‘Well done, Twitter police’

Only last Thursday, the Twitterati was celebrating the fact that a judge finally realised a tweet about blowing up a UK airport was a joke. The offending tweeter, 28-year-old accountant Paul Chambers, was ‘completely vindicated’. But don’t be fooled. The Twitterati’s love of freedom of speech does not extend, it seems, to those whom its members dislike. People, that is, like the teenage ‘troll’ arrested yesterday for ‘malicious communications’.

‘You let your dad down, I hope you know that.’ This is not the first thought that will have popped into the minds of most people who saw diver and teen pin-up Tom Daley fail to win a medal in the synchronised diving in the London Olympics. Not least because Daley’s father sadly died of a brain tumour last year. It is pretty clear that 17-year-old who tweeted this message from the account @Rileyy_69 to Daley, is an unpleasant character. Alongside other nuggets of abuse, he tweeted: ‘I’m going to find you [Daley] and I’m going to drown you in the pool you cocky twat, you’re a nobody people like you make me sick.’

Unpleasant? Yes. Heartless? Yeah, that too. But far more unpalatable was the censorious reaction to James’ tweets, which Daley prompted by retweeting these ill wishes to his followers. This mouthy kid from Weymouth, who on Twitter gives his name as Reece Sonny James, was then subjected to a sudden worldwide torrent of abuse as Twitter mobs felt licensed to let rip. James was attacked for being ‘the definition of a chav’, a ‘skinny topless posing gimp’, a ‘worldwide wanker’ who should have ‘died instead’ of Daley’s dad. The hashtag #GetRileyy_69Banned began to trend worldwide – and hundreds of people reported him to the police. Riley’s account was duly blocked, and he was arrested by Dorset police yesterday morning. ‘Good good. Well done Twitter police’, tweeted one individual upon hearing the news. ‘You can catch @Rileyy_69’s public ridicule on tomorrow’s news, Daybreak and This Morning. What a day he will have’, tweeted another.

Such praise of the Twitter police puts paid to the idea that Twitter has become a freer, less censorious place following the acquittal of Chambers. Far from it. The twitch-hunt of James – coming just a couple of days after tweeters were calling for Conservative MP Aidan Burley’s scalp after he criticised the opening ceremony – is a classic example of the way twitch-hunts enforce a modern-day conformism. Yes, there was notionally a ‘death threat’ in one of Reece’s tweets, but does anyone seriously think that 17-year-old Reece was going to leave Weymouth, track down Daley and actually drown him in a pool? This ‘threat’ was evidently an expression of emotional angst and hatred, not a serious proposition. Such comments require context, as footballer Joey Barton rightly pointed out on Twitter in response to Reece’s arrest: ‘I’ve had loads of death threats! Still here aren’t I. I just laugh my head off when I get them… Surely, if u were gonna kill someone you wouldn’t give them a headups.’

The Twitter police single out individuals who do not, as John Stuart Mill would have put it, ‘bend a knee to custom’, and make such a collective noise that authorities see fit to take action. In On Liberty, Mill warned of the ‘despotism of custom’ which was contrasted with the love of liberty. Custom, observed Mill, ‘proscribes singularity, but it does not preclude change, provided all change together’.

Twitter has become a twenty-first-century tool to ringfence the boundaries of debate and enforce custom. Led by the Twitterati and increasingly influential upon every bit of the media, it teaches us what it is acceptable to think and say – and woe betide anyone who does not ‘change together’ or who goes against the grain of the Twittermob. At best, your words will be dismissed out of hand as ‘trolling’; at worst, you will be banged up.

Following the arrest of James, who has now been let off with a ‘harassment warning’, people took to Twitter and indulged in celebratory fantasies about what should happen to James next: ‘Glad the little prick got arrested. Rileyy_69 is now gonna get absolutely anal raped in prison.’ One lamented: ‘Wish we still had capital punishment, could get Rileyy_69 hung.’ Others threatened to ‘hunt him down’ and ‘knock the fuck [out of the] scrawny cunt!’.

