A Public Policy of Inaction
On Thursday I spoke to Caroline Criado-Perez about the possibility that no-one would be prosecuted for abusing her on Twitter. It was tempting to blame that result on sheer police incompetence. Tempting. But reading between the lines of yet another chapter in the book of “You-couldn’t-make-it-up”, a colder harsher possibility began to emerge.
That when it comes to online abuse, women must now cope not merely with the usual suspects of police bungling and disbelief – but a deliberate public policy of inaction, that begins with the Crown Proesecution Service (CPS), and percolates downward. It’s a policy that says that such abuse is so widespread, so pervasive, that the best thing we can do is set a “high threshold” before the authorities will intervene. Really? One wonders how that approach would go down in the Home Counties, were the CPS to take a similar line over burglary.
But then, these are only verbal threats – of rape, of murder, of violence against women: so victims should just chill!
Let’s add some context to this. Yesterday afternoon, according to Ms Criado-Perez , the Met police informed her they could take no further action against those who had stalked, harassed and pursued her on Twitter, because they did not have enough evidence to do so. Why not? At the start of the investigation procedure, they also told her to provide just one screengrab per abusive account and they would do the rest.
Simple. Except yesterday, this was the nub of the problem. A single screengrab, apparently, was NOT enough. They therefore did not have sufficient evidence to proceed. So that was that – unless she was minded to undertake the awful, awful task of wading back through folders full of material that she has kept to pull out the worst.
A short digression here. On Tuesday, I sat through one of the most harrowing presentations I have ever listened to. It was Ms Criado-Perez, speaking at the Women’s Aid conference on cyber stalking and online abuse, just reading excerpts from the tweets that anonymous abusers have sent her way. No-one who heard that – a mere five minutes extracted from weeks and weeks of similar – could possibly consider it “just words”. Nor, talking to Caroline that afternoon, and since, could they fail to understand the devastation it has wreaked on her, her life and her self-esteem.
I therefore shared her sense of utter screaming incomprehension both at the police failure in this case and in the subtle victim-blaming they have engaged in since. This morning, for instance, an official police statement hints at difficulties in getting in touch, saying “we are urgently trying to contact the complainant.. .to once again explain our approach and tactics”. Ah. Bad victim! Ms Criado-Perez has failed to make herself available on demand and – like hysterical women everywhere – needs the calm re-assuring voice of the Police to explain everything to her.
But there is one more aspect to the Met statement that is chilling to the core. Scary, because it hints at official policy, from the CPS downward, to regard online abuse as a lesser evil. This despite powerful evidence from Women’s Aid and elsewhere that the division between “real” and “virtual” abuse and violence is growing ever less clear.
The Met add: “we must be sure to focus our efforts on the things that we and the CPS believe is a crime and can be prosecuted”.
This outwardly innocuous statement is direct descendant of a consultation process that started last year, in which the CPS made it clear that in respect of much of online abuse, it wished to set a “high threshold” before prosecution would be considered. Over the past few months, this initial position has survived feedback from the public, and in June became the official guidance for the legal establishment.
Although the CPS were not quite so sanguine as to talk of things not being a crime. They merely alluded to the difficulties of policing a form of abuse that might turn out to be very widespread. Still, they must be aware that the wording of their consultation has "sent out a message" - and in doing so, they have fatally blurred the line between things that are not worth pursuing and things that are not actually a crime. Consultation became official guidance in June 2013. Since then,the Association of Chief Police Officers has pushed these out further, with the result that local police forces are being officially advised NOT to take online abuse seriously unless it meets this notional “high threshold”.
As we saw yesterday, multiple threats, active stalking and a woman pushed to the edge of endurance don’t quite fit the bill.
Jane Fae is a writer, campaigner and journalist.