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Behind Your Back: How the new “anti-stalking” bill could silence online dissent

John Ward

How many of us will be branded “stalkers” if this bill passes?

MP Sarah Wollaston quite rightly wants the police to do more about (and tighten up the prosecution of) potentially dangerous stalkers. But now the crime includes “Cyber abuse”, her Private Member’s Bill is too lax in its definitions about what stalking is, and police guidelines on priorities. Equally worrying, a majority of those sponsoring the legislation have dubious elements in their pasts. In a special investigation, The Slog raises the alarm.

Viewed in the round, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Tory MP Sarah Wollaston is a good egg. She isn’t Party voting fodder, she had a real job as a doctor before entering Parliament, she is suspicious of private sector health rip-offs, and she’s enormously popular in her Totnes constituency, where her ability to double and then treble majorities seems immune from the whimsical winds of electoral change as a whole.

She espouses radical reform (in favour of the citizen) in how UK politics operate, and rebelled against the Government to vote against setting up a Royal Charter to regulate the press, believing that many of the activities which had led to the proposal were “already illegal and being exploited to justify censoring the free press”. Later, she was the joint winner of The Spectator magazine’s Parliamentarian of the Year award for her stance.

So yes, we approve of Ms Wollaston. We do, however, feel it could well be that her new Private Member’s Bill on the subject of stalking (while well-intentioned) is being promoted by the political Establishment as a Trojan Horse full of anti-liberty control freaks via which dissent can be stifled.

A final bit of throat-clearing before we get into the meat of this issue: I was quite recently grossly cyber-stalked myself for over eighteen months, and so I know perfectly well both how traumatic this can be….and how difficult it is to get the police to pay any attention.

The Bill has been amended while passing through its initial readings, and has now reached the Report stage. This should be completed by November, and after that it gets a third reading. As the Bill has All-Party support, it is expected to sail through. Then, of course, it will go to the Lords. As the intention of the Act is to protect vulnerable citizens (especially women) and the Lords are in bad odour at the moment thanks to their atrocious anti-Brexit vandalism, it seems highly unlikely that they would risk another confrontation with the Commons on this hugely sensitive issue. Hacking at Sarah Wollaston’s Bill is going to seem like the equivalent of supporting a Bill to legalise the use of foxes to hunt badger cubs.

And therein lies one of its problems: the very fact that it has full cross-Party and popular electoral support makes it the perfect piece of legislation to be hijacked by those with ulterior motives.

Compared to many Bills I have trudged through over the years, this one (even after two readings) is a model of clarity. You can read it in full here, but to summarise these are what I see as the main problems with it:

1. Perhaps above all, there is no clear definition of what stalking is. Not anywhere. The Bill simply announces that it is designed to stop it. That’s it. Stalking has been a crime in the UK for six years, since the Government changed the harassment laws to cover actions that involve following, spying on or bombarding someone with unwanted messages online. Normally therefore, the 2012 definition would apply; but the 2012 definition is, in my opinion, nowhere near finite enough.

2. The decision-making tree as described in the Bill – on whether to apply for an order against “stalking” – is entirely in the hands of ‘A chief officer of police’, and the only test of validity is ‘if it appears to the chief officer that’ the accused has been engaging in stalking. It is vague on the subject of what evidence the CPO needs in order to have satisfactory suspicions. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have made this point: today, the poor track record of police senior ranks in resisting politicisation forces me to make it.

3. Specifically in relation to CPO opinion, the third factor the officer is supposed to bear in mind is worrying: ‘reasonable cause to believe the proposed order is necessary to protect another person from such a risk’ whether or not that person is the subject bringing the complaint. I understand perfectly well, in narrow stalking terms, why that is necessary; but again, what is stalking? What is ‘a risk’? This needs to be nailed down, not least because under the 2012 Law, there is no need to prove intention to do physical or mental harm to get a conviction. Indeed, the Wollaston Bill repeats this with ‘even if the acts would appear harmless in themselves’.

4. The Bill (understandably) says that even this fairly light burden of proof need not apply ( ie be necessary to show) if the alleged stalker ‘is subject to notification requirements under Part 2 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003’. Now this is really dangerous territory: I am all for ringing alarm bells once it is proved that the accused is a convicted sex offender. But in the years after 2010 – surely nobody needs reminding of this – a large number of males (from Ched Evans to Rolf Harris) wound up on the sex offenders’ register based on opportunistic, money-motivated, politically driven and commercially vindictive “evidence” later shown to require retrials and quashed convictions. In the case of (in particular) charges against BBC and other celebrities, the actions of both the Met Police and Newscorp left many investigators with deep suspicions of politicised corruption.

5. Towards the end of the Bill’s provisions are three clauses that should give any but the most gullible cause for concern:

The two key phrases here are at (2) ‘may from time to time revise the guidance’ and at (3) ‘to be published in such manner as the Secretary of State considers appropriate’. Effectively, this means the Home Secretary can at any time (without even the need for a legal instrument) revise what the CPO can call ‘stalking’, and if he or she feels like it, publish this change in the pages of Pub Dominoes Weekly.

Now before the Sisters start jumping on my head here, let me reiterate: quite obviously, my purpose is neither to kill the Wollaston Bill nor to protect disturbed stalkers. My goal is to get honest, objective and sensible people in the media commentariat and political life to realise that, in the wrong hands, the Bill would be exceptionally easy to abuse – to the disadvantage of those citizens who value free speech and constructive dissent.

It is only a matter of months since – without any reference to anyone at all and while Parliament was in recess – Theresa May was openly complicit in the bombing of Syria…an act of war some 80% of Brits (when polled) thought was unjustified based on the evidence available.

In the two years since the British People voted for Brexit, Theresa May has delayed, bungled and capitulated in relation to an EU Executive in a manner clearly designed to overturn a democratic vote that her predecessor promised to carry out.

The Wollaston Bill not only has near unanimous support in Parliament, seven out of its eleven sponsors have the sort of Parliamentary history that isn’t going to reassure anyone.

The “ideas” of Harriet Harman need no expansion by me. I would observe only that her past includes several examples (during the banking crisis for instance) of being happy to pass retrospective laws, and at other times describing men as unalloyed sexual chancers.

Cheryl Gyllan is a Tory who opposed HS2 because it went close to her home, and then changed her stance once she had sold the home.

Alex Chalk voted to stop any and all investigations into Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War, has been devious about his support among the fox-hunting community, and was investigated for exceeding his election expenses in the 2015 General Election.

Antoinette Sandbach reported a 64-year-old constituent to the police for criticising her stance on Brexit in an email sent to the local Conservative Party office. Sandbach had been “copied-in” to the letter which she believed to be abusive and inappropriate.

Labour MP Lucian Berger’s selection as prospective parliamentary candidate in early 2010 was controversial, because during the selection process she lived at the home of Jane Kennedy, then the sitting MP, whose partner was Labour official Peter Dowling, who ran the selection process. By the beginning the end of March 2018, three people had received custodial sentences for directing antisemitic abuse at Berger. She wrote in The Sunday Times that the cases which required her to appear in court were predominantly “from individuals on the far-right”.

In June 2013, Richard Graham was advised by the Information Commissioner’s Office that he was in breach of the Data Protection Act 1998 and the EU directive concerning Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 after sending political campaign emails to people who had contacted him on parliamentary business without first obtaining their permission. In April 2015, Graham was ordered by a judge to remove tweets that discussed a murder trial in Gloucester after the defendant’s barrister accused him of “a clear attempt to win votes by ingratiating himself with his electors”. In November 2015, Graham was accused of quoting Joseph Goebbels in defending a new surveillance bill with the words “if you’ve nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”

Jess Philips is something of a feminist firebrand who seems to have little respect for men’s rights. She created a social media storm after mocking the Tory MP Philip Davies for trying to get a debate about International Men’s Day. Phillips openly laughed and pulled faces while Davies spoke, stating, “You’ll have to excuse me for laughing. As the only woman on this committee, it seems like every day to me is International Men’s Day.” A year later, in 2016, she asserted on the BBC’s Question Time that “events akin to the mass [Islamic] sexual assaults in Cologne happen every week on Birmingham’s Broad Street”, insisting that mass rape “was not brought here by immigrants”. She then received thousands of “negative and demeaning” tweets on Twitter, and complained when the social medium refused to act.

There is, I think it’s fair to say, a pattern emerging among those who support Sarah Wollaston’s Bill, and it is exactly this which worries me. Not only are some dubious ethics and agendas revealed here, many of us who provide voices of dissent online have seen Bills like this as inevitable sooner or later. For the simple truth is that, as a whole, our legislators react badly to criticism, and attempt to smear those who provide it. They love to transmit and assert, but don’t like the heat being turned on them. It is largely because of this that the BBC now stands as an obscene parody of its former role as the most objective State news service in the World. Yet our Parliament relishes the idea of fake news, for it is a sweet slapstick pie to throw at the internet. The internet is the only place left where Brits in search of the truth can still read and hear objective and investgative news stories, rather than the ideologically stultifying or State complicit robocop fake journalism of the MSM.

Everything in Sarah Wollaston’s background suggests to me that she is introducing the Stalking Bill from the very best of intentions, and if its application purely to civil cases of disturbing harassment can be tightened up, then I and everyone else of good instincts should support her. But it needs tightening up during the Third Reading. Specifically:

  • There needs to be a thorough debate reflected in the content of the Bill about the very clear difference being made between a proto-sexual stalker or a persistently crude, lewd and plain nasty online abuser on the one hand, and people in public life reading dissenting, strongly held opinions to theirs
  • While the police need generally to take stalking complaints far more seriously per se, many people will be justifiably unhappy to see the decision resting purely with senior officers too often in search of “results” as a means of promotion….and too sensitive to what politicians regard as results. I would prefer for the CPO concerned to see at least some investigative evidence to support the charge, albeit with some form of cease and desist warning to the alleged perpetrator at an early stage.
  • Guidelines are needed (in far more detail, based on real case experience) about what constitutes risk. I cannot see how anything regarded as harmless should be the subject of an offence in Law, but either way the 2012 Law is woolly in this regard.
  • The three Secretary of State clauses should be removed, and replaced by one that specifies exactly what is required to change any guideline, and that a Government cannot simply declare that ‘stalking’ covers harmless (albeit rumbustuous) political debate and media comment. I find it utterly offensive as an online commentator that the disgraceful obscenities thrown at, for instance, Brexiteers and those who investigate Momentum, are clearly of no interest to legislators. But for myself, I am prepared to shrug broad shoulders and accept it rather than having unaccountable pinched goblins deciding who can say what.

Those who care about the erosion of citizen liberty and the creeping creation in Britain of a corporate State have roughly six weeks to make waves about this. I offer a very sincere hat-tip to Jane for alerting me to the Bill; the rest of the research detail is mine.

Pay heed: the EU Parliament (not the Commission) voted last week to censure Hungary for its “declining democratic values’, in what is the first step in a process to strip Hungary of its voice in decision-making in the European Union.

This is a pure, naked political decision designed to bully a dissenting member back into line…Orban’s Hungary is more democratic and in touch with its citizens than the European Union will ever be.

Liberties die because people don’t turn up.


10 Comments

  1. Headlines from 2019 –

    Woman convicted for stalking after walking dog passed the same house every day.

    Man convicted for stalking after driving to close to another car.

    Fluid gender convicted for stalking after queuing in line behind someone at Tesco.

    I know many will laugh at the above, but remember this,a man in Scotland was convicted for teaching his dog to raise its paw.

  2. MichaelK says

    Historically, most state repression came clothed as a desire to protect the rights of individuals.

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  3. Paul X says

    Over the last few months there has been a steady roll out from the so-called ‘progressive’ media (Guardian primarily) of calls to ‘police’ or ‘control’ what goes on line. One view is that social media causes mental health issues for young people. Another is that ‘far left anti-semites’ use the internet to advocate their opinions (Jeremy! Please stand up and admit your guilt). The web is already under surveillance spotting ‘extremists’ and Labour Party members so it’s usefulness as a medium of Change is under question.

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