Not many people would proudly laugh in public at news that an innocent man has had his home burned down. Like too many swept up in the atmosphere of mob justice in the wake of the riots, Tony Parsons has clearly forgotten that people are innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately, he is not alone in this reaction.
Dane Williamson has now been cleared after nine harrowing days in custody during which everything he owned was lost in the fire at his home that caused Parsons such delight.
Initially police said it was arson; later they changed their mind. If it was arson then their decision to publish his address on twitter deserves investigation. Such details are always matters of public record when someone is charged – but what is new is the wilful broadcasting by the police force of this information via social media. Given the gloating tone with which they announced sentencing details, there are grounds to suggest that their behaviour may have contributed to an atmosphere in which people might decide to take the law into their own hands.
If our justice system is handing down sentences for Facebook comments inciting riot then staff working for @GMPolice should be facing serious questions too.
This is not the first time we’ve seen the police making questionable use of twitter. The 26 March protests saw unsubstantiated accusations of anarchists throwing light bulbs full of ammonia at the police, a detail that was picked up without question by the world’s media (Reuters being perhaps the sole organisation who saw fit to qualify it with the word “alleged”). Without doubt, this is now an established fact in most people’s minds. After all the police would never lie…
I have created the following e-petition on the government website
which is still waiting for approval before it will appear.
We ask that the police be banned from using social media to make statements to the public.
The police have a position of authority which makes their sometimes irresponsible use of social media dangerous and likely to prejudice justice.
Unsubstantiated accusations of criminality or tweets about justice being served are undignified and inflammatory and should have no place in official statements by the police force.
There is no justification for the time and money spent paying staff to update twitter. Given the harm it causes, we ask that the police be banned from using social media for public relations so that their resources can be put to better use.
This is not an issue of free speech. The concept of free speech has never allowed for reckless and malicious speech that puts lives at risk. There are always restrictions in place as to what journalists may write about someone accused of a crime. These restrictions are the result of hundreds of years of progress towards a more just and equitable society.
Tony Parsons is entitled to his opinions, however unpleasant. He is a private individual. He is free to tweet all he likes about “softies” decrying tough sentencing. I don’t like his attitude but I completely understand his outrage and horror at scenes of violence – I just don’t believe we can afford to suspend democracy and justice no matter how angry we may feel.
When the police tweet out a statement, however, they are not speaking as individuals but are representing the state and the legal system. In using twitter to pass judgements explicitly or implicitly they are overstepping their role and engaging in populist politics in a way that is clearly not in the public interest. Limiting the way the police use twitter is a necessary restriction to be added to the justice system. We cannot afford to let mob justice prevail.
[Update: This is how GM Police responded to the news of Dane Williamson’s release:
Both the tone of this brief statement and the decision to single him out like this for comment are highly inappropriate.]