Imagine a world where everything you say and write is stored indefinitely and attributable to you. No escape from youthful indiscretion, no respite from the past. Every tweet, every blog, every angry comment at the bottom of a Daily Mail article. Traceable back to you, writes anonymous barrister TheLawHorse.
This is the world in which Deputy Chief Constable Gordon Scobbie would have us live. Anonymity is not a necessity of democratic discourse, he suggests, but a menace and a hindrance to the effective policing of the internet. None of this would matter if Scobbie, tweeting under the handle @DCCTayside, wasn’t the "UK police lead for Social Media".
Fortunately for us, Scobbie’s words have been recorded. This is what he said:
"I can understand why this is necessary in countries where freedom of speech is restricted but in the UK I think if you’ve got something to say – as long as it’s respectful – there is no need to be anonymous."
It doesn’t take an Orwellian imagination to conjure, from these words, a dystopian vision of state-stifled dissent. Apparently Scobbie doesn’t have much of an imagination at all, deciding instead to believe that anonymous speech in all its forms is redundant in a democratic society. In the context of the government’s planned snoopers’ charter this is especially troubling. After all, it is the citizen’s right of open expression – whether unguarded or anonymous – that stands as the vanguard against the creeping advancement of the type of police state in which anonymous dissent would so manifestly be beneficial.
Some matters are embarrassing or sensitive, some opinions controversial or divisive. Whistleblowing employees – especially police officers in the post-Operation Elveden environment – area a vital check against institutionalised corruption. That any person might fear to come forward in such circumstances, because "there is no need to be anonymous", is a chilling thought.
DCC Scobbie may scoff at the idea of anonymous Twitter accounts protecting free speech against government tyranny, 140 characters at a time, yet the lessons of the Arab spring are still fresh, and it is the medium through which an estimates 500 million plus people worldwide choose to interact and express themselves.
Twitter is publishing; instantaneous and discursive. According to Scobbie’s Rules of Anonymity, all blogs and newspaper articles would be similarly scanned and stripped of anonymous quotes and content.
My Twitter timeline is replete with tweets by anonymous professionals, from across the spectrum of criminal justice employment, including police, prison and probation officers, solicitors and barristers, even a prison chaplain. Their rants and anecdotes, sentiments and resentments come together to create a rich tapestry of experiences which inform my professional dealings. When publishing on the world wide web the details of real cases involving real people, an anonymous account protects those involved and allows the writer to be truly candid; surely a more refreshing and honest state of affairs for everyone involved.
I hope that the threat of disciplinary action against the judiciary for blogging anonymously about their day job will be widely disobeyed. Open justice is about more than allowing cameras in court, or productions such as The Briefs. It means allowing the public a genuine insight into how the criminal justice system operates. That includes when things go wrong. At a time when the Law Commission is consulting on whether scandalising a judge should still remain an offence, it is wholly unacceptable that the judiciary is being warned that it cannot criticise itself.
Not every anonymous account is genuine, that is always the risk you take. Yet those accounts that are ostensibly controlled by named individuals are not inevitably more truthful, and many of the people whom you meet face to face will lie to you in a myriad of different ways. Approach anonymous accounts with a healthy scepticism and you will not be unduly hurt.
Scobbie is primarily concerned with the most cowardly of the online community, the troll:
"We need to respect freedom of speech but equally we need to keep people safe from harm and online harassment and bullying is a big problem."
Trolling – the sending of malicious and deliberately hurtful messages – is the online equivalent to public order offending: acting with varying degrees of disorderly or threatening behaviour. Denying anonymity is not the way to deal with these offences. We don’t police public order offences by requiring that every person write their name on their forehead with a marker pen.
The Association of Chief Police Officers has made it clear that they already possess the necessary tools to deal with internet crime, anonymous Twitter trolls included. Quite how Scobbie would seek to go beyond this and end the scourge of anonymous online activity is unclear. Perhaps he would also like to prohibit pay-as-you-go mobile phones and postal letters, while he is at it.
Having displayed a disconcerting ignorance of the social media he is supposed to police, I wonder whether DCC Scobbie has now had time to reflect on the absurdity of his remarks. Does he truly believe that under-cover police officers, for example, so long as they are "respectful", have no need to claim anonymity when giving evidence in court?
I would not have written this article under my own name. Ignorance demands a response, but I depend on mutual good will for instruction and I’m not yet in a position to openly criticise the police, CPS, or any of the other professional bodies which regularly incite my ire. Perhaps Scobbie would prefer to know the identity of his every critic. He can take this article as my response.
Enough with the caustic mantra, If you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nothing to fear. Enough with the patriarchal We know what’s in your best interests approach to policing. DCC Scobbie, accept it, and start policing with the people, however we may choose to express ourselves.
The Law Horse is an anonymous barrister at the criminal Bar of England and Wales, who tweets at @thelawhorse.