Online trolls, Julian Assange on the run and Jimmy Carr’s tax dodge

“You’re a Bolshevik feminist Jewess.” That was one of the more printable insults aimed at a blogger named Anita Sarkeesian, who wanted to make a series of videos about the portrayal of women in computer games. And it wasn’t just offensive comments. In a targeted campaign of harassment, seemingly led by a handful of message boards, she had her Wikipedia page defaced and received dozens of threats of death and rape. What was her offence? Little more than being a woman with an opinion, which is usually enough to burst the dam of rage on the internet.

Last autumn, I wrote a piece about the bullying experienced by many female writers online. It hit a nerve: others came forward to tell their stories and there have since been two BBC documentaries on “trolls”.

Slowly, the law is beginning to catch up with online bullies and the first cries of “you’re infringing freedom of speech” have gone up. The mistake that is often made in talking about the internet is to assume it’s somehow qualitatively different from any other medium. If you threatened to kill someone in person, or by letter, or through phone calls, you wouldn’t expect to get away with it. Our “freedom of speech” already has restrictions. Why should the web be a consequence-free playground?

Added to that, what about Sarkeesian’s freedom of speech? She proposed making some videos and was harassed, shouted down and victimised by hundreds of anonymous persecutors. Thankfully, she has decided to continue making the video series but many women (and men) will have looked at her ordeal and thought again about speaking up.

When you gotta go . . .

Why does the right hate Owen Jones so violently? After the Chavs author spent a day on Twitter talking about how call centres limit their workers’ loo breaks, the Telegraph’s blogs editor, Damian “Blood-Crazed Ferret” Thompson, commissioned two separate hit jobs on him. First came Donata Huggins, who found the whole subject hilarious. “He has spent the day, as [Dave] Spart would, campaigning for longer toilet breaks for call centre workers,” she chuckled. (Dan Hodges, also of this parish, followed up with an ad hominem attack about Jones being the “Justin Bieber of the left”.) 

Perhaps I’m a Dave Spart, too, but loo breaks are only a trivial subject to those who are allowed them whenever they want. The most eye-opening book I’ve read this year is Rose George’s The Big Necessity, which chronicles the struggles of the millions of people across the world without access to adequate sanitation. The Telegraph bloggers would presumably find their plight hilarious.

Leaking away

At some point on the afternoon of 19 June, Julian Assange slipped unnoticed into the Ecuadorian embassy in Knightsbridge to claim political asylum. It was a surprise, not least to those who had put up the £240,000 he needed to make bail while his appeal against extradition to Sweden played out.

Over the course of the past 18 months, I’ve watched in fascination as Assange has destroyed almost every friendship he has had: with the original WikiLeaks team, with the journalists who worked with him, and now – perhaps – with those who backed him financially. He appears to believe that he and his cause are indivisible, and therefore nothing he does can be wrong. Hosting a chat show on the Kremlin’s favourite TV channel, Russia Today? Fine. Refusing to investigate or comment on allegations that his associate Israel Shamir handed over cables on Belarusian opposition activists to the country’s dictator, Alexander Luka­shenko? Not a problem. The importance of the original WikiLeaks project has been drowned in seas of self-promotion.

The irony of Assange’s situation is this: the self-avowed campaigner on free expression now wants to go to a country where, according to Human Rights Watch, “laws restrict freedom of expression, and government officials, including [President Rafael] Correa, use these laws against his critics”.

Manger zone

Have we reached Peak Pret? Walking down Piccadilly at the weekend, I saw a hoarding advertising a new Pret A Manger store “opening soon!”. It could not have been more than a couple of hundred metres from an existing Pret.

I’m intrigued. How can the market bear so many identical shops in such close proximity? Who thinks about going to Pret but doesn’t, for the sake of an extra few metres? The answer can’t be that competing owners are jousting over business, because the chain (unlike, say, Subway) refuses to sell franchises. There are 249 Prets in Britain, 176 of them in Greater London. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry: they’re sure to come to a town near you soon. The chain has stormed the slow-eating capital of Europe with a store on the Avenue de France in Paris. Disappointingly, over there Pret A Manger is not called “Ready To Eat”.

Carr crash telly

Following the news that Jimmy Carr shelters £3.3m a year from tax by using a Jersey-based scheme, I can’t really do better than his fellow comedian Frankie Boyle’s reaction: “It’s OK to avoid tax, providing every time you do a joke about a town being shit you add, ‘Partly down to me, I’m afraid’ under your breath.”

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s most dangerous leader

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.