BOOK FESTIVAL: Cathy Newman addresses online misogyny and the importance of positive role models


Channel 4 News presenter and author Cathy Newman discussed gender, history, political division and her controversial interview with Jordan Peterson with a crowd at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Saturday (12 Aug).

Image: Edinburgh International Book Festival

Her new book Bloody Brilliant Women tells stories of women who made a significant impact on Britain during the 20th century but perhaps didn’t get the recognition they deserved.

Newman explains that the idea arose when she noticed a lack of female appearances in the history books she was reading.

She said: “Apart from the Queen and Agatha Christy, no other women had made an appearance and I just thought, what were all the other women doing?

“Were they just off making a cup of tea for the whole century? I started delving a bit deeper and found there actually were incredible women in every sphere.”

With historian Rosemary Goring she discusses similarities between what these women went through and the struggles faced by women today, describing how abuse has been leaving the outside world and moving online.

“In many senses, some of the battles these women fought, particularly in the public eye, seem similar to today’s.

“Early female MP’s Leah Manning and Bessie Brannock were nicknamed the ‘united dairies’ because they had large breasts.

“A lot of the heckling and abuse of women in the public eye feels very familiar now, and you just feel…how have we not been able to move beyond that. Now it’s online. It’s on Twitter.” 

Newman seems optimistic that change and an end of strife is soon to come.

She said: “Looking at the whole arc of history I feel that progress is just around the corner. But maybe I’m delusional.”

She affirms that there is still a lot of work to be done but is joyful about the fact girls now seem to have much more confidence and role models to aspire to.

She is more pessimistic when it comes to young men and boys saying “where are the positive role models for the boys?”, highlighting her fears that they are getting pushed to extremes on the internet. 

“Just as in politics, we’re being torn asunder and it’s become incredibly divisive. I feel that’s also what’s happening online and as a boy online you’re encouraged to go off to the extremes and I think that’s what worries me.

“The role models online for boys are all too often the alt-right sort which drift into the Incel movement and that’s all really troubling.”

Incels, or involuntary celibates, are members of an online subculture who resent being unable to find willing sexual partners despite wanting them.

Discussions in Incel forums are often characterized by self-loathing, misogyny, a sense of entitlement to sex, and the endorsement of violence against sexually active people.

Newman continued: “And that’s the problem, the divisiveness of the people who put their heads above the parapets online, while a lot of others are fearful to say what they’re thinking because they don’t want to get shot down.

“I think it’s very difficult for kids to get their head around, to get a rational, whole perspective on things. It’s very easy for them to get funnelled down one route and think that’s how I’m going to live my life.”

She also recounts how the ‘Incels’ had threatened her life following her interview with Canadian psychology professor and free speech advocate Jordan Peterson, but that both parties had “rather enjoyed themselves” during the interview itself.

She details how these online responses highlight some of the previosuly mentioned issues of poor role modelling.

“They’re learning about sex online, and that’s a very different sort of sex to that which we learnt about when we were growing up.

“When I did the interview with Peterson there was this pornographic meme circulated. There’s all this stuff online that’s like a genie out the bottle, and there’s no way of putting that back in and finding a cork that fits”

Alongside this she ventures into the discussion of Trumpian/Populist politics, considering it a similar pushback to that which has been seen in past clashes between traditionalists and progressives.

“There’s a howl of pain from the people who wanted it the way it was. There has been progress and now we’re having a correction of sorts. As a journalist I think my one goal now is to keep being rigorously factual and absolutely impartial because we need to be a source that people can trust.

She finishes insisting that “while there are pretty pressing issues on our doorstep, we in Britain have much to be thankful for.”

Bloody Brilliant Women was published in March and is available to buy now.