Bloody Tories: the shrinking realm of public discourse

The conviction of Bethan Tichborne begs the question: has Britain outlawed the truth?

Has Britain finally outlawed the truth? I struggle to find a case where any of the of thousands of members of the Stop the War Coalition fell foul of criminal law for accusing Tony Blair of having "blood on his hands", yet four months ago Bethan Tichborne was arrested and last week tried, convicted and fined, for saying the same of David Cameron, with an Oxford district judge finding that her words constituted "threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour" proscribed by the Public Order Act 1986. It could "hardly be more insulting to anyone, whether a politician or not," said the judge, to suggest that the Prime Minister "had blood on his hands."

Polemically, of course, the two are very different cases: where the former were clearly protesting against machinery of death, Tichborne's argument is more nuanced, suggesting that the Government, by cutting the welfare entitlement of the disabled, is responsible for the deaths of those who, out of "fear of destitution, the exhaustion of constant WCA and ESA assessments and endless forms," take their own lives. While it is possible to employ various efficiency arguments to maintain that cuts in social welfare are worthwhile or not, there is considerable scope for disagreement. Though expressed in extreme terms, Tichborne's argument is not without basis in fact: not in that David Cameron actually has human blood on his hands, but in that there is an entire academic discipline dedicated to the study of the trade-off.

Tichborne's case is drawn in still sharper relief when one considers the involvement of the Public Order Act, Section 5 of which proscribes engaging in "threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour... within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby." Recall that, in January, a prominent national campaign backed by Stephen Fry and Rowan Atkinson among others secured the future removal of the word "insulting" from Section 5. This campaign notwithstanding, the word "insulting" continues in Section 4A (relating to intentionally causing harassment, alarm and distress) and, in the case of Section 5, while "'insulting' is gone, 'abusive' remains." This should not give politically active citizens much, if any, comfort, as "the courts are very willing to conflate the two" concepts in cases where language is sufficiently inflammatory (see paragraph 29 of Abdul v DPP), and in such instances - of which I should think Bethan Tichborne's is one - it is no defence that particular words are "not abusive and insulting because they were (believed to be) true."

Language permits myriad ways to call a man a scoundrel and, fortunately, the mere suggestion that a politician has "blood on his hands" is not, prima facie, illegal - at least, not yet. But it is not prima facie permissible, either. When one man's apt metaphor is another man's insult, where do we draw the line? The English courts have difficulty resolving the question, admitting that the existing legislation makes it impossible to define in advance which kinds of political speech are permissible, and which are not (at paragraph 57). So what appears at first to be a public order question becomes a civil liberties one.

Even if one disagrees fundamentally with Tichborne's politics, it would be difficult to maintain that she doesn't have an objectively valid point - one which she is now less free to express. For Tichborne, the subtler nature of her argument - the wider range of possible disagreement her claim invites, and little else - places her on the wrong side of a law which is not endowed with any "cognizance of unintentional offences." The combination of overbroad legislation and overzealous local policing leads, in her case, to a violation of what most of us would consider to be the "certain minimum area of personal freedom which must on no account be violated" because, as put by Isaiah Berlin (pdf), "if it is overstepped, the individual will find himself in an area too narrow for even that minimum development of his natural faculties which alone makes it possible to pursue, and even to conceive, the various ends which men hold good or right or sacred." 

The statutory framework regulating speech in the United Kingdom is not remotely appropriate for a free state. I hope Tichborne appeals. I hope she wins. For if Bethan Tichborne is a criminal, so are we all.

 

 

A protestor dressed as Tony Blair shows his "bloody" hands. Photograph: Getty Images

Preston Byrne is a fellow at the Adam Smith Institute.

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Levi Bellfield, Milly Dowler and the story of men’s violence against women and girls

Before she was so inextricably connected to the phone hacking scandal, Milly Dowler was one of many women maimed and killed by a violent man.

The name Milly Dowler has meant phone hacking since July 2011. The month before that, Levi Bellfield (already imprisoned for the murders of Marsha McDonnell and Amelie Delagrange, and the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy) had been convicted of killing her, nine years after her death. But almost immediately, she became the centrepiece of Nick Davies’s investigations into Fleet Street “dark arts”, when it was revealed that News of the World journalists had accessed her voicemail during the search for her.

