MP Uses Mail on Sunday To Accuse Labour MPs and Jeremy Corbyn of “Inciting” Abuse and Threats

UPDATE (July 2018): The MP is Andrew Griffiths, who at the time was a Tory Whip. He came forward under his own name in April 2018, in an article for his local paper in which he called for new laws against trolling, and he has now been named by the Mail on Sunday following a sexting scandal in which he sent messages indicating that enjoys inflicting pain and humiliation during sex.

The Mail on Sunday has now at last named the MP as Andrew Griffiths, in the wake of a “sexting scandal”.

From the Mail on Sunday‘s latest front-page splash:

Jeremy Corbyn was last night accused of ‘inciting’ vicious Labour trolls who targeted the heavily pregnant wife of a Tory MP.

…One fanatic told her, ‘hope your baby dies’ while the MP received death threats that are now being investigated by police.

…The Mail on Sunday has, in agreement with the MP, chosen not to name him or his wife to protect mother and child from further abuse. 

…The online abuse was sparked after the MP made a jibe at Mr Corbyn in the Commons chamber after the Labour leader attacked the Government’s treatment of the elderly. The Tory MP shouted: ‘That’s you!’ 

A furious Mr Corbyn claimed the MP should be ‘called out’ for his ‘uncaring’ attitude.

[T]he Conservative MP was not referred to by name by Mr Corbyn, was not rebuked by the Speaker, and his identity remained a mystery until Labour MPs named him on Twitter shortly afterwards.

That was the spark for a torrent of abuse from thousands of Left-wing activists.

…the MP turned the tables on Mr Corbyn… ‘Labour, in effect, incited this. I am not saying that was the intention but if Mr Corbyn hadn’t said I should be ‘called out’ and Labour MPs hadn’t blown a bit of routine parliamentary banter out of all proportion, it wouldn’t have happened.’

There is no reason to doubt that the unnamed MP’s wife really was subjected to distressing malicious communications, and we must hope that the police get to the bottom of it. However, the Mail on Sunday article is less than satisfactory. [UPDATE: In a later article, the “hope your baby dies” message is described as having been sent to Griffiths rather than to his wife.]

First, why are we not told the names of any of these abusers? In some cases, there may be legal reasons relating to the police investigation, but no such restriction is mentioned in the article and it would not apply to the alleged “thousands” of examples of mere unpleasant abuse targeting the MP. Some (perhaps most) of these messages may have been anonymous – but it would still be relevant to refer to usernames. This is not pedantry: has the abuse or threats come from users with lots of followers, and who may have interacted with known figures associated with Corbyn? Or are these obscure and isolated trolls? The wider political significance of the incident rests on this point.

Second, although the MP is not named in the article, it is obvious who he is. I’ll go along with not naming him either, but it is inherently unfair that an MP can make allegations against against a political opponent from a position of anonymity, with the implication that any wider discussion must be circumscribed by the need to protect the accuser’s identity. Thus the casual reader will not know that the content of the MP’s “banter” is contested, and that there was a particular (and unusual) reason why the MP perhaps escaped a deserved rebuke from the Speaker at the time.

[UPDATE: The MP had heckled Corbyn while Corbyn was talking about the elderly needing help. Griffiths says he shouted “that’s you!”, although Labour MPs say that he made a comment to the effect that Corbyn ought to be in a care home. Either way, he was rebuked by Corbyn for an “uncaring, uncouth attitude”. Griffiths made his heckle while crouching between two benches, which meant that the Speaker could not see him. The Mail on Sunday hack would have known all this.]

Any reasonable person will sympathise with the MP’s concern for his family, but when this motive is mixed with the political aim of “turn[ing] the tables on Mr Corbyn”, then we must retain our critical faculties. The idea that a heckler in the House of Commons would have an expectation of privacy is nonsensical, and there is no reason why Corbyn should not have responded to the jibe or Labour MPs to have named the MP on Twitter. This cannot reasonably be described as “incitement”, although of course trolls will seize on any excuse for a pile-on (if there actually was one – the “torrent of abuse from thousands” is not apparent on Twitter from the time of the incident).

The article also includes this detail:

Theresa May last night called for a halt to social media abuse and other threatening behaviour in politics, by all sides. 

Speaking in response to the ‘hope your baby dies’ attack, and menacing posts against Conservative Brexit rebels, she told The Mail on Sunday: ‘Threats of violence and intimidation are unacceptable and have no place in our politics. 

‘Everybody should be treated with tolerance, decency and respect.’

This was actually a Tweet issued on Saturday evening, before the story went live. Perhaps the same statement was issued by her office to the Mail on Sunday in response to a request for comment, but it is doubtful that the Tweet reflects May’s personal knowledge of the malicious message sent to the MP’s wife, or that it was drafted as a response to the story.

The “menacing posts” against Brexit rebels (which some are blaming in part on a denunciatory Daily Mail front page) was given as the context for May’s Tweet by the Press Association, along with the publication of a report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life on social media harassment during the 2017 General Election. However, the write-up in today‘s Times instead highlights the Mail on Sunday report about the MP as the most significant context, with the targeting of “Brexit rebels” now only a secondary factor:

The prime minister’s words came as The Mail on Sunday reported that left-wing activists had targeted the pregnant wife of an unnamed Tory MP after he challenged Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, in the Commons. One told her “hope your baby dies” while a Facebook user said he would “spear” the MP while he was out jogging and another vowed to “put your head on a spike”.

…Some Tory Brexit rebels have been subjected to vicious abuse. Anna Soubry revealed that she had got messages calling for her to be “hung in public”.

The Mail on Sunday article was written by the paper’s political hack Simon Walters (previously blogged here), rather than a crime correspondent or social media journalist; as such, it is not a surprise that his “value added” contribution to the MP’s account would be a polemical profile of the pro-Corbyn Momentum movement tacked onto the end (“‘Mob-mentum’: The shock troops”) rather than a critical probing of information provided to him.