The committee on standards in public life has published its report on intimidation in public life.
Intimidation of parliamentary candidates does not just affect those who receive it directly, it affects all of us. It affects the volunteers, supporters, staff and families; it affects those who are considering standing for public offices, particularly if they are women, LGBT or from a religious or ethnic minority background. And it threatens the core democratic freedoms that all of us enjoy: the freedom to speak and the freedom to participate in public life.
Our report is not about insulating political elites from legitimate scrutiny or criticism: it is about what we all will lose if intimidation continues unchecked.
During this review we heard about the shocking scale of intimidation and abuse in public life that has come to light since the 2017 general election including personal stories and hard evidence of vile misogynistic, racist, and antisemitic abuse; candidates and activists being physically threatened; death threats and threats of sexual violence.
The effect — and probably the intention — of this behaviour is that individuals are pressured to withdraw from debate or even step down.
As an independent committee, our job is to advise the prime minister and make recommendations grounded in the best available evidence.
Having consulted widely, talked to social media companies, political parties, and the police, and heard directly from candidates and MPs from across the political spectrum, we believe our report represents the broadest and most thorough analysis of intimidation in public life in the UK to date.
It is clear that the gravity of this issue demands a serious response. There is a chorus of calls to regulate online behaviour.
Anyone who knows me will know that recommending new primary legislation is not my first instinct, and indeed the committee on standards in public life has been reluctant to do so throughout its 20-year history.
But we are persuaded that the time has come for the government to legislate to shift the liability for illegal content online towards social media companies. We have deliberately not specified a timeframe for the removal of content.
Even a 24-hour period before an illegal post is taken down is an age in social-media terms, especially during an election period: the companies should be able do this within minutes.
What really matters here is changing the incentives for social media companies so they do more to address these serious issues. We also recommend that government should consult on the introduction of an electoral offence of intimidating parliamentary candidates and party campaigners.
Addressing intimidation is entirely possible, but it will involve concerted immediate and long-term action. Our report makes a suite of recommendations to social media companies, political parties, the police, broadcast and print media, and to everyone in public life, to address this problem at all levels.
Of course, vile and poisonous intimidatory behaviour does not happen in a vacuum. It is made more likely by an unhealthy political culture, one marked by a lack of trust, frustration, and alienation. Too often, public trust has been further damaged by the way that lapses in ethical standards have been used to party political ends.
This report shouldn’t be used to attack political opponents rather than make a serious attempt to take on board the important recommendations we are making. That would represent a betrayal of those who have shared often highly personal and distressing experiences of intimidation in the course of our review.
It is up to everyone in public life to try to restore and protect our public political culture. The broadcast and print media must not use language which incites intimidation. MPs and candidates must observe the highest standards of conduct, and should adopt a tone in public debate which respects the right of everyone to participate and does not open a door to intimidation.
The diversity, vibrancy, and integrity of our public life is at stake. This issue affects us all, and demands concerted action.
This blog originally appeared in the Times Red Box on Wednesday 13th December.
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