We must resist the temptation to let the alleged murder of the much-loved Southend MP make our country a worse place to live, says Fleet Street Fox
It is a sad fact that every human tragedy is used as a stick to beat someone with.
Easing grief or shock by having a crackdown of some sort is understandable, but also stupid. It never solves the original problem, but just makes everyone think it did, and inevitably the tragedy will be repeated.
And so with the crushing predictability of a Monday morning, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced she wanted to stop people using social media anonymously in the Online Harms Bill “to close corrosive spaces of hate”.
First off, there’s no reason whatsoever as yet to link the death of Sir David to trolling. And secondly, the Online Harms Bill which Priti wants to push through was, until this tragedy, as popular on the Tory benches as Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book.
Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing Street)
One second’s research on Twitter and Facebook will prove that accounts which clearly state someone’s name, location, date of birth and job title are perfectly happy to threaten a public figure. The issue isn’t anonymity, but practicality – they know the police simply don’t have time to deal with every keyboard warrior.
That leaves websites to patrol the trolls, and they’re keen to keep hands-off for fear of becoming legally responsible for what we type online. With firms based in another country’s legal jurisdiction, there’s no real way for us to change that.
The only solution the government has come up with is to make something illegal, without any way of catching anyone doing it. As a bonus, it comes with a side order of free speech, whistleblowing, and the right to withhold your own data, never mind people being tracked by abusive exes or criminal kingpins.
The only way to get a good law with all the nuance, technical skill, and social awareness that it would take to tapdance legislation through all that, is for it to be driven by someone wise, subtle, and brilliant.
And this one’s being steered by Nadine Dorries.
After Jo Cox was murdered in 2016, police advice to MPs meant they all “tightened up their security” with constituency surgeries booked by appointment, and staff checking the postcodes of those they corresponded with to be sure they were a voter.
Jo’s killer was a constituent. He attacked her outside the surgery, not inside it. And he was a neo-Nazi with a house filled with terror manuals who washed himself with Brillo pads. Booking an appointment does not counter a single bit of what robbed her son and daughter of their mother, any more than outlawing metal scourers would have stopped him in his tracks.
Police and security services have always found it next to impossible to track or catch lone wolf killers, radicalised by post or online, living on the fringes of society and often estranged from their families. Only 2% of people referred to the Prevent anti-terror programme are flagged up by their loved ones, which may show just how few of those at risk from radicalisation have a loved one.
Killers need to win only once. Police have to win every day. It’s simply not possible, and so deaths will happen. The trick is to accept what cannot be changed, and try to change what cannot be accepted.
Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing Street)
After our colleague Rupert Hamer was murdered by the Taliban, and photographer Phil Coburn badly injured, in 2010, Mirror executives sent the entire editorial team on a hostile environment and first aid course. We learned how to pack knife wounds, tie tourniquets, and triage victims on a minefield, as well as deal with being taken hostage.
Police officers, and many others in public-facing jobs like social workers, paramedics, and teachers, are trained in how to de-escalate tense situations. Journalists get on-the-job training the first time someone comes at them swinging a lump of wood.
And I tell every fresh batch of journalism students that the most danger they will ever be in is when someone invites them to come indoors for a cup of tea and a chat. Never, ever, stop thinking that today might be that day, I tell them. A few self-defence moves, and listening to your instincts, are the best protection from what can go wrong.
Parliament has the same duty of care to its politicians, and their staff who are often with them in public. Training them in emergency first aid, disarming techniques, and de-escalation might not stop a determined knifeman, but it might save a life.
It’s hard to survive 17 stab wounds, but much easier to make it if there’s only 3.
Our every online interaction is a learning experience for an algorithm designed to see what we like, and provide more of it. That’s why on Netflix, you are constantly offered more of what you’ve already seen, why on websites you see adverts for things you’ve already bought, and why on social media you are driven towards the sort of things you’ve already agreed with.
At its worst, one bad take can find a gravity of its own, with users sinking ever-lower into a wormhole of wrongness. That’s what lies behind online violence, sexual offender escalation, and the tribal nature of our society at the moment. The algorithm does not allow for variation, because “on the other hand” does not get clicked as often.
No government will be able to outlaw something that is the intellectual property of a tech giant. But it is possible for legislation to require the algorithms meet certain criteria for balance and accuracy, and any sane government would be trying to do that, rather than dividing MPs from their constituents still further.
Murders happened long before the internet, and will continue even if you switch it off. In news that will not suit anyone who wants an authoritarian crackdown on freedom of speech, the number of homicides recorded in England and Wales has dropped in the years since Facebook and Twitter were invented.
Lots of things can lead to violence, but the root cause is always an inability to use words instead. Whether you want to say a killer has been abused, marginalised, desensitised by exposure to violent imagery, or if they’re ill, frustrated, or radicalised by extremism, what you’re not saying is that the vast majority of people who’ve had the same experiences didn’t hurt a soul.
The difference is often being heard. And what Sir David did, in his constituency surgeries, was listen to the complaints and concerns of those he represented. He took them on, from endometriosis to animal welfare, and that’s why there have been so many tributes to him.
Social media contains a great many ills, because it is just humans being human. It is also the best, fastest, and most global way of communicating ever invented. Sir David’s death proves that mindless ‘safety’ measures give a false sense of security. People become blasé, and another killing becomes inevitable.
The absolute worst thing to do, as a result of his death, is to stop people speaking freely. Sometimes they say things that are vile, unpalatable, or criminal in their hate. There are laws for that already. Many more say things governments do not like, but are nonetheless right. We must hear them.
Giving every MP a personal police officer does not protect democracy. Only giving people the power of speech does that.