You don't deal with Katie Hopkins by calling the police

Yesterday, Katie Hopkins wrote a piece which would not have been out of place in Nazi Germany. It was grotesque – probably the single worst piece on immigrants I've read in a British newspaper, which is really saying something.

In the afternoon, Twitter exploded. And as night follows day, people started calling for her to be reported to the police. It appears at least some have already done so.

The first question is whether one can report her to the police – does the piece have the requisite elements for a successful prosecution on the grounds of inciting racial hatred? The second question is whether one should report her to the police. The answer to the first question is yes and the answer to the second question is no.

Hopkins' piece goes out of its way to dehumanise the refugees fleeing wars and conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, who are dying in their thousands in the Mediterranean due to the EU and UK's refusal to provide search-and-rescue operations for them. Their deaths are a crime against civilisation and rid of us of any notion that the EU might be a force for good, or that the UK could live up to the grossly inflated rhetoric it issues about its role in the world.

Instead of feeling sympathy for these people, Hopkins appears to hate them. "No I don’t care," she says. "Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins, and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don't care."

But the crux of the piece comes when she – knowingly or unknowingly – starts echoing Nazi and Rwandan genocide rhetoric. She writes:

"Britain is not El Dorado. We are not Elysium. Some of our towns are festering sores, plagued by swarms of migrants and asylum seekers, shelling out benefits like Monopoly money.

"Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit Bob Geldoff Ethiopia circa 1984 but they are built to withstand a nuclear bomb. They are survivors.

"Once gunships have driven them back to their shores, boats need to be confiscated and burned on a huge bonfire. Drilling a few holes in the bottom of anything suspiciously resembling a boat would be a good idea too, just for belt and braces."

There's a trace layer of 'it's an exaggerated joke' for her to fall back on, but the seriousness is, I think, quite obvious. She's following the standard rulebook. Dehumanise, foster hatred, then engage in violent storytelling. 

Could you do her for inciting racial hatred? Possibly. Is it threatening, abusive or insulting and either intended to stir up racial hatred, or make it likely that racial hatred will be stirred up? Yep. The prosecution would have to be balanced against the rights of people to "robustly exchange views, even when these may cause offence". It would also need a go ahead from the specialist legal team at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the permission of the attorney general. I'm no lawyer, but my hunch is it could pass those hurdles, if the CPS felt like it.

Hopkins' defence could involve that strand of so-called humour laced through the piece. The line about drilling holes in boats would be deployed to make it look as if it's all tongue-in-cheek. Maybe she'd get away with it.

But the real question is: should she be reported to the police? And the answer is absolutely not.

There are very few situations in which freedom of speech should be curtailed and they all relate to whether it takes away someone else's freedom. This is the freedom calculus, where we balance out someone's right to do something with someone else's right to do what they want to do. In other words, your freedom to punch stops where my face begins.

Incitement to violence is a therefore a useful phrase, because it encapsulates how free speech does not extend to encouraging others to take away the freedom of others – in this case to live life without fear of attack. It's also useful to have laws against harassment or abuse, which limit the freedom of the person the messages are intended for. And there are public safety and convenience tests as well, which is why you shouldn't be able to shout 'fire' in a crowded theatre if there isn't one.

The crime of incitement to racial hatred sets the bar much lower, however. It does not claim that violence will result. It claims only that hatred will result.

This is not morally tolerable. Hatred may not be beautiful, but it is a part of the human experience. A bit of me hates Hopkins for writing that. Certainly I hate whichever minister or civil servant in Whitehall came up with the idea of refusing to fund search-and-rescue teams in the Mediterranean – an act which they must have known was equivalent to signing their death sentence.

Some people hate Catholics, some hate women, some hate homosexuals. It would be much better if they did not, and it is up to us to win those battles, but that does not mean they're banned from those views. To ban hatred is thought crime.

Once we start, where do we stop? Hatred of gay marriage? Hatred of arms dealers? Hatred of MPs? We also have laws against religious hatred in this country. This makes no sense at all. I know plenty of atheist campaigners who hate all religions – they are entitled to do so. There are plenty of people, some very respectable and prominent, who hate Islam. They are also entitled to do so.

