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Famed columnist makes full apology for racist abuse of Muslim activist

9th Apr 2021
Famed columnist makes full apology for racist abuse of Muslim activist

Ash Sarkar was subjected to a two-week campaign of abuse (Credit: Kevin Walsh/Flickr Commons)

Nadine Osman

Famed writer and columnist Julie Burchill, 61, has issued a 600-word unreserved apology and agreed to pay substantial damages for a two-week campaign of abuse against Muslim journalist and political activist Ash Sarkar.

Burchill admitted making defamatory comments about Sarkar, 28, including that she ‘worshipped a paedophile’ and was an ‘Islamist hypocrite’.

In her apology, issued on March 16, The Telegraph columnist said, ‘I should not have sent these tweets, some of which included racist and misogynist comments regarding Sarkar’s appearance and her sex life.’

She continued, ‘I was also wrong to have ‘liked’ other posts on Facebook and Twitter about her, which were offensive, including one which called for her to kill herself, and another which speculated whether she had been a victim of FGM (female genital mutilation).’

The damages – the amount of which has not been disclosed – were agreed in an out-of-court settlement. Burchill has agreed not to contact Sarkar directly again or “engage in any course of action amounting to harassment”.

Sarkar, a Senior Editor at Novara Media, and lectures in political theory at the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam said, “The comments were shocking and incredibly upsetting, and they also kicked off a lot of abuse from other people on social media. People speculated [on] whether I’m really a woman, really a Muslim, and I was subjected to rape threats and threats of physical violence.”

Burchill’s tweets began in December after Sarkar posted a tweet referring to a Spectator article published in 2012 by Rod Liddle.

Burchill has now said she regrets the way she reacted and ‘unreservedly and unconditionally’ apologised for her “hurtful and unacceptable statements”.

Sarkar added, “The intensity of the abuse, along with Julie Burchill’s continuing derogatory posts about me, severely impacted my mental health. I couldn’t sleep and had bouts of trembling and heart palpitations. For the first time in my life, I was prescribed anti-anxiety medication.”

The tweets, which included poems and a reference to the Israeli Defence Force, have now been deleted.

Sarkar continued, “I read multiple tweets from Burchill speculating about whether I’m any good in bed, and insults about me supposedly having a moustache. Strange poems popped up referring to me as ‘Ashtray’, portraying lurid sexual fantasies”.

Burchill also had her publishing deal for a book about “cancel culture” cancelled last year. In the apology, Burchill said Sarkar was not responsible for the cancellation of her deal. Her publisher Little Brown had decided after seeing Burchill’s tweets.

In a statement issued in December, Little Brown said, ‘While there is no legal definition of hate speech in the UK, we believe that Julie’s comments on Islam are not defensible from a moral or intellectual standpoint, that they crossed a line with regard to race and religion, and that her book has now become inextricably linked with those views.’


The aftermath: Framing Burchill as the victim

Writing in The Guardian Sarkar said despite her distress and the fact that she ‘never asked for this to happen’ the media coverage of Burchill’s conduct and subsequent apology ‘was framed the matter as cancel culture gone mad.’

She writes, ‘Burchill’s defamatory outbursts were reported merely as, “[making] a comment on Twitter to Muslim libertarian communist journalist Ash Sarkar about the age of one of Prophet Mohammed’s wives.”’

The issue of defamation, racism and harassment were played down ‘in favour of framing me as part of the “woke mob”, and Burchill as its victim,’ wrote Sarkar.

Sarkar also said the media coverage of her ordeal with racism contradicts assertions made by the former executive director of the Society of Editors Ian Murray who insisted that the UK media “is most certainly not racist” in response to the allegations by the Duchess of Sussex.

‘What my experience with Burchill shows is that not only is there racism from journalists themselves, there’s also a lack of accountability more broadly within the industry.’

Sarkar concluded the only thing ‘that separates an anonymous troll and a journalist is a byline. Some of the worst abuse I’ve received is either from journalists or the direct consequence of their actions in spreading misinformation about me.’

She also called for ‘those at the top of our industry’ to lift the ‘persistently drawn a veil of silence around the bullying tactics that drum black and brown women out of public life. We cannot claim to have a truly free press as long as those who tacitly encourage and facilitate the harassment of women of colour remain sheltered within the media.’

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