Sophy Ridge on Sunday Interview with Jonathan Ashworth MP Shadow Health Secretary


SOPHY RIDGE: Now Molly Russell was just 14 years old when she took her own life after looking at images of self-harm on social media and this week, in response to pressure from Molly’s father, Ian, Instagram announced plans to ban graphic self-harm images from their platform. However, my next guest says that more needs to be done to protect young people online and we can introduce now the Shadow Health Secretary, Jonathan Ashworth. Thank you very for being with us. You have investigated, haven’t you, a whole host of things about social media and the internet, what have you found?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: Well can I say first of all, I am a father of two girls, a seven year old and a five year old, I love them more than anything in the world and it makes me feel physically sick to know that someone’s daughter or son can access material that glorifies, romanticises self-harm and suicide – and it is still on Instagram, by the way, despite their efforts to take it down – that glorifies and romanticises anorexia and other eating disorders. There are other public health problems on there as well. I mean I have been doing just a few hours research this week and I found anti-vaccination messages being pumped out at parents – and this is at a time when we got measles rates increasing and whooping cough outbreaks increasing and vaccination rates falling. It is really easy to get access to prescription drugs and illegal drugs, I found somebody who was prepared to sell me Xanax on social media and this is at a time when we have had around 200 deaths from Xanax abuse since 2015. Or sleeping pills, sorry slimming pills and sleeping pills can easily be sold.

SR: But these are illegal so how are they able to be advertised?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: This is happening now on social media and it’s fuelling a public health emergency and what we are saying in the Labour party, Tom Watson said this earlier this week, is we now need a tougher regulatory regime governing these social media companies. We need a duty of care which is enforced because these platforms shouldn’t be allowing these sorts of messages to be pumped out there, these images to be pumped out there, to be easily accessible while it’s causing so much harm.

SR: Is there anything in particular, you say you have been looking into this yourself, you mentioned the fact that you’re a father – is there anything in particular that you looked at and saw and though, this is why it needs to change? What stood out for you?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: I mean – and I don’t want to encourage people to go and look at this stuff but it is so easy to find absolutely horrifying images of self-harm and suicide, horrifying images, horrifying Facebook groups of women – it does tend to be young women but not exclusively – young women saying I will fast for an hour if you give me another like because they are part of an anorexia Facebook group. Absolutely foul anti-vaccination messages being pumped out telling parents not to vaccinate their children and this is at a time when people are dying from measles across Europe at levels we have not seen for years because of some of these anti-vaccination messages. I should emphasise, it is not just about social media, it also comes at a time when mental health services have been cut back, a quarter of children are turned away from CAMHS and a lot of the public health workforce has been cut back so we have got to look at the broader picture as to why some of these …

SR: But social media has certainly changed the climate that you operate under hasn’t it?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: Absolutely, social media has changed the climate and my point is, it is not just about mental health – that gets a lot of focus in the media at the moment for quite understandable reasons – it’s about access to prescription drugs and illegal drugs, it’s about anti-vaccination messages and it’s about a kind of lack of oversight of things being sold on social media that you wouldn’t be able to walk into a chemist and buy so why can you buy it on social media?

SR: So what’s the solution because pointing out these horrific things is in some ways the easy bit, these are things that shouldn’t be happening, but what can you actually do and what are you suggesting tangibly – you’d say that social media companies being publishers should be responsible for the content of their platforms, are you saying people shouldn’t be allowed to be anonymous on the internet, what is it?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: Well social media companies should be held to account, there should be a clear duty of care, legally enforced upon them.

SR: But what does that mean.

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: Well it means for example that if they are allowing these images and these groups to persist on social media, they will be found in breach of a duty of care.

SR: But I still don’t know what that means.

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: For example Tom Watson has said that if they are not prepared to deal with these messages that are causing harm they should be fined, they should be fined 4% of their turnover.

SR: But how do you determine that they are failing their duty of care?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: Well it is quite obvious, if they are causing harm, if they are persisting in having these messages, these pictures that glorify, romanticise self-harm and suicide, that’s pretty clear to me that they are causing harm. Young people shouldn’t be seeing that. We were having a discussion about this on your show, I mean you quite rightly take an editorial decision not to show some of it on the screens presumably, so you use your judgement in deciding what is inappropriate to publish and they do have agency in this, they do curate this because they build algorithms into their platforms, algorithms which they use for firms that want to market and advertise on social media and they make money out of this, so they do have responsibility to act. At the moment they are getting away with things that they shouldn’t be getting away with.