If we were in the middle of race riots, or anti-immigrant groups were knocking down people's doors, then Hopkins' piece could legitimately be censored, because the causal link between incitement and violence would be clear. But we are not experiencing those things. It is not clear that any violence will result from what she wrote, or is likely to.

Some will complain that we should not have to wait until race riots take place to challenge this type of piece. But we do. We do not judge things by possible future crimes, or else we would start locking up poor, emotionally-damaged illiterate young people on the basis of statistical probability.  That's not how we work.

It is hard to see the kind of muck Hopkins peddles in a national newspaper without wanting to do something to stop it. It’s doubly hard considering she has been granted a two-hour stint on LBC, a radio station I frequently contribute to and rather like. But the way to challenge it is not to go to the police. The police have no place interfering in free speech issues outside of those I outlined earlier. Once you call them for those who anger you, they will one day be called by those angered by you. Free speech must not become a circular firing squad.

Nor is the solution to direct hatred at Hopkins personally. If anything, we must pity her. That opening paragraph, where she glorifies her lack of compassion, and a later sentence, where she celebrates those with "tiny hearts", suggests that she has mental and emotional problems. If that isn't satisfying enough for you, consider that this woman presumably would hate nothing so much as being pitied. She is not the main actor here. She is a plaything of irresponsible editors.

The responsibility lies with the media organisation which facilitate her. Each TV current affairs show or newspaper which hosts her must now recognise what it is doing. It is not 'creating a conversation' or even trolling. It is engaging in and encouraging racism. There have been enough warnings now that they know what they're doing. Whatever Hopkins says while on their platform is directly their responsibility. It shouldn't be a crime to be racist, but it should certainly entail the end of your editorial creditability.

Of course, they should suffer the sales effect. But they should also suffer the reputational effect. No-one hosting her should be allowed to do so without facing public questions about the quality of their product and the judgement of their editors and proprietors. Twitter is perfectly good at holding people to account in this way and doing so would be faster and more effective than a criminal prosecution.

It would also have the added benefit of being compatible with a free society.

BBC Debate: A bleak night for the Conservatives

Last night saw Conservative election tactics reach a depressing new low. The optimism of Tuesday's manifesto launch was gone - replaced by lies, spin and an attack on good manners. As the BBC debate was broadcast, the party reached a nadir.

Failure to attend

It all began, of course, with David Cameron's failure to attend the debate. Downing Street used every weapon in its arsenal to avoid the TV debates, engaging in a drawn-out and bitter war of words with broadcasters.

Cameron's refusal to participate was ultimately an act of disrespect to the public. After all, the public want the debates – that much is clear from the impressive viewing figures they attract. And, importantly, they do not seem to just attract the usual political obsessives either. The second most-searched for term last night was: "Why is David Cameron not at the debate?" Clearly, this is an audience which did not follow the tedious ins-and-outs of the debate over the debates. But they wanted to know why they couldn’t hear from the prime minister as he ran for re-election.

The most searched for term - "what is austerity?" - was also instructive. It demonstrates how TV debates attract voters who are not usually tuned into politics. During an age of mass disenchantment with Westminster, it is criminal for a politician running for elected office to refuse to participate in a format which shows such strong levels of public interest.

Lying

Having decided their candidate would not attend, the Conservative party then start lying. Cameron claimed – laughably – that he had not been invited. Before the debate he said:

"I'm a polite individual and if I'm not invited, I'm not going to try and gatecrash it."

It's a lie. There's no other word for it. The broadcasters wanted Cameron in three TV debates. He refused to do more than one, and then only with seven party leaders on stage.

William Hague was sent out to repeat the lie in the spin room. Together with being forced to launch an underhand, last-minute attack on John Bercow, the former foreign secretary has ended his political career in the most unsatisfactory manner. He has good reason to feel aggrieved by the positions he's been pushed into as he looks forward to his retirement. If he's lucky, biographers will skip over these two inglorious episodes.

