17 May 2018

Time for digital spot fines to curb online abuse

By Emma Barr

For more than a century, campaigners have been campaigning for it. For just as long, the public have been saying they want it. But progress on getting more women into politics, public life, the upper echelons of business, academia and beyond has been perilously slow.

A debate that was once focused primarily on why it was in the interests both of women and society as a whole to have equal representation has become bogged down in a discussion of the unfairness or otherwise of positive discrimination.

I passionately oppose “all women shortlists”, because I cannot see how it can be right to select someone who isn’t the best person for a position based on their gender.

I’m not saying that MPs chosen this way weren’t fully deserving of their places in Parliament or haven’t in many cases made great contributions to it. However, we will never know if these women would have won in free and fair competition. If it were me, I would find that uncertainty intolerable, and the whole notion I could not have been the best person for the job – just the best woman – extremely patronising.

But the fact remains that, in politics and beyond, there are too few women in these important roles. The Hampton-Alexander review, commissioned by the Government, has the laudable aim of increasing female representation in leadership positions in FTSE 100 companies, and board positions in FTSE 350 firms. Yet the fact that the target is to increase both to a third of roles by 2020, from roughly a quarter at the moment, shows how far we have to go.

So if we aren’t going to force companies or panels to choose potentially less suitable women over men purely due to their gender, we must find another way.

The case for more women in public life cannot be simply about numbers – and indeed it’s not just about fairness. Balance changes the tone of debate, brings in voices that would not otherwise be heard and broadens the range of experiences that shape policy. It is about fairness to the wider population, not just to the participants in that debate.

The life experiences of women aren’t better or worse than men, but they are different. For them to be accepted as equally valid their proponents must be in the room – something which applies to all underrepresented groups, not just women.

The many reasons why there is not fairer representation are well rehearsed. Some might, and indeed have, argued that perhaps women are just not as good. That if more men are selected and elected then the logical conclusion is they are better at politics. That conclusion, and therefore to some extent the process, must be challenged.

We must consider that politics is not just about the rough and tumble of a selection meeting: it’s about strategy, empathy, long-term planning, being able to juggle responsibilities that continue to fall disproportionately on the shoulders of women. This is so much more than is tested in the one situation of a selection, with the often-unconscious bias of a particular demographic represented in a given panel.

Above all that, therefore, we must look at the numbers of women and minority candidates putting themselves forward. We cannot simply say the selections are unfair, because women can’t get selected if they aren’t in the game to begin with.

In the two most recent general elections, of 2015 and 2017, only 29 per cent and 26 per cent of Conservative candidates were women. And the pool from which candidates are drawn is increasingly male-dominated. A post-election survey in June 2017 found that just 30 per cent of Tory members are female – compared to a 50/50 split as recently as 1994.

To move beyond this sorry state of affairs, we must look at why, and what we can do. That means structured programmes of mentoring, making young girls believe public life is a possibility for them, rectifying the self-fulfilling prophesy of young people becoming what they see. With too few role models that look like them, many young girls just don’t consider politics as a career option.

And we must also look at the language we use around politics, simultaneously eliminating the negative and encouraging the positive. Both of these are incumbent on all of us, and we need support from government. Alongside the forthcoming restoration and renewal of the Houses of Parliament, there must be a restoration and renewal of faith and values in public life.

Some of that can, of course, be remedied by social media – which some may consider a force for bad, but which also offers a new ability to those in public life to make for themselves the perennial case for the benefits of public service.

So much of what we hear about joining politics is horribly negative, and the media endlessly focus on stories of abuse. We hear so little of the councilor who single-handedly saves a deserving young family from losing their council house or the school governor who works tirelessly to introduce after-school clubs which benefit their students enormously.

These are the sorts of opportunities that many now have at their own fingertips, even if they require councillors and others to think more like journalists. And of course, the more those stories are shared online, the more they will be picked up by the mainstream media and shared more widely.

In particular, we hear far too little about the positives for women of being in politics – stories from the excellent female MPs on all sides of the House about why they became MPs, why their work is important to them, and how fulfilling it can be.

