“There are two types of laws: just and unjust. An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” – Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr.
On 16 September, popular YouTuber and journalist Alex Belfield, formerly of BBC Radio Leeds, was sentenced to five and half years in prison for four counts of online stalking. “My initial reaction without knowing the full facts of the case, but knowing that it concerned internet-based harassment, was one of shock, at the length of the sentence,” wrote barrister Joseph Chiffers. That the sentences were consecutive and not concurrent also surprised Chiffers.
Stalking, generally, means following someone. It doesn’t mean only physically, it also includes online activity, emails and phone calls – “watching, spying or forcing contact with the victim through any means, including through social media.”
In sentencing Belfield, the judge remarked:
The stalking you committed was not the conventional type which is popularised in the press. You did not meet or physically approach or watch any of your victims as a traditional stalker might have done … Your stalking consisted of use of repeated email communications, social media content on Twitter, and creation and publication of YouTube videos on your channel The Voice of Reason in which you commented in highly negative and often abusive terms about the complainants.
The effect of these communications was to encourage the readers and viewers to form highly negative views of the complainants, often based on wholly false allegations by you. Those readers and viewers then joined the abuse of the complainants in a way which is sadly now a familiar feature of social media interaction.
I accept that in certain limited respects you were acting as a form of media commentator in stating views on matters of public interest when you made some of your communications. However, even accepting the latitude our laws give to those exercising free speech rights, on the jury’s verdicts you exceeded the generous margins.
I am not imposing sentences on you because you made comments about the BBC or about matters of public interest.
Alex Belfield: Sentencing Remarks and Judgment
London’s commissioner for victims, Claire Waxman, asked for Belfield’s case to be reviewed under the unduly lenient scheme (“ULS”) requesting that Belfield’s sentence be increased. Fortunately, it was too late to make a ULS referral because the statutory time limit for referral to the court of appeal had passed. However, this has prompted Waxman to call for a reform in the law to give victims more time to appeal under the ULS, The Guardian reported.
Waxman was not a victim of Belfield’s online trolling. But, according to The Guardian, under the current law, anyone can appeal to the attorney general, the government’s main legal adviser, if they think someone has received too low a sentence.
One of Belfield’s accusers was BBC’s Jeremy Vine. Belfield did not contact Vine directly but rather made videos about him and encouraged his listeners to call into Vine’s show. “Until trial you had not met Mr Vine. Your actions against Mr Vine consisted of highly abusive and wholly false allegations given mass Twitter and video exposure,” the judge said.