Comment: The Telegraph fails to celebrate Britain's most diverse shadow cabinet yet
Not So Popular's Tash Cordeaux interrogates why Britain's first Black Female Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, has been overshadowed by the Telegraph's right-wing agenda. She looks at our post-brexit landscape, the history of black female sexuality as spectacle and the language of terror surrounding Baroness Chakrabarti.
At the end of last week, Diane Abbott was announced as Jeremy Corbyn's Shadow Home Secretary. It's not the first time the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington has made history. In 1987 Abbott became the first ever black woman in British history to be elected to the British Parliament. Corbyn's reshuffle should have then been a moment of significance, especially in our time of turbulence and increasing division post-brexit. However, instead of a media which respectfully recognised Abbott's achievement, and extraordinary past of human rights campaigning and work as Shadow Health Secretary supporting the NHS, migrant workers and international student, we've seen the press undermine and trivialise this historic moment.
The immediate response by the Telegraph on October 7th was to put a stupidity-tinted glaze on the entire event. Tom Harris described 'Jeremy Corbyn's reshuffle [as] his silliest yet - which is saying something'. Overshadowing Abbott's voice and presence, the entire reportage focuses on convincing us of Corbyn's indecision and inconstancy; ultimately selling us a PR narrative of Corbyn as incapable contender for PM. The only comment made on Abbott was Harris' final statement:
It's a comment which shows a lack of being able to indicate a rational response. The silence surrounding the words is some sort of strange silence - what are we letting sink in? Diane Abbott is now the Shadow Home Secretary. What is it about Diane that he chooses to remain silent about? What does his silence point toward in the PC time, post-brexit? One can hazard a guess... If not that, Harris' request for us to let it 'sink in' seems superfluous. As if letting it sink in some sort of horrifying realisation will suddenly dawn on us, her cold malicious words on mental health will shake us into consciousness?:
I think not. So, how can the 'straight-laced' press cover such a moment of historic triumph? How to put one the country's leading women, Diane Abbott centre stage? Sadly and not surprisingly, the Telegraph's obsession with Abbott has mainly taken the forms of the controversial topic of anti-semitism within the labour party, but also Abbott's sexuality.
Repeated reference to Abbott's 70s fling with Corbyn has been their line of reportage. The sad reality that a black woman's body cannot find some means of escape from the public eye holds shudder-inducing echoes from the time of Sarah "Saartjie" Baartman, the Khoikhoi woman who was displayed to be marvelled at in 19th-century Europe.
At the beginning of 2016, the Telegraph opened the public's eye into Abbott's personal sexual life, situating her as a pawn for the white male - in this case, Jeremy Corbyn. The whole encounter has been framed around Corbyn and the rumours circulating that he 'showed off a nude black woman' to his white friends to reaffirm his 'leftist ways'. More than being a ridiculous story not really worthy of the hype it created, it does deserve critical attention (outside of the Tory narrative to undermine Corbyn's politics and leadership). At a closer look, the Telegraph's articles surrounding the sexual encounter reveal another colonial layer. As narrator, the press tells us to watch the relationship, or fling if you prefer, through Corbyn's eyes. Even in Abbott's moment where she is centre stage, Abbott was cast as spectacle - she is the naked black woman in his bed, rather than a black woman taking up the space within the white man's bed. Arguably, a much more empowering and powerful image - rather than damaging.
There was not anything remotely revolutionary either in the Telegraph's Tom Harris' comments on the new Shadow Attorney General, Baroness Chakrabarti. Referring to when she was previously declared Britain's Most Dangerous Woman, he (un/intentionally) evokes a sense of fear mongering and skews the immediate perception of the Baroness for those out of the loop with Jon Gaunt's 2007 article in the Sun. The dangerous threat Baroness Chakrabarti is said to have posed was advocating ludicrous 'things' such as the right to trial and free speech. Troubling. Troubling that for Corbyn's exciting new shadow cabinet, we are seeing women (especially from ethnic minorities) being wiped in language of spectacle, sexuality and terror, whilst also being somehow being trivialised.
Do we not expect more from the press? We live in a Britain which certainly needs more integrity right now, we need better reportage. We need conscious journalists. The Telegraph is just one example, but up and to what point will we continue to allow woman of ethnic minorities in politics to be criticised in the abstract and unnecessarily? Up and to what point will we say, enough. Enough is enough. Or is the reaction from old media establishments inevitable when confronted with the reality of a truly multi-cultural Britain? Has the newspaper's spiel become an automated system spewing out the same language, tropes and methods? Are we left with a mindless zombie press rehashing stereotypical imagery to undermine woman and woman of colour in a position of authority?