Published in: Daily Mail
We appear to be in the middle of a raging freedom of speech firestorm — and no one seems to have a clue what to do about it.
In the past few days, there has been a series of examples of offensive comments posted on the internet that upset other people — and then the writers found the world falling in on them.
The most recent example involves the Olympic diver Tom Daley.
After he failed to win a medal on Monday, someone sent him a vile tweet saying: ‘You let your dad down i hope you know that’ [sic]. Daley’s father, who his son described as his ‘inspiration’, died last year from brain cancer.
After complaints to the police, a 17-year-old boy suspected of being responsible was arrested by the Dorset constabulary and later bailed.
It was subsequently revealed that, after Daley had tweeted his own disgusted response to the comment, the original tweeter was targeted by tens of thousands of Twitter users, who turned on him in fury with crude abuse and threats.
It then transpired that the tweeter had also posted that he wanted to ‘drown’ Daley and went on to tweet more threats, obscenities and abuse.
It is not clear if the alleged tweeter was arrested for that disgusting taunt about Daley’s father or for his other threats. But regardless of the specifics of this case, it raises wider and deeper concerns about freedom of speech.
The boy was arrested under the Malicious Communications Act 1988. Did you know we had such an Act? No, neither did I. Nor did I have any idea that its provisions are so wide.
For this law makes it an offence to send an electronic communication that conveys a grossly offensive message intended to cause distress or anxiety.
Well, as a newspaper columnist, I get those kind of messages all the time from people whose purpose is undoubtedly to cause me distress or anxiety. So do many others in the public eye. Twitter storms create great clouds of these disgusting messages.
So should all these senders be prosecuted? Of course not; that would be as unenforceable as it would be draconian. So on what basis should anyone be prosecuted?
Is it not alarming to have such a law that is as potentially invidious as it is oppressive?
Undoubtedly, being the target of such messages is a truly horrible experience.
Not surprisingly, Olympic athlete Jessica Ennis has said she is switching off Twitter for two weeks during the Games because she didn’t want such distraction, whether good or bad.
But are such Twitter spats really a proper matter for the police? Even threats of violence posted on the net are often merely rhetorical outbursts from people too inarticulate to express anger any other way.
Indeed, death threats on Twitter are two a penny. For example, British boxer Paul Smith found himself subjected to such threats when he suggested on Twitter that Tom Daley’s tormenter deserved ‘a hiding’, adding: ‘But what’s he done to be arrested. It’s wrong.’
It’s not surprising that the police are complaining they are ‘having to make it up as they go along’ when it comes to policing the internet.
Meanwhile, Twitter has been on the back foot over suspending the account of a British journalist, Guy Adams, after he tweeted the corporate email address of Gary Zenkel, the president of NBC Olympics, while criticising the American TV company for being ‘utter b******s’ for failing to air the opening ceremony live to viewers on the U.S west coast.
Twitter says the British writer broke its rule against publishing someone’s personal details. But Adams pointed out that Zenkel’s corporate email address was publicly available. Now Adams’s account has been reinstated.
In all this bedlam, one welcome voice of sanity has been heard from an English courtroom.
Just a few days ago, another Twitter user, Paul Chambers, was cleared of sending a menacing communication under the Communications Act.
Two years ago, unable to fly from his local airport in Yorkshire to Northern Ireland to see his girlfriend due to bad weather, he tweeted: ‘Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your s*** together otherwise I am blowing the airport sky high!!’
His message caused no security alert; indeed, it was only five days later that the airport noticed it.
Overturning his conviction, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, and two other judges ruled that this tweet, sent in frustration, was not intended to be menacing and was therefore not a criminal offence.
Lord Judge declared: ‘Satirical, or iconoclastic, or rude comment, the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it should, and no doubt will, continue at their customary level, quite undiminished by this legislation.’
Hallelujah! Common sense at last — at a time when Britain seems to have lost all sense of proportion, not to mention its marbles, over how to deal with insults.
For earlier this year, a student was jailed under the sinister Racially Aggravated Public Order Act for sending offensive tweets about Premier League footballer Fabrice Muamba, who suffered a heart attack during a match.
His messages were undoubtedly appalling — but to jail someone for extreme bad manners is simply oppressive.
But then, certain issues have been elevated to a kind of religion. To express heretical thoughts is to invite the attention of a secular inquisition.
When the Tory MP Aidan Burley tweeted that the Olympic opening ceremony was ‘Leftie multicultural crap’, David Cameron denounced him as ‘idiotic’ and Burley was made to grovel.
In the Guardian, historian Tristram Hunt claimed that the criticism of that ceremony made by Burley and the ‘cultural right’ ‘speaks volumes about their incompatibility with modern Britain’.
So express the wrong opinion these days and you are no longer part of British society at all — and just for criticising the (undoubted) Left-wing bias of a theatrical show!
Even before Left-wing commentators started attacking Danny Boyle dissenters, the Twittersphere was denouncing them. The hapless Burley became an un-person on Twitter barely before the Olympic cauldron was even lit.
What on earth has happened to freedom of speech in Britain?
Of course, it has always been understood that the line should be drawn at real threats of violence or intimidation.
But insult should never be criminalised because it is highly subjective. All kinds of speech or writing are vile, insulting or offensive to someone or other.
The right response is to use freedom of speech to object — but not to make the giving of offence into a crime.
Nevertheless, there is a problem with social media.
By providing a platform for everyone, with none of the usual media gatekeepers to police it, social media has created an electronic mob. It has given a megaphone to every misfit with a grudge and social inadequate in the land.
One way of tackling that is for Twitter and other electronic outlets to require all users to post messages using their real names.
But while anarchy rages on the net, Britain is steadily shutting down dissent.
The Twittersphere has created the electronic equivalent of the Roman Colosseum, with millions of computer cursors poised to tweet the electronic thumbs down to destroy their victims’ reputation.
Social media is thus helping enforce the menacing codes of a society which, in the name of diversity and inclusiveness, arrests, suspends and even jails dissenters while the mob savagely tweets their social demise.