Waves of press and political attacks damage public debate
Updated: Mar 30
Dr Corinne Fowler is Professor of Post-Colonial Literature at the University of Leicester. Earlier this year, she found herself in the midst of a media storm.
It began after the publication in September 2020 of a report she co-edited about the National Trust-owned properties' connections to transatlantic slavery. It was an authoritative document that a group of academics, including Dr Fowler, produced to inform the Trust’s future decision-making, though it made no specific recommendations. But then a series of newspapers and MPs, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, repeatedly attacked the authors. In the article we present here, Dr Fowler tells us that instead of engaging with the substance of the Trust’s report, the detractors chose to misrepresent it and attack the authors – and particularly herself. Notably, it was alleged that the authors were "politically partial academics", and one newspaper made the untruthful and absurd allegation that Dr Fowler had claimed that "gardening is racist".
It is important that historical reports of this kind are subjected to scrutiny and public debate. However, a serious problem arises when, instead of this, they are subjected to waves of evidence-free press attacks. This does not contribute to public debate but distorts it. Indeed, as we have noted in other fields, it can lead to damaging self-censorship, as authors and publishers avoid raising politically sensitive topics that need to be aired in public.
Of course, an independent regulator would have stepped in to ensure that the inaccurate allegations against Dr. Fowler and her work were corrected. But this is unlikely to happen while the regulator is a tame organisation, like the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), that is owned and controlled by the press conglomerates.