Intimidation in Public Life — [Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]

Part of Secondary School Standards: East Cleveland – in Westminster Hall at 3:30 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs) 3:30 pm, 21st May 2019

I thank Simon Hart for securing this debate, which is ultimately about the nature of our democracy. When disagreement is expressed in a hateful, vile manner that is intended to intimidate, it is a threat to the very foundations on which democracy is built. There can be no doubt that the poison, hatred and abuse faced by almost every serving elected representative in the House must give anyone who might be considering entering public life pause for thought. The sad fact is that I genuinely hesitated before participating in this debate, since there is a view out there—I do not suggest it is universal, but it does exist—that serving elected representatives should not be debating this issue. We should just suck it up, because that is politics.

For some, engaging in politics in an abusive and intimidatory way is the new normal, and if someone does not like it, they should go and do something else. Sadly, even the value of democracy has become open to question in some quarters. All hon. Members understand that the mere fact of participating in this debate may open us up to more abuse being heaped on us, and for that reason my colleague, my hon. and learned Friend Joanna Cherry, withdrew her name from those due to speak in the debate. With the exception of Scotland’s First Minister, she is the most abused female politician—if not the most abused politician—in Scottish politics.

Much online abuse—perhaps not all—is facilitated by the mere fact of anonymity. Online someone can pour abuse and intimidation on to whoever they decide they do not like. They can send abusive Facebook messages and retain their anonymity, or they can hide their identity behind a Twitter handle. If someone’s identity is not revealed, the theory goes that they can say whatever they like. They can move on from disagreeing with the views of an elected representative in a vile and hateful manner, and slip easily into threats that are designed to intimidate. They can comment in any way they like—after all, elected representatives are fair game, are they not?

If we do not agree with a political party or politician, democracy demands that we take them on through argument in a constructive and respectful manner. I have absolutely no time for Nigel Farage, but like many others, I do not think for one second that what happened to him yesterday was acceptable. If we cannot challenge our opponents with arguments, respectfully, we have already lost. I am deeply concerned by the examples of abuse that we have heard about today. Sadly, however, for too many the poison, abuse, and attempts to intimidate are what pass for political discourse in some quarters.

Where does all this hatred and poisonous bile come from? It comes from a variety of sources—we could probably have an entire debate on that—but there is no doubt that, as I found out to my cost, it can be stirred up by some sections of the tabloid press. Recently, a freeze frame photo of me in the Chamber, which lasted about one second, was published in a way to suggest that I was asleep on the job. I am sure that when the journalist printed that story it seemed like a jolly good wheeze, but as a direct result of that story—it was categorically untrue, and if someone had watched the film for another 30 seconds they would have seen it was untrue—I encountered, entirely predictably, the most horrific abuse, which was designed to intimidate me for having seemed to do something I had not done. Given the toxic nature of our politics, that shamefully bad and dangerous piece of so-called journalism was not worthy of the name. Over time, however, such pieces diminish, denigrate and belittle all elected representatives, and corrode the basis of democracy itself.

No one should be abused and intimidated simply for doing their job, yet it is now unusual to come across an MP who has not received a death threat. Some of my colleagues have suffered the most appalling abuse, as have others across the House. We could say that that is because politics has become polarised, toxic and so on, but it is also because we who serve in public life have become fair game. Apparently, tolerating intimidation and abuse has become part of our job description.

It has been said that we in public life have a duty to uphold the standards that we wish to see, which is correct, and we must also be careful with our language. Disagreement—including robust disagreement—is absolutely fine and the lifeblood of political discourse, but when it turns into personal abuse or hate-filled rants, it has become something else entirely. Studies have been carried out into abuse in public life and much has been written about it. We know that the police take it seriously, but in reality it is not just respect for elected representatives that has declined; it is respect for the democratic process itself.

Somehow—I do not pretend to have the answers—we need to help the public rediscover and rebuild their respect for the political process and those who serve in public life. If we fail to do that—I appreciate that it is a huge task—I fear that more elected representatives will come to harm in the course of doing their job. Even more than that, I fear that the very essence and value of democracy will continue to decline in the long term. The press also has a part to play. Of course those serving in public life should be held accountable, but let us make that about the arguments, not about tittle-tattle and gossip.

My own fear—I hope I am wrong—is that the Rubicon has been crossed and there is now a subculture in which someone can say what they want, and threaten whoever they want if they are standing for public office. Someone does not even need to be elected—just putting oneself forward for election is enough, apparently, to merit the most intimidatory behaviour. A culture of abuse and intimidation of elected representatives has been carefully cultivated in some quarters. It has gone unchecked and continues to be so. We can pass as many laws as we like, but the culture has to change. Where we are today is the culmination of that cultivation, aided and assisted by the apparent courage that anonymous postings on social media create, and whipped up by some sections of the tabloid press. This issue is bigger than any one individual; it is about the survival of our democratic system.