Rod Liddle

Make a distasteful remark on Twitter, and expect to be hauled before the courts

13 October 2012

I’m writing this waiting for Bob. I’ve been waiting for Bob since 27 August, which was when he first promised he’d turn up. Bob lied. He’s lied lots since 27 August about when he’s going to turn up, but every time he gives me a date I sit here transfixed with puppy-dog hope, glancing out of the window every so often, expectant. Bob is, of course, a builder. Or perhaps he isn’t a builder but one of those weird people who just pretends to do something on account of the sexual thrill such pretence gives them. It’s usually doctors and nurses but I can see no reason why such an affliction shouldn’t stretch to pretending to be a builder.

Anyway, if this were 2002 I’d go on his firm’s website and write something vicious and hateful about him, with maybe a veiled threat somewhere along the line. But since the Malicious Communications Act of 2003 I am worried that if I do such a thing the old bill will be around with an alacrity Bob could only dream of. We all need to be better acquainted with this act, because it isn’t only bourgeois home-owners who wish to harass tradesmen whom it has disempowered.

A palpable halfwit called Matthew Woods, from Lancashire, has been arrested for having posted some sort of offensive joke about April Jones, the little girl who went missing from Machynlleth, and also a joke about another missing girl, Madeleine McCann. Having read one or two of the things he posted I can confirm that they were deeply distasteful, and not funny, although mild by the standards of the internet. I don’t suppose we should worry too much about Mr Woods, who is now in prison, although my own view is that the comments of such trolls are better simply ignored rather than subjected to criminal proceedings.

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What worries me more about the Malicious Communications Act in its amended form is that it is increasingly used to prosecute those whose response to some national event or incident differs from the officially approved view of a supposedly righteous majority. In a certain loose sense, Matthew Woods’s inane comments fit this criterion. But it is also being used to stifle political dissent. A man called Olly Cromwell was arrested for being rude about Bexley councillors — according to the police, he had posted messages on a webpage ‘criticising them both on a personal level and the way the council is run (sic).’ During the summer, when we were all terribly gung-ho about the Olympic Games, the police were called in to prosecute a chap who had left an unpleasant message on the website of the young British diver, Tom Daley. The message, which followed Daley’s initial failure to win a medal read: ‘You let your dad down I hope you know that.’ Daley’s father had died the previous year.

So, unpleasant enough: but worthy of prosecution? The crucial part of the law —  Section 127 — states that it is a criminal offence to send by any ‘public electronic communications network a message that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.’ Later in the Act this is expanded to involve anyone who sends a message which may cause ‘needless anxiety’. We are skating on thin ice here, surely? Needless anxiety is, to mangle the metaphor, in the eye of the beholder: it is not a matter of solid, provable, fact.

Simon Brown, now Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood and a former justice of the Supreme Court, worried that the act had been so expanded from its original form that it was too readily applicable to too many things. The present Chief Justice, Lord Judge, for his part said in July this year: ‘Satirical or iconoclastic, or rude comment, the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters …even if distasteful to some or hurtful to those subjected to it should and no doubt will continue at their customary level.’

In other words, such stuff, he felt, was specifically excluded from the meaning of the act. This would be extremely reassuring were it true; or at least it is not a point of view which has been successfully inculcated into the minds of the police, the Crown Prosecution Service or indeed our magistrates. Indeed, the stuff which Lord Judge specifically excludes from the act seems to me precisely the sort of thing which does bring a very swift prosecution, fuelled by the hair-trigger outrage of the online masses and the hair-trigger sensitivity of the old bill. You might argue that Lord Judge’s interpretation seems to be of an act which should be on the statute books, rather than the one which presently is on the statute books.

Beyond the moronic inferno of the social networking sites, although inflamed by them, there does seem to be a certain feeling at large that one shouldn’t go against the grain on any contemporary issue and that to do so might lead one very swiftly into the courts. This mood was exemplified by some dismal executive at Channel 4 who told the world that Frankie Boyle wouldn’t be appearing on the network in the near future because some joke he’d made about the Paralympics was ‘not in keeping with the mood of the nation’. I think it would be useful if we had comedians, like Boyle, who are never in keeping with the mood of the nation and, indeed, ridicule the mood of the nation. And it would be nice if the rest of us could do the same thing without the risk of prosecution.


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Show comments
  • andrewm

    This should be straightforward.There was a similar article in yesterday’s Independent.Peter Thatchell and a Christian group have co-operated against this law-surely an alliance which says it all about this law.Whatever your politics ,if you agree that free speech is important,you know that freedom to say the unobjectionable is no freedom at all.
    In spite of this ,the police and CPS seem to be abstemious in applying a law which should be dying a death.Worrying.

  • mark startin

    Well said; freedom of speech has to include the right to offend. In the case of Matthew Woods he was penned in his own home by a ravening mob of 50 locals. The police turned up and, rather than arrest the 50 to preserve the peace they arrest Woods instead for his own safety. They then charged him and the magistrates did the rest.

