Freedom of Speech

The independent Committee on Standards in Public Life has begun its investigation into the abuse of parliamentary candidates at the 2017 General Election. It will look at whether existing laws to tackle intimidation and abuse are still adequate.

There’s no doubt that things have got a lot worse since 2015. Here in Cheltenham, things weren’t as bad as elsewhere in the country. But it was still the ugliest local campaign in living memory. Well over 100 Conservative posters were ripped down. Countless more were defaced – including one I saw in Charlton Kings which had been vandalised with a swastika. Other homes displaying posters suffered criminal damage, some with red paint being daubed on stonework depicting hammer and sickle insignia.

The net effect, unsurprisingly, was that people in Cheltenham were intimidated. Some who had planned to put up a poster explained that they were now too scared to do so. That chilling effect on freedom of speech should concern us all. It also means that residents risk being misled about the relative strength of local electoral support.

As for personal abuse, it has become a fact of life for all candidates. From listening to colleagues it sounds like I got off lightly - although I’ve been sent a death threat on social media, accompanied (charmingly) by a photograph of a headless corpse. There was also one individual who posted on Facebook inciting others to ‘stab [me] up’.

This doesn’t bother me particularly, and the fact is that police officers and others in public service get it far worse. But it does concern me that good people will be put off standing for election. I met one bright Pate’s student recently who said she had wanted to become an MP, but had now thought better of it based on what she had read on social media. She had a point. Scrolling through Twitter sometimes feels like wading through sewage. Facebook’s going that way too.

So what’s the solution? Some have suggested we need fresh laws to further criminalise abuse on line. I’m sceptical about that. We already have a raft of legislation regarding hate speech and inciting violence. And our police are stretched enough as it is.

My instinct is that the social media companies, which make billions of pounds from what is published on their platforms, need to do far more to tackle abusive online content. It is poisoning the well of public debate.

Their default position – that they’re not technically ‘publishers’ so shouldn’t be held accountable for what is written – rings increasingly hollow. It’s the corporate equivalent of ‘the dog ate my homework’.

Make no mistake: democracy and freedom of speech have no divine right to endure. We take them for granted at our peril. We all have a duty – candidates, corporations and individuals – to nurture and protect our way of life.