I was abused with Anna Soubry outside parliament, and I can tell you the protests had nothing to do with free speech
Whether it’s sexism, Islamophobia and racism or anti-union sentiments, these activists are copying the American alt-right
For viewers at home, the visual cues on television news are clear: if stations are broadcasting outside, it means we’re in the midst of a political crisis and a particularly big story. Nowadays, as Brexit looms ever closer, the crisis seems permanent. There’s no pressing need to film political interviews outside, but the parliamentary backdrop adds an ambience, and the hubbub of politicians and journalists in the background provides a sense of the commotion felt in Westminster.
Part of that excitement has – until now – been the protestors, some of whom are there almost every day. Before I was old enough to vote, Brian Haw camped out on Parliament Square, and since the 2016 referendum a gaggle of protestors has attempted to edge into camera shots with placards and slogan T-shirts. At worst, they have been a mild irritation, but a regular fixture that few broadcasters begrudge.
On Monday, however, the mood on College Green was decidedly different. With broadcasters using the strip of grass outside the Commons with increasing frequency, the area has been cordoned off. When I arrived to appear on Sky, it was the only channel still broadcasting: the BBC had left earlier, and the volume of screaming as I approached revealed why.
Kay Burley and Anna Soubry were attempting to broadcast from a raised platform, as a group of around 20 men stood on the pavement below, screaming “scum”, “Nazis”, “liars” “traitors” and “slags” repeatedly at the top of their voices. Waiting to go on air, the producers looked on in concern as the group continued to shout in detail about the various violent uses flagpoles could be repurposed for at the three women in front of the cameras.
Soubry was visibly shaken, having been targeted by the same group earlier in the day – and the gang made clear they planned to follow anyone who walked past them. Two police officers walked past and seemed entirely unconcerned: previously I’ve seen them act with far more verbal and physical aggression to a lone protestor with an anti-Brexit placard. The sheer volume of vitriol was unnerving: a friend spotted me on TV and asked me to join him in parliament for coffee, but I felt entirely afraid to run the gauntlet and instead rushed straight off air into a cab.
Despite broadcasting several times a week, this was the first time I’ve felt genuinely unsafe: the aggressors chanted predominantly about Brexit, but it was clear their aim was to grab attention rather than make any salient political point. They targeted us because we were women rather than for our divergent views on leaving the European Union – had they not been screaming to drown us out they’d have heard me argue forcefully against a second referendum.
Similar groups have previously targeted Sadiq Khan and accused him of being a terrorist, and this weekend attempted to disrupt an RMT picket in Manchester. Whether it’s sexism, Islamophobia and racism or anti-union activity, it’s clear they’re fully adopting the playbook of the American alt-right – cause as much disruption as possible, attract attention, broadcast the scene via Facebook, and use that online platform to fundraise. Clamping down on their activity isn’t an issue of free speech, but of protecting the rights of citizens to organise politically in the case of the unions, broadcasters or MPs and their constituents.
The police have spent years pursuing Islamic extremism while too often overlooking the growing violent threat posed by the far-right. The men hurling abuse at us and attempting to disrupt broadcasts cited Tommy Robinson as an influence, and see his mission of attacking the left as a shared one.
It’s impossible to hear the kind of phrases screamed at the politicians and journalists outside parliament on Monday without being reminded of the language of Jo Cox’s killer, who was motivated by far-right hatred. Human life is fragile, and the threat posed to individuals in politics cannot be overlooked.
Freedom of speech is important, but those targeting broadcasters outside parliament and union organisers have no respect for it: their behaviour is designed purely to intimidate and silence people who disagree with them, especially those on the left. We’ll continue to speak out and refuse to be cowed, but we also deserve protection, before someone gets hurt.