As I grieved for my husband, internet trolls attacked – Christine Jardine

The Great Get Together, set up in memory of the murdered MP Jo Cox, stresses the need for respect and we need to work hard to ensure that in the world of politics and beyond, writes Christine Jardine.
The Great Get Together, held in memory of murdered MP Jo Cox, recognises kindness and respect (Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire)The Great Get Together, held in memory of murdered MP Jo Cox, recognises kindness and respect (Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire)
The Great Get Together, held in memory of murdered MP Jo Cox, recognises kindness and respect (Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire)

I have thought long and hard about reopening this wound, but this past weekend was the Great Get Together, in memory of Jo Cox.

We all, but especially parliamentarians, owe it to her memory to do everything we can to act with kindness and respect to stop abuse wherever we see it.

Sadly where we often see it today is on our social media.

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In the wrong hands what can be source of friendship and communication can become a vile means of intimidation without any fear of having to answer for the consequences of your comments. I say that from personal experience.

Two years ago, at the most difficult time in my personal life, a political activist who thought they were clever decided it was OK to launch a nasty, and untrue attack.

During the 2017 general election campaign, my husband had died from a sudden and unpredicted heart attack.

The circumstances were particularly difficult. We were separated, he was living on his own and, because my name on his list of next of kin was different from his, the police opted for the other person whose name was the same.

It was my daughter who took the call.

The next few days were a blizzard of emotional conversations until we received the results of a post-mortem which detailed how sudden and irretrievable his attack had been.

There were newspaper stories and obituaries to read from journalists and a media he had worked in for 30 years and who were keen to show their respect.

I struggled with the inevitable questions that come from a loved one’s death, exacerbated in this case by the guilt that came from decisions that had set us on different paths after 30 years together.

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But it was at that moment when we thought we could breathe again that the most unexpected, and in many ways cruellest, blow came.

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I discovered I was accused on Twitter of breaking the cross-party agreement not to campaign as a mark of respect to the Manchester bombing.

At first I thought it was a mistake, and explained I had been at what I described as “a family funeral”.

Instead of halting the onslaught, it got worse with demands that I explain myself. Had I not sent people out in my place? What kind of vile person was I?

Internet trolls started vying to see who could be nastiest about me, while others piled in to try and defend and one or two did send me an apology.

Next day it was all over the papers. There were demands for an apology aimed at the political party whose activist had started it all.

And at the centre of it all my daughter, who was trying to deal with the death of the father she adored, was now dealing with a vicious attack on her mother.

I’m a big girl. I’ve been through a lot. I can look after myself.

But even I struggled to cope with the added strain of being hounded with insults from people who I’d never met, and really knew nothing about, at a time when I was already emotionally drained.

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When I think of how I felt, I wonder what it must it be like for vulnerable teenagers, people struggling with mental health issues or someone who simply doesn’t have the fantastic support that I was able to lean on. It seems that almost every week we hear of someone else being hounded by strangers on the internet to the point where their mental health collapses.

Tragically those victims are often teenagers who are so crushed by the judgements of those they consider to be their peers that their life becomes intolerable.

Most days I see at least one of my colleagues in parliament being attacked and abused on social media in a way that would often be regarded as a criminal offence if it was in public or printed in a newspaper. Vicious, personal comments which have nothing at all to do with their politics or the work they are trying to do for their communities.

Worse still, many of them have faced personal threats which they have to take seriously for fear that something they disregard as just an attempt to bully becomes a reality.

And the question I keep coming back to is: “Why do we seem completely incapable, as a society, of tackling what is nothing more than digital bullying?”

For me what we are seeing is not a new phenomenon. Instead it is often the migration of pathetic former classroom bullies onto a new and more far-reaching platform with all its potential consequences.

When you also add the intensely tribal nature of British politics to the mix you have a very dangerous formula. And worst of all. When it happens to you, you feel helpless.

We demand action in parliament, talk about new legislation and discuss it in endless columns like this. But are we perhaps tackling the wrong messenger? Perhaps the problem is with how we are behaving towards each other. A couple of weeks after I faced that General Election Twitter onslaught I came face to face with the activist who had launched it.

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We were at the election count and not a flicker of recognition or acknowledgement crossed his face. From his point of view there was, sadly, no need to.

He had faced no public criticism from his own party, even though I know at least two of my senior colleagues had written to their leadership asking for an apology. I long ago gave up expecting that apology, although individual members of that party have made it clear they did not approve of it.

We should never forget what happened to Jo Cox, and we should also never dismiss the possibility that it could happen again.

The Great Get Together recognises kindness, respect and all we have in common.

But that doesn’t just happen by itself. We have to work at it. We have encourage people to take it on board. What happened to me was tiny in comparison. But it was still unacceptable. Those in public, particularly political leaders, have a duty and responsibility to set an example.