Presentation during the Round-Table "Expert knowledge in the age of declining trust in the media" in Toronto at the ECSA-C Biennial 2018.
Video clip of the presentation by Roberta Guerrina: Being a female public intellectual – risks and opportunities
In Canada, media and the government are more and more reaching out to academics to engage in public debate. When thinking about Brexit and the experience of many academics in the UK, particularly those who are developing a counter-narrative to that of the government, the experience of media engagement has been exceptionally challenging.
The area of Brexit and its implications for the UK and the EU is not an easy issue to work on. The highly controversial debate on the status of the UK in the EU has produced an environment in which scholarly expertise can be fiercely contested. For instance, there has been a conservative campaign against the legitimization of expert knowledge and expertise in the context of this very public debate. It does not help when academics jump into the discussion prematurely. Academics, that are encouraged to participate and contribute in public debates, are often pushing out information prematurely and less based on solid research than they would normally do in their articles, - at times compromising the quality of the knowledge presented to a larger audience.
Roberta Guerrina did not want to do research on Brexit when the referendum started, because she is an EU national living in the UK and thought that this process was too close to her heart blurring the line between work and her life as a private citizen. The reason why in the end she started doing research on this issue is because of a program on BBC Radio 4, an authoritative program, in which the reporter said they would like to talk to women about Brexit but could not find any female experts.
However, what became apparent during the Brexit referendum campaign, that women counted for only about 17 percent of the total number of experts or commentators that appeared in the media. Until the day before the EU referendum in 2016, women were more likely to say that they were undecided about how to vote. After the referendum they ran a survey and 10 days after the referendum women still had a significantly lower level of engagement with EU issues.
According to Guerrina, women’s experience of engagement with the media is fraught with danger. The infrastructure to protect academics becoming active in the media is not in place. Roberta Guerrina published a piece on the gendered impact of Brexit, which did not paint a rosy picture of the conservative government. Guerrina’s University produced a press release which was picked up by Robert Peston who asked in the context of the Presidents clubs affair (sexual exploitation of young women by senior corporates), if gender is a structure of power rather than just a variable right. As Peston has about 1 Mio followers on Twitter, Guerrina found herself in the centre of public attention. But would she do things differently, would she stop the university putting out the press release? The answer was absolutely not:
“I’ve spent years talking about the potential gendered impact of Brexit. And the fact that the issue of equality does not appear on the radar of anybody talking about Brexit either from the European side or from the British side. There are higher political priorities we need to negotiate. A trade deal. Various issues to do with migration. What about citizens rights? All of those issues are deeply gendered. And if you don’t think about them, we actually marginalize a core sector of the population”
To engage publicity, to become public speakers or the public face of the university is not what academics are trained to be doing. There is no preparation for what it means to deal with trolling. Yet, according to Guerrina there are steps that scholars can take to be better prepared for the risks associated with media work and controversial public debates: It is important to develop a network. When having to face a Twitter storm with thousands of trolls and thousands of Tweets, it becomes difficult to defend once arguments in public. It needs a community to deal with such a situation. It is also important to make sure, that the University has the structures in place to protect its researchers. This should be clarified before getting engaged.