Recent media reports of increased security for an MP following death threats and a man admitting in court to a murder plot against a female MP demonstrate the very serious – and continuing – level of intimidation experienced by some MPs and public servants.
These deeply shocking examples reiterate the evidence we heard as part of our 2017 review into intimidation in public life. We were told 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 level and intensity of intimidation – particularly against women, LGBT or those of a black or minority ethnic background - convinced the Committee that urgent, concerted action was required. We went on to make a number of important recommendations in our major report on intimidation published last December, intended to protect the diversity, vibrancy and integrity or public life.
In particular, we called on:
- Government to bring forward legislation to shift the liability of illegal content online towards social media companies;
- Social media companies to ensure they are able to make decisions quickly and consistently on the takedown of intimidatory content online;
- Government to consult on the introduction of a new offence in electoral law of intimidating Parliamentary candidates and party campaigners;
- The political parties to work together to develop a joint code of conduct on intimidatory behaviour during election campaigns by December 2018. The code should be jointly enforced by the political parties; and
- The National Police Chiefs Council to ensure that local police forces have sufficient training to enable them to effectively investigate offences committed through social media.
Almost a year on, I’m pleased to report some progress. The government responded formally to the Committee’s report in March, to say that they are working to develop a new approach to social media platforms, particularly in regard to the levels of liability that social media companies should have for content on their sites. The government has also announced a consultation on the introduction of the new offence of intimidating Parliamentary candidates. And, through the Digital Charter, the government said they are working to understand how they can make the existing frameworks and definitions work better. At present, limited liability is defined in EU law.
The National Police Chief’s Council’s response confirmed that they are creating and providing training courses to enable the police to effectively investigate offences committed through social media and we look forward to hearing more about the take up of the new training across police forces in due course.
We were also pleased to see a positive response so far by the political parties. To varying degrees all the political parties have been actively considering and revising their own Codes of Conduct since our report to ensure they are able to tackle issues of intimidation and harassment within their membership. We look forward to hearing about how their Codes and related sanctions work in practice and the parties’ progress towards a joint Code of Conduct for elections when we host our meeting with them in November.
The detailed response we received from Twitter described their heightened rules to protect users, including enhanced safety policies, better tools and resources for detecting and stopping malicious activity, tighter advertising standards and increased transparency to promote public understanding of these areas. We welcome Twitter’s engagement on these serious issues and remain keen to hear where they are on developing transparent performance indicators on takedown of content.
It is, however, very disappointing that Facebook and Google have not yet responded formally to the recommendations made in our report, almost a year on.
As Lord Bew said when he launched the report last year:
“This level of vile and threatening behaviour, albeit by a minority of people, against those standing for public office or participating in public life is unacceptable in a healthy democracy. We cannot get to a point where people are put off standing, retreat from debate, and even fear for their lives as a result of their engagement in politics.”
It is critically important to ensure we maintain a vigorous democracy in which participants engage in a responsible way which recognises others’ rights to participate and to hold different points of view.
Given the serious nature of this issue for our representative democracy and the potential impact it can have on individuals who participate in public life, the Committee intends to continue its close monitoring of what is being done to tackle intimidation and to do what it can to help foster a political culture which supports healthy public discourse.
The independent Committee on Standards in Public Life advises the Prime Minister on ethical standards across the whole of public life in the UK. Find out more about the Committee’s work.