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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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.