As Mill argued, for the despots of custom, ‘justice and right mean conformity to custom’. And with right on these tweeters’ side, of course, it is unlikely they will face the wrath of the Twittersphere and be grassed up to the cops for making ‘malicious threats’. And nor should they be. These twitch-hunters and Twitter police should, of course, be free to say whatever they want, no matter how bilious their remarks. Such is the nature of free speech, which – given the number of people calling for James to be banned from tweeting and put in prison – seems an alien concept to many of those cheering his arrest (despite their celebration of Chambers’ exoneration).

Equally, however, the rest of us should be free to tell the twitch-hunters that they are part of a big, informal and deeply intolerant drive to shut people up. And, in doing so, they help to make public debate more controlled, more polite and less free. While the speech of the Twitter police should be tolerated, they can – and should – be criticised for their conformist and oft-censorious actions.

The ministers stopping Britain from taking off

Does anyone now remember Plane Stupid, or any of that gaggle of shrill UK climate protesters who opposed then prime minister Gordon Brown’s proposals to build a third runway at Heathrow airport? In fact, they opposed the existence of pretty much anyairport. A particular target was Stansted in Essex, where, in the eyes of the protesters, uncultured chavs and the working-class masses needlessly fly to Prague and Spain for stag dos and boozy holidays.

Such protests, always more contemptuous of public opinion than representative of it, now seem like a distant memory. Not even the most delusional of the remaining rump of climate-change activists could claim to have much of a purchase on the zeitgeist. Now the only groundswell of opposition to the building of new airports comes from NIMBY protesters concerned about the potential increase in noise caused by more flights.

What, then, is preventing the coalition government from tackling the UK’s terminal lack of airport capacity? (Such is the extent of the problem that the country faces losing its status as an international airport hub.) In fact, following last week’s announcement that a long-awaited consultation on airport expansion had once again been delayed, government ministers even seem reluctant to decide when to start making a decision. The best transport secretary Justine Greening could come up with is that before a consultation takes place, ‘stakeholders have to consider the “big picture”’, whatever that means.

‘Some argue that new capacity is needed immediately’, argues Greening, who attempts to play up the opposition by suggesting an equal weight of public opinion has it that there is ‘no need for additional capacity, either now or in the longer term’. While Greening’s active campaigning against the third runway at Heathrow revealed where she herself stood on the issue, it quickly turned out that the decision to put plans on ice came from the very top. According to the Financial Times, prime minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg decided that ‘the question of building new runways in the London area is too difficult for the coalition and final decisions should be delayed until after the 2015 election’. As Greening emphasises: ‘Any decisions on additional capacity would probably not deliver operational results before 2020.’

That such dithering and delaying is taking place is unsurprising given the coalition government’s hostility towards the expansion of airport capacity. Indeed, one of the government’s very first acts after taking power in 2010 was to scrap plans for the third runway at Heathrow – a bizarre move given the purported reason for the coalition was to tackle the economic crisis. While plans for a Norman Foster-designed ‘Boris Island’ airport in the less-populated Isle of Grain have been touted as a preferable alterative, this is currently still a pipe dream. It seems that Darren Caplan from the Airport Operator’s Association is on to something when he suggests, ‘the government is benefiting from a divide and rule approach’.

But, it should be asked, how exactly is the government actually benefiting from such a delay? Some estimate that should development of airport capacity not increase soon then, by 2021, the UK could be losing £8.5 billion a year, and up to £100 billion over the next 20 years. Business will instead go to France or Germany, both of which already have airports with four runways. Given such arguments, surely Greening can recognise that the argument could be won to gain, as she puts it, ‘sufficient support [for a third runway], particularly at a political level’.

The obstacles to airport expansion certainly aren’t technological. In an inspiring Evening Standardinterview recently, CK Ng, the director of operations at Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok airport, spoke of how the airport was built on a manmade island in six years, even though engineers had to reclaim 1,248 hectares of land from the sea and transfer a massive 360million cubic metres of material to complete the project. Elsewhere, work is currently beginning in Beijing on what will become the world’s largest airport. It will be the size of Bermuda and home to a total of nine runways – three times the number of an expanded Heathrow. This is due to be completed by 2017 (contrast that with the 25-year timetable for building Boris Island, should such a project ever get the green light). Referring to Britain’s airport expansion, Ng suggests that the only barrier is political: ‘You’ve been talking about a third runway for about 20 years already’, he points out.

