Condemning “managed anorexia”

What are the limits of free speech?

Sarah Tonner has written a moving and measured piece on the Guardian's website about the issues of free speech and irresponsible promotion of anorexia. She argues that the harm that may be caused by such a campaign is such that it should be prohibited. She concludes of the person behind the campaign:

If [the] tweets risk encouraging anorexia and causing harm, this should be addressed. By exercising his "liberty" to say whatever he likes, he risks infringing the liberties of others who read his words – those with a mental illness who have no control over the effect his words might have on their minds.

However, as Sarah is the girlfriend of Paul Chambers, the defendant in the Twitter Joke Trial, the question has been raised whether it is consistent to support free expression in his case, but not in the case of a vile (and thankfully now ended) Twitter campaign.

No sensible person believes free speech is an absolute right. If it was, obtaining goods and services by deception could not be an offence. Providing a false invoice is not a "speech act" that should be accorded the protection of human rights law. Nor is blackmail or conspiracy to murder.

Nor is a bomb hoax. Such actions are rightly prohibited by the Criminal Law Act 1977, the law in respect of which Paul was initially arrested. However, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service quickly realised that there was no evidential basis for charging Paul under that offence. It was not what he had actually done. It is the fact that the CPS decided to prosecute Paul anyway, and chose the obscure and vague Section 127 of the Communications Act to do so, that causes significant concern from the perspective of free expression.

Free expression is a qualified right, but the presumption must always be in favour of it. Any interference with it must be proportionate and exact. And the prohibition must always be in the wider public interest.

Was the "managed anorexia" campaign the health equivalent of a bomb hoax, which would be rightly prosecuted under the Criminal Law Act? If so, the same principles would apply: there are words that can do damage, and in respect of which there should be a prohibition. Indeed, the promotion of health products is a tightly regulated area for this reason.

Or was the "managed anorexia" campaign a speech act that should have the unconditional protection of the right to free expression?

Views will differ on these questions. However, if a "managed anorexia" campaign is indeed more akin to an actual bomb hoax than to a jokey tweet, then it is perfectly open to condemn one, and to defend the right to send the other.

I suspect there is not a single supporter of the Twitter Joke Trial who also believes that there should be no prohibitions on promoting dangerous health practices. The problem is where to draw the line. But it is not hypocritical to believe that there is a line to be drawn.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman. He is also solicitor for Paul Chambers.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.