challenge establishment shibboleths is not blasphemy or an immoral act. Believing in a representative Democracy and Brexit does not make you a Little Englander Racist. Questioning the over reach of government during Covid does not make you a Conspiracy Theorist. Challenging the NHS’s advocacy of Transgender therapies to vulnerable children does not make you transphobic. Journalists need to instead learn to trust the public and appreciate non-heterogeneous points of view. The BBC narrative is very particular. There are… Read more »