Peterborough City Council leader hits out at ‘trolls’ who abuse politicians online

The Leader of Peterborough City Council, Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald, has hit back at the people he calls ‘cowards’ and ‘keyboard warriors’ who abuse councillors through online social media.

Wednesday, 24th November 2021, 5:54 am
Council leader Wayne Fitzgerald

Speaking at Peterborough Town Hall, Cllr Fitzgerald said: “Why is it in today’s society some people think they can say almost anything they want to you online?

“Whereas in the past, before social media, you didn’t get that level of abuse unless you said it to somebody’s face or to them in a letter.

“Most councillors at Peterborough City Council have been the recipient of malicious comments via social media.

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“And, to be honest, if you take up a position in the public gaze then you can expect a certain amount of criticism.

“Indeed, I welcome constructive criticism when it comes my way as I believe that I have been more inclusive, more encompassing and gone further than anybody who has previously held this position to open my door to those who want to reach out to me with, as I say, constructive criticism.

“But there has to be a ‘line in the sand’ that goes with that – and what we are seeing, sadly more and more frequently – are people crossing that line, feeling that they can have the right to say anything they wish and then to hide behind their computer screens having commented at any level, even maliciously.

“What many of these ‘cowards’ do not know – and they are cowards at the end of the day, because these keyboard warriors never want to confront you face to face – what they do not realise is that there is legislation that makes what they are doing illegal – if they chose to cross that line.

“Not one of them has come online to confront me about why they call me a ‘liar’ and a lot worse than that, or about my physique, my stature – I’m a short guy, everybody knows that – but it’s simply unacceptable to say some of the things that they do and it’s been going on for years and years and getting steadily worse.

“I could report to the police the regulars who choose to abuse me in this way under The Malicious Communications Act 1988 as it is a criminal offence; and one of the options that I am considering is to take action against a few individuals who are repeat offenders.

“These online cowards may well get a letter from my legal representatives.

“The reason I haven’t done so up to now is that I take the view that if you have a position in public life and you put your head above the parapet, you are ‘fair game’ for criticism about the decisions you make.

“But when you get continuous abuse that starts to affect your family and your friends, and they ring you up asking why you’re continuing to tolerate it – then it has gone too far.

“I’m pretty thick-skinned and I can take a ‘punch on the chin’, and part of me doesn’t want to give these people ‘oxygen’ because they are so inconsequential to my life – they mean absolutely nothing to me.

“But others have been hurt, cruelly hurt, and only this year Cllr Qayyum took up a private case against a former city councillor, and won damages for the things he said about her.

“This is by no means just about me or my party – this affects councillors cross-party – and if we relate the matter to Sir David Amess MP and others who have been attacked in public life, we all now have to take special measures to ensure our safety.

“I’ve just been on the phone to the Chair of the Local Government Association (LGA) and asked him if something could be organised whereby, we all, collectively as councillors, operate a scheme which we would all pay into, just like insurance with an annual fee, that then retains the use of libel lawyers – and he thinks that’s a very useful idea.

“The government published in May of this year the Online Safety Bill which aims to safeguard young people and clamp down on online abuse while protecting freedom of speech.

“It is currently undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny by a joint committee, which will report its recommendations by 10 December.

“The silly thing about this is that these people cannot really hide. Once online, the police can find them – and if a criminal offence occurs in time, I believe we will be reading and hearing about cases where these keyboard warriors thought they were safe hiding behind their computer screens, right up until the moment when the police knock at their door to arrest them.

“The police are taking much more of an active role now in the safety of public figures, and I believe rightly so.

“This is the case for Paul Bristow MP, Stephen Barclay MP and I’m sure it is for Shailesh Vara MP.

“And the same extends to prominent local politicians like myself, and I believe the same courtesy should be extended to all elected politicians, by members of the public.”

The message from the LGA on abuse of councillors via social media: “There are growing concerns about the impact an increasing level of public intimidation and abuse has on our country’s democratic processes, particularly at a local level.

“This harmful behaviour can prevent elected members from representing the communities they serve, deter individuals from standing for election and undermine public trust in democratic processes.

“The LGA is committed to promoting civility in public life and supporting the well-being of elected members.

“This is a long-standing area of work for the LGA, but the recent tragic death of Sir David Amess MP has brought this issue into marked focus.

“Everyone in public life should be able to go about their daily business without fear of attack. Now, more than ever, this is a challenge that we as a sector are determined to meet.

“To support our Civility in Public Life programme, the LGA has launched a Call for evidence of abuse and intimidation of councillors with a survey primarily designed to capture the experience of councillors, but candidates who have run for election, officers who have supported candidates or councillors and members of the public can also share their reflections.

“The evidence gathered will help the LGA develop evidence to support our calls for legislative and systemic change, as well as developing our support for elected members.

Social media has transformed the way that we communicate with one another. Whilst there are many advantages to our faster, more connected world, as we all know, communicating digitally can sometimes lead to misunderstandings and miscommunications.

One person’s light-hearted banter can be interpreted as a scathing insult by another. The digital world also opens up the possibility of new types of abusive behaviours such as online harassment and cyber bullying.

Offences under The Malicious Communications Act 1988 and The Communications Act 2003 make it a criminal offence for individuals to send messages which are indecent, grossly offensive or contain threats. A criminal prosecution under this legislation can result in a criminal record, a fine and potentially a prison sentence.

The Malicious Communications Act 1988 (MCA) deals with the sending of offensive communications. It was written before the widespread use of the internet. However, in this day and age, it is frequently used to prosecute offences that are committed on social media.

The MCA makes it an offence to send any kind of written, verbal or electronic communication that conveys a message that: is indecent or grossly offensive; makes a threat; or contains information that is false and known or believed to be false by the sender.

In order for the offence to be made out, the defendant must have intended to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient or any other person that he or she intends that the information should be communicated to.

According to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), a communication that is merely a blog or a comment posted on a website may not suffice as ‘sending to another’. When deciding whether an offence has been committed, the court will focus upon the intention of the sender, rather than the impact of the offence upon the recipient of the communication.

The court is required to ensure that it understands why the particular language used by the message may be offensive to intended recipient(s).

However, the courts have to step carefully when interpreting the phrase ‘indecent or grossly offensive.’ This is because they are required to uphold the right to freedom of expression as established by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

When deciding whether a communication meets the test of ‘indecent or grossly offensive’ the courts will: consider the standards of a reasonable person and how they would react to the communication; balance the need to uphold the values of an open, just and multiracial society; and take into account the context and all relevant circumstances.