It is the stuff of nightmares. You’re listening to a radio interview. The interviewee winds you up by saying that you have no moral authority to take a view on human rights. You react immediately by putting on Twitter an ironic response to that specific point. You don’t think hard. You just hit send. Just another moment in the day, just another narky tweet. Then things get out-of-hand. Within 24 hours this tweet makes worldwide news headlines. Next there are statements made in Parliament. Next the police come and arrest you. For Gareth Compton this nightmare is a terrifying reality.
Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing, really,
Any reasonable person given just those words to judge would conclude that the author is a bigot, an idiot and nasty. I know Gareth Compton. He is none of those things. But you only have that one tweet to judge him on. So I don’t expect you to believe me.
Context matters. He was listening to Alibhai-Brown on a Radio 5 Interview (which you can hear in full here – fast-forward to 53 minutes). Alibhai-Brown made her point that British politicians do not have any moral right to protest human rights abuses including the stoning of women in other countries. She claimed only human rights groups or Nelson Mandela should engage in that debate. I can imagine Gareth’s jaw dropping with outrage at the assertion he should shut-up on human rights. He is, and I don’t expect you to believe this either, a believer in human rights and a fighter of bigotry.
If you knew Gareth, were listening to the radio and clocked the tweet when the interview was playing you would probably have ‘got it’. You may not have found it funny, you may still have taken offence but you would have ‘got it’. The world doesn’t know Gareth and wasn’t listening to the radio when the tweet went up. So, the world didn’t ‘get’ it. Truth be told, even with full context it is neither funny nor clever and has an unpleasant snarl to it. Nevertheless, it isn’t incitement to murder. It is simply what the kids would call ‘an epic fail’ in joke telling. Since when was that a crime?
Gareth Compton is a grown man and a partisan politician. He takes and gives heaps in the virtual political bun-fights that litter the internet. He has apologised unreservedly but in the rough and tumble of politics he would now expect the opposition vultures to circle and tear shreds. If the boot was on the other foot he would do the same. He would expect calls for ‘resignation’. He would expect the Conservative Party to suspend him given the furore. All of that is fair game in the playground of local politics. But the Police? Arrest? Criminal charges? Come on.
Voltaire famously nearly said: “Sir, I do not agree that your jokes are funny, but I will defend unto death your right to tell them”. I would appeal to anyone who has ever said anything knee-jerk in a pub, who ever momentarily wished harm to George Bush and said so, who has ever said anything they regretted, or ever had anything they said taken out of context (which must be all of us, right?) to stand up for Gareth in the event of any prosecution.
Even if you still think he is an idiot, a bigot, and nasty (he isn’t). Even if his politics are Mars to your Venus. Stand up against this thought police nonsense.
This whole sorry affair has left me terrified to type. I have a real sadness that the hysteria that these storms whip up will deter our politicians from engaging in new social media. It brings to mind the telling scene in “The Social Network” where the main character is confronted by an ex-girlfriend he berated on his blog. His apology falls hollow, she looks him in the eye and says with all the power of a great metaphor – “The internet is not written in pencil. It is written in ink.” It is a lesson for us all.
Nevertheless, no matter how staggeringly misjudged Gareth was, the chain of consequences has been out of all proportion. I honestly wish Gareth well. I believe his apology and I hope that Alibhai-Brown can find the grace within herself to accept it. I trust the Conservative Party will be fair in their investigation and measured in subsequent action. Our democracy needs us to have the right to say daft and wrong things without criminalising us. We already saw yesterday with the mad judgement in the Robin Hood Airport case that this right is vanishing. So most of all – I pray that all thinking people – whatever their political hue or view of Gareth – demand the CPS drop this case.