No one can deny that Heathrow is currently full to bursting point, with the UK’s other airports unable to pick up the slack. To argue that there is ‘no additional need’ for airport capacity is to make a moral claim about the evils of the expansion of flying, rather than an empirical claim reflecting the reality faced by Britain’s airports. Whether Boris Island or a third and, indeed, fourth runway at Heathrow is desirable is an open question. But this is a question the coalition government appears afraid even to schedule a time to debate.

A pile-up of panic and fear on the M6

The evils of smoking and terrorists. Two things that obsessively play on the minds of the authorities in twenty-first-century Britain. Last week these two anxieties came crashing together in a bizarre pile-up of fear on the M6 motorway.

While smoking tobacco is banned in enclosed public spaces and workplaces in Britain, there is no such ban on smoking e-cigarettes (electronic cigarettes). However, such is the anti-smoking hysteria today that many people still smoke e-cigarettes discreetly, and slightly awkwardly. Such was the case on a Megabus coach travelling on the M6 toll road last Thursday. In fact, the e-smoker on that bus became so awkward that he ended up channelling the water vapour from his cigarette device into a plastic bag, so keen was he not to draw attention to what he was doing. His discretion – probably coupled with the fact that he was Asian-looking – backfired. A fellow passenger became so panicked that he called the cops.

That act in itself speaks volumes about the estranged nature of relationships between members of the public today. The informant didn’t think to ask the e-smoker what he was up to, or simply talk to the driver or his fellow passengers about what was going on. Instead, he seems simply to have assumed that the smoking man was doing something terrible, possibly preparing a bomb in plain sight on a bus on a motorway (something that terrorists often do, of course…); and so he obeyed ubiquitous police warnings to be ‘vigilant’ and phoned them from his mobile.

Despite, or maybe because of, the vagueness of the passenger’s report, paranoid Staffordshire police decided to take no chances. They reacted in what a police spokesperson has since described as a ‘swift and proportionate’ manner. This ‘proportionate’ response included sending 25 police cars and vans, 13 fire engines, four ambulances, bomb-disposal units, and actual members of the military.  Even a decontamination unit was dispatched, in case a dirty nuke attack was unfolding on the M6.

The M6 toll road was closed for six hours while the Megabus’s 48 passengers were removed at gunpoint and searched. While some passengers have been sympathetic towards the police, others have said they feared that ‘if I made a wrong move, I could have been shot’.

Given the febrile climate that is often produced by officialdom’s overreaction to terror threats (consider the police shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell tube station in London, post-7/7), such concerns seem justified. However, others have defended the police’s actions on the M6. They point out that we need to tighten up national security in the run-up to the Olympics and that it is better to be safe than sorry.

But should we really have such blind faith in the authorities? To the extent that we are unwilling even to criticise their shutting-down of a major artery in the English Midlands for six hours, which caused massive inconvenience to tens of thousands of people, all over an e-cigarette? What next – will entire Olympics events be stopped because someone in the audience has a sneaky e-cigarette, producing a bit of vapour?

Apparently, hidden e-cigarettes are only one of a vast number of potential threats to the safety of Britain and the London 2012 Games. Risk-averse authorities have been busily working on ‘worst-case scenario’ planning exercises in preparation for the Games. These range from concerns about a ‘Mumbai-style’ gun attack at sailing events in Dorset to a ‘possible air attack by fanatics who support al-Qaeda’. Members of the public will, of course, be encouraged to be vigilant for anythingthat looks or sounds like terrorism. Considering that the authorities are placing surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) in parts of London to tackle terror threats during the Games, it is frightening to think what might unfold in a future false-alarm scenario. Officialdom’s jittery finger, hovering over the trigger for SAMs and with the power to dispatch armed military units on a whim, would seem to be a bigger threat to the safety and atmosphere of the Olympics than any gang of fanatics.

The M6 incident confirms that the politics of fear is a larger threat to the social fabric today than tiny groups of violent-minded individuals ever could be. It is the fact that officialdom is frightened of its own shadow that life in part of Britain was thrown into disarray last Thursday, and it is the fact that our rulers are so consumed by a culture of panic that the Olympics are being bogged down by a welter of irrational fears. The worst-case scenario is that this debilitating culture of fear goes unchallenged in the coming weeks.

