Rest in peace @sweepyface

Dehumanisation is often the starting point of cruelty. Nazis didn't see Jews as human, that's how they could throw them into ovens. Slavery in America worked along similar lines, people were treated as cattle because they were labelled "niggers", a word used to denote someone who was not quite "one of us", not quite a person. Religions do this kind of thing a lot, in Islam it's "kuffar", in Judaism it's "goyim", in Christianity it was "heathen".

In a modern context the word "troll" does the same. This was how @sweepyface, the Twitter handle of Brenda Leyland was described. She was "doorstepped" by Sky News who then ran a headline which implied she was 'evil'. After this she was then thrown to the infamously unjust court of public opinion as she featured in a variety of print media such as, The Independent, The Sun, The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Daily Star, The Daily Express, The Daily Mail and The Guardian. All mentioned her unpleasant tweets relating to the McCann family and, in my opinion, prejudiced any chance she ever had of a fair trial. Should the matter have gone to court, which is now impossible because she's been found dead in a hotel room not far from her house.

Imagine a picture of you there with the word "evil" above it.
The many opinion pieces since her TV appearance bemoaning "trolls" had already annoyed me. A casual glance at the Sunday papers left me with the impression pretty much every Tom, Dick and Harry with a platform in the mainstream media was moaning about how terrible it is ordinary people like her suddenly seem to think they also have a right to express personal views. In the past newspaper columnists used to aspire to be "the voice of the people". Nowadays many of them are upset by the fact that position is filled as "the people" now have a voice, thanks to the net.

Brenda Leyland never agreed to become a public figure. I don't know why she'd decided to post her thoughts anonymously but I respect that she did. And so should you, if you value hearing the thoughts of others. Many cannot speak freely under their real names in the UK because their employers or others would punish them for doing so. Anonymity protects their right to free speech.

In theory her privacy was invaded by the mainstream media because they decided the public good would served as a result. Even before her death that was obviously not the case as most of the public had never heard of @sweepyface. In practice I suspect Sky wanted some lively footage to go with their "investigative journalism". There cannot be many who think her online voice was so powerful she needed to be unmasked. Most of the newspapers concerned probably wanted to republish a cheap story which involved little effort to reproduce. Furthermore all of them will have likely been driven by a conscious or subconscious need to attack their most dangerous competitor, the online public and social media.

Some don't realise the state commercial media is falling into. They still buy this idea that The Sun can swing elections and Murdoch controls your mind. It's a convenient myth for all concerned but the reality is that many of our newspapers are facing bankruptcy because journalism is not profitable. I believe it won't be long until the so called mainstream media will be impossible to point to as its audiences are eclipsed or surpassed by outfits which are purely online enterprises.

If this happens poorly thought out "doorstepping" like this may well become routine. I can imagine a world where people are regularly confronted by strangers for daring to express their controversial views. Humiliations and punishments will also likely be meted out and recorded on camera but I suspect they will be worse than a few questions. Already people's home addresses and personal details, alongside specific threats, are frequently published online in an attempt to silence. That's a trend likely to continue. The police must start focusing on actual harm like that rather than debating what is and is not "offensive" or "politically correct" in a free speech society.

The ins and outs of the McCann case are available elsewhere. They were cleared in court of any involvement in their child's disappearance. To me their story seems so unspeakably sad that I've avoided reading too much about it. I know my limits when it comes to expressing a view and the sad story of two people searching for their missing child is one of them. Losing a family member like that is not something I can pretend to relate to.

Partly I suspect a lot of the hate aimed at them is a backlash to the huge level of press and media generated by their search for Madeline, for a while pictures of their missing child's face were ubiquitous in the UK. A new reality in our modern world though is that for every big story in the mainstream there will be a counter narrative waiting for you online, should you choose to look hard enough. In the main, what I've seen is a lot of people who go with the "well, I'd never leave my child out of my sight for even a second" line. It seems like a self-satisfied, inane way to comfort yourself with the thought tragedy only befalls those who deserve it. It's probably easier to deal with the story if you think like that. However, although unpleasant, it's not an opinion forbidden by law.

Most of the further speculation goes beyond opinion and introduces, often unsubstantiated or deeply questionable, "facts". Either which way allegations such as those, with unexamined or unsubstantiated "evidence", once published should be examined by the law of the land alongside those who are making them. This is how investigative journalism used to work. If you could prove an allegation you would publish it in the hope of taking the matter to court. Why should the internet not also work like that?

The right to a fair trial is an aspect of the UK which its citizens both have a right to be proud of and a duty to defend. In civilised societies the court of public opinion is not where justice is done. That's why we have a judicial system with concepts such as "the burden of proof" and "innocent unless proven guilty". In searching for their daughter Madeline, the McCanns have become public figures. That won't have been an easy decision to make. In a sense this has turned them into people who cannot expect to avoid unpleasant criticisms. However, there's a legal line and clearly some comments published about them appear to have crossed it. It's been reported police have been given a dossier detailing abusive remarks and death threats aimed at them on Twitter, Facebook and in online forums. That must be looked into.

