15th January 2021
On 25th December 2020, of all days, the following was tweeted:
There are three immediate things to observe about this tweet.
First, the content.
This is a sensational claim but it is one which, for some people, would seem plausible.
The home secretary is a past supporter of the death penalty and the home secretary is also known as being willing to use home office policy on ‘law and order’ in a politicised way.
And elsewhere the United States has resumed federal executions in the run-up to a presidential election, and the similarly populist government of Turkey has signalled that it would want to reintroduce capital punishment.
Second, the provenance.
The account is anonymous but it does have a reasonably sized following, including followers from many areas of law and the media.
The account does not link to a site for the organisation named, and nor does a Google search indicate that the organisation has any existence beyond that twitter account.
We therefore do not know who the “us” is in the tweet and how much credibility their claim should have.
As such the claim cannot and should not be accepted without corroboration.
(This is not to diss the named organisation and what they campaign for, but is just a normal exercise in fact-checking.)
Third, the circulation of thee tweet.
As of today, the tweet has had an extraordinarily wide circulation.
It has had around 1,800 retweets and 1,900 quote-tweets – often from accounts that have accepted the claim in the tweet to be true or at least plausible.
This means a considerable number of people will now believe that the claim is correct or at least has some substance to it: that the home secretary has asked civil servants at the home office to scope a policy paper on the restoration of the death penalty.
(I do not have access to the tweet’s analytics, but in my experience, such a widely circulated tweet would have been seen by over one hundred thousand and possibly up to a million other twitter users – for that is the multiplying effect of thousands of retweets and quote-tweets.)
At this stage, now click on and read this magnificent post by Matthew Scott on the legal and practical difficulties of such a restoration of the death penalty, including the range of international legal instruments that prohibit such a restoration by the United Kingdom.
In essence: the United Kingdom could, in principle, restore the death penalty – it is a sovereign nation – but it would be in breach of many international agreements if it did so.
So either the claim is true – which would be important for us to know – or it is untrue – and, in view of the extraordinarily wide circulation of the tweet, it would be also important for the false claim to be publicly corrected.
(In saying that the claim may be untrue, this again is not to diss the account that tweeted – they may be only as good as their source, and it is possible they heard this from a‘little bird’ in good faith.)
I happen to be in the process of preparing and writing a few things at different titles (and here on this blog) that touch on populism and the use (and misuse and abuse) of law.
I had seen the tweet several times in quote tweets, and so my first step was to find out whether there was any other relevant information in the public domain.
There was none.
And so it seemed that the claim should be put to the home office to ascertain whether it was true.
My email query was:
“There is a widely circulated assertion that the Home Secretary has asked Civil Service to scope a policy paper on the restoration of the death penalty – source: https://twitter.com/BameFor/status/1342495556732649478
Can I please have a Home Office statement on this? Normally, and view of UK’s international obligations, one would expect a straight denial, without equivocation.”
At this stage, I expected to just get an email containing either a bland denial that the claim was untrue or perhaps an equally bland if evasive statement about not commenting on tweets.
What happened instead was a telephone call where I was told that the claim was ‘rubbish’.
Now ‘rubbish’ is one of those press officer words – like ‘nonsense’ and ‘ridiculous’ – that is used instead of a straight denial such as ‘incorrect’.
And any telephone call from a press office is rarely about providing information (that is what emails are for), it is about the press office trying to obtain information about what is to be published and then attempting to shape what is published – and not published.
It was quickly plain that the home office did not want anything published on this at all, notwithstanding the wide circulation of the original tweet.
So I asked for a statement in writing (I never take quotes over the telephone, especially not from government press offices).
The press office’s response to this request was to question its journalistic value (although one would think that a journalist is in a better place than a press office than to make that assessment).
Given the significance and the circulation of the original claim, it seemed to me that there should be a home office statement on the record.
Indeed, you would expect that the home office would be proud and open in stating that the United Kingdom was complying with its international obligations.
Later yesterday afternoon a statement was emailed:
“This is a completely untrue and unsubstantiated claim from an unverified Twitter account. We are surprised that despite telling [you] this, [you] are still insisting on reporting it.”
The references ‘[you]’ in the statement is to the title they assumed would publish the statement.
The statement is worth unpacking.
The explicit reference to ‘despite telling [you] this’ placed beyond doubt that the telephone conversation was not ‘background’ – the public statement only makes sense if the previous conversation was also on the record.
The ‘completely’ and ‘unsubstantiated’ are both examples of over-emphasis – if the claim is untrue, then that is all that needs to be said.
(Like a politician who says ‘absolutely clear’ instead of ‘clear’, such additional words indicate potential evasion and misdirection.)
The denial is limited to the content and detail of the tweet – there is no general statement such as ‘the home office will not be restoring capital punishment’ and still less ‘the home office is proud to respect and comply with the international obligations of the United Kingdom’.
Instead of such statements, there is an explicit attack on the credibility of the source and an implicit attack on the journalistic point of even putting this claim to the home office.
The ‘insisting’ is a perfect touch – and yes, one should insist that the home office should publicly state its position on restoring capital punishment when there is widely circulated claim that such restoration is being considered.
The home office wanted the statement to either be unusable or, if published, to discredit the news title publishing the story.
(I am happy to publish the public statement here, with the appropriate context set out.)
All this, instead of a simple statement that the claim was untrue and a statement that the home office is not seeking to reintroduce capital punishment and the United kingdom will comply with its international obligations.
There is nothing special about what happened here – this is what happens every day between government press offices and anyone in the media seeking to obtain information which the government does not want to publish.
The only difference is that I am in a position to set out the exchange on this blog.
It is a good thing that, despite their initial reluctance, the home office was able to publicly confirm that a widely circulated claim that restoration of the death penalty was “completely untrue and unsubstantiated”.
It is disappointing that the home office sought to do this with a quote intended to deter the use of the quote and thereby prevent any coverage of that denial.
And it is disappointing, but not surprising, that despite the public interest in such a widely circulated claim being openly denied, the home office insisted on going about it in this way instead.
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