BY SAM HOOPER
Hurt an MP’s feelings and lose your civil rights. This could be a reality in the prissy, authoritarian, neo-puritanical Britain we inhabit.
Having learned nothing from the past three years of populist insurgency, rather than facing up to their shortcomings and accepting the validity of justified criticism (and the inevitability of unjustified criticism) the political class is instead preparing to further insulate itself from public accountability.
A new report published by the Committee on Standards in Public Life proposes punishments such as barring people from voting or removing them from the electoral register as suitable punishments for the “new electoral offence of intimidating
Parliamentary candidates and party campaigners during an election” – which if enforced with the same arbitrary capriciousness as all other UK speech laws would inevitably see many people unjustly stripped of their basic civil rights while other, worse “offenders” who happen to hold officially sanctioned opinions go unmolested.
We in Britain now have a government which would give convicted prisoners the right to vote while stripping the franchise from certain free citizens who commit vague and loosely-defined acts of speech crime – including hurting the feelings of an MP or Parliamentary candidate.
The report (prefaced with a quote from the late Jo Cox MP, so as to imbue the document with an air of incontestable wisdom and grace) graciously concedes that the existing restrictive framework of draconian anti-free speech laws does not need augmenting to protect the feelings of MPs at this time, but then immediately ventures the possibility of unprecedented new punishments for those convicted:
Electoral law can overlap with and complement the criminal law, such that offences with criminal sanctions can also involve sanctions under electoral law. These sanctions are specific to the election process, such as being barred from voting for a certain period, or removal from the electoral register. Such sanctions recognise that these offences, such as undue influence or electoral fraud, are offences against the integrity of the electoral process, and that it is therefore appropriate that individuals face sanctions relating to their own privileges within that process.
[…] However, the Committee considers that the issue of intimidation is of particular significance because of the threat that it poses to the integrity of public service and the democratic process.
During an election period, it would therefore be appropriate to have specific electoral sanctions that reflect the threat that intimidation of Parliamentary candidates and their supporters poses to the integrity of elections. Any such offence in electoral law should be tightly defined, to capture intimidatory behaviour that is directed towards an individual specifically in their capacity as a Parliamentary candidate or party campaigner, which intends unduly to influence the result of the election (for example, by affecting their candidature or inhibiting their campaigning).
[..] the introduction of a distinct electoral offence will serve to highlight the seriousness of the threat of intimidation of Parliamentary candidates to the integrity of public life and of the electoral process, and will result in more appropriate sanctions. We believe that specific electoral offences will also serve as an effective deterrent to those who are specifically targeting Parliamentary candidates and their supporters.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life, a body whose intended purpose was to ensure that elected and non-elected officials uphold standards of behaviour appropriate to those who serve the public in high office, now seems far more interested in passing haughty judgment on whether members of the public are abiding by the new speech codes dictated by our puritanical, thin-skinned rulers.
I would be interested to know which of the Seven Principles of Public Life the committee believes it is seeking to defend by proposing new speech crime punishments which attack so fundamental a civic right as voting – particularly as each of these principles sets a standard specifically for “holders of public office” and not private citizens. The only tenuous link offered in the entire report is this throwaway sentence:
[..] the Committee considers that the issue of intimidation is of particular significance because of the threat that it poses to the integrity of public service and the democratic process.
Ah, that’s okay then. So because the rowdy public is supposedly threatening “the integrity of public service” (presumably by scaring people away from getting involved in politics, because those who are already inclined to get involved in politics of course tend to be shy fauns who take fright at verbal hostility) the Committee on Standards in Public Life can use this as an excuse to regulate the behaviour not of people in positions of power, but of those who seek to express their feelings about people in power.
Of course, MPs are not the only people to find themselves at the receiving end of vitriol on social media, as anybody with even a semi-public profile or the desire to talk about politics on Facebook or Twitter can attest. Twice in recent months I have been at the receiving end of such a barrage, first when a “comedian” chose to misrepresent one of my tweets to his baying audience of pro-EU Remain supporters and again when an SNP MP sicced his Twitter supporters on me for daring to write about the office of Scottish First Minister in less than worshipful terms. None of the hate I received (on those occasions) amounted to the level of death threats, but other private citizens have suffered far worse.
Yet the political class seem to want to carve out a special protection in terms of exempting themselves from harsh criticism while doing nothing for anybody else. As Members of Parliament they already occupy a high-status, well-remunerated position in society, are generally endowed with a level of intelligence which enables them to articulate their priorities and concerns and be taken seriously, and make laws and decisions which impact our present reality and future happiness. Yet many of these same people now seem determined to portray themselves as shrinking violets, vulnerable victims-in-waiting, a discriminated against minority group who require the special and proactive additional protection of the law. This is absurd and insulting to the citizenry they notionally represent.
But in addition to protecting the powerful from the masses, these puritanical proposals also fundamentally misunderstand the problem. As even many victims of social media harassment would likely agree, the really damaging part of online abuse is not the individual insults but their combined, collective effect. One person insulting or mocking you can be laughed off or brushed aside, but this is not so easily done when one’s notifications fill up with a constant wall of such derogatory, negative messages. Indeed, when under attack on social media, at times it can be difficult to step back and remember that the strident opinions of social media moralisers is not reflective of the feelings of the country or society as a whole. At times, I myself have momentarily allowed hate and derision on social media to interfere with my self-esteem, despite my fairly thick skin.
The answer to online trolling and abuse (whether directed at politicians or private citizens) is not to criminalise individual acts of strident, unpleasant or insulting speech, let alone to curtail the fundamental civil rights of individual citizens as punishment for (or deterrence of) something which is in large part a swarm effect, an unpleasant but distastefully necessarily defensible part of our society’s commitment to free speech.
To do so would be akin to criminalising the act of gathering together in crowds because of the risk that somebody might be crushed or trampled, punishing individuals for what in itself is often a very small contribution to a larger group effect. No single individual is usually responsible for a stampede, just as very few individuals commit specific acts on social media which alone trigger substantial distress, and barring such people from voting (one wonders what offence merits losing the franchise while retaining one’s liberty) will not deal with the vast bulk of abuse on social media and consequently the vast bulk of suffering resulting from it.
The issues addressed by the report are real, worthy of discussion, and are already being debated at length. There is no lack of editorialising or scholarship on the impact of social media on public political discourse, and the way in which the semi-anonymity of interacting online brings out a far more vicious side of human nature than is usually visible during face-to-face interactions. These are problems which we need to face up to as a society at a time when we are learning on the go. But the solution is not to announce further new restrictions on freedom of expression, as though filling in gaps in the statute books will in any way compensate for filling in the mental and spiritual void which turns some people (including the highly educated and outwardly successful) into social media trolls.
Furthermore, at a time when the yawning disconnect between the ruling class and many of the people they represent is growing wider and fuelling all kind of populist outbursts (some welcome and others far less so) it is the height of irresponsibility for those in power to publicly toy with the notion of punishing the plebs for insulting their masters by stripping them of their voting rights.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life should cast their haughty, disapproving gaze back where it belongs – on those who debase their political offices or abuse the public trust. Now more than ever is a time for humility and introspection from the ruling class, not a whinnying list of grievances about those who fail to sing their praises.
Sam Hooper is a former management consultant turned political commentator, currently living in London with his Texan wife. Sam can usually be found online, droning on about politics, free markets, civil liberties, conservatism and classical music. Sam is a proud conservatarian, blogs here and tweets @SamHooper