“Deluded professor says UK national sovereignty not possible after Brexit.”
So read a headline in the Daily Express in the summer of 2017, above an embedded video of me speaking at an academic roundtable on the implications of the coming general election for Brexit.
My point had been that the debate about “hard” and “soft” Brexits ignored the reality that sovereignty entirely bound to the nation state is no longer feasible. The debate we really needed, I said, concerned the kind of country we wanted to be in the world.
But the article did not report that wider point. Nor did it report any of my two male co-panellists’ comments – some of which could have been interpreted as far more anti-Brexit than mine. The headline was later changed, but that did not stem the flow of readers adding comments that could be variously classed as anti-expert, sexist, misogynistic and xenophobic (based on a misapprehension that I am German).
Live streaming, live tweeting, posting and podcasting of academic events has become a standard part of universities’ dissemination strategies, and I had been asked to participate in this one just months into my first lectureship. Yet, it is not clear that the wider implications of the practice have been considered in any depth.
My university has been supportive, but it also expressed surprise over my Daily Express experience, and reassured me that nothing like that had happened before. Yet some female MPs that have participated in the Brexit debate have received so much hate mail – including rape and death threats – that they need specialist security advice, especially after the murder of Jo Cox in 2016. Gina Miller, who won a legal case forcing the government to seek parliamentary approval for triggering Article 50, reports that she has since received a stream of both misogynistic and racist abuse. And a 2017 Amnesty International poll found that one in five women across eight Western countries has suffered online abuse or harassment.
The result is that women’s voices are weakened – through self-censorship of potentially controversial comments – or silenced altogether. The knowledge that my own experience pales in comparison with those of some other female academics has only cemented my decision to no longer allow anybody to film me, and to think carefully when invited to speak at public events on Brexit (an issue on which women contributed just 15 per cent of expert press commentary during the referendum).
I don’t advocate turning inwards to our ivory towers. But we do need a conversation about how best to engage with the public through video. What do we know about the impact of filming academic events? How many people watch the videos, and who are they? Where are the videos shared? I have yet to receive an invitation to a filmed academic event that sought the kind of informed consent that we are expected to secure in our own research by spelling out the filming’s distribution channels and intended outcome.
One rationale for posting such videos is to demonstrate to potential students that the institution in question has the most interesting events. Student recruitment is a high-stakes game, and we might worry that insisting on not being filmed will hurt our reputations among more senior (male) colleagues. It may also damage our careers by limiting our networking opportunities and preventing our name from getting out there.
“Impact” and “engagement” have become integral to research funding bids. However, in the Brexit era, “experts” are distrusted and even disdained – as demonstrated by the campaign against “Remainer academics” by the Express’ fellow traveller, the Daily Mail. When these tabloids, or hostile social media users, disseminate a video of an academic talk, it does not improve public knowledge. It simply adds fuel to the fire.
So while bringing new research ideas and analysis to the public is important, particularly regarding an issue as complex and polarising as Brexit, universities should reflect more carefully on whether certain conversations should be limited to academic and policymaking circles.
Audience matters for how we pitch our ideas. What may need explaining more carefully to the public may be obvious to academics, and vice versa. And the unfettered exchange of ideas among academics is vital for deepening thinking, refining research design and analysis, and nurturing collaborations. If women in particular have to measure what they say on camera, this severely limits the conversations that they can participate in.
In academic seminars, we know that our audience is likely to be at least somewhat sympathetic, and to offer constructive feedback. While lecturing, we are in a position of authority, and our listeners – hopefully – respect and want to learn from our knowledge and experience.
But public forums are a different matter. Academics are not politicians. We are not usually trained to speak on camera, and we are not necessarily skilled in talking to a general public that might be outright hostile. If the trend for videoing academic events is here to stay, universities need to do much more to prepare their female staff in particular for this new and potentially troubling dimension of academic life.
Charlotte Galpin is a lecturer in German and European politics at the University of Birmingham.