In My Opinion: Francis Shennan: Starmer’s draft social media guidelines

“THE first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilisation,” said Sigmund Freud.

I have to own up. I didn’t know this quote until I looked it up on

It’s difficult to equate some of the offensive material on social media with civilisation, but how we deal with it might be. Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, appeared on Sky News to say he was holding a consultation about his proposed new guidelines on what material would be prosecuted.

When his draft guidelines were first mentioned six weeks ago, I was interviewed by the Russian language section of the BBC World Service. The interest was not confined to the UK.

As an analogy, I said that a group of youths swapping offensive or sick jokes among themselves in the street was one thing, but their shouting them through someone’s letter box was another.

Starmer told Sky that quickly deleting abusive tweets may prevent a prosecution, even if they were highly offensive. However, tweets or other online messages that were defamatory, threatening or breached court orders would still be acted on.

He was “trying to get the balance right, making sure time and resources are spent on cases that really do need to go to court”. Other cases could be dealt with by a speedy apology and removal.

At the end of last year, it was reported that crimes involving Facebook and Twitter soared nearly eight-fold in the last four years. Last year alone, 653 people were charged and 4,908 offences were reported in England, Scotland and Wales, including harassment, stalking, grooming and racial abuse.

But so too were other types of case. Paul Chambers was found guilty three years ago of sending a “menacing electronic communication” about blowing up Robin Hood Airport in Yorkshire. His conviction was eventually quashed.

Drunk student, Liam Stacey, was jailed for 56 days for tweeting a racially offensive comment about footballer, Fabrice Muamba.

Azhar Ahmed was fined and given a community order last year for a Facebook message saying all soldiers should go to hell just days after six British troops were killed in Afghanistan.

Later last year, teenager Matthew Woods was jailed for 12 weeks for making offensive comments about missing schoolgirls, April Jones and Madeline McCann, on his Facebook page.

That same day, the same magistrates’ court had dealt with a man who shouted racial abuse to a woman who had pulled up in her car beside him at a junction. He was fined £100 and ordered to pay £100 compensation.

Those magistrates would clearly not have accepted my analogy.

Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 makes sending any message over “a public electronic communications network” a criminal offence if it is “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character“. That Act incidentally was passed the year before Facebook was launched and three years before Twitter.

Starmer’s guidelines now say the offence will not include messages that are simply offensive, shocking, disturbing, satirical, iconoclastic, rude comment, unpopular or unfashionable opinion, banter or humour, even if it is distasteful, or painful to those it is aimed at.

But it is still for the Crown Prosecution Service to decide whether messages fit into that list or go beyond it.

Starmer was clear: “I think that if there are too many investigations and too many cases coming to court then that can have a chilling effect for free speech.”

So too does uncertainty. We cannot follow a law that is unclear.

Meanwhile, no equivalent guidance appears to be forthcoming from the Crown Office.

Francis Shennan is director of and Visiting Lecturer in journalism and law at Westminster, Stirling and Strathclyde Universities