17 March 2020

How I was abused and threatened online – and the lessons for our society

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The digital age has shortened the distance between voters, politicians and journalists. Opinions will differ but I doubt this is healthy for civic life. As James Madison argued in The Federalist Papers in 1787, a “pure democracy [we’d say direct democracy] … can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction”, and provides inadequate protection for the rights of minorities.

Few would dispute, however, that online communication gives a weapon to malevolent people who seek to intimidate public figures and spread hatred. A case I’ve been following over many years culminated last week when a man was convicted at Durham Crown Court on charges of malicious communication and perverting the course of justice.

The man’s name is David Lindsay, of Lanchester in County Durham. He is 42 and lives with his mother. He has sent me voluminous messages over the past 12 years, under his own name and various easily penetrable aliases, and posted many comments about me online that are abusive and threatening, including an anonymous but easily identifiable antisemitic death threat sent via the Jewish Chronicle, to which I’m a longstanding contributor. Other journalists have had similar experiences. Two in particular have been targeted relentlessly: Damian Thompson, a prominent Catholic writer who is associate editor at The Spectator, and Vincent McAviney, a freelance television reporter for the BBC and ITN.

Lindsay was convicted for sending an anonymous letter to the chief constable of Durham in 2017 claiming that contracts had been taken out on the lives of 57 named Labour councillors on Durham County Council. It offered a bounty of up to £50,000 on the heads of each of these councillors. Lindsay’s fingerprints were found on the envelope. Ahead of his trial, he arranged for a blogger in the United States to send an anonymous letter to Lindsay himself and two priests in his home village purporting to be a threat to Lindsay’s life. This had the desired effect of postponing the trial while the police investigated the source of the letter, but ensured that Lindsay would face an additional charge of perverting the course of justice when the trial eventually came to court.

Lindsay denied authorship of both letters but, at the end of a four-day trial, the jury took only an hour to reach a unanimous verdict that he was guilty on both charges. It may seem a parochial issue but Lindsay’s behaviour is a microcosm of the paranoia and virulence to which social media has given a megaphone in recent years. Having been hounded by this criminal over many years, and played a small part in exposing him, I tell this story in the hope that cases like it are in future caught at an early stage.

As far as I know, Lindsay has had no full-time employment for many years, if ever. His waking hours are filled by writing a political blog at immense length. His views are a little hard to pin down amid the verbiage but he identifies with the views of the pressure group Blue Labour and apparently has attended their events. He also pledges loyalty to George Galloway, Chris Williamson, Julian Assange and Jeremy Corbyn. Labour activists in his area tell me that he was expelled from party membership as long ago as 2006. He stood as an independent candidate in North West Durham in the 2019 election but lost his deposit with less than 1 per cent of the vote.

Years ago I unwisely sought to help Lindsay, and so did Thompson, and this is where we went wrong. Lindsay would typically write to scores of journalists and academics, under his own name and various made-up ones, commending the brilliance of his own work. He eventually sent us the text of a self-published book he’d written, challenging us to publicly rebut it. I replied advising him that, as a strategy for publicising his views, this was unlikely to work, but offering to give him tips on how best to make a pitch to the comment editor of a newspaper. I got an abusive reply and realised there was nothing I could do for him.

Thompson was at that time blogs editor of the Daily Telegraph. This was pre-Twitter, when blogs were in vogue, and some of the Telegraph bloggers were very good (they included the science writer Tom Chivers). Thompson gave an opportunity to Lindsay to write a Telegraph blog in 2009. Editors do occasionally take a chance on writers without journalistic experience (which is indeed how I got my job at The Times, 12 years ago); sometimes they work. Moreover, Lindsay claimed scholarly expertise, depicting himself as an academic at Durham University. This was not true. He was what’s known as a college tutor at the university, but (confusingly for those unfamiliar with Durham nomenclature) this is not an academic post. It is a voluntary job, which anyone can apply to do, providing pastoral care and friendship to new undergraduates.

Thompson speedily realised that he’d inadvertently engaged a conspiracy theorist who’d fabricated his CV, and removed Lindsay from the newspaper’s roster. In retrospect, this brief period of appearing on the site of a national newspaper was a high point in Lindsay’s life. He has over the past decade continually lamented that he’s been persecuted and ruined by a conspiracy. This alleged conspiracy comprises Thompson and me, even though we work for different publications, cover different subjects, hold widely divergent opinions, and have never even met.

On his blog, Lindsay began inveighing against an additional member of this imaginary cabal, Vincent McAviney. I didn’t know his name but McAviney wrote to me in 2012 to seek my help. He was a recent Durham graduate, then doing a postgraduate journalism degree in London. He was worried that the abuse and conspiracy theories vented against him on Lindsay’s blog were turning up at the top of any Google search of his name. He was concerned that this would make it hard for him to embark on a career in journalism, as any prospective employer would see them. He explained that, as an undergraduate, he’d had Lindsay assigned to him as a college tutor but that he’d found Lindsay’s behaviour so strange that he requested the service be terminated. Lindsay thereafter kept trying to contact McAviney, turning up two nights in a row to a play in which he was performing. McAviney eventually alerted the college when Lindsay tried to get into his room and scratched a message in the door.

Lindsay’s abuse, calumnies and threats over the intervening years have been especially directed at the three of us. Thompson received an identical death threat to mine in 2015, saying that a contract had been taken out on our lives and we’d be killed, which was the immediate indication to us that Lindsay was the author of them. (Thompson is obviously not Jewish but Lindsay charged him with being an agent of Mossad anyway.) The security department at News UK, my employers, went to great lengths to advise me on personal safety. They made recommendations on home security, told me not to answer my front door unless I was expecting a visitor, and to vary my routes to and from work each day, My incoming mail was screened separately in the post-room.

