When Dr Ella Cockbain complained to the broadcast regulator that the GBNews channel encourages violent hatred, she was subjected to it on social media. Brian Cathcart reports
When Dr Ella Cockbain completed her complaint to Ofcom about GBNews, she did what she had every right to do: she posted it on Twitter so that people would know the programme was being challenged.
The complaint concerned the documentary ‘Grooming Gangs: Britain’s Shame’, which she said contained ‘multiple and grave breaches of accuracy and impartiality’. She told the regulator: ‘It promotes racist tropes, is harmful to abuse victims and survivors and is likely to fuel yet more hate.’
What followed should be a cause of alarm to both Ofcom and Twitter, though neither has lifted a finger in response.
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‘They’re coming for you next white girl,’ wrote ‘Punished Whitey’. ‘You people need to die,’ warned ‘Shadow Lurker’. ‘Rotherham should happen to you and your children,’ urged ‘Anax Laon’. It went on and on.‘Karma is coming for you.’ ‘Perhaps Dr Cockbane [sic] wants to dismantle these racist tropes so an immigrant can rape her too.’
Little wonder that Cockbain, who is an academic authority on child sexual exploitation, soon tweeted that she ‘needed a Twitter break’.
‘You need to die’ and ‘Rotherham should happen to you’ are unambiguous incitements to violence. Besides providing Ofcom with evidence in support of Cockbain’s point – that GB News encourages violent hatred – this Twitter assault has another important dimension for the regulator.
When people who complain to regulators are intimidated in this vicious way there is an obvious risk, even a likelihood, that others with legitimate issues to raise will hesitate. That undermines the effectiveness of regulation and is clearly something that should concern Ofcom.
And even if there were no wider risk, Ofcom should surely be alarmed that even one complainant was attacked in this way, simply for registering her complaint with them.
Yet Ofcom has done nothing. And it is not even possible to complain to this public regulator about that. Its public call line deals only with complaints about programmes and the website offers no other form of contact by phone or online. Tweets directed at the @Ofcom account elicited no response. Talk to the hand.
Ofcom does not regulate Twitter, but that is not the point. It has a duty to stand up for Cockbain just as it has a duty to stand up for all complainants. The very least it could do is state publicly that the treatment she has received is unacceptable and should not deter other potential complainants.
We put these points to Ofcom in the form of a press inquiry, seeking comment, and it responded as follows:
“We agree that no-one should face violent threats, and anyone who has been targeted can report it to law enforcement authorities. Under forthcoming UK online safety laws, platforms will have to protect their users from illegal content – including harassment – and when the new laws come into force we will expect companies to comply with their obligations.
“For Ofcom, complaints about TV and radio programmes are a vital barometer for how audiences think and feel. Viewers and listeners should always feel they can complain to us, knowing that we assess every complaint we receive. There are a number of ways people can complain to us – including confidentially via our website or by phone.”
That’s it. In short, ‘not our problem’ – take it to the police or wait for a new law. And anyway, if you don’t want to be intimidated for complaining to us you should do it in secret. That advice, believe it or not, comes from a public regulator.
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