Serious advocates of free speech understand specific threats and unsubstantiated harmful allegations are not covered by it. If someone is making threats online or passing on libelous information it seems right to me that the law should get involved. However, Brenda Leyland was not confronted by Her Majesty's police. Instead she was being tried by the court of public opinion and during that process she was found dead. If you think this a shameful fact you may wish to retweet her son's tragic reaction to the news on his social media feed:
As far as I'm concerned she is innocent unless proven guilty and now that's no longer possible. Her death is not being treated as suspicious. Before she died she already had my sympathy.

Nick Margerrison.


Sky News's editorial guidelines are here.

They have this to say on "door-stepping":

"Any invasion of privacy – such as secret recording or ‘door- stepping’ – must be warranted, usually by demonstrating that the amount of public good that will be delivered by broadcast and/or publication of the story will outweigh the intrusion."

BBC guidelines on doorstepping are here.


Previous articles of mine on free speech:

What's so great about free speech?

#censorshipagenda follow up article

Censorship in the United Kingdom

Why people don't like "porn" filters


Anonymous said…

The link above is to sweepyface's tweets. Hardly abusive or threatening, but unhealthily fixated and revealing an inner loneliness as is the way with people who find an outlet on social media for some deeper rage that won't go away. She seemed intelligent and curious, albeit maybe chasing the wrong dragons. She was hardly in the same category as the abusive trolls that threatened Stella Creasy and Caroline Criado Perez with rape and dismemberment last year, yet the Sky report conflated her tweets with that level of abuse. That she was 'outed' and threatened with legal action is utterly disgraceful. The powerful and influential do not have the right to limit free speech to what is acceptable to them alone. There was no case to answer here and the journalist should hang his head in shame. This was not in the public interest.
Anonymous said…
You write, " They were cleared in court of any involvement in their child's disappearance."
Really? When and where? There has NEVER been any court hearing either convicting or clearing them.
Anonymous said…
Thank you for this excellent blog.

May I point out one inaccuracy: Kate and Gerry McCann have never been "cleared in court" of anything relating to Madeleine's disappearance.

Her disappearance is currently being actively investigated in the UK and Portugal, and to date there has been no arrests, charges, court cases ir convictions relating to it.

Rest in Peace Brenda, my thoughts and sympathy are with you family and friends for their sad loss.
Anonymous said…
McCanns and Murat formally cleared in case of missing Madeleine

Guardian 2008
Anonymous said…
like most trolls, she could did not have the courage to back them up

she was vile

as someone once said, hope she "burns in hell..I;ll supply the lighter, happily"
Anonymous said…
happy to dish it out but couldn't take a taste of her own medicine.
Anonymous said…
You shouldn't judge a person by a few isolated tweets. To do so would make you a pretty deplorable human being - since you just wished eternal suffering on a person that merely expressed her frustrations anonymously (like many do).
Anonymous said…
It's only 2pm on Monday but I know I've read the most thought-provoking article I'll see this week.

What you have to say about traditional, mainly printed media feeling threatened is almost certainly true. In times gone by they invented the news and brought us the news, yet now they scurry around after us, the people, the ones who are constantly making and reporting the news – and also receiving it – without any 'help' from Big Media at all. You almost start to feel sorry for it. Almost.
Electric Toast said…
No-one deserves to die for giving an opinion but I'm not sure I would support the idea of freedom to insult, threaten or menace someone. Until it's happened to you, you don't realise how intimidating it is. I had someone saying if they were me, they'd shoot themselves in the f***ing mouth (because my life is so difficult being Electrosensitive). Were they inciting me to do that? were they just joking? probably but the thing is I found it really threatening and that was just one comment - multiply that a few thousand times and it can make your self-belief crumble. I think it's because of the imagery it evokes. Even the suggestion of my doing that is appalling and I thought if only I could reveal the person behind that comment. But do I want transparency? - hell no.
Anonymous said…
Nothing she tweeted could remotely be called many quotes from other people in the dossier supplied by the McCann team to the police have been falsely attributed to her. What has happened to this poor lady is a disgrace. Just the kind of press intrusion that 'Hacked Off' is supposed to be against. Ask Gerry McCann about this.
Anonymous said…
The McCanns have never been cleared in a court of law and the MSM continues to repeat this lie since 2008.
Anonymous said…
The guardian is hardly a reliable source. The report when the case was shelved in 2008 specifically state that. So did the judge in the libel trial.
Let’s also not forget the Assistant Chief Constable Of Leicestershire Police and the written quote he made in submission to a UK Court in 2008 regarding the McCann’s when they were seeking access to the UK held Police files relating to the case :
“While one or both of them may be innocent, there is no clear evidence that eliminates them from involvement in Madeleine’s disappearance.”
lrwguitar said…
Freedom of speech should mean exactly that ! Something we dont have in this country. If you don't like what you read put it down

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