Amber Rudd, the British Government’s Work and Pensions Secretary, sought to garner sympathy for women MPs in a Youtube video posted earlier this week for International Women’s Day (IWD). In it, she complains about abusive messages sent to her via social media.
Ironically, she immedately got herself into hot water when she then gave an interview to BBC Radio 2, claiming that women MPs suffered more online abuse than men. Rudd told the interviewer Jeremy Vine:
It definitely is worse if you’re a woman. And it’s worst of all if you’re a coloured woman. I know that Diane Abbott gets a huge amount of abuse, and I think that’s something we need to continue to call out.
Abbott, who is the Labour Party’s Shadow Home Secretary, then tweeted that the word “coloured” was “outdated, offensive and revealing”.
Abbott, it should be noted, is no stranger to dishing out controversial statements about race. Thus in 2012, she famously tweeted, “White people love playing ‘divide and rule’. We should not play their game. #tacticasoldascolonialism”. She then apologised for any offence caused, claiming that she did not believe in “making generalisations about white people”.
Rudd also tweeted an apology:
Mortified at my clumsy language and sorry to @HackneyAbbott. My point stands: that no one should suffer abuse because of their race or gender
The impression one has from this recent spat between two powerful women is one of fiddling while Rome burns. Britain is plunged into damaging uncertainty over the Government’s mishandling of Brexit and yet here we are, fretting over “clumsy words”.
In this latest exchange, what we are witnessing is the micromanagement of speech, by politicians who seem more concerned about playing to the public gallery than anything more fundamental.
Rudd’s Youtube video shows her reading out a series of posts – mainly anonymised Tweets – seeming mostly either dismissive, or amused by them. Yet she goes on to complain of “nasty language” and “ugly language”. She describes the fact that people talk to her like this as “really horrid….I do mind them using this sort of language….I really think we should have less of it”.
The terms she quotes include: “bastard”, “a totally heartless shitsack”, “fuck you, you traitor, the sooner you are out of office, the better” and “you are a disgusting human being”. Other tweets read:
How about you all just quit, stop dividing the population with your pathetic arguments. We have had enough of the scum political class, and that includes you.
I cannot begin to explain my hatred for the remainers and the Brussels swamp rats.
I hope she dies.
Rudd argues that women MPs are singled out for “particular persecution”, and concludes “we must never concede to the trolls that try and destroy our civility”. Superficially, that sounds reasonable. Indeed, who could argue with a plea for civility?
But it shows a failure to understand, still less to analyse, a number of different problems pertaining to online speech.
Although some of the sentiments directed at her are crude and distasteful, Rudd does not suggest that they are actually illegal. Rather, it appears that what Rudd really wants to is get rid of political invective per se. A striking feature of the examples quoted above is that they do not, in fact, constitute abuse based on Rudd’s gender.
In truth, Rudd’s agenda is more insidious. What she is seeking to do is to control such language simply because she happens to be a woman MP. And she is using IWD as a peg on which to hang an argument for limiting the content of speech on “protective” grounds, based on the gender (or some other protected characteristic) of politicians.
But this is the start of the slippery slope. As an elected representative, she must expect a certain amount of invective: it goes with the territory. Politicians are expected to have a higher level of tolerance of invective than a private individual, however unwelcome or unpleasant it may be to receive it. Women politicians cannot demand special treatment simply because they are women.
It is also material that Rudd has presided over two government departments, first the Home Office and now the DWP, which both have a long track record of treating some people extremely badly. They are deeply unpopular.
It is unsurprising, therefore, if some members of the public voice their anger and frustration at politicians, especially those holding offices of state, in very blunt terms. There is much to be angry about.
Rudd hails from a privileged background. In a past life, she was the “aristocracy co-ordinator” for the 1994 hit film, Four Weddings and a Funeral. But the notion of civility is double-edged. Social codes can help overcome divisions, but they can also be a means of controlling or excluding groups deemed “common” or inferior. Standards of civility vary dramatically over time, and between different countries and societies.
There is an obvious risk, when politicians seek to control speech about themselves by members of the public, of censoring legitimate criticism and debate, which includes the freedom to say things that shock, offend or disturb others. This freedom is guaranteed by Article 10 § 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
As the European Court of Human Rights has observed:
there is little scope under Article 10 § 2 of the Convention for restrictions on political speech or on debate on questions of public interest. It is the Court’s consistent approach to require very strong reasons for justifying restrictions on such debate, for broad restrictions imposed in individual cases would undoubtedly affect respect for the freedom of expression in general in the State concerned
Now it is true that there is a very serious problem of political trolling by malicious actors, both state and non-state, who use social media in an orchestrated way to spread fake news, foment social division, generate anger and engage in provocation. Russia is a past master at this type of disinformation warfare. Comms companies have also done this at the behest of political parties to direct the outcome of national elections.
UK politicians have been slow to wake up to this social threat, which has nothing to do with aristocratic notions of civility. They need to get a grip on these companies, not because they allow nasty abuse of women or ethnic minority MPs, but because they harm democracy by facilitating orchestrated disinformation campaigns. There are legal measures that can be introduced, but they go far beyond speech codes and pleas to “play nice”.
An obvious measure is to prevent the use of online aliases. Others are to make the companies liable for content and to force them to provide and to fund arbitration schemes to compensate those subject to unlawful online attacks. Social media companies, like mainstream press, make their revenues from the sale of advertising. The way to control them is to go after their wallets.