The understandable instant sense of outrage (which I shared) at hearing reports of the police calling round in person on someone who tweeted some factual criticisms of UKIP, and suggesting he delete the tweet, has rather clouded the details of what actually happened and why. It also means that those who really are to blame for the story haven’t been mentioned, let alone criticised.
So what’s the full story?
The key thing missing in nearly all – but not quite all – accounts is that UKIP’s original grounds of complaint was that something was circulating online criticising the party which didn’t contain the usual legal imprint required on election law material.
The law here is murky for two reasons. First, at what point does something done personally by a member of a political party become something that would fall under the imprint requirements? Second, specifically in the online arena, what actually are the imprint requirements?
Both points can keep lawyers entertained for a while, and of course the police then rather confused matters by deciding the appropriate action was an unannounced call on someone’s home, followed up by apparently not being clear in the conversations during the call that it was really all about imprints and what interpretation of the law the police had gone for and why. To round off the police’s spreading of confusion, when the police then apologised (rightly), the role of imprints was still omitted.
But at heart the problem is the lack of clarity over imprints – something I’ve pointed out before. Way back in 2009 I wrote of “the Government’s farcical slowness over updating election imprint rules“, pointed out that:
Six years on from receiving a recommendation from the Electoral Commission that existing legal powers should be used to clarify how the rules regarding election imprints apply to internet campaigning, the Government has still failed to act. This is despite the Government acknowledging in its official response to the recommendation the “importance” of getting this right. But it has decided that due to it being a “fast-evolving” area doing nothing for six years is the right response.
Since then we’ve had another five years of inaction. It really is about time a Secretary of State or senior civil servant at the Ministry of Justice decided ‘enough’ and got this issue onto their department’s agenda and sorted.