Last Wednesday marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Battle of Orgreave. This prompted an airing of that staple of social media: a celebration of Margaret Thatcher’s death. ‘Whenever I think about Maggie Thatcher being dead I can’t help but smile’, said one Tweeter. ‘My advice is to dance on Maggie’s grave – it’s always worked for me’, said another. Of course, on the actual day of Thatcher’s death, tweeters were no more respectful, with comedian Frankie Boyle suggesting that ‘Thatcher being dead is far less tragic than David Cameron being alive’.
It was strange to hear, then, that earlier this month, 21-year-old Jake Newsome was jailed under the Malicious Communications Act for posting a comment on Facebook about the murdered teacher Ann Maguire. ‘Personally’, Newsome had written, ‘I’m glad that teacher got stabbed up, feel sorry for the kid… he shoulda pissed on her too’. A pointlessly rancid remark, of course, from a man who’s clearly a bit of a berk. But given that we all care about different people, is he more guilty, and more of a berk than, say, Frankie Boyle for his Thatcher tweet? Besides, why are we sending a man to prison for being a berk anyway?
The sentencing magistrate’s explanation was simply that Newsome hadn’t been terribly nice: ‘I can think of little that could be more upsetting or offensive’, he said of Newsome’s tweet. If I was related to Ann Maguire, I would probably agree. But then, if I was related to Margaret Thatcher, what could be more offensive than champagne-swilling throngs dancing the conga by her burning likeness on the day she died? I also cannot imagine a rationale by which those doing so should be rounded up and incarcerated as a response to my hurt feelings, which is what has happened to Newsome.
After all, no threat of violence was issued; a silly man has been sent to prison for writing a nasty thing, on the grounds that he was a silly man who wrote a nasty thing. The difference between the treatment of Newsome and the treatment of those who revelled in Thatcher’s death appears to be that the target of Newsome’s remark was not a ‘public figure’, and was therefore subject to different rules - or, rather, the selective application of the draconian measures available.
We seem to have held on, thankfully, to an understanding that the mighty must receive no protection from insult. And yet we’ve surrendered the ability to give and take offence among ourselves, as ordinary citizens. Something is being eroded here; the state is deciding to whom we can be nasty.