    I weep for this country.

  • Austin Barry

    If Twitter had existed then, I suppose that had I twittered on her death that Princess Diana was an absurd, disco-prancing pinhead with a boxer’s nose and a frightening predilection for the muslim member, I would have been nicked and sent to prison to howls of execration from the cellophane flower depositing morons.

    (Note to Plod, I live in Ireland so, like Guido Fawkes, I am untouchable by the English judiciary which, while implementing the mad Human Rights Act for terrorists, seems to deny it for natives whose only offence seems to be a kind of churlish, humourless humour.)

    • mark startin

      I suspect if you were to post it on Twitter now you would soon become the most hated person in the world.

    • David Davis

      Better beware: the Police knock people up early these days…. Since you have “thought it”, (you clearly have, since it is here) you are at least as dangerous a mountebank as you suggest that you might be! I often womder about trying to remove roadside “grieving-shrines”, whose mere existence appalls and offends me, but I am terrified lest I might be spotted by some passer-by, who will take offence and inform the rozzers.

    • redson

      You forgot love child of Jimmy Goldsmith…

  • John Steadman

    They are strangling freedom of expression, a freedom which must be the right of even misguided mind-warped morons, which is by no means a fair description of many of those who are falling foul of the law; and by doing nothing about it, the rest are far, far, more guilty than the trolls themselves.
    Shame, shame, shame on this now pathetic spineless nation.

  • doug sinnott

    If Facebook messages upset you,Don’t Go On it!!
    Why do people allow themselves to be bullied,etc.,when all they have to do is not use the site?
    We managed without it before,although now it seems some people can’t exist without membership of Twitter or Facebook!

    • Retronic

      Oh, OK. And when people start shouting coming to my personal site and leaving racist comments, I’ll shut it down. When they start shouting things at me in the street, I won’t go outside anymore either. When they start throwing things through my letterbox, I’ll just kill myself, shall I?

  • Carlazi

    As the recent cases have demonstrated this law is another example of a good idea gone completely mad. It needs amending pretty dam quickly as its another nail in the free liberty of the public. Soon there wont be much left for us to say or do without monitoring from the police/civil service. That is unless we go broke and have to sack the lot of them ahhahahaahahahahahah

  • Jennie Kermode

    Make a distasteful remark to a police offcer and expect the backing of the Home Secretary…

  • Matt F

    Not Malicious Communications Act, but Communications Act 2003. They are different. No malice needed for this offence.

  • Cathcart Boy

    I agreed with the article right up until the comment on Frankie Boyle.

  • Simon Fay

    I wonder if our masters/captors think this kind of totalitarian liberalism is needed until, say, 2050, by which time the population of the market-state will have internalised its imperatives, greatly reducing the need for such keen application of pettily-tyrannical laws?

  • Richard Pope

    indeed, but we all agree as we are Spectator users. i’ve been trying to point this out to the lefties via the Guardian and Indy etc for the last decade or so but they either wont have it or, more likely currently, to accept that it is a reduction in freedom of speech and they agree as it is wrong to upset someone. basicially my point is that the left now seems to have come to terms with itself that freedoms must be restricted to protect their preferred ways. i think this needs to be noted, the current move from the left is to REDUCE FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND THEY HAVE STOPPED APOLOGISING OR HIDING IT and therefore perhaps those of us who value freedom of speech should change our angle or at least bring to the fore that the left is pro reduced freedom of speech…phew…..(and when i say the left i mean the lefty bloggers and party interns who spend all day filling up the blogosphere with their party opinions rather than the actual politicians who have not been so bold). Mmmmmm maybe the 10 bullet point approach is just easier all round and just keep repeating it until they are prepared to answer it. i am consistently amazed at how weak the Tories are to be honest and I’m not sure they are confident in their identity. are they protecting freedom of speech? they are now doing stuff regarding individuality and a smaller state (whilst not actually pointing this out as far as i can see). anyway….back in my lower case box…..

  • Rob Ward

    labour labour labour …….. nope posted distasteful remark nowt happened

  • crosscop

    Then there was the BNP member a couple of weeks back who ( according to the Daily Telegraph) was arrested simply for using the word “darkies.” My dear old grandma was a multiple repeat offender but she got away with it …

  • Fredd

    That’s what happens when you don’t have a written Constitution guaranteeing free speech.

  • Chris

    Poorly researched, was the ‘young chap’ that was interviewed about his Tom Daley tweets in trouble for the tweet saying ‘you let your dad down’ or where he threatened to kill Tom Daley?

  • Jay Igaoboo

    Anyone who subcribes to the notion that we can have a free society without having free speech, is an idiot.

    • JamesHaddock

      What is that you feel you can’t express freely within the law?

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