by Henry Hill
Monday, 11
April 2022
Reaction
16:47

Stop pretending David Amess’ murder was caused by online abuse

Why did politicians and the press push this line?
by Henry Hill
Credit: Getty

Ali Harbi Ali, the man who murdered Sir David Amess in October of last year, has been convicted. According to Sky News: “The Old Bailey heard how Ali was a “bloodthirsty” Islamic State supporter who had spent years hatching his plot to kill an MP.”

Not only did Ali plot his assassination in cold blood, but he chose Sir David after weighing him against other potential victims, and making multiple reconnaissance trips to the Houses of Parliament.

The story is a grim reminder of the risks facing people in public service, and the difficulty of balancing the accessibility of the constituency surgery with the demands of an increasingly security-conscious age.

What it tells us very little about, however, is ‘online harms’. The Sky report makes no mention of Ali sending anonymous abuse to any of his potential targets.

Yet in the wake of the assassination, that seemed to be all politicians could talk about. There were demands that the Prime Minister pass ‘David’s Law’, as the Guardian put it, “to crack down on social media abuse of public figures and end online anonymity”.

We didn’t need the trial to tell us that this was a bizarre connection. Even at the time, the police weren’t making any connection between the murder and complaints around online anonymity.

Those such as Mark Francois who were demanding tougher action were left trying to pull a bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand, talking about Sir David’s ‘concerns’ about online abuse in the same breath as his murder and hoping nobody realised what a complete non-sequitur it was.

None of this is to deny that politicians often face a deeply toxic working environment — there is a small minority of the public who can’t distinguish between legitimate democratic exchange and abuse, and MPs have as much right to proper workplace protection as everyone else.

But trying to piggyback the push for legislation onto Sir David’s tragic but unrelated murder was in very poor taste.

Worse, it will have done nothing to improve the legislation in question. That sort of moral panic is not conducive to good law-making at the best of times, and the Online Safety Bill is nobody’s idea of well-designed legislation.

The (Tory-led!) DCMS Select Committee has expressed “urgent concerns” that it doesn’t contain adequate protections for freedom of speech — in fact it creates what has been called “a new category of semi-legal speech” by imposing on social media companies (under the aegis of a ‘duty of care’) a legal obligation to take down lawful content.

Simultaneously, there are reportedly widespread fears by expert bodies that its provisions aren’t robust enough to actually do any good against the things it’s supposed to be policing.

This is not the only question raised by the response to Ali’s crime, of course. The contrast between politicians’ reluctance to discuss his actual motives versus those of Thomas Mair, the far-Right assassin of Jo Cox, is another.

But we should take care not to let an ill-conceived bit of law become Sir David’s legacy.

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Dylan Regan
Dylan Regan
5 months ago

Far right extermists lurk behind every corner. Islamists are just friendly misunderstood people, I’m surprised white privilege or patriarchy wasn’t blamed for David Amess’ death

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
5 months ago

After Sir David’s murder, I was at first puzzled, then utterly sickened by the narrative being followed as loads of women MPs tried to make it all about them.

Now the perpetrator’s been tried, during which he readily confessed and calmly explained his reasoning and the actions he’d taken, there’s still no acknowledgement of the truth!

Dustin Needle
Dustin Needle
5 months ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

Felt like we spent a lot of time listening to Brendan Cox and even the rise of the far-right on line? Ignoring Sir David’s unswerving support for Friends of Israel and Iranian dissidents. The latter seeming the more likely cause for Ali to wander so far off-piste in search of a victim.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
5 months ago

Don’t be too hard on the poor old left. The murder of David Amess caused them a meltdown. Only old white blokes are supposed to be wicked, not women, Muslims, black guys or whatever. They don’t know what to do with themselves now.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
5 months ago

They know what to do: kick up a fuss about the wrong cause, distracting attention from the true cause.

Bennie History
Bennie History
5 months ago

To do away with online anonymity will only accelerate the future that technocrats fear. The ideas that go against the so-called “mainstream” that has been propped up for many years now by the ever-lingering fear of being cancelled for not having the right opinions or ideas.
This has led to a dam holding up years of floodwaters of suppressed openness for ideas more radical and the want for change. The dam has cracked in recent years and has only been relieved of some pressure by the ability for people to escape the real world to a virtual one and express their opinions in secret.
If the technocrats were to take away this final space of freedom it’s likely the dam would finally crack fully open. So be it if I can’t express my opinions in secret anymore.
And when people finally realize that there opinions and ideas aren’t so against the mainstream as they once thought, the floodgates will finally be open.

Last edited 5 months ago by Bennie History
Ian Barton
Ian Barton
5 months ago

Governments may get away with failing to acknowledge reality in the short term, but they typically pay the price at the subsequent election/referendum.
The electorate see the blindingly obvious – even if “the bubble” can’t/won’t.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
5 months ago

To use a cliche – “hard cases make bad law”. Unfortunately we are seeing this a lot, especially when the law is prefaced by a person’s name. Sometimes I think many people feel “something must be done”, but legislating for one particular “hard”, outlying case and applying that across the board, almost always leads to problems. In this particular case it’s a red-herring anyway as they problem is not hate-speech it’s hate-acts. Perhaps he was radicalised on-line, but that a case for seeking out these web-sites, not making laws to cover other aspects of the internet, even though I do deplore the sort of disgusting bile level at our representatives.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
5 months ago

That’s exactly what popped into my mind before I scrolled down and read this post.
In our society today, the immediate response of politicians and journalists is to change the law, and to do so in haste.
Politicians compete with one another to prove that they have acted, while journalists gorge on filling the airwaves or screen or page before looking for the next hot topic.
In the meantime, three important things are damaged:
-attending to the enforcement of existing laws
-wise consideration before enactment of the effectiveness of a new law, and the possible unintended consequences (such as more repression of the fundamental principle of free speech),
-the creation of a vast and complicated body of statute law.

Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
5 months ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

Cumbersome, unworkable, unenforced, offering grand incomes to a specialist few (often on the back of the tax payer) – ‘the creation of a vast and complicated body of statute law’…indeed, there should be just 10.

Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
5 months ago

What have we become when we allow our most able, committed, hardworking public servants to be executed in cold blood? Neave, Cox, Amess,…defenceless and unprotected, the ideal conditions for cretinous cowards. Governace? …who would feel safe with a poisoned chalice like that?