A recent internet campaign has successfully persuaded the Bank of England to change its mind and ensure that women will not be removed from our bank notes. The campaign was masterminded and lead with great eloquence and skill by Oxford graduate Caroline Criado-Perez who felt that it was important that women were not airbrushed from history and that their visibility served as a role model and reminder that women as well as men achieved greatness. I was fortunate to meet Ms Criado-Perez recently and was very impressed with her passion, professionalism and vision and have no doubt whatsoever that she is very much a 21st century feminist icon with wide support from both men and women. The new governor of the Bank of England was quick to agree with her and announced that Jane Austen would feature on the new £10 notes. So far so good – nothing hugely controversial you might think…
However it quickly became apparent that a group of male Twitter users or “internet trolls” did take exception to it or more precisely to Caroline Criado-Perez herself and other women standing up and publicly daring to have an opinion such as MP Stella Creasy.
What followed was a barrage of public, vile, highly disturbing criminal threats to rape and assault the women. The threats even stated that they would be turning up at their homes to carry out the assaults and went into explicit detail about the sickening nature of the attacks.
To aggravate the matter further these threats were made by multiple users and were being sent at the rate of up to 50 per hour over a course of several days. Only one of the many perpetrators has been arrested and no decision to prosecute has yet been made despite the evidence in black and white.
CPS guidelines were recently issued with regard to online abuse and they make it clear that this type of communication could constitute several different offences such as harassment, stalking and offences under the Malicious Communications Act. The guidance does make it clear however that prosecutors should exercise extreme caution before bringing a prosecution under the Malicious Communications Act as “freedom of expression is the foundation of a democratic society”.
Whilst we would all wish to preserve freedom of expression it cannot ever be acceptable to make threats of rape whether in person or via the internet and freedom of expression cannot be a defence to such acts.
I believe that the law in this area is inadequate and that legislation needs to be introduced to enable the police to better deal with these acts. Stalking and harassment both require a course of conduct so a one off threat however violent could not be prosecuted under this legislation.
The CPS guidance also discusses the possibility of using the Crime and Disorder Acts or Criminal Justice Act 2003 to obtain an increased sentence if the offence is aggravated by race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or transgender identity. Whilst this is to be applauded there is no provision for an offence to be aggravated due to gender.
One of the shocking elements of this recent onslaught is that it is precisely because of gender that these threats are being made and that the threats themselves involve insults and threats of acts which could only happen to a woman such as explicit rape threats. These threats are not made because what is being said is so controversial but because the person saying it is a woman. I would be prepared to wager that even someone used to controversy such as Jeremy Clarkson is not bombarded with threats of rape and sexual assault from internet trolls of either gender.
It is high time that this type of behaviour was recognised in a law fit for the internet age and that offences of a targeted gender based nature became an aggravated feature upon sentencing – a hate crime effectively.
These types of threats are designed to intimidate and humiliate women and silence them from political and public discourse. Just as the Bank of England now accepts that women should be visible on our currency the law of England and Wales must ensure that women are not intimidated from the public domain and that the perpetrators of this hate crime are effectively punished by the courts.