Press photographs of Lindsay at his trial reveal him to be severely overweight and I’ve no doubt I could outdistance him if he turned up to my office, but not a day passes as I enter and leave the building without my looking around carefully. I once accepted an invitation to speak in a debate at the Durham Union and pulled out at the last minute on realising that Lindsay would certainly turn up; my withdrawal must have appeared, and was, rude but I resolved to take no chances.

Though we knew it was him, Lindsay had been careful not to leave fingerprints on the letters. This doubtless caused him to mistakenly think he could get away with it a second time. On the advice of the police and my colleagues in security, I have kept an eye on Lindsay’s online behaviour since then, and it’s dreadful stuff. As well as accusing me of systematic criminality and urging my assassination, he has expressed a general and ferocious animosity towards women, Jews and gays. The last point is combined with a prurient fascination with male genitalia. Among his targets are a leading Jewish figure in municipal government, whom Lindsay compares to Adolf Eichmann while urging in graphic detail that he be physically beaten, a Jewish barrister whose murder he has called for, and a Jewish female politician, who Lindsay alleges received a safe seat in return for sexual favours. A Catholic convert, Lindsay has also posted defamatory material about lay figures within the Church who he believes have maligned him and whom he charges with being possessed by demons.

Lindsay claims long friendships and associations with various politicians and commentators, generally pro-Brexit figures and social conservatives. I doubt this in every case (at a minimum, I know it to be false with regard to Peter Hitchens, who is a friend of mine). But he has long had a practice of seeking support from well-known names in these fields and then piggybacking on their reputation. A compelling recent book by Adam Sisman, The Professor and the Parson, describes the experience of the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper in first being approached by and then keeping tabs on the decades-long shenanigans of a fantasist. I’ve come across the same thing in the digital age. In addition to his bogus claim to be a Durham academic and the holder of a doctorate, Lindsay has also at various times maintained that he is an MI6 agent and a confidant of the Pope.

Whenever I’ve seen Lindsay’s name associated with some blameless public figure (usually in a round-robin letter to a newspaper, including my own), I’ve done what Trevor-Roper did and alerted the victim. Bryan Gould, for example, the former Labour leadership candidate, was gracious and aghast when I revealed to him Lindsay’s hateful and quasi-pornographic material; he quite unnecessarily blamed himself for being too trusting.

This saga is now at an end. I have had Lindsay’s Twitter account permanently suspended (though he has since set up a sock puppet account, which will meet the same fate), and I will move to get his entire blog, comprising hundreds of thousands of words, taken down. The judge last week adjourned sentencing till 3 April, pending reports by the probation service and a psychiatric assessment, but told Lindsay that he should read nothing into being granted bail and that all sentencing options remained open.

I have periodically wondered whether the explanation for these events lies in mental disorder, and I do not in any sense mean this pejoratively. Having suffered severe mental illness myself a few years ago, from which I completely recovered, I’m aware that disorder can do strange things to your belief system. In any event, I’m thankful that Lindsay has been stopped and hopeful that he will be able to get his life on track.

I’ve recounted this sad affair because it shows how, in a culture that has been transformed by the internet, threats and harassment can go unchecked for a long time and thereby gain in intensity. Not all our civic institutions are up to date with this danger. I have nothing but praise and gratitude for Durham police, who’ve patiently pursued this case despite Lindsay’s attempts to thwart it. I also note, however, a dignified comment by McAviney after the trial. He said on social media that, much as he loves his alma mater of Durham University, it failed to properly vet someone who was supposed to be in charge of the welfare of students yet was incapable even of looking after himself. This experience has overshadowed the career of a talented young journalist, and I hope institutional lessons will be learnt from the case.

Here, briefly, are some. The corrosiveness of social media is not a new point. Twitter has much benefit for instant exchange among people of similar interests (I’ve gained particularly from discussions with linguists) but also gives a direct link between trolls and their targets. Twitter hasn’t been active enough in rooting these people out. For the meantime, my own  practice is to receive notifications only from people I follow, on the grounds that if anyone really wants to write to me they know where to find me.

Second, mental health treatment may not be the answer in every instance of antisocial behaviour but it’s worth investing in for its own sake. Some forms of talking therapy are pure pseudoscience, but others, notably cognitive-behavioural therapy, have been clinically validated in helping people whose thinking is distorted. This hasn’t yet entered public consciousness enough, and I hope through my writings to make it better known.

Third, anti-social behaviour will not go away of its own accord. It will fester and accelerate, and there is a civic responsibility on those who witness it to confront it. Again, I consider Durham University to be culpable. McAviney contacted his former college in 2013 to point out what was happening, and I backed him up. The college principal did remove Lindsay from any association with the college, but this was not adequate. It didn’t dissuade Lindsay from falsely passing himself off as a Durham academic or deter his behaviour. The college appeared to believe this was now someone else’s problem and was not relevant to its own procedures.

Fourth, the recrudescence of antisemitism in the digital age has become all too familiar and is not incidental to the phenomenon I’ve described. Stalkers thrive on it. In a powerful short book Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked (2013), the novelist James Lasdun recounted how his professional reputation had been mercilessly traduced by one of his former creative writing students under various guises. A theme of these attacks was, of course, a Jewish conspiracy that Lasdun was a part of.

These are difficult times in national and public life, and inoculating our culture against online harassment is not the most pressing issue of the day. But it’s a vital task, whose importance needs to be recognised.

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Oliver Kamm is a leader writer and columnist for The Times.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.