Suddenly her peers were not McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy, but Hugh Grant, Leslie Ash, Sadie Frost, Jude Law. People she could only have known from TV, now her neighbours in newsprint. Victims of a common crime. She had attained a kind of awful fame, and remains much better known than McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy.

There is a reason for that: with Milly Dowler, there was hope of finding her alive. Weeks of it, the awful hope of not knowing, the dull months of probability weighing down, until finally, in September 2002, the body. McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy were attacked in public places and found before they were missed. It is not such an interesting story as the schoolgirl who vanishes from a street in daylight. Once there were some women, who were killed and maimed by a man. The end.

Even now that Bellfield has confessed to kidnapping, raping and killing Milly, it seems that some people would like to tell any story other than the one about the man who kidnaps, rapes, kills and maims girls and women. There is speculation about what could have made him the kind of monster he is. There must be some cause, and maybe that cause is female.

Detective Chief Inspector Colin Sutton (who worked on the McDonnell and Delagrange murders) has said insinuatingly that Bellfield “dotes on his mother and her on him. It's a troubling relationship.” But it was not Bellfield’s mother who kidnapped, raped, killed and maimed girls and women, of course. He did that, on his own, although he is not the first male killer to be extended the courtesy of blaming his female relatives.

Coverage of the Yorkshire Ripper accused his wife Sonia of driving him to murder. “I think when Sutcliffe attacked his 20 victims, he was attacking his wife 20 times in his head,” said a detective quoted in the Mirror, as if the crimes were not Sutcliffe’s responsibility but Sonia’s for dodging the violence properly due to her. Lady Lucan has been successfully cast by Lucan’s friends as “a nightmare” in order to foster sympathy for him – even though he systematically tried to drive her mad before he tried to kill her, and did kill their children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett. Cherchez la femme. Cherchez la mom.

I know little about Bellfield’s relationship with his mother, but one of his exes spoke about him earlier this year. Jo Colling told how he had terrorised her while they were together, and stalked her after she left. “When I knew he was with another woman and not coming home it was a relief, but now I know what he was capable of, I feel guilty,” she said. “I did get an injunction against him, but it only made him even angrier.”

Colling fears that she could have prevented Bellfield’s murders by going to the police with her suspicions earlier; but since the police couldn’t even protect her, it is hard to see what difference this could have made, besides exposing herself further to Bellfield’s rage. Once there was a woman who was raped, beaten and stalked by the man she lived with. The end. This is a dull story too: Colling’s victimisation is only considered worth telling because the man who victimised her also killed Milly Dowler. Apparently the torture of a woman is only really notable when the man who does it has committed an even more newsworthy crime.

Throughout his engagements with the legal system, Bellfield seems to have contrived to inflate his own importance. Excruciatingly, he withheld his confession to murdering Milly until last year, leaving her family in an agony of unknowing – and then drew the process out even further by implicating an accomplice, who turned out to have nothing at all to do with the crime. He appears to have made the performance into another way to exercise control over women, insisting that he would only speak to female officers about what he did to Milly.

It is good that there are answers for the Dowler family; it is terrible that getting them let Bellfield play at one more round of coercions. And for the rest of us, what does this new information tell us that shouldn’t already be obvious? The story of men’s violence against girls and women is too routine to catch our attention most of the time. One woman killed by a man every 2.9 days in the UK. 88,106 sexual offences in a year.

Once there were some girls and women, who were tortured, stalked, kidnapped, raped, killed and maimed by a man. Dowler, McDonnell, Delagrange, Sheedy, Colling. More, if new investigations lead to new convictions, as police think likely. All those girls and women, all victims of Levi Bellfield, all victims of a common crime that will not end until we pull the pieces together, and realise that the torture, the stalking, the kidnaps, the rapes, the killing and the maiming – all of them are connected by the same vicious logic of gender. Then, and only then, will be able to tell a different story. Then we will have a beginning.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.