The British Twitter Stasi
Police forces should not be secretly recording my tweets as ‘hate incidents’
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 it took with it the East German State security force known as the ‘Stasi’. At the time of its demise, the Stasi employed 91,015 people and relied on 173,081 informants. This works out as one secret police officer for every 166 East Germans, making the Gestapo look like lazy amateurs with their trifling one per 2,000. The Stasi were dangerous because of their embrace of ‘Zersetzung’ (‘decomposition’ or ‘biodegradation’). The aim of ‘Zersetzung’ was to destroy the psychological integrity of an individual, by gathering information to damage their reputation and their personal relationships.
As German historian Huberts Knabe commented in 2014:
The Stasi didn’t try to arrest every dissident, it preferred to paralyse them, and it could do so because it had access to so much personal information and so many informants’
Given that all this occurred within memory of most people reading this (I was 19 years old when the Wall fell) I find it both depressing and frankly terrifying that many seem to have forgotten the lesson already – or worse, they do not care.
In October 2020 the College of Policing replaced the existing Hate Crimes Operational Guidance with Authorised Professional Practice Guidance on Hate Crime (“APPGHC”), apparently in response to the serious criticism of Mr Justice Knowles in Miller v College of Policing about how the original guidance had been implemented by Humberside Police.
But its bones remain; ‘hate’ retains a very wide definition to include ‘dislike’ or ‘unfriendliness’ and recording of ‘hate’ incidents is entirely at the behest of the alleged victim, who may not be questioned as to their motives or rationality. The police continue to claim they are building a vital database of intelligence to inform their operational priorities and allocation of scarce resources. They claim it is vitally important to keep an eye on those of us likely to ‘escalate’ into criminality. I believe however it is much more likely that they risk being led by the nose by the hysterical or the actively malicious, and that the information they are gathering is worse than useless.
South Yorkshire Police recorded me for religious hate for commenting that my cat might be a Methodist
None of us are any safer for all this. On the contrary, there must be a serious risk that many of the 120,000+ people whose ‘hate incidents’ have been recorded since the first HCOG was introduced in 2015 are very much less safe. They have been recorded secretly as ‘hateful’ on a false and irrational basis, their alleged misdemeanours retained on a police database with obvious implications for employment prospects when these incidents are revealed on a DBS check.
I can comment with some authority on the likely impact of this policy because at least two of those 120,000 incidents will have my name attached. In July 2020 I wrote to Wiltshire police requesting they reveal to me what ‘hate incidents’ were recorded against me. They obliged. A ‘hate incident’ had been recorded against my name in February 2020 for ‘hate’ against religious and transgender people. The police report was stark; ‘a barrister who has been publishing hate…’
I was never told. I was given no opportunity to challenge or defend myself. The 12 pages of tweets contained much repetition and went back as far as October 2017 – someone had clearly been assiduous in their harvesting of my ‘hate’. I assert and will continue to assert that no one in their right mind could reasonably categorise anything I published as ‘hate’ against anyone or anything. Twitter has never asked me to delete any of the publications as contrary to their terms of service which forbids hateful content. Anyone who has followed the gender debate online knows that Twitter has a ridiculously low bar for what they consider hateful; yet the tweets remain on my timeline. Go read and judge my ‘hate’ for yourself.
South Yorkshire Police have also recorded me for religious hate for commenting that my cat might be a Methodist. That latter report was kindly made by a Twitter colleague at my behest, to deliberately test the lunacy of this system. When he was asked why he thought my comment so hateful, he replied that I meant to imply Methodists were wandering pests that defecate in people’s gardens. South Yorkshire, with a straight face, duly recorded.
I was and remain entirely unclear about the purposes to which this ‘intelligence’ will be put. Am I to be under surveillance if I travel to South Yorkshire? Will Methodist chapels be put on high alert that I have entered the area? Just what crimes do the police think I am likely to ‘escalate’ now into committing? No one has ever told me.
The Wiltshire recording will not be deleted for six years. I await further communication from South Yorkshire as to how long they think they need to retain information about my hatred for Methodists.
How does it feel to know that the police have recorded you as ‘hateful’? It’s not great. It gives me a rather deeper understanding of how those reading their Stasi files must have felt and the true insidious power of ‘Zersetzung’.
I am aware that in attempting this I face financial ruin
Therefore on 6 November 2020, after my appeals to Wiltshire to delete the recording were rejected, I instructed my solicitors to send a letter before action to the College of Policing and Wiltshire Police. The letter requests that the ‘hate incident’ currently recorded against my name is deleted and the current guidance with regard to recording ‘hate incidents’ is withdrawn as incompatible with the demands of data protection law and my Article 8 rights. They have until 20 November to comply; if they do not, I will apply for permission to judicially review what I assert is the irrational and unreasonable policy of every police force in the country.
Harry Miller’s appeal against the lawfulness of the police guidance is being run primarily on Article 10 grounds – the ‘chilling effect’ that such recording has on our right to speak freely about matters of importance. My challenge will go directly to the proportionality of a serious breach of my Article 8 rights and the failure of the guidance to respect the basic principles of data protection law. These are two serious challenges and I hope one at least will prevail.
I am aware that in attempting this I face financial ruin. Despite the frequent and increasingly desperate assertions that women such as me who defend the reality of biology are funded by the ‘shadowy far right’ I haven’t seen a penny from any such organisation.
The legal costs of my action if it proceeds to a court hearing will easily be six figures. I have set up a crowdfunding page and I hope that others who feel as I do will donate or share it. This is important for all of us.
In 2016 I took a photograph of my daughter standing against a piece of the fallen Berlin Wall. It is easily my most favourite image of her childhood– standing defiantly with arms crossed, looking straight into the camera. I had no idea that a mere four years later I would be watching in horror as my own State began the enthusiastic dismantling of our fundamental freedoms.
But my daughter, all her generation and those to come, deserve better than this. The price of freedom remains eternal vigilance and I have decided to pay what is demanded.
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