A Libyan election on NATO’s terms

This Saturday, Libyans will be able to vote for the first time in 47 years. Only the elderly will have a recollection of voting in the last national election under King Idris in May 1965, and even then political parties were outlawed. Following the Arab Spring last year, this new election should have been momentous – a testament to the Libyan people’s struggle for democracy against the Gaddafi regime. And perhaps it would have been, but for Western intervention.

Sadly, this is election that has been administered by the National Transitional Council (NTC), a body that has never been granted authority to rule by the Libyan people. At its head is Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Gaddafi’s former chief of justice. Jalil’s deputy was human-rights lawyer Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, who was forced to resign due to public fury over his opportunism during last year’s uprising. Moreover, during the uprising last year, the NTC’s priority had been to gain approval from Western leaders, rather than from the Libyan people themselves.

No wonder, then, that rather than leading the Libyan people towards a strong democracy, the NTC has instead been largely impotent in controlling events in Libya. It has, for instance, struggled to control the disparate militias, which are greater in strength than the official police and army. It has also been unable to prevent tribal fighting in the south of Libya and clashes in the north-west. And it is facing increased pressure from protesters in the east, most notably in Libya’s second-largest city, Benghazi. Indeed, earlier in the year, Jalil even went so far as to threaten the people of Benghazi with force, should the eastern region of Cyrenaica press on with its plans to become semi-autonomous. Despite being a former Gaddafi crony himself, Jalil announced: ‘We are not prepared to divide Libya. [Cyrenaica] should know that there are infiltrators and remnants of Gaddafi’s regime.’

Such threats were a desperate response to the increasing fragmentation of post-Gaddafi Libya into autonomous city states rather than an indication that Jalil was following in the dictatorial path of ‘Mad Dog’ Gaddafi. The NTC’s lack of authority, poor communication and stalled reforms have meant that some Libyans have reverted to local tribal allegiances. It has also meant that Libya’s old federal regions, which evolved under Italian rule, have taken on an increased significance, and cities such as Benghazi and Misrata have staged council elections in defiance of NTC wishes.

But it would be a mistake to assume that a reversion to such divisions was inevitable following Gaddafi’s fall from power. Rather, this fragmented state reflects the vacuum that was left following the haphazard intervention by NATO countries last year. The naive assumption made by Western leaders was that once Gaddafi had departed, Libyans could begin to build, in the words of UK prime minister David Cameron, ‘a strong and democratic future’. What Western leaders failed to recognise is that, through their meddling, they had interrupted the struggle for democratic freedom and the clash of ideas necessary to develop a collective sense of what a post-Gaddafi Libya should look like. By simply attempting to oust Gaddafi and leave Libya in the hands of what it deemed to be the appropriate caretakers, Western interveners warped the popular struggle in Libya.

Given the post-Gaddafi instability and fragmentation, it is hardly surprising that what should have been groundbreaking, historic elections in Libya this Saturday have been mired in controversy, and beset by threats of violence and boycotts. A key area of contention has been the NTC’s allocation of seats to the 200-strong national assembly, with the east being allocated just 60 seats compared to 102 for Tripoli and Western Libya. This has sparked fears that the east would have minimal influence over the formation of a new constitution, which will be the initial priority of the elected assembly. Last Sunday, frustrations mounted when protesters - carrying signs saying ‘Jalil is a traitor of Cyrenaica’ and ‘No elections without a constitution’ - stormed an electoral office in Benghazi and burned election papers and computer equipment.

The lack of experience of democracy under Gaddafi, alongside the notable lack of prominent campaigning for the elections, has led some Western observers to dismiss the Libyans asunprepared for democracy and to be cynical about the election results. The predicted rise of the Islamist parties closest to the Muslim Brotherhood has also caused concern, ostensibly due to their inexperience in engaging in political matters.

While Western intervention has hindered the development of political leadership and ideas for a post-Gaddafi Libya, the paternalistic concerns that the Libyan people are unable to handle democracy are unfounded. Despite being conducted on the NTC’s terms, the election is at least a chance for the Libyan people to cast off the shackles of their Western-backed caretakers. The sooner Libyans are left to forge their own future, apart from external interference, the better.

Punished for supporting the EDL?

‘You hear the things the social workers say, and you just bang your head against a brick wall and think, “Am I actually hearing this? Is this real?”’

