Why Katie Hopkins is so dangerous for development (journalism)

While I checked the #isoj (International Symposium on Online Journalism) and #ijf15 (International Journalism Festival) hashtags from time to time over the weekend for some interesting, inspiring conference live tweeting on issues around journalism, UK Sun columnist Katie Hopkins unleashed a vicious attack on journalism by sharing her views on the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean in a way that even for British tabloid newspapers marks a new low.
I am trying to stay as distant and unspecific as possible, because otherwise my anger would simply take over – and Katie Hopkins would bag another easy win.

I actually do not want to focus on the actual piece in question, the responses that she anticipated or the question whether an online campaign to remove her from her post is at all meaningful – the digital, viral spinning machine responds in the usual ways, e.g. Guardian’s Zoe Williams claiming that ‘we can fight her by refusing to stay silent’. But the damage is already done a its impact will be felt in the development industry.

First, the debate around her opinion piece is a powerful and important reminder that current rules and legislation around civil society election campaign involvement is hopelessly outdated. As I mentioned in my previous post, Thinks Tanks need to close their Twitter accounts temporarily to prevent partisan intervention in ‘free and fair’ election campaigns and Katie Hopkins with her 550,000+ followers can spread all the misinformation she likes on behalf of a large tabloid newspaper.
In the current political climate in the UK her column and the ensuing debate will poison any nuanced debate around migration/immigration/refugees even further. I do not envy the political candidates who are interested in some form of dialogue and are now pushed even further to the right of the political spectrum.

But more importantly, it was a tweet she sent out on Saturday afternoon that really sent a shiver down my spine:

As a development researcher, teacher, communicator and decent human being I found her tweet very, very frightening.

We have been told for years to present ‘evidence’ that development interventions have an ‘impact’, that they benefit the ‘tax payer’ as well as ‘poor people’; we have also repeatedly stressed the complexity of ‘development’ and the nuances of ‘social change’. Behavioral economics is adding numbers to our claims and ‘data’ in all forms and shapes is one of the buzzwords of the day. In addition to our peer-reviewed research and our teaching of ‘employability’ skills in MA programs, we have continuously ‘informed’ policy-makers, politicians and journalists. There are no ‘short-cuts’, no ‘quick fixes’, no ‘one-size-fits-all models’ we have been stressing time and again.

This has not stopped Conservative governments in Australia, Canada or Denmark to cut back on international development efforts and structures, but at least we thought there is hope for debates and reasoning.

But we are stemming against a tide of opinions like Katie Hopkins’-just deny climate change, arms trade, bad corporate engagement in developing countries or continue with silly stereotypes about
Africaand post your ‘opinion’ about them. Forget about international law and the little bit of international governance that the UN system for example provides. And worst of all: Forget about empathy.

Katie Hopkins painfully reminded me of my own filter bubble-and how powerless we are when you are on a destructive mission and simply deny education, public debates, arguments and ‘evidence-based’ something with your opinion. You can find that in many other debates, but the development and humanitarian field is already quite small and under pressure to lose even the last rougher edges of civil society global social change engagement.

She has made the lives and work of development journalists, teachers, researchers and everybody who is interested in a civilized debate so much more difficult-right in time for the upcoming British general election and probably more debates about the ‘usefulness’ of development in its aftermath.

I have very little hope for that ‘we’ can reach people, institutions and discourses outside our own comfort zone and filter bubble-especially if they simply deny a basis for debate, refuse to get ‘schooled’ and treat every opinion as equally important and necessary in a ‘debate’.

What space is left then for social change, nuances, complexities and getting voices heard without constantly shouting and trolling?!
As a new weeks starts, I feel very pessimistic about public debates and mainstream journalism in humanitarian contexts.


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