Involving the police is not the way to teach trolls a lesson

People have a right to be angry.

Another day, another Twitter controversy. Less than a week after Paul Chambers heard that the appeal against his conviction in the so-called Twitter joke trial had been upheld, we hear that the police have arrested another person for something written on Twitter.

The person arrested is a 17-year-old, who sent messages to the British Olympic diver Tom Daley. In one tweet, the troll said “u let ur dad down” and in another (later deleted) said that Daley should be drowned. It must be assumed that it is this language of violence which led to the arrest.

When it comes to the limits of free expression, context is important. The messages were deeply unpleasant, but did not appear to include any specifics. The teenager was in Plymouth, not in the Stratford Aquatics Centre. He did not call for others to take a specific action. This appears to be the kind of outburst that is commonplace in a noisy, modern, and connected society. The referees of every professional football match receive similar threats every weekend. Edwina Currie said that tax exiles should be shot. Jeremy Clarkson wants to murder the entire public sector. We often hear calls for bankers to be hanged. Outlawing this kind of speech might seem desirable in theory, but would be chaotic in practice. 

The outrage against these tweets (and by extension, a justification for the police intervention) is that Tom Daley is a national treasure. This is true, but laws cannot only protect people we like – they need to work equally well for everyone. If another, less popular, athlete receives similar abuse, will there be similar outcry?

In fact, one could argue that death threats to public figures are less important than those directed at ordinary people. If a schoolboy living in one of the East London boroughs around the Olympic park receives a tweeted death threat today, it is likely to be from someone he knows and who he actually meets every day. This kind of bullying is much more serious that the "remote" trolling experienced by members of Team GB.

Daley, meanwhile, has a legion of supporters. He seems to be perfectly capable of dealing with trolls like this without the police being involved. His response to the unpleasant tweets was classy – he re-tweeted them! The troll then received a heavy social punishment – thousands of people wrote in solidarity with Daley. His antagonist was so humiliated that he later posted some gushing apologies. The storm should have ended there. What happens on Twitter, stays on Twitter. When confronted with offensive and threatening words, it is usually better to respond in the same medium. Fight a book with a book, a play with a play, a tweet with a tweet. Police involvement might teach that troll a lesson, but it also "chills" other people’s free expression. People have a right to be angry.

In the coming days, we may hear from a few luddites (almost certainly members of one or other of the Houses of Parliament) decry Twitter and the internet as somehow inspiring this hate. This is of course rubbish. Poor taste jokes and vocalised wishes that certain public figures should die horribly have always been a feature of discourse. Before, these comments were lost in the din of a crowded pub. Now, they find a kind of semi-permanence on Twitter, which gives them a credibility they do not deserve. However we respond to this new kind of speech, let’s not confuse the medium with the message.

Robert Sharp is head of campaigns & communications at English PEN


Tom Daley received malicious tweets after he missed out on a medal at the Olympics. Photograph: Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage