On Wednesday morning, I was giving a talk at a Westminster Forum. The topic was broadly how media coverage of trans people has changed. Near the beginning I repeated one of my favourite quotes, from Gray Cavendar, an American academic: broadly that the media defines what we see as problems, and shapes the solutions we consider. The coverage has, celebrities apart, moved from trans people to issues facing trans people, and that has the potential to change the lives of thousands of people for the better.
But Cavendar’s quote was aimed more generally. He specialises in analysis of crime reporting and the effects that has on the justice system. Public perceptions of the frequency of crime, especially vicious crime, are invariably way higher than the actual frequency. Therefore it’s unsurprising that, in the UK, the public’s support for harsh sentencing, including the death penalty, run way ahead of politicians’ support.
We can see the same effect with the way large parts of the media report on Europe and immigration. For years we’ve had hostile and often incorrect pieces about both in the press, creating a distorted narrative and understanding. The drip, drip, drip of negative stories has inexorably led to the current referendum, which has been fought on the basis of an emotional case to leave versus a risk-averse case to stay. Emotional campaigns lead to emotional outcomes.
Yesterday’s shocking, brutal and uneccessary assassination of Jo Cox MP will be pored over for days and weeks to come. But I have no doubt that her attacker would have been influenced by this persistent narrative in the press and in the campaign. Everyone has been. The emotional tug to pull Britain back to some vision of a golden past is strong, even if such a Britain never ever existed, and the Britain of the 50s, 60s and 70s expected far more conformity than was healthy.
I have been deeply moved by this tragic killing. Jo Cox was a mother of two young children. The impact on her family will be immense. The idea that you can be killed for holding an opposite view when you are an elected representative – well, that just leaves me speechless. I may be embarking on a similar career. The notion that this could happen to me is, quite frankly, terrifying.
But such a post shouldn’t be about me, even though fundamentally that is how we process things. We have lost a campaigner with a rosy future. We have lost another stable family environment. We have lost a dedicated public servant.
I am currently in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, one of my most favourite places I have ever been, a place I relish the thought of returning to again and again and again – Lochinver in the far North West of the Scottish Highlands. I found out today that Jo named her eldest child Cuillin, after the Skye mountains she so obviously loved. To try to process such tragedy in the peace and grandeur that surrounds me here is hard, very hard. This break has been planned for a while, with a level of excitement about going from central London to the remote Highalnds in 48 hours. The idea that she will never again be able to share with her family this scenery, the wildlife, the sense of adventure in simply getting here – again I can’t find the words to express my sorrow.
But I think we now have a duty to wrestle the political debate and the media dialogue into something we can be proud of, not ashamed of. That is the true battle for Britain, not this phoney isolationist vision being peddled before us as some kind of idyllic future. The press’ disappointing but predictable response to Leveson shows us the scale of the fight ahead, but it’s a fight we, as a country, must win.