James Kirkup

Is it now a crime to like a poem about transgenderism?

Is it now a crime to like a poem about transgenderism?
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This is a story about Harry Miller, a man who has lived a life that might be described as blameless and even admirable. He’s the director of a company that employs 70-odd people in one of the poorer bits of England, invests in its staff and community, and uses its financial and technical expertise to raise large sums of money and make life better for people who really need it in very poor parts of Nepal.

Miller, a former police officer, is not frankly, the sort of person you’d expect to the subject of a police inquiry. Yet according to Miller on Wednesday this week, he found himself answering questions -- for 34 minutes – from an officer from Humberside Police. He doesn’t live in Humberside, incidentally, and nor is his business based there.

What had he done to draw the attention of the police? There is no suggestion that Miller has done anything illegal. Yet he says he still had that 34 minute conversation with a police officer who warned him about his behaviour and spoke repeatedly about a 'victim' of Miller’s conduct.

This is, of course, a story about Twitter, and transgenderism. Miller says he was interviewed by the police and warned about his 'thinking' because he had used his Twitter account to express opinions about transgenderism and the law as it applies to gender. On that account, Miller says things such as 'trans women are not women' and questions the school of thought that says someone born male who 'identifies' as female must be treated in exactly the same way as a person born with a female body.

The officer, Miller says, explained that his force was investigating what is called a 'hate incident'. This is an act or event that does not break the law, does not constitute a crime, but which someone perceives to have been motivated by hatred or discrimination towards a particular group of people.

Miller, it was suggested, might have been responsible for such a 'hate incident' by 'promoting' tweets that a complainant (unnamed) regarded as hateful or offensive. The officer allegedly had a list of 30 tweets Miller had sent, liked or retweeted, which he suggested had been cited by a person he referred to as 'the victim' of the supposed incident.

Miller says the officer went on to warn him that by 'promoting' such material, he might find himself in trouble with his company (the officer was evidently unaware that Miller actually owns the firm) because his tweeting might make transgender employees uncomfortable.

Miller was, to put it mildly, taken aback by this. Here is his account, in his own words. (For clarity, Miller is now the chairman of his firm and leaves day-to-day business to the 'Director' referenced in the first sentence here.)

'Got a call from Director, saying cops wanting to speak to me. He’d had sense not to give out my number, but said he’d pass on details. I rang.

Spoke to PC from Humberside, introduces himself as representing the LGBTQ community on a report of hate speech by me. They’d found me via my company, had been all over the website & decided if I employed trans people at all, it was not a safe place for them & work should know.

Cop said he was in possession of 30 Tweets by me. I asked if any contained criminal material. He said.... No. I asked if any came close to being criminal... and he read me a limerick. Honestly. A limerick. A cop read me a limerick over the phone.

I said, I didn’t write that. He said, ‘Ah. But you Liked it and promoted it.’ I asked why he was wasting his time on a non crime. He said, ‘It’s not a crime, but it will be recorded as a hate incident.’

So, I’ve added to a statistic, even though there is no crime, which brings me to my next point. The cop repeatedly called the complainant ‘the victim.’ I asked how there could be a victim if, as he’d established, there was no crime. He said, that’s just how it works.

My comment was that by framing the complainant as ‘victim’, this made me, by default, ‘criminal.’ I asked him to desist from using it.

This is where it gets incredibly sinister. The cop told me that he needed to speak with me because, even though I’d committed no crime whatsoever, he needed (and I quote) ‘to check my THINKING!’ Seriously. Honestly.

Finally, he lectured me. Said, ‘Sometimes, a woman’s brain grows a man’s body in the womb and that is what transgender is.’ You can imagine my response...

Lastly, he told me that I needed to watch my words more carefully or I was as risk of being sacked by the company for hate speech.'

I spoke to Miller this morning about the call. He said he remains incredulous that a police officer would seek him out, via his business, and spend more than half an hour warning him about his 'thinking' and the fact that he had expressed opinions about social and political issues, in a way that does not in any way break the law.

Miller told me: 'I kept asking him, why are you saying ‘victim’? If there’s not been a crime, how can there be a victim. He said that’s just the way it is.'

'He said he would be passing my answers on to the complainant. I told him to tell that person I would gladly talk to them, that I’d like to take them out to dinner so we could have a conversation about this. I’d explain that I am a strong supporter of the 2010 Equality Act, and explain my concerns about possible reforms of the Gender Recognition Act and how that could affect legal rights for women. Of course, he wouldn’t tell me anything about the complainant, just that they were from ‘down south’.'

'I just find this all unbelievable and sinister. I’ve broken no law, the police don’t suggest that I’ve done anything illegal, but here they are, investigating me for tweeting a limerick. It’s mad, completely mad.'

How will he respond to the police attention? Will he change his approach to tweeting? He says no. 'Free speech is a hill that we have to fight on. If we can’t express ourselves freely within the law, none of the other rights we have mean anything.'

I also asked Humberside Police about Miller’s account of his conversation with their officer. They gave me this statement:

'We take all reports of hate incident seriously and will always investigate and take proportionate action.' [sic]

They didn’t say any more about what constitutes a 'hate incident', but English and Welsh police forces are subject to Home Office instructions on 'crime reporting' that appear to oblige them to record anything that a complainant perceives to be motivated by hatred of people because of a protected characteristic. That can mean race, age, disability or gender reassignment.

That instruction says:

'All reports of incidents, whether from victims, witnesses or third parties and whether crime related or not, will, unless immediately recorded as a crime, result in the registration of an auditable incident report by the police.'

This is the same instruction that saw West Midlands police treat a speech by Amber Rudd in 2017 as a 'hate incident'. The instruction, however, does not appear to oblige forces to actively investigate reported incidents. Humberside Police said nothing more about their decision to interview Harry Miller.

He isn’t the first person to have such an experience. I know of several other people who say they have also been interviewed and warned by police about their entirely legal comments online about gender issues.

What to make of this? I’ve written a lot about this subject, because I think it raises many disturbing questions about the way we conduct ourselves as a society and a democracy, about the way the political process registers and responds to different groups’ valid concerns and questions. I keep writing about it because I think that more people in positions of authority should take a closer (and more public) interest in numerous failures of policy and politics.

And when I write about it, I take pains to do so in a calm, measured and careful way, because this debate desperately needs deliberation and calm reflection, instead of anger and outrage.

But it is very, very hard indeed to remain calm about the story of Harry Miller. In Britain today, a police force may have sought out a man who has broken no law and spent more than half an hour warning him about his 'thinking' and his expression of his opinions – for no other reason than someone said they believed that man’s lawful actions were motivated by 'hatred'.

PS. You might be wondering about that limerick, the one that appears to have concerned the police officer and saw a law-abiding businessman interviewed and warned about his behaviour and his 'thinking'. Here it is:

You're a man.

Your breasts are made of silicone

Your vagina goes nowhere

And we can tell the difference

Even when you are not there

Your hormones are synthetic

And lets just cross this bridge

What you have you stupid man

Is male privilege.

Written byJames Kirkup

James Kirkup is director of the Social Market Foundation and a former political editor of the Scotsman and the Daily Telegraph.

Topics in this articleSociety