It is no secret that social media has transformed politics across the globe both positively and negatively. For every person inspired to vote by a new generation of politicians reaching out online, there is another who has been targeted by sophisticated ‘fake news’ or taken advantage of anonymity to safely attack others from behind a screen. Politicians themselves often trip over the intricacies of social media, from Labour MP Emily Thornberry’s ‘England flags’ gaffe to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s ill-advised Twitter bravado over his record.
The adage that “anything posted online is there forever” has again been demonstrated this week after political blog Guido Fawkes published sexist and homophobic comments made online by Labour MP for Sheffield Hallam, Jared O’Mara, in 2004. Facing a public backlash, O’Mara – who suffers from cerebral palsy and is an activist on disability issues – quickly resigned from the Women & Equalities Committee, issuing a swift and seemingly heartfelt apology. Labour initially began an investigation into the comments, but following further exposures of abusive online comments from 2002 to 2004, he has been suspended until further notice.
Conservative MPs have alleged that the delay in suspending O’Mara illustrates an undercurrent of misogyny and homophobia in the Labour Party, but more level commentary points to the admissions that O’Mara made in his “passionate, emotional” apology. He fully accepted that his beliefs as a 20 year old were wrong and he no longer stands by them 15 years later, igniting debate not only over the permanence of our online history but also into the extent to which society should accept the ability for views to change.
This perennial debate is common when discussing justice systems – progressive countries that prioritise rehabilitation over punishment, such as Norway, are accused of being ‘soft on crime’ yet have markedly low reoffending rates.
As Owen Jones points out in his Guardian column, there is also the recurrent claim that certain commentators and papers are acting hypocritically in attempting to smear left-wing figures while ignoring similar misdeeds from those they support. Conservative MP Philip Davies remains a member of the Women & Equalities Committee despite consistently voting against equality legislation; Jacob Rees-Mogg MP was lauded for his ‘honesty and faith’ in taking an ‘18th century view’ on equality from his Catholic background, even after having been discovered profiting from abortion pills.
The man behind the Guido Fawkes blog which uncovered O’Mara’s comments himself has a history of supporting genocidal dictators, flying close to the wind on using sexism, racism and hearsay to generate publicity. Many have suggested that this trawling for any kind of scandal to discredit public figures, no matter the validity of the accusation, has become more of an attempt at manufacturing outrage than actually reporting news.
After Mhairi Black MP announced her candidacy for the SNP in 2015, at 20 years old, newspapers gleefully picked through her social media history in an effort to discredit her, publishing her immature but generally harmless tweets from her childhood. This ended up backfiring, helping to boost her profile and spread her appeal as a no-nonsense representative of the average person.
It seems reasonable that O’Mara’s ‘journey’ could have led to his rejection of immature sexism and homophobia, especially when public opinion has changed so strikingly during the same period. Only 14 years ago, 40% of the British public considered homosexuality to be wrong, with just 37% considering it “not wrong at all”. The latter figure now stands at 64%, a remarkable societal shift that suggests many people may be in the same boat as O’Mara.
Most societies aim to uphold the ideal that an individual who has served a jail sentence and has been rehabilitated should be accepted back as a productive member of the community, as demonstrated by the popularity of countless ‘second chance’ success stories. Similarly, if we accept that attitudes can change rapidly on such a broad scale, can we forgive ‘reformed’ characters their unsavoury comments from the past? Equally importantly, given that the internet enables such ready access to these potentially disowned opinions and the outrage – real or faux – that can be generated by them, how much current significance should we ascribe to revelations dredged up about the past comments of public figures?