Tom Slater

Is a vile tweet about Captain Tom really a matter for the police?

Is a vile tweet about Captain Tom really a matter for the police?
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Should it be illegal to be a moron? That’s the question we really need to be asking ourselves in the wake of the arrest of a man in Scotland over a vile tweet about the death of Captain Tom Moore, the Second World War veteran who became a national treasure in 2020 for his NHS fundraising.

Police Scotland has confirmed that a 35-year-old man has been charged ‘in connection with communication offences’. What it is he actually said wasn’t made clear. But a subsequent report, and much online chatter, points to this delightful post: ‘The only good Brit soldier is a deed one, burn auld fella, buuuuurn.’

That the post was offensive – and the person who posted it an idiot – goes without saying. But far more alarming than this single tweet, or the psychology of the individual responsible for it, is the fact it led to an arrest. In a free society, you should be free to say objectionable things, even about someone as loved as Captain Tom.

The tweet could hardly be said to be threatening, harassing or inciting violence against its target, given Moore has already died. Instead, the hapless tweeter seems to have fallen foul of Section 127 of the Communications Act, which makes it an offence to post something that is ‘grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character’.

This is an offence so broad that it has caught much less objectionable individuals in its net. In 2018, a Liverpool teenager was given a curfew for quoting rap lyrics on Instagram. That same year, Scottish YouTuber Mark Meechan was convicted under Section 127 and subsequently fined for a skit in which he taught his pug to do a Nazi salute.

The thing about offensive, even ‘grossly offensive’, speech is that what constitutes it is entirely subjective. One man’s sick joke is another man’s blasphemy. That the person responsible for the Captain Tom tweet said something most will find disgusting doesn’t make this case any less dangerous: in the end, he has been arrested for saying something nasty on the internet.

What’s more, a moral panic about ‘trolling’ could lead to the internet becoming a less free place for all of us. The government is talking about potentially fining social-media firms for failing to remove abusive content. When this was tried in Germany, it incentivised hasty moderation decisions that led to satirists being censored.

In any case, the idea that the internet is some Wild West now is patently untrue. The law and Big Tech’s own policies are already far too restrictive. A 2017 Times investigation found that nine people a day were being arrested for offensive posts. And Silicon Valley, lest we forget, recently deplatformed a sitting president on spurious grounds.

We seem to be incapable as a society of condemning speech we find objectionable without also demanding it be made illegal. Don’t go out of your way to upset people, treat others as you’d like to be treated, don’t speak ill of the dead: these are all perfectly good rules to live by, but they needn’t be enforced by law.

Another old adage we’d do well to remember is ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’. We used to teach that to small children. Now it is apparently a callous denial of a serious problem, a trolls’ charter. But if we only tried sticking to it for a while, we’d be in a much healthier place as a society.

Tom Slater is deputy editor of spiked