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The Attack on Owen Jones Is a Grim Sign of the Times

Last week’s attack on Guardian columnist Owen Jones is another sign of an emboldened far right and the degeneration of public discourse in Brexit Britain.

British journalist Owen Jones speaks at a Diem25 event at the UCL, Institute of Education on May 28, 2016 in London, England. Jack Taylor / Getty

On Friday evening, Guardian columnist Owen Jones celebrated his thirty-fifth birthday — an event that wouldn’t normally make headline news, but for the fact that on leaving a bar in the early hours of Saturday morning, four men followed, made a beeline for Jones, knocked him to the ground, and kicked him in the head and back before they were finally dragged off of him and fled. Jones says the way the group moved and the fact they specifically targeted him made clear it “was a blatant premeditated assault” and he believes they had been watching him for some time in order to leave immediately after his group did. Jones’s friends were also kicked and punched as they fought to protect him, and the attack would have been far worse had they not risked their own safety.

The attack was not the first time Jones has been harassed but it was the most violent incident this year, a period that has seen the columnist spat at and followed by the far right, while MPs and other journalists have been verbally harassed and threatened. Previous altercations around Parliament led to police increasing their presence at protests in Westminster, and to the fencing off of College Green, opposite Parliament, with security allowing access only to those with press or Parliament cards, or escorted by broadcasters.

After Jones spoke publicly about the attack and confirmed he had reported the incident to the police, many people — both members of the public and journalists — offered support. But quickly, some of the extensions of solidarity and condemnations became heavily caveated, with certain people feeling the need to clarify that they disliked or disagreed with Jones, while fringe Twitter activists questioned the veracity of Jones’s report and attempted to sow disbelief around his version of events.

Others tried to question whether Jones should be described as a journalist at all — as if the issue at stake were how to define “journalist” (a term that already covers a huge range of jobs in the media) rather than the existence of a group of people emboldened to cause physical harm to someone paid to express their opinion. A BBC headline was criticized after billing Jones as a “Labour activist,” before mentioning he was a Guardian columnist in a later paragraph. Others grew angry at the implication that their own previous attacks on Jones had contributed to a climate that emboldened the attackers.

Many clearly felt discomfort about how past vocal denunciations of Jones now appeared in the context of the violence — and they should. The rise of the far right did not begin with the Brexit referendum, as any seasoned campaigner can tell you, but since the vote there has been a far greater effort to incorporate far-right views in the media and politics, greater attacks on the Left and a risible attempt to conflate socialism and fascism using constant appeals to the discredited “horseshoe” theory, and the rhetoric of “they’re both as bad as each other.” The ideas of the far right have never been absent from newspapers, with incessant attacks on migrants and minorities, but many political figures and journalists have pushed the argument that the best way to prevent a further slide to the right is to concede ground to extremists.

Much of the public conversation around Brexit has framed the debate as a culture war: one is either a “Remainer” or a “Leaver.” Newspaper front pages and political speeches that describe attempts to prevent a hard Brexit as “treason” or a betrayal of the national interest incite rhetorical violence that unsurprisingly slips into threats, or in this case the actuality, of physical violence. Nigel Farage was castigated when, at 4 AM on the morning following the referendum, he delivered a victory speech that claimed the Eurosceptics had won “without a single bullet being fired” — ignoring the fact the week before, Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered outside her constituency surgery by a far-right sympathizer shouting “this is for Britain.” Men like Cox’s killer are always depicted as ‘lone wolves’, existing outside of the political ecosystem inhabited by law-abiding individuals.

But even if only one in a million people who are exposed to such sentiments — casual expressions of anti-Jones vitriol, speeches that call people of another political persuasion “treasonous,” attacks and harassment of MPs — actually act upon it, that is still far too many. How one voted in a referendum three years ago has far less bearing on a person’s character than the Brexit culture war suggests, but continuing to depict the entire United Kingdom as hunkered down into silos cheapens political discourse, and in many cases, endangers people in public life. No good comes of it. Far better to allow for greater nuance in political debate, and to blame the economic and political circumstances surrounding the vote, rather than individuals who have the temerity to express their opinions publicly.