Farcical scenes on the Wirral, where the police have apologised for a billboard reading “BEING OFFENSIVE IS AN OFFENCE”. Superintendent Martin Earl announced that this alarming declaration “although well-intentioned was incorrect.” Earl stressed, at some length, the importance of combatting hate, the outstanding credentials of the local “Hate Crime Co-ordinators”, and so on, but made sure to “clarify that ‘being offensive’ is not in itself an offence.” Nevertheless, it raises a question: Where on earth did Wirral Police get such a strange idea in the first place?
Well, presumably from the British government. In 2018 the Home Office launched a national hate crime awareness campaign with the catchy slogan “IT’S NOT JUST OFFENSIVE. IT’S AN OFFENCE.” To be fair, there is a distinction: the Home Office only implied that some things are both offensive and an offence, whereas Wirral Police seemed to conflate the two entirely.
But this confusion runs through the recent history of policing. Take Harry Miller, who sent some robustly-worded tweets about the trans debate. He was visited by Humberside Police at his workplace and told he was responsible for a “hate incident”. Miller’s supposed offensiveness had been treated as — in effect — an offence.
The High Court ruled this treatment unlawful, and the judgment said that a “cardinal democratic freedom” was at stake. But the police guidance remained in place: if anyone alleges a “hate incident” — however implausible — it will be put down against your name. 120,000 were recorded from 2014-19. To test the system, the barrister and campaigner Sarah Phillimore carried out an experiment: after joking on Twitter that her cat was a Methodist, Phillimore asked a colleague to report this as a hate incident to South Yorkshire Police.
If you apply for a job and the employer carries out an enhanced DBS check, the police can inform them about this kind of “hate incident”. You may not even have been offensive, but you’ll still suffer the consequences.
In December, the courts made another significant ruling: Kate Scottow, who was fined £1,000 after sending some offensive messages during an online argument, had her conviction overturned. But it took a lengthy legal dispute, going all the way to the Court of Appeal, to establish that she hadn’t committed an offence. Hertfordshire Police had not grasped the distinction.
In recent years, police forces have repeatedly put people through the wringer for being — or seeming — offensive; Wirral Police’s embarrassment merely confirms the trend. So far, the government has if anything added to the confusion. Only serious reform will be able to clear it up.