This is beginning to change, with MPs such as Harriet Harman, Victoria Atkins, Mims Davies and Layla Moran (to name but a few) leading the charge. But we need to hear more. We need to show that debate can be constructive and enjoyable, to recognise that disagreement can be based on mutual respect, and ultimately ask our leaders to tell a story that too often is totally absent from online debate.

For all those positive opportunities, however, we cannot and must not pretend the negatives don’t exist. The former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, was a tireless fighter to end vile abuse both offline and online. She was clear that what’s illegal offline is illegal online, and the continuation of that work from Sajid Javid is to be welcomed.

But we need a way to enforce this that is currently sadly lacking. Cowardly individuals hiding behind a computer screen have been allowed not only to wreak havoc on the lives of individuals in public life, but they have also been allowed to debase our public sphere. Bullying online; the impact of social media on young people’s mental health; the growth in suicide and a host of other issues are going unaddressed because policing online and offline has different requirements.

When this type of language becomes normalised, it profoundly impacts on all in society, regardless of party or politics. And when women see what those such as Diane Abbott and Esther McVey have had to endure, it is understandable that some think, “You know what? I’d rather not put myself in that position. I don’t want my children to read that about me, or worse become victims themselves.”

So as well as each party taking the action it needs to take, we need decisive action from the Government, with tangible consequences for this behaviour that both respects the online sphere and the fact that behaviour that is illegal offline must be punished when it takes place online.

Currently the very worst language can be called out, some death threats do go to court, but for the most part, despite the strong will on the issue, they do not. We need a mechanism for punishing those who use this disgusting language, and also disincentivisng those who are considering it. We must make people think twice before they reply to a tweet in a way that dehumanises their victim.

I am not proposing introducing new categories of crime and hate speech, curbing freedom of speech, or preventing people from speaking their minds. Nor do we want the police to be spending months of their time investigating a few idiotic remarks, or to clog up the courts with vexatious complaints.

What we are talking about is not a few ill-judged comments, or the standard political back and forth, but where people are already breaking the law – repeatedly abusing an individual or individuals in the vilest terms.

The Government is already working on age verification for adult sites. When it comes to children, we should of course focus on education. But adults are rightly expected to know better. Those who behave in a way that sees them barred from social media sites, but in real life would see them cautioned by the police, should face potentially greater sanctions.

So, I propose a digital on-the-spot fine. Fining someone for this unacceptable behaviour, in the same way as you might fine someone for speeding, would be a huge disincentive. It would make the effect of the crime that this individual was committing, alone behind a keyboard, tangible for them.

This mechanism would also allow, again like speeding, a proportionate punishment for the crime. This would not be dissimilar from fines triggered by automatic number-plate recognition.
The worst cases must continue to be considered for prison as they are now. But for those cases which might not warrant prison, at least the first time, introducing fines – perhaps preceded by a formal warning for first-time offenders – would give more instant consequences for the perpetrator, some form of justice for victims and send a strong signal to the wider country that this will simply not be tolerated in Britain. We are a country with a proud history and a bright future, but the endless examples of racism, sexism and threats of violence under the cloak of anonymity online shame us all.

We must all stand up to the language of hate and intolerance wherever we find it, but we need tangible, practical steps by government as well. This is not about policing free speech online or anywhere else: it is about proportionately enforcing existing laws on hate speech, harassment and more. The Government should therefore explore what more can be done, working with web companies and existing agencies.

The reasons why there are too few women and ethnic minorities in politics are many and varied, some historical, and will take time to change. But it is hard to deny that threatening online abuse has set that progress back.

Just as we used to accept roads where drivers didn’t wear seat belts or used mobile phones at the wheel, we must take action to tame the behaviours online that drive good people, especially women and minorities, away from public life. Because only by widening the pool of people who put themselves forward will we stand a chance of having leaders who truly reflect those they represent.

Emma Barr is Head of Communications at the Centre for Policy Studies