Davina McCall, groupthink and the Twitterfication of society

13 Mar

In recent days, the UK has been shocked by the murder of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old woman who was attacked while walking home in South London. A Met Officer has since been charged with her kidnap and murder. Everard was clearly loved by so many people. It is horrific that a young woman going about her life should be taken in this way. My thoughts are with her family and friends at this terrible time.

Lots of women are naturally very upset about what happened. Everard’s murder has sparked a national conversation about safety. Some women feel nervous about parts of life that men take for granted, and may have had awful experiences that shape how they navigate the world. As a 32-year-old woman I know that I might be expected to continue that discussion here, but I do not wish to. All I can say is that I was extremely sorry to hear the news.

Why is this piece about Davina McCall, the TV presenter? It is a sad reflection of our times to move from tragedy to social media wars in the course of one article. But that is what has happened in real life this week. I have been astonished by the speed at which conversations about women’s safety moved to heated arguments, and then political opportunism. The debate on women’s safety escalated when Baroness Jenny Jones from the Green Party suggested the UK needs a 6pm curfew for men.

It was such an extreme thing to suggest that I thought it was a (dire) joke at first. The idea should have been quickly dismissed, but Mark Drakeford then took the stupidity baton and ran with it, suggesting that Wales could implement this plan. In the meantime, the commentariat argued over how much responsibility men have to tackle women’s safety.

Even just listening to women’s experiences has surely been an important lesson for men this week – to realise how common it is for them to be fearful, and the reasons why. We must do more as a society. But generalisations about men can be taken too far. How many of us have loved ones that are doing their best every day? Do they deserve to be grouped together with the most evil among us?

McCall wanted to temper the debate, and Tweeted her thoughts to the world (below). It’s hard to overstate how much bravery her post took. McCall has 2.7 million followers, a fantastic career and we live in an era when celebrities are allowed to say a very limited range of things (whatever anyone claims). She risks severe reputational damage in posting this:

Almost immediately newspapers deemed this the “wrong” view to have. All the headlines followed the same narrative: “Davina McCall condemned”, “Davina McCall criticised”, “Davina McCall faces backlash”, “Davina McCall slammed”, “Davina McCall slammed”, “Davina McCall slammed”… there is a lot of slamming… This is me going through all of them online.

But the evidence of McCall being “slammed” is ambiguous to say the least. Let’s take how many people “liked” the Tweet – 85k (at the time of writing). In other words, many people agreed with her, and those are just the ones prepared to show it.

It was interesting to note that one newspaper used the fact McCall was criticised by a Loose Women panellist as evidence she had been widely condemned. It doesn’t surprise me that newspapers think a celebrity shaking their head reflects majority sentiment. I call this the “Twitterfication” of society. We now assume that a vocal/famous minority on Twitter reflects everyone. Anyway, you could just as easily have said “Davina McCall praised for defence of men” based on her Tweet getting 85k likes.

The McCall write up is a problem for journalism. It shows the tendency of writers to a) report Twitter as if it is real life (how many readers actually care what a Loose Women panelist Tweeted about McCall?) and b) frame events on Twitter through their own perspective (“bad Davina!”).

Why does this matter for a political blog? Well for one, the McCall event has to be seen in a wider context. In the last week, UK voters have looked on in bewilderment as Harry and Meghan’s Oprah interview essentially destabilised parts of the media. Piers Morgan, for the crime of questioning the couple’s account of their time in the Royal Family, was pretty much shown the door at ITV, as was the editor of the Society of Editors.

We have seen that there is a prevailing orthodoxy in the UK (and indeed US). I don’t think I need to spell out the range of opinions you are supposed to have under this quasi-religion, but one now seems to be around how much responsibility men need to take for other men. Hence why McCall has been treated as blasphemous for stating otherwise. It is a fragile place for a society to be in.

The Government is hoping all this culture war stuff will go away, despite allegations to the contrary (that it wants a culture war). It clearly thinks it can navigate its way around these tricky areas with policies, such as Gavin Williamson’s free speech legislation.

Yes these steps are important, but all MPs also need to roll up their sleeves and put forward their worldviews. The McCall debacle isn’t just a Twitter spat, but an example of how distorted and censorious our society has become thanks to social media. The Government can’t stick out of this one. It needs to find its “inner Davina”.