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Journalist told by police to expect online abuse due to being ‘public figure’

Amy FentonA journalist subjected to repeated abuse online says police have told her to expect it due to her status as a “public figure”.

Amy Fenton, left, chief reporter at Barrow-in-Furness-based daily The Mail, has tried to involve Cumbria Police on three separate occasions over the past 18 months after receiving “vile and vociferous” comments on social media.

But, according to Amy, her complaints have been been knocked back and she had been told her “fear” has to be weighed up against her abusers’ rights to “freedom of speech and freedom of expression”.

She has now gone public on the issue after HTFP reported recently how Coventry Telegraph editor Keith Perry had warned that “truly appalling” online abuse of journalists is now becoming the “new normal”.

Amy subsequently posted on Twitter about her own experiences, saying she received such comments on a daily basis.

Speaking to HTFP, she said: “Over the last 18 months I’ve been subjected to some of the most vile and vociferous abuse on social media solely for doing my job. I’ve been threatened, targeted, belittled and humiliated by mostly anonymous bullies who seem to relish the prospect of hurting and scaring me.

“During that time I have involved the police on three separate occasions, for what I and my editor believed were legitimate grounds, only to be told that as a ‘public figure’ such abuse has to be expected. I have also been told by the police that in assessing comments which have stated ‘if I knew who you were in the inquest I would have dragged you out by your hair’ and ‘nice car you’ve got” they have to balance the fear I have felt with the other individual’s ‘right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression’.

“The argument that certain individuals on social media, such as MPs, take on their roles knowing it comes with the responsibility of – and recompense for – being a public figure, is somewhat justified for some but I don’t believe reporters should be expected to shoulder such a burden. Certainly not when you consider a reporter’s average salary. The responsibility for anything published within a paper, as the law recognises, lies with the editor or publisher.

“Yet we are increasingly seeing reporters being targeted by those who simply don’t like it when their court case is reported or an inquest into their loved one’s death is published. Sadly, what we are seeing is that those of us who dedicate our lives and spare time to increasing the audiences of our publications, by growing followers on Twitter for example, are being cruelly and caustically abused.”

So far in 2019 HTFP has covered a number of cases of regional journalists opening up about abuse they have received online – including Wales Online’s Estel Farell-Roig, Sussex Newspapers crime editor Michael Drummond and Oxford Mail news editor Rebecca Hudson.

Amy added: “On each of the three occasions where I’ve taken the time to report such abuse to police I have been led to believe the ‘human rights’ of the bully are seen as more important than my right to feel safe. And on each occasion I have always stated all I want is for the police to warn the individual and to tell them to stop abusing me.

“The solution lies with the law and the police. I appreciate how significant their workload is, but to disregard someone’s fear of violence is indefensible.

“If serious action was taken against such bullies then the deterrent would prevent most people from behaving in such a reprehensible way. A lack of action only fuels their activities and allows them to believe the law allows them to behave in such a way.”

Mail editor Vanessa Sims told HTFP: “In the era of social media, journalists have definitely noticed an increase in unacceptable online abuse. I think many of the keyboard warriors responsible feel a disconnect from their behaviour and the affect it has on the victim. But this is not something we should not tolerate as a profession.”

“In my view there is only one way to stamp this out and that is reporting those responsible and pubishing the outcome.”

Cumbria Police have been approached for a comment.

5 comments

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  • June 3, 2019 at 10:11 am
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    If a crime or suspected crime has been committed then I feel the police are duty bound to investigate regardless of whether the person in in the public eye or not! Make a formal complaint if they refuse! After all the police don’t regard the abuse they often suffer as “par for the course” (and nor should they) and arrest/charge offenders when it happens.

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  • June 3, 2019 at 10:21 am
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    I note that an inquest was involved in one of the attacks. Frankly, she’s lucky. In my time in Barrow there were at least two incidents when furious, and usually drunk, family members came raging into the front office shouting all sorts of threats against the poor reporter who had only been doing their job. The reporter was shielded, but the front office staff weren’t! Inquests and funerals are always the worst.
    It’s getting worse, of course; the internet has indeed seen to that, and it’s disgraceful that the police take such a cavalier attitude. The editor has a simple remedy, though: turn off the comments!

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  • June 3, 2019 at 11:21 am
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    Depressing yet not surprising – pretty sure that the police would have reacted differently had, say, the local chief inspector been the target of such online abuse…

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  • June 3, 2019 at 2:35 pm
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    Protect staff. Turn off comments. Problem solved. The anti-social media slugs will have nowhere to slither in their slime.

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  • June 3, 2019 at 3:54 pm
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    Police in ‘can’t be bothered’ shocker – and you can quote me on that.

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