Belfast Telegraph

Pengelly tells of online abuse as peer warns of 'tipping point'

By Jack Hardy and David Young

A DUP MP has spoken out against abuse on social media as the chair of Parliament's standards watchdog body has found that a wave of intimidation and abuse directed at politicians has reached "tipping point".

Lord Bew warned yesterday that a rise of personal attacks and threats against politicians during the general election risked driving candidates out of public life in future.

Last week MPs gathered in Westminster Hall to discuss the apparent rise in such behaviour and shared their own experiences of abuse.

Prime Minister Theresa May asked the Committee on Standards in Public Life, of which Lord Bew is the chairman, to conduct a review into the problem.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4's Westminster Hour, the Queen's academic outlined his intention to recommend new laws if necessary, suggesting such steps might still fail to stem the escalating issue.

"We are in a bad moment and we have to respond to it," he told the programme.

"We cannot afford to lose people of quality in our public life and we may be approaching a tipping point."

The trends identified by Lord Bew are also apparent this side of the water.

In May this year former First Minister Arlene Foster revealed that she had suffered a torrent of misogynistic abuse on social media, saying that it had become so bad that she had now delegated the operation of her Twitter account.

And last night newly-elected South Belfast MP Emma Little Pengelly told the Belfast Telegraph that the way some people interacted online was "increasingly out of line".

"I have been called appalling things and abused repeatedly online due to my perceived political views," she said. "It means you have to be (or try to be) a very strong person not to allow it to impact on you too detrimentally.

"It shouldn't ever be appropriate to abuse, use crude or offensive language or harass any person on the basis of someone's political views.

"People don't act like that to someone's face, nor would it be acceptable to do so - why they do it via social media and feel they are within their rights to do so?

"I was brought up to respect the right of everyone to their opinion and views.

"Criticism is fine and necessary in a democratic society - but abuse is not. No one wants to live their life in constant ridicule or daily abuse.

"Nor does anyone deserve that.

"It needs to stop. I have no doubt it will put people off public life if it continues."

Labour Senator Mairia Cahill revealed that from her first days in the Irish Senate, she had been the subject of abuse targeted not only at her, but at her young daughter.

"I was the only politician in the Seanad who had to protect their Twitter account because of the sustained and orchestrated abusive material that was sent my way," she said.

"My daughter was five at the time, and some of the comments had been aimed at her. I felt that was unacceptable."

She revealed that in her first week in the Seanad she had received a letter containing unacceptable sexual content aimed at her which had to be passed to the Garda.

"It was a letter handwritten on the back of an electricity bill, believe it or not.

"It was just my second day in the job.

"That was a big eye-opener. But the social media content is something else.

"It can become swarmish, where you feel that there's actually no escape from it.

"It's there when you wake up in the morning. You're looking at hundreds of messages - not just about you, but also about your colleagues."

"You accept in politics that you are always going to be open to scrutiny, and that's where I make the distinction.

"Scrutiny of policies and how they are implemented is completely fine - that's a freedom of speech issue.

"But when an individual is targeted, or their family, that's unacceptable. Politicians are people too."

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