Why did politicians and the press push this line?
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.