I did not wish to begin 2015 by agreeing with Nigel Farage, but there we go. The new year is, as I type, exactly 36 hours old and already I’m on nodding terms with the leader of Ukip. I do not expect to end the year as a bug-eyed xenophobe, but there will be those who equate any agreement with Mr Farage as the first step of an iced slipper on to a frozen slope, by which I mean a steep gradient, that is destined to carry one out of Europe and into the warm embrace of the Far Right.
The point on which I agree with Mr Farage is about Police Scotland’s investigation into the comments made by Katie Hopkins, the former contestant on The Apprentice and professional provocateur, about Pauline Cafferkey, the Scots nurse now being treated for Ebola at the Royal Free Hospital in north London. The leader of Ukip said: “There’s no need for a police investigation. It’s a terrible waste of police time.” And so it is.
For those who missed the Twitter storm and subsequent media coverage on Tuesday, Hopkins tweeted a number of comments that could be construed as rude and ill-timed. She tweeted: “Glaswegian Ebola patient moved to London’s Royal Free Hospital. Not so independent when it matters most are we jocksville?” She then went on to tweet about: “sweaty little jocks” for “sending us Ebola bombs in the form of sweaty Glaswegians”.
She also said it “just isn’t cricket. Scottish NHS sucks” and then went on to tweet Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, to say: “Dear small woman, the people of England would like a thank you for the health care we are providing your ebola victim.”
The response of the public on Twitter was swift. Many people compared Hopkins to the Ebola virus, Piers Morgan criticised her, and within a day 20,000 people had backed an online campaign to prosecute her. A complaint was made to the police and soon Detective Inspector Glyn Roberts, of Police Scotland, was quoted as saying: “We have received a number of complaints regarding remarks made on Twitter. Inquiries are ongoing into the nature of these tweets and to establish any potential criminality. Police Scotland will thoroughly investigate any reports of offensive or criminal behaviour online and anyone found to be responsible will be robustly dealt with.”
When a complaint has been received, the police are duty-bound to investigate the matter, which can generate much larger headlines than the subsequent revelation that no crime was found to have been committed, that no report will subsequently be sent to the procurator-fiscal and that there is no likelihood of anyone being charged.
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Let’s take Hopkins quotes and scan them for possible criminality. Describing a Scottish nurse who bravely risked her life to help the stricken Ebola victims of Sierra Leone as an “Ebola bomb” is exceptionally rude, but it accurately captures in shorthand the potential danger which she presents to others, a danger of which everyone who saw the photographs of her transportation on to an RAF aircraft can be only too aware.
Her comment that the “Scottish NHS sucks” is clearly a matter of opinion and probably one based on little – if any – experience. The argument that Scotland is “not so independent when it matters most” is irrelevant, as Scotland voted against independence, although if she wanted to point out the benefits of the Union, then she is perfectly entitled to. Even her line about the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, can be de-clawed. I’m unaware of whether or not she is of below average height. I am, however, aware that it matters not a jot to her capabilities and that “dear small woman” is hardly the correct formal way of addressing the leader of our own – or indeed any – government. Hopkins may feel “the people of England” deserve to be thanked, but it’s not the people of England who are looking after Ms Cafferkey, it’s the staff of the Royal Free Hospital in London, and, as a former health minister only too aware of the commitment of NHS staff, I’m sure the First Minister would actually wish to thank hospital staff for looking after one of her citizens so professionally.
So, now we come to lines such as “sweaty little jocks”, “sweaty Glaswegians” and the reference to Scotland as “jocksville”. There will be those who see no difference between “jocks” and racial epithets such as “Yids” and “Pakis”. Had Hopkins used either of those terms in place of “jocks”, she probably would have been charged with a racial offence. But as I don’t believe in the criminalisation of words in the first place, and so have no wish to see others added to the list, I certainly don’t condone the addition of a word that was once a popular cartoon in the Dandy in which “The Jocks” battled “The Geordies”.
As for the use of the word “sweaty”, again, it is unpleasant, but given that sweat is one manner through which the disease spreads, it is not factually incorrect, even when cast over an entire city, as everyone in Glasgow does, indeed, sweat, although only one person there has been diagnosed with Ebola.
If we compare the comments to the guidelines issued by the Crown Prosecution Service, there are no “threats of violence”, no “stalking”, no “harassment”, and, as far as I am aware, Hopkins hasn’t breached any court order.
We now come to whether or not her comments can be construed as “indecent” or “grossly offensive”. Here, the barrier has to be very high indeed as it must go beyond “what could conceivably be tolerable or acceptable in an open and diverse society which upholds and respects freedom of expression”.
Freedom of speech is important, for it is the bedrock on which all other freedoms stand – yet it is being quietly chiselled away. As a civil society, we appreciate that people do not have the freedom to threaten violence or rape or to encourage others to carry out such acts. We do, however, have the freedom to be rude and obnoxious, to crack jokes that people find offensive, and to act in ways that can surprise and even shock others. We are free to make cruel, barbed comments that can reduce people to tears. I’m not saying we should, but what I am saying is that modern life would become grim and fearful if we could not.
This is why I found Police Scotland’s recent tweet rather troubling. On Tuesday, they tweeted: “Please be aware that we will continue to monitor comments on social media and any offensive comments will be investigated.” I don’t know about you, but to me this had the air of a plain-clothes policeman leaning a little closer to a private conversation in a crowded pub, which is how many people view the din and noise on Twitter. I have great respect for Alex Massie, the political columnist, who immediately tweeted back: “Oh bugger off!” Yet I wonder if he considered using a harsher term and thought it unwise.
As a statement, it is untrue, as Police Scotland cannot claim that “any offensive comments will be investigated”. Offensive comments shouldn’t be subject to investigation – only “grossly offensive” comments count in this regard – yet it can be difficult to tell what falls into which category.
As for the 20,000 people who signed the petition urging that Katie Hopkins be prosecuted, they should think hard about whether they would really like to live in a nation in which prosecutions were, like X Factor winners, the result of the most votes. People can be foul and rude, arrogant and obnoxious, vile and, at times, verbally cruel, and we have to defend the right for them do so. The appropriate response to Hopkins’ Twitter comment isn’t a prison sentence but silence.
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