The social media trolls I encountered for doing my job are damaging society

When Welsh UKIP leader Gareth Bennett walked out of an interview with WalesOnline reporter Ruth Mosalski, the abuse dished out on social media towards a journalist just doing their job was terrifying.

And, argues Ruth, it’s a worrying trend afflicting women in the public eye which can only be damaging for society:

On August 14, I did what I’ve done countless times before and interviewed someone.

Over the last year or so, my brief has grown from local government to other topics including Senedd politics and women’s issues.

I’m not ashamed to say I am still finding my way around the language and nuances of the Senedd but hey, we all have to learn.

During that time, I’ve written probably thousands of words about why women don’t go into politics.

Less than 24 hours after we published an interview, and a video of me interviewing Ukip’s Welsh leader Gareth Bennett , everything from my voice, to my appearance and even the way I hold a pen was criticised. My body language, my surname and (what people believe to be) my politics were all torn apart.

I was “unprofessional”, a “yapping poodle”, a “pathetic interviewer”. I “love the sound of my own voice”. I’m “not fit for purpose” “overpaid…offensive and arrogant”. I am a “vile woman” a “silly schoolgirl” and an “ignorant woman”.

I was “an utter embarrassment to journalism”.

Ukip’s main account, with its 190,000 followers, signposted its followers to me, and said I was a “biased lefty ‘journalist’”. My personal favourite was that I was a “stupid blonde bimbo (who) didn’t have a clue what she was asking”.

Gareth Bennett, UKIP’s Welsh leader

Let me talk you through what actually happened.

Gareth Bennett arrived at our office at 3.50pm, without a press officer and early. I brought him up in the lift and he clocked my Yorkshire accent so made small talk about rugby league (a subject I know little about).

He appeared to be on top of his press coverage and knew some stories I’d written about him and even commented that he was wearing a jumper we use a picture of him wearing, a lot.

He agreed to have some photographs taken, a mic was put on him and he sat in our boardroom.

As the cameras started recording, we spoke first about Mr Bennett’s previous jobs, his feelings on Ukip, his election, Brexit and what it means for his party.

His answers were measured and calm.

Then, I said I wanted to put to him some of the most controversial things he had said and whether he stood by them.

We started with his comments about the transgender community. The tone changed. There were eye rolls and sighs.

Immigration was when the feel of the interview changed, for both of us. This wasn’t a typical interview with a politician telling me what they wanted to hear and me battling to get a few actual answers. He was angry, and you know what? I was too.

I could have sat quietly and just accepted it and our comments the day after would have been “you didn’t give them a tough enough time”.

But that wasn’t what I’d been asked to, or my job to do.

I am not employed by the BBC, I am not duty bound to be impartial but as a rule, I try not to publicise my political views because my job means dealing with people from every party and I enjoy doing so.

I think by now, it’s pretty clear I’m not a card carrying member of Ukip.

But what some members of its party have said in and outside of the Senedd is not the Wales I believe we live in. I respect that some people in Wales believe Ukip is representing them, and that’s why I’m a fierce advocate of democracy and devolved politics.

The argument is being rehearsed again, even as I write this, that we as a media organisation shouldn’t be covering Ukip.

In Wales at least, yes we should.

Ukip has elected representatives in our Assembly. We pay their wages. We have every right and obligation to ask them questions, we also have an obligation to put their extreme views under higher scrutiny.

My job is to get people to answer questions, if they won’t do that, I will either say they didn’t or put the pressure on.

Yes, I talked over Gareth Bennett — a source of much anger among my detractors.

But he is a politician, he has been shouted down before and he will again. He is now a politician in charge of an Assembly group and his role comes with responsibility.

Mr Bennett is, as I told him as he took off his microphone, an elected politician in Wales and he owes voters his time to explain his views. He will face far better, and far tougher interviewers than I.

I was not as cool as I wanted to be by the end of that interview.

I have written before about my pride of being the granddaughter of immigrants.

I won’t rehearse it again here, but in short, my grandparents came here after being forced to leave their native Poland. Britain took them in and my family has repaid that. I believe Britain is in a position to help people, like my family, who were forced out by war.

I moved to a city I love for its multi-culturalism. The very area Mr Bennett said was a mess is where I live (and where I love living). The woman I spoke to him about, Sahar, is brilliantly kick-arse.

I met her through work, but after that interview about her choice to wear a face veil, her mum made us a cup of tea and we sat and had a chat. Despite lots of very obvious differences (religion, professions, social activities) we were incredibly similar.

She texted me after seeing the interview with Mr Bennett (she didn’t know I was going to mention her) and was glad a voice like hers had been put forward.

Thinking back, all that and more came into play. But I don’t think it was about his immigration or race comments, but the way he spoke to me.

The way I interview, given my job, may be fair game.

Do I think the interview was perfect? Absolutely not. Before we went into the interview, my colleague Jonathan, who was recording it, warned me “I know you hate being on camera, but you’re going to have to be”. With the blurring lines between print and online, it’s a new part of my job.

Before any of you had seen it, I’d rewatched it and told my boss it wasn’t bang on. I cringed and I haven’t watched it back in full because I know I’ll hate every second.

I am not a trained broadcaster so I will happily accept feedback on how to do that better.

But the abuse that has been levelled at me — most of which I have chosen to actively avoid — may not have been because you don’t like journalists interrupting their interviewees.

My (male) boss was the first one who actually spotted it, and several others have asked me since if it was because I was a woman interviewing him.

Whatever it was, the reaction to it is one of the reasons women do not enter politics.

What I had that night and in the days after, is a fraction of what our elected politicians get. And I completely sympathise with them after experiencing it.

Whatever we may all agree or disagree on, I hope we can agree it is completely, utterly unacceptable is to spend your night sending people personal abuse.

I knew it was coming and a colleague warned me “stay off your phone tonight”.

This time I handled it. It hasn’t got to me. This time I had the support of my bosses and tens, if not hundreds of messages telling me they were glad there had been some tough questioning. Every one of those messages helped.

Me writing about this won’t stop trolls.

If you want to spend your Tuesday night sat insulting the way I hold a pen, feel free but, there is a whole world out there. A world which is desperately lacking some love in it.

I don’t care if you do it volunteering for a charity, religion or political party which aren’t something I would choose to support.

But at least you’d be doing something you can hold your head up high about.

This article is republished from WalesOnline.

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