Artillery Row

Britain’s arbitrary authoritarianism

Recent prosecutions over speech should concern us all

The problem with cancel culture, it has long been clear, is how it lets the most sensitive people in society dictate what can and cannot be said in the public square. Today, Britain’s hate-speech laws, pursued zealously by the justice system, are criminalising even what is said in private — and even if no one is there to be offended.

Last week at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, six former Met officers were sentenced for improper use of a public electronic communications network, having been convicted earlier this year under the Communications Act 2003. Michael Chadwell, Peter Booth, Anthony Elsom, Trevor Lewton, Alan Hall and Robert Lewis, all retired officers in their 60s, had sent messages deemed “grossly offensive”, to a private WhatsApp groupchat, “Old Boys Beer Meet”, between 2020-2022.

They were not let off lightly. The officers each received a suspended sentence of between eight and 14 weeks’ imprisonment, and were ordered to undertake community service lasting between 40 and 140 hours. For good measure, Robert Lewis was also fined £500 for possessing two friction batons in a private place.

The messages were allegedly “racist, sexist and homophobic” and deemed too offensive to reproduce by the BBC, with posts about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Rishi Sunak, the government’s Rwanda plan and flooding in Pakistan. District judge Tan Ikram ruled the messages were “offensive to many good people in this country and not only people who might be directly offended”. 

Now, if this statement appears puzzling — how could something be “offensive” to someone who is not “directly offended”? — that’s because as a ruling, and a legal precedent, it is completely extraordinary.

As Freddie Attenborough has written here, Section 127 (1) (a) of the Communications Act, under which the officers were convicted, has undergone significant legislative mission-creep in recent years. The malicious communications offence potentially criminalises what any given individual may find “offensive” in an online communication, meaning it is already a vehicle for censorship, and open to being politicised. Yet last week’s ruling confirms that the scope of this law has now expanded to an absurd and chilling new level. A message can count as criminally offensive, it seems, even if there is no actual complainant. Instead, a private message can be offensive indirectly: having been supposed to offend the sensibilities of “good people”, it can be deemed a crime even if it was never seen, heard or read in public, or intended to be.

As if that weren’t authoritarian enough, consider Ikram’s conviction last month of Michael Chadwell, the only of the six to plead not guilty. Chadwell had shared an image showing parrots of different colours and children of different ethnicities, with the words, “Why do we cherish the variety of colour in every species except our own?” Below this was a Facebook comment: “Because I’ve never had a bike stolen out of my front yard by a parrot.” 

The image contained no racial slur, nor did it mention any specific ethnicity. Ikram convicted Chadwell not for the meme’s content, but for what it allegedly implied. He ruled that the “absolute clear implication” of the post is that “black people steal”, adding, “It’s a clearly racist generalisation and characterisation, and caricature of ethnic people”.

Given that any putative implication of a message must first be inferred, this is a highly subjective standard of guilt. And with such offences subject merely to summary conviction, rulings down to the interpretation of a single magistrate. So it is worrying indeed if the record of the judge in question suggests he is less than impartial.

It is not the first time Ikram has broken new ground with hate-speech rulings. In an unprecedented ruling last year, he jailed police constable James Watts for 20 weeks for WhatsApp memes mocking George Floyd, the black 46-year-old whose death in May 2020 sparked the Black Lives Matter riots. (To give you an idea of how harsh this was, barely a month earlier, two men in Blackburn were spared jail after setting upon a passerby in an apparently unprovoked attack, stamping on his head and putting him in a coma.) “The hostility that [Watts] demonstrated on the basis of race”, Ikram explained, “makes this offending so serious that I cannot deal with it by a community penalty or a fine”. He added: “A message must go out.”

If using a harsh sentence to send a political message doesn’t exactly sound scrupulously impartial, Ikram’s subsequent comments are even more concerning

If using a harsh sentence to send a political message doesn’t exactly sound scrupulously impartial, Ikram’s subsequent comments are even more concerning. In February, speaking to American law students on “Diversity in the Judiciary”, he boasted of his draconian sentencing of Watts. “This was a police officer bringing the police service into disrepute,” he said. “So I gave him a long prison sentence. The police were horrified by that.” Ikram maintained that such sentences were necessary to change what he sees as a culture of racial bias in British policing, telling students, “We’ve still got a lot of work to do”. It is quite extraordinary for Ikram to have opined in this way, not least because judiciary rules state clearly that “judicial office holders cannot talk about the cases they or colleagues hear”. After all, when judges participate in public debate on a topic it risks “undermining public perception in the impartiality of the judiciary”, as the guidelines explain.

It is not as if Ikram consistently rules harshly on speech. In August, he heard the case of “Sarah Jane Baker,” a transwoman (i.e., a biological male) who had been out on licence while serving a life sentence for attempted murder, kidnapping, and torture. In July, Baker told an audience of trans activists in London, “If you see a TERF, punch them in the fucking face.” Quite unlike Chadwell’s boomer meme about parrots, this was said in a public place, by a violent felon, in encouragement to an extremist movement that has repeatedly visited violence on said “TERFs” — that is, against gender-critical feminists, typically women. Ikram nevertheless ruled that this was not criminal speech, and even appeared to endorse the Trans+ Pride march that day, saying, “you wanted publicity for your cause”.

All this would be bad enough if Ikram was an exception, but he and his ideas are in truth embedded in the British judicial establishment. At the 2022 New Year Honours he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) by Boris Johnson for “services to judicial diversity”. And Ikram is among contributors to the Equal Treatment Bench Book, UK judiciary diversity guidance which employs many central tenets of identity politics, like “systemic” or “structural” racism, “unconscious bias,” and “micro-aggressions.” This ideology, which holds that individuals should be favoured or disfavoured according to their immutable characteristics, runs flatly counter to the bedrock legal principle of equal treatment before the law.

This should worry us all. Britain’s combination of wide-ranging, highly subjective hate-speech laws with a judiciary steeped in identity politics is a recipe for arbitrary authoritarianism.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover