So, following the Guido* revelations earlier about Jared O'Mara's online comments concerning Michelle McManus winning Pop Idol in which he called her "fat" before launching into a rant about "fatties", I wrote a Twitter thread, that spawned this post, and also prompted an invite (unfilled) to go on Newsnight. No really.
Now, before we go any further, let me be unequivocal: the remarks were lamentable and are to be condemned. In addition, they seem to fit into a pattern of misogynistic and homophobic comments that give a great deal of cause for concern despite the time lapse. Given the quantity and nature of these, I think it is right for him to have resigned from the Women and Equalities committee today. He now has a job of work to do to convince people he no longer holds the views reported. That being said, though, I think there is an issue to explore here with regard to the use of social media, the permanent record it generates, and what should count as "fair game" for attacking those who become public figures.
This blog is an attempt to unpack some of my views expressed on Twitter earlier, and to address the responses to them. You can see these on this storify.
My first point was that the McManus remarks were 14 years ago, when O'Mara was a 22 year old. At that point he may not even have envisaged a career in politics, and his views may well have matured and developed since then**. He wasn't an MP or any other type of public figure at the time. So is it fair to trawl someone's social media history for past indiscretions, or for inflammatory or controversial comments? And how far back do we go?
In my Twitter thread it was at this point that I moved from considering O'Mara to an hypothetical MP, mainly on account of already being aware of questionable views disseminated by the member for Sheffield Hallam even before all of today's revelations. But there are other real life cases we could look at. Take Mhairi Black, for example, elected at the age of 20 in 2015, she had several years of tweeting behind her, and on record. This included several featuring "parliamentary language" and a number which were subsequently deleted.
Hers, though, weren't on issues of substance - although maths teachers and Celtic fans might disagree - so should we treat the youthful indiscretions of a teenager differently than opinions of someone in their early twenties?
Some of my Twitter respondents suggested that 18 should be considered a cut off point - and pointed out that "I was younger then" isn't a good excuse. Personally, I'd take a more nuanced point of view - I've met teenagers more mature than folks in their mid twenties, and people whose views (particularly on issues of equality) have changed and developed well into adulthood. That's not to say that I don't think age should be a factor when making a judgement on whether something is in the public interest, in addition to being in the public realm, but I do think that someone's more recently expressed views should be given greater weight. I also think remarks made by those once they are seeking public office deserve a more intensive examination that those from before that point.
But my main concern in all of this is that such intensive media scrutiny could further damage diversity in parliament and amongst those seeking election. We already, rightly, lament the rise of identikit politicians moving from PPE degree to Special Adviser to Safe Seat***. If we declare open season on everyone's Social Media, then we'll discourage those who haven't spent their formative years being conscious that anything they type could come back to haunt them. (Or, alternatively, have spent all their time being so on message it hurts.)
Like so many issues, this partly comes down to education. O'Mara's generation embraced the internet and Social Media with little acknowledgement of its permanent nature. The current and future generations need to be taught that online security extends to being aware that once something is online, its online for good. Don't go posting something you couldn't comfortably say to someone's face might be a sensible rule of thumb to start with.
So... that's the extended version of the Twitter thread... but between conceiving this post, and actually writing it, I got an email:
Unfortunately, I sat on it for 40 minutes before replying, which is clearly too long in telly terms... What would I have said? Probably along the lines of the above! And now it's online, its here for all to see.
* Note to self: you maybe should stop responding to Guido articles.
** Like I say, this remains to be evicenced
*** Apologies if this describes you - I don't want to suggest that you have nothing to offer, but if this becomes an even more well tread path to parliament, we will lose out on talent from other walks of life.