‘Pre-Election Experience: My First Death Threat Encounter’ – An Account by BBC News Correspondent

‘Pre-Election Experience: My First Death Threat Encounter’ – An Account by BBC News Correspondent
  • By Ben Schofield
  • BBC News, East of England

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There are fears rising levels of abuse could put people off entering politics

They are responsible for planning, potholes and policing. But our local politicians are facing unprecedented levels of abuse and harassment. The government has committed £31m to improving safety and security for all elected representatives. So, with local elections coming, what is it like on the front line of local democracy?

Before she was even elected, Heather Williams had received her first death threat.

“I had people saying things like ‘you’re scum’, ‘you should be shot’,” Mrs Williams, 35, remembered.

“I had someone say that I should have been sterilised at birth.”

After winning her seat on South Cambridgeshire District Council in 2018, the abuse got even worse.

“I had threats of violence and sexual violence towards me,” she said.

Image source, Steve Hubbard/BBC

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Conservative Heather Williams said she feared the abuse she faced were attempts to make her views “extinct”

While out campaigning, one man tried to return a leaflet. While that was not unusual, what followed was “absolutely terrifying”.

“I went to take the leaflet back and then he was like ‘you’re lucky I’ve not got a gun or I’d pin you up against this wall and I’d shoot you,” she told the BBC.

She now leads the Conservative group on the council and has “security protocols” in place for her and her primary-school-aged daughter.

‘Dehumanised’

According to the Local Government Association (LGA), in 2023, 82% of councillors felt at risk at least some of the time while fulfilling their role, up from 73% the previous year.

Mrs Williams believes politicians have been “dehumanised” and added that abusers “don’t actually remember that you’re a human being with feelings and a family”.

At times, she said it felt like the abuse was aimed at the “eradication of my values and beliefs”, although she stated she was too “stubborn” to leave politics.

Image source, Ben Schofield/BBC

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Festus Akinbusoye said he had faced harassment, stalking and “vile racial abuse”

Festus Akinbusoye admitted the “extremely soul destroying” abuse he faced made him question whether he wanted to remain as Bedfordshire’s Conservative police and crime commissioner but he “won’t allow anyone to bully me out”.

Nothing prepared him, he said, for “the harassment, the stalking, the vile racial abuse”.

Mr Akinbusoye, 45, said he still has flashbacks to the “frightening” phone call he received from the chief constable asking where he and his children were, one day towards the end of 2022.

The force was concerned for their safety after it received a report of abuse.

‘I spent thousands on security’

In January, Panache Muir, 31, from Stilton near Peterborough, pleaded guilty to racially aggravated stalking of Mr Akinbusoye, causing serious alarm or distress. A sentencing hearing is due on 19 April.

“Unfortunately, there are people who think that because you are a public figure or an elected person, you are fair game,” Mr Akinbusoye said.

He has spent “thousands” on security, drives different routes home and remains anxious about cars following him on Bedfordshire’s roads.

“At what point does scrutiny and accountability of someone in public office become harassment?” he said.

“Where do you draw that line, when you just relentlessly pursue someone again and again and again?”

The government said the £31m it has committed would allow “all elected representatives and candidates” to have a dedicated named police contact to liaise with about security. It would also “expand cyber security advice to locally elected representatives”.

Image source, Steve Hubbard/BBC

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Labour councillor Elisa Meschini described how her support for a congestion charge in Cambridge “opened the floodgates”

“I feel far worse about my family than I do about me,” said Elisa Meschini, the 41-year-old Labour deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council.

Her partner – “who isn’t political and doesn’t want to be political” – has seen some of the abusive material she has been sent.

“Some of the stuff that has been left outside my door, he should not have had to look at – never mind knowing that it has been done in the first place,” she said.

Ms Meschini said she did not receive much abuse until the summer of 2022, when she began putting forward the arguments for a congestion charge in Cambridge. That “opened the floodgates”.

She recalled one image that she said was shared with the caption “councillors who don’t listen deserve this to be done to them”, alongside “a picture of Mussolini, being shot, in the public square”.

Ms Meschini, who is Italian, challenged the person responsible for it, who told her “it’s just a joke”, she said.

Online ‘free for all’

She felt the “online world isn’t regulated as much as it should be” and was a “free for all”.

She said the thought of one person doing “something that’s really terrible”, after reading hate “spewed by thousands of people on social media”, kept her up at night.

The Online Safety Act, which became law in October, aims to bring “a new era of internet safety”, according to the government.

The LGA welcomed some of its measures but said it could have gone further.

Image source, Steve Hubbard/BBC

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Peter McDonald, a Liberal Democrat in South Cambridgeshire, said the “majority” of people were “civil”

South Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrat, Peter McDonald, 62, said councillors needed to be “completely embedded in our communities” but that also made them vulnerable.

Most people, he said, were “very civil” and “really appreciative”.

But “very few people – mostly men” had been “taking up the cudgels against me for anything from a pothole or a planning permission to an industrial development”.

“We live in an area with a lot of change and a lot of development and people can get very worked up about that,” he said.

While much of this was on social media, in one phone conversation he recalled the caller “said they would ‘sort me out'”.

“I asked them ‘what did that mean?’ and the telephone line went quiet. It was over a planning issue.”

Mr McDonald said he hoped more awareness of the role of local government and education about how to interact online might help reduce the amount of abuse.

But he recognised that some people “would never in a million years” go into politics because they were “not going to subject myself to that”.

BBC Politics East will be broadcast on Sunday 17 March at 10:00 GMT on BBC One in the East of England, and will be available after broadcast on BBC iPlayer.

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues in this article, help and support is available via the BBC Action Line

Find BBC News: East of England on Facebook and Instagram. If you have a story suggestion email eastofenglandnews@bbc.co.uk or get in touch via WhatsApp on 0800 169 1830

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