I have held discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions in relation to the CPS public consultation on the interim guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media. The public consultation closed on 13 March 2013 and the final guidelines will be published shortly. I would like to emphasise that libel itself is not a criminal matter unless it is grossly offensive, indecent, obscene, menacing or threatening.
My constituent Jordan Agar died tragically the day after his 16th birthday in a motorbike accident. Tragically, his mother was then contacted by a fake Facebook profile set up in Jordan’s name with messages such as “Don’t worry mum, I’m not dead. I’ve just run away.” When apprehended, the 21-year-old culprit was given a caution; having once remained anonymous on the internet, he then remained anonymous under the law. What can be done to make sure that mothers such as Jordan’s never have to go through such a thing again?
I am troubled to hear my hon. Friend’s story. Obviously, it is impossible for me to comment on an individual case. What is clear is that the interim guidelines, already in existence, provide, particularly under the Malicious Communications Act 1988, clear grounds on which such a message could be prosecuted because it is offensive, shocking or disturbing and harasses the person who receives it. The harassment aspect would normally take it straight into the criminal domain. The guidelines are designed to strike a balance. Sometimes things that are merely offensive will not be criminal, but what my hon. Friend described seems to me to be well on the wrong side of the line.
Social media are also being used by those involved in propagating terrorist activity. Is the Attorney-General to be part of the new taskforce? If not, what discussions is he having with social media providers about the use of social media for those purposes?
First, I advise any Minister, Cabinet Committee or, indeed, taskforce if that advice is required. Secondly, as I suspect the right hon. Gentleman knows, I have had quite a lot of involvement in considerations of whether contempt of court, for example, is taking place, or whether issues may arise in respect of misuse of the internet. I can be in a position to help my colleagues in Government on all those things, but the policy lead will obviously lie elsewhere.
Obviously, libellous or criminal messages on social media are illegal and wrong, and action can be taken on them. However, can the Attorney-General assure us that he will be cautious about proposing excessive controls on social media, which are an important form of free expression for many people of different opinions and views who want to communicate with each other? It is the modern form of communication, particularly for younger people in our society.
Yes. Although the final guidelines will, I hope, be useful, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the interim guidelines published by the DPP. Those make it clear that there is a distinction that one should try to draw. Such material may be, for example,
“Satirical, or iconoclastic, or rude comment”
“the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion”
where no action should be taken, even if it is offensive, shocking or disturbing. Equally, there will be cases where an individual is specifically targeted, or where the activity may amount to a breach of court order, or may involve threats of violence or material that is
“grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false.”
In those circumstances, action will be taken. I assure the hon. Gentleman that within the Crown Prosecution Service there is a strong understanding of the need to preserve the right to freedom of expression.