On Question Time later, Grant Shapps/Michael Green was at it again. The lie about Cameron's attendance wasn't just the product of the prime minister. It was formulated and issued straight from Tory HQ.

The spin operation

Cameron must have been the only senior Tory figure not attending the debate. The spin room was rammed with them. Three Tory ministers were there – Hague, Jeremy Hunt and Liz Truss – along with the rarely-seen Craig Oliver, head of communications.

The broadcasters should not have let them in. They weren't part of the debate. Under what basis were they entitled to propagandise about it on-site? If the broadcasters were going to start allowing people who had nothing to do with the debate on, why stop there? Why not invite the local vet and some baristas?

My inbox was rammed by emails from the Tory press office – far more than I received from any of the parties in attendance. It was an absurd sight to see a party exclude itself from a debate and then furiously try to participate once it started.

Most emails – and the majority of the spin operation – were dedicated to emphasising the struggle between Labour and the SNP. The Tories hyped the performance of Nicola Sturgeon in a bid to suggest she would out-manoeuvre Miliband in a coalition or confidence-and-supply arrangement. They pointed to the debate as evidence of what left-wing coalition negotiations would look like. They were trying to weaponise their absence.

The sad thing is many journalists let them. Instead of treating their absence as the story – or at least ignoring their contributions on the basis of it – most papers led with the Miliband-Sturgeon angle. But there was no new development last night. Going into the debate, Labour and the SNP both said they would not do a coalition, but would not rule out a less formal arrangement. Going out of the debate, that remained the case. Nothing changed. There was no news. But Tories pointed at it and journalists dutifully reported it.

Attacking handshakes

But the most dishonourable part of the Conservative response to yesterday evening came at the end, when the party took a screen grab of Miliband shaking the SNP leader's hand and tweeted it out as if it were a warning of things to come.

This is what the Conservative party has come to: attacking common courtesy. Perhaps they would have preferred it if Miliband spat on her and pulled her hair.

Politics is always full of cheap tricks. That is part of its currency. But the tweet spoke to something much deeper in the Conservative campaign, a lack of honour or basic decency in the way it is conducted.

This is a process which Cameron is partly responsible for. He made the attacks on Miliband personal throughout the last parliament, constantly berating him for his supposed weakness, mocking him for making Ed Balls cups of coffee, or highlighting how weird he is. The tactic has been ingested and repeated by the party, from the ministerial level to the ground troops. It resulted in Michael Fallon's inane attack on Miliband having stabbed his brother in the back and preparing to do the same to his country – an attack which was not just personal but also questioned the Labour leader's patriotism, an area which should always be out-of-bounds in civilised political discussion.

They may have tried to go positive earlier this week, but yesterday's behaviour suggests the Tory party remains stuck in the gutter in this election. If it's criticising people for shaking hands after a debate, it needs to take a long, hard look at itself and remember a motto which many of its MPs would have seen in school: Manners Maketh Man. There's still time to raise the standard of debate in the next three weeks. For all our sakes, the Conservatives should resolve to do that.

The Home Office is deporting Afghans one day before a legal ruling could save them

Next Wednesday, a legal ruling could spell the end of Britain's Afghan deportation programme. Legal firm Duncan Lewis will argue that their 19 clients are being returned to a country where violence has become so severe it cannot be considered safe. A ruling in their favour would trigger the start of a legal process which could halt the deportation of all Afghans from the UK.

So it's curious that on Tuesday, a day before the judicial review, the Home Office has tabled a charter flight from the UK to Kabul. A plane-load of mostly refugees will be returned just hours before a legal ruling might save them.

The Duncan Lewis argument is not based on apocalyptic warnings. It is a reflection of the security reality in Afghanistan, as expressed by the Afghan and British governments, the UN and journalists on the ground. Since British and American troops left, the country has fallen into chaos.

