…when it’s a Kipper?
A couple of days ago, blogger Michael Abberton got a visit from the police. As reported in the Guardian:
“He was told he had not committed any crimes and no action was taken against him, but he was asked to delete some of his tweets, particularly a tongue-in-cheek one on 10 reasons to vote for Ukip, such as scrapping paid maternity leave and raising income tax for the poorest 88% of Britons.”
This is the poster Michael tweeted:
Michael described his experience in his own blog here. As he put it:
“…they said this was in relation to a complaint that had been made by a certain political party in relation to tweets I had published about them and one tweet in particular which talked about ten reasons to vote for them. The PC wanted to know if I had made that poster.”
The police were polite and concluded that there was no charge to answer and that it was not a police matter – but they still asked him to delete the relevant tweets, and suggested that he not tweet about their visit. I, for one, am glad that he did. There are a number of questions for the police – why they couldn’t work out what was going on just by reading the tweets and blogs, for example, and why they couldn’t see that a visit from the police would look very bad. Do the police not realise that people don’t like having a knock on their door from them? And if they do realise it, why not find another way to deal with something like this – a phone call, for example? If the police were a bit more ‘savvy’ they could have worked out what was going on pretty quickly and simply – and come to the conclusion that they finally did, that this was not a police matter at all. Michael is a scrupulous and intelligent blogger – what he was actually doing was fact-checking a parody UKIP poster that had been doing the rounds for a while.
The police have a lot to learn about this – but I think they are beginning to learn. What is more interesting to me is the role of UKIP. As confirmed by the police, it was a UKIP councillor that made the original complaint. Some UKIP supporters have suggested that the poster was a breach of the somewhat notorious S.127(1) of the Communications Act 2003, the section under which Paul Chambers was prosecuted in the farcical ‘Twitter Joke Trial”. Here’s Marty Caine, for example:
Now S.127(1) of the Communications Act 2003 is notoriously broad, but even if it could be stretched to cover Michael Abberton’s tweet (which the police concluded it couldn’t), why would UKIP, a party that fairly often puts itself forward as ‘libertarian’, try to use it? One of the basic tenets of libertarianism is a strong belief in freedom of speech. To a ‘real’ libertarian, the law should be used as little as possible. Freedom matters – and freedom of speech in particular. When someone says something bad about you, you should argue with them. Win the battle of wits. Compete in the marketplace of ideas – not try to find a way to silence your opponents, using the law – and the police – to try to stop them arguing against you.
Personally I detest UKIP – as my various blog posts on the subject over the last few months should make pretty clear – but I wouldn’t use the law to try to shut them up. I argue against them, tease them, parody them, try to persuade them – and yes, sometimes even shout at them – but I don’t try to silence them. Am I more of a libertarian than UKIP? It seems so – but then again, no party with pretentions of libertarianism would have as their central policy the control of immigration.
These kinds of tactics should be taken seriously. Visits from the police are disturbing to anyone – and interference in the political debate, particularly this close to an election, should be taken very seriously indeed. Michael Abberton’s blog was very much part of the debate, looking precisely at the policies of UKIP. As Michael put it in his blog:
“Why would a political party, so close to an election, seek to stop people finding out what their policies are or their past voting record? And is it not a matter for concern that a political party would seek to silence dissent and debate in such a manner?”
Yes, it absolutely is.
It turns out that the UKIP councillor that reported Michael’s tweet was Peter Reeve – and that the reason for the complaint seems to have been that as Michael was a Green Party supporter, his tweet should have been labelled as official Green Party electoral material. To say that this is unconvincing is putting it mildly – and Michael’s Twitter avi has a Green Party twibbon, just to make it clear even on a tweet. What’s more, this doesn’t in any way alter the overall freedom of speech argument – trying to silence political opponents by bringing in the police should be anathema….