Tragedy Politics: Politicians must learn to say No!

As with so many things in ‘Yes Minister’, the explanation by Sir Arnold of ‘politician’s logic’ is absolutely spot on. ‘Something must be done. This is something, therefore we must do it’. As Sir Humphrey astutely points out in response though, to do the wrong thing can be worse than doing nothing.

There’s an increasing and undesirable trend lately of policy being dictated on the back of tragedies. It’s not new, but it is on the rise and it’s a real problem because the ideas become beyond debate. Any disagreement is seen as callousness towards the tragedy in question. There’s a reason we don’t allow victims of crimes to decide sentencing, and have judges who can look at evidence objectively. This is no different. Sometimes the policy might be right, sometimes the opposite, but more often than not the policy is a rushed through response to public and media outrage.

The most recent example is the case of Hannah Smith, the young girl who killed herself after being relentlessly bullied on Ask.fm. The responses to this have been to propose an imaginative range of policies, from regulating websites, to banning some of them entirely, to even charging them with manslaughter if people do commit suicide because of posts by others on the sites. David Cameron, in response to this, has urged people to boycott sites that allow it (a measure which is unlikely to work given the fact that people can already leave the sites or report problems to site administrators but don’t in many cases). He also pointed out that people inciting hatred would be chased by police, rightly reminding people that online harassment is no different to any other kind of harassment. Unfortunately though, the inevitable comment came at the end where he said “’I’m very keen we look at all the action we can take to try and stop future tragedies like this.” And there it is. There’s a lot of action that can be taken, but a very different question is what action, if any, should be taken?

Hannah Smith, the victim of relentless cyber bullying on Ask.FM

Now of course it’s natural to want to blame someone for an event like this, and of course it’s useful to look at what lessons can be learned to avoid the same thing happening in future. Sometimes though, and frankly more often than not, the proposed solutions are not beneficial, not useful, not thought out but are implemented anyway by politicians keen to appease the public appetite and the tabloid demands for something to be done.

We’ve had similar proposals following the abuse on Twitter directed towards a number of prominent women. The trolling by, often anonymous, people has led to calls for anonymous comments to be banned, for social media sites to be regulated and even the, probably satirical (but nowadays possibly a little close to the bone), call for the internet itself to be banned. The online pornography plans set out a few weeks ago are also partly a response to the murder of Tia Sharp, who’s killer viewed child abuse images in the months leading up to the murder.

These are not new incidents of course. The Dangerous Dog’s Act and ‘Sarah’s Law’ are both similar responses to tragic events. It is, unfortunately, a regrettable trend of politics that politicians, unless in the middle of denying a scandal, are incapable of saying no. In this instance it’s started to threaten the freedom of the internet though, and needs to be resisted at all costs. Each regulation may itself not mean much, but the principle of allowing policy to be dictated by media storm and the cumulative effect of the ever-increasing regulatory burden will do serious damage to freedoms that we all enjoy.

For that reason it’s necessary to stay vigilant. Don’t fall victim to the temptation of automatically calling for policy in the wake of tragedy. Think about it objectively first, leave a period of time to wait for the news coverage to die down and then, possibly, begin to make your arguments for a change in regulation, at a time when people can argue with clear heads and without any opposition to the plans being seen as callousness towards the tragedy that they’ve originated from.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Damian, obviously everybody opposes bullying, but it’s wrong to assume that changes to policy are the way to oppose it. This girl could have reported it, she could have told her parents, she could have just stopped using the site, but she didn’t. All the safety measures necessary were in place and she didn’t take advantage of them.

    I don’t mind people raising awareness of things, but that’s precisely the point, it’s never just that. It’s always a new ban, new regulations, new calls for ‘tougher’ policies. People are arguing to ban the site, and to ban anonymous comments etc etc. I have little doubt that due to the combination of this incident and the Twitter troll thing, we’ll see some new laws put in in a few months. The Daily Mail will lap it up and nobody can question it because otherwise they’re accused of supporting bullying of children.

  2. Don’t you think that cyber-bullying is a worthwhile war? I think that companies such as Ask.FM should do more to combat what happens on their own website. Cameron is not calling for an out and out ban on the website, he’s just highlighting that bad stuff happens there. Surely that is a good thing?

  3. Completely agree. Though, I can’t look past the Parents in this case. “My kid got fat eating McDonalds, Government must ban McDonalds”

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