In late February, the country's own minister for refugees and repatriation, Hossein Alami Balkhi, said European countries could not safely return people to his country. You can see why. Last Thursday, ten people died when Talilban insurgents wearing military uniforms mounted a six-hour assault with guns and grenades against a court complex in northern Afghanistan. The usually tranquil city of Mazar-i-Sharif was merely the first to see the outbreak of the traditional spring offensive, as Afghanistan entered the first fighting season without full Nato support.

An Afghan military offensive to take back control of the north has faltered. Nearly 250 Taliban and other fighters attacked government positions in Badakhshan on Friday, in a string of coordinated attacks. Over 30 Afghan soldiers were killed, wounded or went missing according to official sources. Eyewitnesses told journalists the real numbers were much higher. Many police outposts are still encircled, cut off from reinforcements.

A couple of days ago, acting defence minister Sher Mohammed Karimi said he would try to retake control of the northern initiative. Few expect him to be successful. The Taliban are everywhere, galvanised by the departure of US troops. And now warlords warn of the rise of Islamic State, which had previously struggled to get a foothold.

The latest figures from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) show high civilian casualties, mostly caused by deaths and injuries from ground engagements. Year-on-year civilian casualties are up eight per cent, with 512 people being killed or injured in the first three months of 2015. There was a big spike of 43% in civilian deaths and injuries caused by mortars or rockets.

Conflict-related violence killed 55 women and injured 117 in the first three months of the year. There have also been 430 child civilian casualties. Anti-government forces are responsible for 73% of civilian casualties, pro-government forces for 14% and seven per cent were attributed to both parties. Six per cent could not be attributed to anyone, mostly because they were a result of explosive "remnants of war" – unexploded devices and IEDs.

Georgette Gagnon, director of human rights for UNAMA, said:

"With all signs pointing to increased ground conflict in the coming months, with devastating consequences for civilians, parties must act urgently on the commitments they've made to prevent harm to civilians, especially women and children."

As Balkhi desperately tried to explain, his government cannot keep the women and children deported from the UK safe. He says 80% of the country is considered insecure. He is asking western leaders to stop all deportations until the memorandum of understanding between deporting countries and Afghanistan can be revised. Until then, he is preventing anyone getting off the deportation fight at Kabul if they are an unaccompanied woman or child, if they have mental health problems or are physically disabled, or if they come from a dangerous province.

Downing Street knows all this. It knows the memorandum of understanding – signed in 2002 – is hopelessly out of date. Sources tell me there was a meeting between David Cameron and the Afghan president in which the latter accepted the continuation of the deportations but expressed a wish to renegotiate the memorandum of understanding after the UK election. A new one would take into account the disintegration of the country since the exit of British and (most) American forces.

But for the time being, the flights continue. Duncan Lewis swung into action to get people off a deportation flight on March 10th. It managed to save 19 of them. The flight eventually departed the UK with 26 aboard. That's far less than anticipated, but the legal firm can't find out what happened to the others. As usual, there has been no disclosure from the Home Office - only secrecy.

The firm will argue that the claims of the 19 Afghan can be considered 'fresh' because the situation on the ground has changed so rapidly. They cannot leave Kabul, because it is not safe. They cannot stay in Kabul, because one of the country's own ministers has admitted it does not have the infrastructure to keep them secure. There is no such thing as a safe return to Afghanistan.

A successful ruling would not be the end of the matter. But it would trigger a legal process which would give the 19 back their right of appeal and could lead to new 'country guidance' about Afghanistan. If that guidance is in line with the eyewitness, UN and Afghan government reports, it would almost certainly bring an end to deportations to Afghanistan.

As Duncan Lewis puts it:

"We consider it unusual and concerning that the secretary of state continues to enforce removals to Afghanistan. We continue to seek generic relief suspending removals to Afghanistan in the light of the significant deterioration of the country situation. We consider that this is especially relevant given the pertinent hearing scheduled for the day after this charter flight."

It is very rare that the Home Office U-turns on deportation. They will keep sending people back until they are forced to stop. But they should be under no illusions about what they are doing. There is no such thing as a safe return to Afghanistan.

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