Toni McLeod is an eight-month pregnant 25-year-old mother-of-three based in Durham in the north-east of England. Her three existing children – one daughter and two sons – are currently in care and she can only see them under supervision. She now fears that her imminent fourth child will be taken away from her by Durham County Council’s social workers as soon as she gives birth. Why? Because, she believes, of her political beliefs, or, to be more specific, her association with the right-wing English Defence League (EDL). A report by a Durham social worker seen by spiked seems to corroborate McLeod’s claims. It states: ‘Toni needs to break away from the inappropriate friendships she has through the EDL… in order that she can model and display appropriate positive relationships to the baby as he/she develops.’

McLeod agreed to talk to spiked about her predicament. She first hit the headlines over the weekend when the Sunday Express reported on her plight. The Express said: ‘Social workers fear [her] child would become radicalised with EDL views and want it put up for adoption immediately.’ She confirms the Express story is pretty much true, although she did notice some minor mistakes. ‘I have never owned a pitbull’, she says. Her case has also been raised by Lib Dem MP John Hemming in the House of Commons.

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Not a pitbull in sight: Toni McLeod with her four dogs.

She tells me that the day she was reported to social workers for being an EDL supporter, her life started to unravel. A social worker visited her home and was not exactly sympathetic. ‘I may as well have been Satan reincarnated’, says McLeod. She says she has never made any secret of her support for the EDL. ‘I’m honest enough that if you ask me an honest question, I’ll give you an honest answer. So [the social worker] asked me and I said “yeah, I am involved with the English Defence League”. I haven’t been since 2010, but previous to then I was.’

Although social workers now apparently accept that McLeod no longer supports the EDL, she says they still aren’t happy. Apparently they fear she might still have ‘the ethos of the EDL beliefs’. The Express said social workers are also worried about McLeod’s ‘previous alcohol and drug misuse, her ‘“aggressive behaviour” and her alleged “mental health issues”’. But McLeod insists that it is her support for the anti-Islamic EDL which has caused her to lose her kids, and the social worker document seen by spiked certainly suggests that it was at least a factor.

One of the things that bothers her most is that the decision to take her future child into care is based less on what McLeod has actually done than on what she might do in the future: ‘There doesn’t need to be any actual proof of anything. It can all be based on possible risk in the future… Like in my case, it’s the likelihood of emotional abuse through radicalisation. The baby’s not even born!’

She is determined to appeal her case and take it to the High Court. As a result of what she calls the ‘brilliant support’ of MP Hemming and the Justice for Families campaign group, she is now getting offers from legal professionals who are willing to take on her case. She is clearly determined not to take any of this lying down.

McLeod prides herself on having a near-photographic memory, and she is frank, articulate and not afraid to ask challenging questions. But she fears her forceful approach has done her no favours with social services. ‘I do genuinely think that if I had been quiet, if I’d bent over backwards for social services, I probably wouldn’t have this problem.’ Despite her toughness, she says the whole drama has been ‘emotionally, physically draining’.

‘It might not be this year, it might not be the year after, but even if I have to wait until all my children are 18 years old, they will, eventually, be coming home’, she says. She worries that other parents might end up going through the same thing as her, and is therefore keen to raise awareness of her case and what she sees as its injustice. ‘Where is it going to end?’, she asks. She wonders what will happen ‘if I get a social worker that happens to have a disliking of Labour, or the Lib Dems, or the Conservatives. It’s like, hold on a minute, please don’t say I’m going to have my kids taken away if I don’t agree with your political views?’

For legal reasons, it isn’t possible to reveal the judge’s reasons for reaching his decision about McLeod’s children. But given McLeod’s account, her defence by Hemming (who opposes the EDL), and most importantly the social-worker document which explicitly lists her involvement with the EDL as one of her ‘problems’, it seems she is justified to be concerned about state intervention into families on the basis of the parents’ political beliefs.

What if social workers decide that Marxists or libertarians don’t make good parents? Would those kinds of people start to lose their children, too? McLeod says the reason she cut her ties with the EDL is because she wanted to get her children back. If this is true, we must ask: should a mother have to forgo her democratic freedom to engage in politics for fear of losing her kids?

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter@p_hayes.