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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser