Net threats and court conduct

By Daniel Finkelstein, November 18, 2010

I have received only one proper death threat. And it wasn't very nice. It was during the 1997 General Election campaign when I was working for the Conservative Party, masterminding its biggest defeat since 1832. When I called the police, the officer asked me, as I called him from inside Tory HQ as we headed for a Labour landslide, whether I could think of any reason why someone might not like me. I said that, if I racked my brain, I was sure I could.

So I have received a proper death threat - the guy had clearly been following me around, knew where I ate lunch and so forth. And I have also received- or noticed on the internet - any number of disobliging remarks about columns that I have written.

These can be very vehement, often comically serious given the subject matter. Sometimes they are unnecessarily aggressive. The fact that I am Jewish often features. But here's the thing. I am always able to tell the difference between such commentary and the death threat.

Last week, the Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown was on the radio talking about human rights. She believes that British politicians do not possess the moral authority to object when Iran wishes to stone women to death for adultery. This is because so many supported the war in Iraq.

This view is, ahem, controversial. And, as controversial opinions do, attracted disobliging comments on the internet.

I've received, or noticed on the web, many disobliging remarks on my columns

Here is one of them: "Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan't tell Amnesty if you don't. It would be a blessing, really." It appeared on Twitter, the social networking site and was posted by a Conservative councillor from Birmingham.

Now, the idea of Twitter is to post to your friends - people who elect to follow your stream of messages - short statements of opinion. (I have long regarded it as antisemitic. Express your opinion in less than 140 characters! What's that about?).

People are often flippant, frequently incomprehensible and prone to thinking that what they say is private, when Twitter is a public site. This message was guilty of more than this. It was profoundly unpleasant. Even though its author says he intended it to amuse his friends, it isn't funny.

But let's establish a couple of things that it wasn't. It wasn't a death threat. None of its readers would have regarded himself or herself as called upon to cast the first stone. And it wasn't dangerous. Stupid, rude, aggressive, yes. But only dangerous if read in a way that it is entirely obvious it was not meant to be read.

Yet, despite this, it ended up in the hands of the police. And might have ended up in a prosecution if Ms Alibhai-Brown had not shown the profound good sense not to press charges.

The Alibhai-Brown case happened in the same week in which Phil Woolas was debarred from Parliament for lying about his opponent. The burden of the case against Mr Woolas was that he had alleged that the Liberal Democrat, Elwyn Watkins, had tried to woo extremists. The only piece of evidence he had was that Mr Watkins had called for sanctions against Israel, barring weapons sales, but had not called for the same sanctions against Hamas.

Mr Watkins responded that he had indeed called for sanctions against Hamas, and that his call had appeared in the JC. The judge, ruling against Mr Woolas, found it hard to believe that he didn't read the JC. And you can see his point, of course.

Both this ruling and the Alibhai-Brown incident mark a new trend in politics. The tendency to use the criminal justice system to control free speech.

It is not a trend that Jews should wish to encourage.

The temptation is for us to use the law to defend ourselves against egregious attacks. The internet has provided every kind of crank with a megaphone. But take a look at the Woolas judgment. See how close the judges came to deciding who it was permissible to describe as a Muslim extremist.

Reflect on the centrality, in the case, of statements about sanctions against Israel and wonder if it is really such a good idea to allow the courts to determine political disputes.

It is better to suffer the vulgar, stupid and offensive jibes that sometimes pass for comment on the net than to surrender our right to engage in vulgar, uncensored debate ourselves.

Daniel Finkelstein is Executive Editor of 'The Times'

Last updated: 5:07pm, November 18 2010