Sally Bercow aptly demonstrates that media laws are designed for a different century

"Don't break this law which we can't tell you."

So Sally Bercow appears to have quit the Twitters for good. She already was on thin ice following the legal threats from Lord McAlpine, who was understandably miffed that she named him on Twitter during speculation following a Newsnight report; but she plummeted straight through it when she was accused of breaching a section 39 order, under the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, for naming a schoolgirl who allegedly ran away with her teacher.

A parenthetical, here: a lot of people, on Twitter and elsewhere, are angry that Bercow is in trouble for this, because they rightly point out that the girl had previously been named.

Section 39 orders are used to protect the identity of children who appear, or are likely to appear, in court as witnesses, victims or suspects. They are discretionary, and so can be placed by the courts when they think appropriate. Typically, this is as soon as a court case looks on the cards, which is why the vast majority of children involved in such cases are never named. Occasionally, however, it is in the child's interest to allow their name to be publicised; maybe to encourage witnesses to come forward, to appeal to the public for help, or to track down a missing person. When that need has passed, the section 39 order can be placed as normal.

But what is important is that this is done in the child's interest. Being a witness, victim, or suspect as a young person can be traumatising, and the system is set up to allow those people to not have their name forever linked with a bad period in their early lives. Yes, it is hard to make the internet forget anything, and the Streisand effect is probably, unfortunately, going to be invoked by people. But this isn't the state crushing free speech to protect the interests of the rich and powerful; it is the state attempting to protect a vulnerable child. So please, don't start spreading that child's identity around as a knee-jerk response to Bercow's troubles.

Parenthetical over. The problem raised by Bercow's reported breaching of the order is that, as mentioned, section 39 orders are discretionary. While, as a lay person with a good knowledge of media law, it's possible to guess that whether such an order has been placed by looking at whether a child's name suddenly disappears from the press, the only way to know for sure is to be a journalist at a newspaper which gets sent the orders.

This is, frankly, a system which isn't fit for purpose in an age when nearly everyone in the country regularly uses tools which are capable of breaching those orders. The same is true of other media blackouts, like injunctions: the press is told of them, but they apply to the public as well. It has rightly never been a defence that one didn't know the law they were breaking – but when it isn't even possible to know the law you are breaking, you can perhaps feel slightly annoyed if you then accidentally get in trouble.

It's hard to know what would be better, of course. Publishing a list of the identities which can't be published is clearly counterproductive; yet we don't want to abandon the system altogether. It may be that the best option really is that mooted by Keir Starmer: an agreement that twitterers with few followers won't be prosecuted. That still leaves those who have ended up with thousands of followers facing the full wrath of the law – or, like Bercow, quitting until they take a course in media law – but it would at least minimise harm done to the vast majority of people using social networks.

In one final twist to the tale, just before Bercow's account was deleted, she appears to have been hacked. This tweet was posted late last night:

So it may not be the case that Bercow herself even deleted her account. We'll see.

As this piece involves multiple ongoing and potential court cases, comments are disabled.

Sally Bercow's former twitter page.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Show Hide image

Women-only train carriages are just a way of ensuring more spaces are male by default

We don’t need the “personal choice” to sit in a non-segregated carriage to become the new short skirt.

“A decent girl,” says bus driver Mukesh Singh, “won't roam around at 9 o'clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.”

Singh is one of four men sentenced to death for the rape and fatal assault of Jyoti Singh Pandey on a Delhi bus in 2013. His defence was that she shouldn’t have been on the bus in the first place. Presumably he’d have said the same if she’d been on a train. In the eyes of a rapist, all space is male-owned by default.

I find myself thinking of this in light of shadow fire minister Chris Williamson’s suggestion that woman-only train carriages be introduced in order to combat sexual violence on public transport. It’s an idea originally proposed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in 2015, only to be shelved following criticism from female MPs.

Now Williamson feels that a rise in sex attacks on public transport has made it worth considering again. Speaking to PoliticsHome, he argues that “complemented with having more guards on trains, it would be a way of combating these attacks”. He does not bother to mention who the perpetrators might be. Bears, vampires, monsters? Doesn’t really matter. As long as you keep the bait safely stored away in a sealed compartment, no one’s going to sniff it out and get tempted. Problem solved, right?

And that’s not the only benefit of a woman-only carriage. What better way to free up space for the people who matter than to designate one solitary carriage for the less important half of the human race?

Sure, women can still go in the free-for-all, male-violence-is-inevitable, frat-house carriages if they want to. But come on, ladies - wouldn’t that be asking for it? If something were to happen to you, wouldn’t people want to know why you hadn’t opted for the safer space?

It’s interesting, at a time when gender neutrality is supposed to be all the rage, that we’re seeing one form of sex segregated space promoted while another is withdrawn. The difference might, in some cases, seem subtle, but earlier sex segregation has been about enabling women to take up more space in the world – when they otherwise might have stayed at home – whereas today’s version seem more about reducing the amount of space women already occupy.

When feminists seek to defend female-only toilets, swimming sessions and changing rooms as a means of facilitating women’s freedom of movement, we’re told we’re being, at best, silly, at worst, bigoted. By contrast, when men propose female-only carriages as a means of accommodating male violence and sexual entitlement, women are supposed to be grateful (just look at the smack-downs Labour’s Stella Creasy received for her failure to be sufficiently overjoyed).

As long as over 80 per cent of violent crime is committed by men, there can be no such thing as a gender-neutral space. Any mixed space is a male-dominated space, which is something women have to deal with every day of their lives. Our freedoms are already limited. We spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about personal safety. Each time it is proposed that women don’t go there or don’t do that, just to be on the safe side, our world gets a little bit smaller. What’s more, removing the facilities we already use in order to go there or do that tends to have the exact same effect.

Regarding female-only carriages, Williamson claims “it would be a matter of personal choice whether someone wanted to make use of [them].” But what does that mean? Does any woman make the “personal choice” to put herself at risk of assault? All women want is the right to move freely without that constant low-level monologue – no, those men look fine, don’t be so paranoid, you can always do the key thing, if you’ve thought it’s going to happen that means it won’t …. We don’t need the “personal choice” to sit in a non-segregated carriage to become the new short skirt.

In 1975’s Against Our Will, Susan Brownmiller pointed out that the fact that a minority of men rape “provides a sufficient threat to keep all women in a constant state of intimidation”. Whether they want to or not, all men benefit from the actions of those Brownmiller calls “front-line masculine shock troops”. The violence of some men should not be used as an opportunity for all men to mark out yet more space as essentially theirs, but this is what happens whenever men “benevolently” tell us this bus, this train carriage, this item of clothing just isn’t safe enough for us.

“A decent girl,” says the future rapist, “wouldn’t have been in a mixed-sex carriage late at night.” It’s time to end this constant curtailment of women’s freedoms. A decent man would start by naming the problem – male violence – and dealing with that. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.