Following December’s publication of the Committee on Standards in Public Life report on Intimidation in Public Life, the Constitution Unit hosted a panel on 21 March to discuss the Committee’s findings and recommendations. The seminar was chaired by Dr Jennifer Hudson, Associate Professor in Political Behaviour at UCL and leader of Parliamentary Candidates UK (PCUK). The list of panellists included Lord Bew, who serves as Chair of the Committee. Overall, the seminar aimed to reflect on the Committee’s report and its wider implications for the nature of British public life. In this post, Lotte Hargrave summarises what was said.
Following the 2017 general election, the Prime Minister asked the Committee on Standards in Public Life to conduct an independent, non-partisan inquiry into the issue of intimidation and harassment during elections. The report undertakes a review of the intimidation of parliamentary candidates, a third of whom experienced harassment and intimidation during the campaign. The forms of abuse were, in the words of the report, ‘persistent, vile and shocking’; threatening violence – sexual or otherwise – and property damage. Intimidation and abuse were often found to be clearly targeted at certain groups, including women and ethnic minorities.
Lord Bew, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life
The Committee’s Chair, Lord Bew, spoke broadly about the intentions behind the report and the purposes of the inquiry itself. He began by explaining that the inquiry took an independent, non-partisan look at all aspects of intimidation and set about explaining how the Committee understood ‘intimidation’, emphasising this to be behaviour which would make it less likely for individuals to participate in public life. Lord Bew stressed the Committee recognised that vibrant and robust debate is an intrinsic part of British political life, and that they recognised this to be one of its great qualities. However, they stressed something new was happening to ‘debase our public life’. Without intervention, the Committee were concerned that individuals – particularly those in marginalised groups such as women or ethnic minorities – would be discouraged from participating in politics. Overall, it was stressed that the Committee did not necessarily understand there had been a growth in this type of abuse but that the velocity at which it was being delivered had increased. Lord Bew stated that the Committee believed that the 2014 Scottish independence referendum was a turning point, and that the problem has been exacerbated and abuse has proliferated due to the rise of social media.
Lord Bew reflected on the Committee’s meetings with social media companies (Twitter, Facebook, and Google) during the inquiry, and the companies’ ‘half-hearted’ attitude towards tackling online abuse. This was mentioned with particular reference to the slow speed at which they removed abusive online content, despite their extensive resources, profits and data collection activities. Throughout the inquiry, the Committee felt that social media companies were not doing enough, and did not display sufficient seriousness in their discussions with an inquiry that had been called for by the Prime Minister herself.
Finally, Lord Bew reflected briefly on the response the Committee’s recommendations had received, noting there has been a positive response by the government, and the report had been warmly received at its launch in December. Overall the government were strongly supportive and had accepted most of the recommendations.
Jane Ramsey, member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life
Committee member Jane Ramsey spoke primarily about the recommendations of the report. She began by explaining that evidence had been taken over a number of months from MPs past and present, parliamentary candidates, academics, civil society organisations, and members of the public. Building upon this evidence the Committee produced 33 recommendations for action to be taken in the short and long-term. Ramsey emphasised the need to implement the reforms as a package, requiring collaborative effort from social media companies, political parties, parliament, the police, broadcast and print media, and MPs and candidates themselves.
Firstly, Ramsey spoke about the claims of social media companies that they are ‘platforms’ with no responsibility for content. The Committee believed this claim to be outdated: companies choose the format of content and create algorithms to promote content, which takes them beyond the role of a ‘passive host’. The Committee identified a need for legislation and society to catch up with the operation of social media companies; the report therefore recommends a shift in liability for social media companies in regard to illegal content. Ramsey also emphasised the Committee’s concern with the failure of Twitter, Facebook, and Google to collect performance data on the speed of taking down abusive content. The government’s formal response to the report on 7 March accepted that social media companies were not passive platforms and that it would consult with international partners about liability. Additionally, it committed to the publication of an annual internet transparency report.
Secondly, Ramsey spoke about the recommendations targeted at political parties, stressing that there was a responsibility of those in leadership to set the right tone and take greater responsibility for members’ behaviour. The Committee emphasised the need for parties to work together to jointly enforce a code of conduct, but no progress has been seen on this so far. Ramsey further emphasised that parties should do more to support candidates and campaign volunteers during election periods, and that networks and resources should be utilised to help with this.
Thirdly, Ramsey turned to what the Committee sees as necessary changes to the law around intimidation of candidates and others involved in elections. The Committee felt the criminal law was sufficient as it stands on social media, but thinks an improvement is needed in how it is policed and enforced during election periods. The Committee believed there to be a significant threat to election processes when parliamentary candidates are intimidated. Ramsey reported that the government had agreed to implement changes to electoral law to ensure more severe sanctions.
Finally, Ramsey addressed the need for MPs and all others in public life to take responsibility for promoting a healthier quality of debate, stating that disputes should focus on disagreement about issues and should not be targeted at individuals.
Dr Sofia Collignon Delmar, Lecturer in Political Communications at Royal Holloway
Dr Sofia Collignon Delmar presented results from the Representative Audit of Britain’s survey of candidates from the 2017 general election. The survey contacted all 2,825 candidates between July 2017 and January 2018 and received a 47% response rate. Collignon Delmar spoke on how often and how widespread harassment is, which emotional response it triggers in candidates, what the most frequent forms of harassment are, and what can be done about harassment. Slides that accompanied the presentation may be viewed here.
33% of respondents said they had experienced harassment during the campaign. Notably, differences were identified across the parties. 68% of Conservative candidates reported harassment, making members of that party the most likely to be targeted. In contrast, only 11% of Green candidates experienced any intimidating behaviour. Collignon Delmar spoke about the differences between male and female candidates: women were more likely to have received abuse (38%) than male candidates (30%). Similarly, older candidates were more likely to have been harassed than younger candidates.
For the emotional responses that harassment triggers in candidates, Collignon Delmar reported that 40% of those surveyed didn’t feel fearful at all as a result of the harassment, but 55% said they felt concerned or annoyed. The survey found that female respondents felt significantly more annoyed or fearful than their male counterparts.
The survey found that harassment was more common online than offline, and that the most frequent forms were through social media platforms or email. This was followed by phone calls, letters and direct approaches in person. No differences were found between genders on the most frequent forms of harassment received, except for sexual harassment, which was significantly more likely to happen to female respondents.
Finally, Collignon Delmar reported on what candidates believed could be done to combat harassment. She argued that social media companies could do more; that candidates would like to receive training (from parties, the police, and other organisations) in how to respond; that candidates’ complaints about harassment should be taken more seriously; and that there is a need for greater awareness of the importance of this kind of behaviour.
Following a lively audience question and answer session, the seminar concluded by reinforcing the need to take seriously the scale and complexity of intimidation. It was stressed that those in public life must adopt a healthier public discourse and stand together to oppose behaviour which threatens the integrity of public life.
Finally, the discussion ended noting a recent global survey produced ahead of a London summit on increasing women’s political participation. The survey revealed that 44% of all women in politics have faced abuse, both physically and psychological. Dr Jennifer Hudson cited this figure at the end of the seminar to emphasise the scale of harassment in modern political life.
About the author
Lotte Hargrave is a Research Volunteer at the Constitution Unit.