Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Twitter, jokes and Lutfur Rahman

Bored on a Saturday afternoon last weekend, I indulged in a bit of banter with a few Labour friends on Twitter. The subject of Tower Hamlets mayor, Lutfur Rahman’s possible readmission to the Labour Party came up (you may recall he was forced to leave in 2010 after standing as an independent).

In the spirit of the conversation, I joked that if that readmission were to happen, we would all have to shoot ourselves. This, as you can imagine, is going to turn into one of those “imagine my surprise when” pieces.

Imagine my surprise when, out of the blue on Thursday, I was contacted by Guardian diarist Hugh Muir to tell me that my tweets had been reported to police as a “death threat” (the tweets themselves have now been deleted, but the Guardian piece quotes them, if you're interested).

The interpretation having been taken by the complainant, clearly, that not only (i) I had meant the tweet in the sense of shooting Rahman, rather than ourselves, and (ii) that this, by a part-time blogging father-of-two with a respectable job, was somehow a credible threat by a would-be assassin.

Let’s follow the logic here. Were I a would-be assassin, it seems firstly particularly odd in that I would choose to make such a threat in a publicly accessible way as Twitter.

Secondly, the fact that it was only addressed to my own Twitter followers, meant that anyone wanting to make something of this would have had to actively seek out this tweet. In order to be an even vaguely credible threat, it would, surely, need to have been addressed to Rahman himself. It was not.

My first reaction, I have to confess, was laughter. That would have to be insane, I said to Hugh. I was having a bit of a laugh with some mates, we all knew what we were talking about, and it wasn't this. Hugh was decent about it, and in his diary paragraph, my point was reported by him that the joke was meant in the sense of “self-harm rather than assassination”.

This rather vital point is not mentioned in the subsequent piece in the Evening Standard, who did not call me regarding the piece.

By Saturday this had progressed, predictably, into full-blown “Revolvergate” (I realise this was the headline writers, not you, Hugh).

I then read a frankly shameful piece in Left Futures, an organ not known for its great love of people like myself with centrist political leanings, where I have been quoted alongside some racist comments about Rahman from the below-the-line comments in an entirely unrelated Independent article. The word “hate” is also used. The clear implication being that I not only deliberately threatened Rahman, which I did not, but worse, that I am some kind of racist.

I am not a hater. In fact, for the record, I am an anti-hater: I strongly prefer reasoned argument to emotional outburst. Unlike the Guardian, neither Left Futures nor the Standard had taken the trouble to contact me to ask for my side of the story. And I deeply resent the insinuation of racism from the former, for which I would respectfully request a correction from Keith Wright, who wrote the piece.

I should add, for the record, that I have published pieces critical of Rahman in the past.

But if the reaction of calling the police was one of genuine discomfort due to misunderstanding the nature of the joke, then I regret any such discomfort caused.

This was a joke between friends, and it was on us, not you, Lutfur.

That said, I want to make clear that I shall continue to write about you and Tower Hamlets, and those pieces may well be critical. I shall not support your return to the Labour Party, if that is indeed what you desire, but – to be abundantly clear – there was no malice whatsoever intended.

With regard to these events, it has been confirmed to me that there is no further action which needs to be taken on anyone's part, including mine. The episode has, however, raised some important issues in my own mind, which I will be blogging about over the coming weeks.

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