Yesterday, Katie Hopkins wrote a piece which would not have been out of place in Nazi Germany. It was grotesque – probably the single worst piece on immigrants I've read in a British newspaper, which is really saying something.
In the afternoon, Twitter exploded. And as night follows day, people started calling for her to be reported to the police. It appears at least some have already done so.
The first question is whether one can report her to the police – does the piece have the requisite elements for a successful prosecution on the grounds of inciting racial hatred? The second question is whether one should report her to the police. The answer to the first question is yes and the answer to the second question is no.
"Immigrants are cockroaches". That's straight-up Nazi talk. Sun should be ashamed of themselves.
— Ian Dunt (@IanDunt) April 17, 2015
The two pars that start 'Britain is not El Dorado': I've never read anything like that in a British newspaper https://t.co/f4JtmHhNV4— Ian Dunt (@IanDunt) April 17, 2015
That Hopkins piece feels like new territory for the British press. Utterly appalled by it.— Ian Dunt (@IanDunt) April 17, 2015
Hopkins' piece goes out of its way to dehumanise the refugees fleeing wars and conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, who are dying in their thousands in the Mediterranean due to the EU and UK's refusal to provide search-and-rescue operations for them. Their deaths are a crime against civilisation and rid of us of any notion that the EU might be a force for good, or that the UK could live up to the grossly inflated rhetoric it issues about its role in the world.
Instead of feeling sympathy for these people, Hopkins appears to hate them. "No I don’t care," she says. "Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins, and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don't care."
But the crux of the piece comes when she – knowingly or unknowingly – starts echoing Nazi and Rwandan genocide rhetoric. She writes:
"Britain is not El Dorado. We are not Elysium. Some of our towns are festering sores, plagued by swarms of migrants and asylum seekers, shelling out benefits like Monopoly money.
"Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit Bob Geldoff Ethiopia circa 1984 but they are built to withstand a nuclear bomb. They are survivors.
"Once gunships have driven them back to their shores, boats need to be confiscated and burned on a huge bonfire. Drilling a few holes in the bottom of anything suspiciously resembling a boat would be a good idea too, just for belt and braces."
There's a trace layer of 'it's an exaggerated joke' for her to fall back on, but the seriousness is, I think, quite obvious. She's following the standard rulebook. Dehumanise, foster hatred, then engage in violent storytelling.
Could you do her for inciting racial hatred? Possibly. Is it threatening, abusive or insulting and either intended to stir up racial hatred, or make it likely that racial hatred will be stirred up? Yep. The prosecution would have to be balanced against the rights of people to "robustly exchange views, even when these may cause offence". It would also need a go ahead from the specialist legal team at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the permission of the attorney general. I'm no lawyer, but my hunch is it could pass those hurdles, if the CPS felt like it.
Hopkins' defence could involve that strand of so-called humour laced through the piece. The line about drilling holes in boats would be deployed to make it look as if it's all tongue-in-cheek. Maybe she'd get away with it.
But the real question is: should she be reported to the police? And the answer is absolutely not.
There are very few situations in which freedom of speech should be curtailed and they all relate to whether it takes away someone else's freedom. This is the freedom calculus, where we balance out someone's right to do something with someone else's right to do what they want to do. In other words, your freedom to punch stops where my face begins.
Incitement to violence is therefore a useful phrase, because it encapsulates how free speech does not extend to encouraging others to take away the freedom of others – in this case to live life without fear of attack. It's also useful to have laws against harassment or abuse, which limit the freedom of the person the messages are intended for. And there are public safety and convenience tests as well, which is why you shouldn't be able to shout 'fire' in a crowded theatre if there isn't one.
The crime of incitement to racial hatred sets the bar much lower, however. It does not claim that violence will result. It claims only that hatred will result.
This is not morally tolerable. Hatred may not be beautiful, but it is a part of the human experience. A bit of me hates Hopkins for writing that. Certainly I hate whichever minister or civil servant in Whitehall came up with the idea of refusing to fund search-and-rescue teams in the Mediterranean – an act which they must have known was equivalent to signing their death sentence.
Some people hate Catholics, some hate women, some hate homosexuals. It would be much better if they did not, and it is up to us to win those battles, but that does not mean they're banned from those views. To ban hatred is thought crime.
Once we start, where do we stop? Hatred of gay marriage? Hatred of arms dealers? Hatred of MPs? We also have laws against religious hatred in this country. This makes no sense at all. I know plenty of atheist campaigners who hate all religions – they are entitled to do so. There are plenty of people, some very respectable and prominent, who hate Islam. They are also entitled to do so.
If we were in the middle of race riots, or anti-immigrant groups were knocking down people's doors, then Hopkins' piece could legitimately be censored, because the causal link between incitement and violence would be clear. But we are not experiencing those things. It is not clear that any violence will result from what she wrote, or is likely to.
Some will complain that we should not have to wait until race riots take place to challenge this type of piece. But we do. We do not judge things by possible future crimes, or else we would start locking up poor, emotionally-damaged illiterate young people on the basis of statistical probability. That's not how we work.
It is hard to see the kind of muck Hopkins peddles in a national newspaper without wanting to do something to stop it. It’s doubly hard considering she has been granted a two-hour stint on LBC, a radio station I frequently contribute to and rather like. But the way to challenge it is not to go to the police. The police have no place interfering in free speech issues outside of those I outlined earlier. Once you call them for those who anger you, they will one day be called by those angered by you. Free speech must not become a circular firing squad.
Nor is the solution to direct hatred at Hopkins personally. If anything, we must pity her. That opening paragraph, where she glorifies her lack of compassion, and a later sentence, where she celebrates those with "tiny hearts", suggests that she has mental and emotional problems. If that isn't satisfying enough for you, consider that this woman presumably would hate nothing so much as being pitied. She is not the main actor here. She is a plaything of irresponsible editors.
The responsibility lies with the media organisations which facilitate her. Each TV current affairs show or newspaper which hosts her must now recognise what it is doing. It is not 'creating a conversation' or even trolling. It is engaging in and encouraging racism. There have been enough warnings now that they know what they're doing. Whatever Hopkins says while on their platform is directly their responsibility. It shouldn't be a crime to be racist, but it should certainly entail the end of your editorial creditability.
Of course, they should suffer the sales effect. But they should also suffer the reputational effect. No-one hosting her should be allowed to do so without facing public questions about the quality of their product and the judgement of their editors and proprietors. Twitter is perfectly good at holding people to account in this way and doing so would be faster and more effective than a criminal prosecution.
It would also have the added benefit of being compatible with a free society.