LibLink: Mark Pack: There’s rather more to the story of “Police call on someone who tweeted criticism of UKIP”

There’s been a fair bit of discussion online about the incident last weekend when two Cambridgeshire Police Officers visited Green Party member Michael Abberton over a tweet which contained his edited, fact checked version of an anti-UKIP poster designed by someone else.

He told the whole story on his Axe of Reason blog.

Julian Huppert, as you can imagine, expressed concern about the and took this up with the Police.

I struggle to see exactly what it could have been that would have been an offence in this case, and I’m looking forward to hearing the justification. Because otherwise from what I’ve seen, it does seem like an inappropriate for the police to be involved, and certainly Michael Abberton’s description of the conversation suggests that they went a lot further than just trying to establish if he’s committed an offence, but went to the level of asking him to take down the comments, not to tell anyone that they’d been round, various other things like that., which assuming that to be true, it is clearly inappropriate…

The clear question is whether there is a genuine allegation that he committed a criminal offence. And if there is such an allegation, then clearly it’s alright for the police to investigate it, but I haven’t seen anything to suggest that there was a clear allegation of potential criminal activity. And it’s clearly inappropriate for the police to take action on political disagreement if there’s no real sense that there was a criminal activity involved, and having seen the tweets that he [Abberton] sent out, I can’t see in what way it would have violated the Representation of the People Act, I can’t see any way in which it could be seen as being threatening or abusive.

The Chief Constable has since admitted that the approach that his officers took was wrong.

However, my predecessor as Liberal Democrat Voice co-editor, Mark Pack, has said that it might not be quite as simple as has been made out. In an article for The Chartered Institute of Public Relations The Conversation blog, he argues that it’s high time the government got on with reviewing electoral law in the age of the internet and social media.

The key thing missing in nearly all – but not quite all– accounts is that UKIP’s original grounds of complaint was that something was circulating online criticising the party which didn’t contain the usual legal imprint required on election law material.

The law here is murky for two reasons. First, at what point does something done personally by a member of a political party become something that would fall under the imprint requirements? Second, specifically in the online arena, what actually are the imprint requirements?

Back in 2009, Mark bemoaned the lack of progress in getting a new set of electoral rules to take modern technology into account. Still, nothing has been done. Now he says:

Since then we’ve had another five years of inaction. It really is about time a Secretary of Stateor senior civil servant at the Ministry of Justice decided ‘enough’ and got this issue onto their department’s agenda and sorted.

My worry on this is that those who might be making those decisions may be looking at it from a bureaucratic rather than a freedom of expression perspective. We have to make sure that parodies and the sort of thing that Michael Abberton amended and tweeted aren’t outlawed. It’s important in an election that people are able to tell who is behind a particular message but the way of ensuring that must err on the side of free speech.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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8 Comments

  • Charles Rothwell 15th May '14 - 2:15pm

    Considering the stuff the Kippers pump out (Irish actors playing unemployed Brit builders etc), I had to recheck my calendar and make sure it was not 1st April when reading this. The only atom of sense I can get from it is the point made by Mark Pack about the lack of a legal imprint on election material, but, even then, a visit by TWO Police officers to the person’s home????? Have they really got nothing better to do with their time?

  • In recent years something new as arisen – “Fact checking”. The reason this is needed is because there is no requirement for politicians when they talk to reporters and the public (including written communication) to be truthful about the facts. There should be a requirement that every communication politicians make to influence voters should be factually correct and if challenged the data must be provided, if not provided or wrong the politician should be disqualified from standing for public office for a period of time.

  • David Allen 15th May '14 - 3:34pm

    The police certainly got this badly wrong. However, the UKIP logo has been used on a poster which isn’t a blatantly obvious spoof. It contains a series of allegations as to what UKIP policy is. Ironically, Abberton seems to have been the guy who did some sensible fact-checking, which showed that some of the allegations could not be supported at all, while others were only based on one candidate’s personal views. I can understand why UKIP protested, I’m sure any party would do the same in similar circumstances. There ought to be some form of civil remedy available (though against the original producer of the spoof poster, not against Mr Abberton, who seems to have tried to separate truth from distortion).

  • There is no way that the relevant laws will be reformed before the next general election. It would be more easier to move the date of the election to April 1st so voters quickly twig how credible most party pamphlets are.

  • Andrew Colman 16th May '14 - 10:53am

    Even if the law is unclear, it was very poor judgement of the police to respond in such a heavy handed way. Police getting involved in Election campaigning is the kind of thing we associate with Zimbabwe, Egypt etc. It is not something we should be seeing in the UK. I fear this could get worse, not better when the lobbying bill (gagging law) starts taking effect.

    The policeman who ordered this “home visit” should apologise and resign. The lobbying bill should be scrapped ASAP.

  • @ Amalric. We saw what nonsense could be spouted during the alternative vote referendum. We need to bring political advertising within Advertising Standards Authority’s remit before we are at risk of an IN/OUT european referendum.

  • SIMON BANKS 17th May '14 - 9:33am

    There is nothing here that says Mr Abberton is a candidate or in any other key position in respect of the election. If people who happen to be members of a political party (clearly ipso facto suspicious deviants) can’t circulate views on political parties, we might have to go back to word of mouth in the pub. Come to think of it, as a CAMRA member, I realise that could be a good thing.

    Part of the problem here is that the internet has massively expanded the number of people who can with ease “publish” things.

    I cannot see that the police should have been involved at all and I agree with David Allen that any action should have been civil and against the originator of the spoof poster.

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