Veteran Broadcaster Alistair Stewart resigned earlier this year, following a spat with former political advisor and spokesman for the Institution of Civil Engineers, Martin Shapland, on Twitter. After 40 years in the business, Stewart’s career came to a sorry conclusion. I have heard various narratives around this story, some which suggest that such quasi-racist banter was not an isolated incident for Stewart, others that depict Stewart’s non-white colleagues defending his good character, and possibly more to the point those which suggest that this episode was a convenient excuse for ITN to replace the ageing newsreader. Whatever the reason, Stewart strayed into the minefield of political correctness and got proverbially blown up. This blog post examines why, exploring the power of the liberal press, dehumanisation in postcolonial literature and Stewart’s tenuous use of Shakespeare.
The press has become so powerful in our society, that it can discredit an individual overnight. It is no secret that in any UK General Election the tabloids always side with the winner beforehand. The most successful prime ministers of the past 40 years were well-liked by the patriarch of Britain’s news media as they rose to power. It would seem that if you want to win an election in the UK, you have to get Rupert Murdoch on board. Tony Blair, the only Labour politician to win a General Election in that time, was a close friend and eventually made godfather to one of Murdoch’s children, although the relationship has since soured.
In recent years, the atmosphere in the liberal media towards racial prejudice and other forms of bigotry, has become intolerant in the extreme. Depending on who you are, one badly considered statement can see you lose your job, or cause irreparable damage to your reputation. In this case, Stewart had used a quote from Shakespeare which included the term “angry ape,” which was jumped on with all due aplomb by an understandably offended Shapland. The mere suggestion of the possibility that he was calling a black man an ape was enough to invite the ire of the online community and more importantly those in charge of ITN, so Stewart was done for.
Some less sophisticated media sources have been much slower to jump on the PC bandwagon. In this case The Daily Mail scoured Shapland’s Twitter account to discover his intolerance towards white people, and a penchant for using the term ‘cheesecakes’ as derogatory nomenclature. His victims include Jacob Rees-Mogg, which by comparison left me feeling somewhat offended on behalf of the cheesecake. Shapland has by his own account been bombarded with abuse and even death threats following Stewart’s departure. In his own words: “Our civil and political discourse has become far too vicious” (from Martin Shapland’s Twitter account).
The difference between calling a white person a cheesecake, and calling a black person an ape, is fairly straightforward if you know your history. The colonial system was built upon the tenets of the pseudo-scientific racism which held white people as superior to others. The dehumanisation of black people in the public imagination helped to justify their subjugation by the British Empire and its colonial authorities. Attributing savagery to other cultures and the association of men with monkeys, is part of the dehumanisation process which justified and enabled colonial rule, the effects of which continue today. Chinua Achebe explores colonialism in Nigeria and the power of the written word in Things Fall Apart, which follows the fortunes of an Igbo village and one of its most prominent citizens during the era of British colonisation. The predominance of the written word, the loss of identity suffered by an oral culture and the dehumanisation of the Igbo are major themes in the novel.
Britain is known for its literary tradition and William Shakespeare is its definitive cultural icon. His works explore the human condition, and the relationship between ego and morality are major themes in many of his plays. Examining the quote taken from Measure for Measure, itself the subject of academic debate, my immediate reaction is that there is a certain sense of irony in Stewart using this quote so inappropriately, and it leading to his demise. The play’s themes of justice, morality and mercy are certainly relevant to this case. The quote is taken from a scene where a young novice, Isabella, is remonstrating with an official for her condemned brother’s life. The ruling magistrate, Angelo, has the power to stop the execution, and Isabella is pleading to him for mercy, reasoning that the power vested in him has made him arrogant, to the point that he has forgotten that he himself is human, fragile and fallible. How Stewart could have thought this was the perfect put down for an argument he was having on Twitter over how the royal family is funded only he can know. And the irony is that from his lofty perch in society, with his small sum of intellectual might, he arrogantly thought to belittle a man he perceived as being less learned, and in doing so forgot his own vulnerability.
The message that Achebe and Shakespeare are communicating through their work is that we are only human. The great statesmen of ancient Rome and the kings of England are just as vulnerable as the commoners who are subject to their rule. The Igbo warrior is a sensitive and complex man, who despite his individual strength becomes hopeless in isolation. What these writers required from their audience was compassion. They asked us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and know that they are human just like us.
As journalists we have the power to vilify others or celebrate their achievements. With great power comes great responsibility and how we depict others might have a huge effect on their lives. Stewart and Shapland have been dragged through the mud because of the toxic atmosphere which has developed within our online communities. Although what they said was wrong, I don’t think the punishments fit the crimes. What Martin Shapland really wanted was an apology. I doubt Alistair Stewart really meant to offend so many people. Neither of these men had done anything to gain the enmity of so many. Someone should have told them to say sorry, stop being silly and show some respect. The backlash, which saw them receiving abuse and even death threats, is all too common in the online era. People feel free to say whatever they want because there are no controls, except for those we place upon ourselves. We all want to be treated with dignity and respect, and the way we write influences how people see others. By propagating empathy, understanding and mercy, we encourage others to show the same qualities.
This episode shows us that we live in a world where you can be persecuted for saying the wrong thing, or because people don’t like the way you reacted to something which offended you. But there are double standards in play. There are people in power in this country who have said much more openly racist, homophobic and sexist things in print and got away with it. The press have not seen fit to vilify them, nor has the online mob been roused to persecute them. In fact, despite the government failing miserably in dealing with the greatest crisis of our time, Boris Johnson remains well-treated by the BBC, the tabloids and the broadsheets.