Online Harassment by Conservative Party Activists: A Decade of Mishandled Complaints

From Tim Ireland at Bloggerheads:

For more than a decade I’ve been publishing warnings about the dark places social media will take us when politicians do not take threatening behaviour seriously, deliberately turn a blind eye to it from their own supporters when it suits them, and/or even engage in it themselves.

… this is not a party or political problem, but a widespread, long-standing and worsening problem that will only get better when people in authority finally grasp the nettle and take responsibility rather than see bullying as something to be played down when it happens in your own ranks, and capitalised on when it appears to originate from the opposition.

Tim goes on to write about his own experience of being on the receiving end of online harassment after drawing attention to politically motivated social-media bullying by activists within the Conservative Party. This is of some particular interest to me: in 2009, Tim also uncovered evidence about bogus terror-related stories being fed to tabloid newspapers, which crossed over with one of this blog’s concerns. My own related observations on the subject meant that I found myself being targeted by some of the same malign elements that he found himself up against.

Tim’s post explains  how this all began, and then details one facet of what has followed since. There is much more that could be said, but the strand highlighted by Tim’s post is the most topical thread to the story given current concerns and allegations about bullying and political activism in the UK.

In short, and with some complementary details:

1. In 2006, Tim discovered that two activists associated with Anne Milton MP had created an anonymous blog that maliciously accused a local Liberal Democrat in her Guildford constituency of being a paedophile. Tim brought this to the attention to Jonathan Lord MP, who was heading a local election campaign involving these same activists. Lord did have a quiet word with them, but he declined to formally censure them or investigate their behaviour. I discussed this here.

2. In 2009, Tim and I met a third Conservative party activist with links to Milton, who claimed to have some background information about the fake “terror” stories being placed in newspapers. However, it turned out that this man had a grudge against former associates, and he went too far with his antics when he claimed to have “found” a document with details about Tim’s home address. Police traced this document back to this man, who then claimed that he had been working to “expose” us all along.

He also boasted that Milton wanted Tim “downed”, and he then embarked what has ever since been an sporadic harassment campaign. He began by posting a childishly abusive song about Tim to YouTube, complete with piano accompaniment (since removed, although a copy has been saved), and he has continued with a long line of sockpuppet blogs and Twitter feeds (several of which have since been suspended for abuse). We also have multiple testimony and evidence that his campaign has included paedo-smears.

3. Tim adds: “Throughout this affair, people have been targeted with fabricated evidence causing them needless concerns for their safety. One of these people is Nadine Dorries”. That evidence included a bogus image that purposed to show packaging for anti-psychotic medication supposedly retrieved from Tim’s dustbin, as well as false and distorted information in a poison pen letter sent via a third party in 2013.

4. In 2012, Tim wrote to an influential local Conservative about the matter, a member of the House of Lords. A paedophile smear appeared on Wikipedia the very next day. Obviously, it is not suggested that the person Tim had written to was responsible for this – but clearly, the email was complacently forwarded by this person to someone who was malicious.

5. In 2015, Tim raised the 2006 concern via a channel that brought his email to the attention of Grant Shapps in his then-capacity as Conservative Party Chair. Tim has in the past – and indeed still is – extremely critical of Shapps’ former business practices, and it is not a great surprise that Shapps mishandled the complaint. Indeed, Shapps leaked it to hostile parties, who made merry over it. This is of some relevance to the wider and urgent question about how bullying allegations are dealt with within the party – as I noted in October, it appears that “Complaining to CCHQ about Bullying Risks Escalating Attacks“.*

Tim suggests that there is a need for (1) “A wholly independent investigation into the handling of bullying complaints by all parties going back at least 10 years”; (2) “A report detailing what measures might be taken to improve current protocols for all parties and how they are followed”; and (3) “A specific option that should be considered is the creation of an independent body to cover all parties and handle all initial complaints of harassment, bullying, abuse and similar behaviour.” That seems to be a reasonable and non-partisan way forward.

*There is evidence that Shapps also initially saw Tim as a handy scapegoat for the “contribsxWikipedia mystery, until the Liberal Democrat activism of the Wikipedia editor who first noted contribsx came to light and the whole business became hopelessly but conveniently muddled.