SR: What do you do as a parent? How do you control your children’s use …?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: They are not on social media thankfully, they are seven and five but my seven year old is already asking about Snapchat. I’m on Snapchat but I don’t really understand how to use it to be honest!

SR: You and me both.

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: But they are already asking about it and I have my iPad here with me today but when I go home they will both fight to get my iPad so they can watch YouTube and watch all kinds of absolute rubbish on YouTube.

SR: It’s a challenge for parents.

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: It is a huge challenge for parents.

SR: I am keen to ask you about Brexit as well of course because Labour’s position has changed this week and Jeremy Corbyn was setting out his demands for Theresa May on what he would see to be an acceptable Brexit deal. What I really want is for you to be absolutely crystal clear – if Theresa May meets the demands that are set out in Jeremy Corbyn’s letter for a permanent customs union and so on, does that mean that Labour will back the deal?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: Well then it will be our deal because we believe that …

SR: But would you back the deal because it wasn’t really clear what …

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: If Theresa May can back the demands that Jeremy Corbyn set out, then Theresa May is essentially backing our deal.

SR: So you would vote through the deal?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: If that is what is on the table then we will because that is the logic in our position but we believe that that position will command support in Parliament, we believe it can bring a very divided country together and we think the European Union would be prepared to renegotiate on that basis.

SR: One of the things that was slightly conspicuously missing from that letter was any mention of free movement of people so what is Labour’s position on that?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: Well we said in the general election, our manifesto, that by leaving the European Union, free movement ends.

SR: And that is still your position?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: That is the position but we also recognise that we need to manage the economy in such a way that we shouldn’t be restricting access to international labour so in the National Health Service for example, where we have over 100,000 staff coming to work here who are EU nationals, and we would need to continue to recruit from the EU for the future – we are not going to block that, we’re not going to end that, we want them coming to work here.

SR: Some in Parliament are saying one way of going about Brexit is through a Norway Plus situation, when you would accept the freedom of workers. What’s Labour’s view on that?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: Well I think it is a very interesting proposal and …

SR: Is that something you could stomach?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: Well we could certainly explore that but what we want is an immigration regime which is in the interests of the economy. So we know for example that public service, not just for the NHS but social care and other public services, rely on EU workers coming to work and contribute to this country. There are other areas of the economy which rely on EU workers and of course there are UK nationals who go and work in the European Union, it’s a two-way street this is, so we want a sensible immigration policy which takes that into account.

SR: It seems to me that this is the route that Jeremy Corbyn picked because he set out in his letter his view of what he wants to see from a Brexit deal, he didn’t mention a second referendum in that. Do you think a second referendum is going to happen?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: Personally, and I’ve said this on the record, I think it’s looking unlikely but our position as a party is still that if Parliament cannot agree anything and if it is obvious that a general election is not going to happen – and that’s not necessarily obvious at the moment, speculation in the newspapers again today that there could be a general election – but if a general election isn’t going to happen and Parliament is deadlocked, then our position is to have everything on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.

SR: But if you look at Jeremy Corbyn’s letter ‘Our first priority is a deal, the aim is to achieve a sensible agreement.’ I mean it doesn’t sound like a man who is campaigning for a second referendum does it?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: But our first priority has always been a deal. In the general election of 2017, in the manifesto we put forward to respect the result of the Brexit referendum and that’s always been our position, that’s our manifesto position. Subsequent to that our conference has said if you cannot get a deal, if you cannot get a general election, then you have to look at campaigning for a public vote.

SR: While I’ve got you, I did want to ask you about something that Tony Blair said in my interview earlier on anti-Semitism. He said that the leadership hasn’t been robust enough on tackling anti-Semitism, is he right?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: I think what we’ve seen on anti-Semitism in the party utterly breaks my heart. I am such a big fan of Luciana Berger, she is probably Parliament’s most persuasive campaigner on mental health issues for example, I work very closely with her. She has stood up against anti-Semitism all her political life, she has got my full support. It’s clear that we need to go further and faster in dealing with anti-Semitism in the Labour party. One anti-Semite in the Labour party is one too many, I mean John McDonnell …

SR: So it’s impossible to eradicate it then?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: No, it’s not impossible to eradicate it from the Labour party and John McDonnell said that as well so there is no disagreement between me and John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn on this, we all want to get rid of anti-Semitism in the Labour party. There is more staff at the Labour party head office now, they are putting more resources into it, the General Secretary Jennie Formby has made this her priority issue, the issue on which she’ll be judged by so we are making progress but I think …

SR: But is it fast enough?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: I think we do need to go faster and further on this and kick it out. I don’t want to be in a party with any anti-Semite.

SR: Okay, Jonathan Ashworth, thank you very much.