'It's getting worse': Councillors speak out after Chris Whitty harassed

Norfolk councillors react after chief medical officer Chris Whitty was accosted in the street.

Norfolk councillors react after chief medical officer Chris Whitty was accosted in the street. - Credit: Archant

Abuse towards elected officials is getting worse, say Norfolk councillors who have spoken up in support of the government’s chief medical officer after he was recently accosted in the street.

It doesn’t matter what party they represent, councillors from all political spectrums are most likely to have a tale or two about the times they have been abused.

But a recent video on Twitter of chief medical officer Chris Whitty being harassed and physically man-handled in the street has sparked a fresh debate about the safety of officials and how to stop this “unacceptable behaviour”. 

In Norfolk, many councillors have experienced similar incidents of abuse - both online and in person.  

Last year, Green party councillor at East Suffolk Council for Beccles and Worlingham Caroline Topping - who had been a town councillor for around 14 years - faced a torrent of abuse which left her scared to leave her own home

Caroline Topping at Waveney Meadow next to the new ramp. Picture: Conor Matchett

Caroline Topping Green party councillor at East Suffolk Council for Beccles and Worlingham and Suffolk County Councillor. - Credit: Archant

She said: “You don’t expect to be assaulted in the public domain. I was shocked and horrified when I saw that video.” 

Ms Topping said social media allows “keyboard warriors” to say and do what they like with little to no consequences.  

She added: “I had an experience last year where I was getting a lot of unwanted attention on social media and it got to the point where I was frightened to go into my own town - where I have been living since I was nine years old. 

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“I couldn’t leave my home for two weeks last summer for fear of people approaching me in the street, being unkind and saying intimidating things.

“People don’t think about the consequences they have on the person they are attacking, whether that is verbal or physical.” 

Many believe the rise in instances of abuse has been caused by the pandemic, which has left heightened feelings, anger and more separation among people.

Labour Broadland councillor, Natasha Harpley, has been become a known-voice for women’s rights in Norfolk and has received her fair share of “nasty comments”.

Natasha Harpley, Broadland councillor for Sprowston Central.

Natasha Harpley, Broadland councillor for Sprowston Central. - Credit: Natasha Harpley

"People get very heated about politics, " she said. "They can be cheering you on or hurling abuse at you. 

“I do think it's getting worse in general. After a very difficult time, opinions tend to get stronger. 

“But politics, in general, has really lost integrity. When you have seen the conduct of our leaders, various really high-profile people, and the way they are allowed to get away with these things, it sets a really terrible example for everyone else. 

“It’s a vicious circle of nastiness and contempt for each other. Treating public figures as fair game.” 

She continued: "There does seem to be a bit of a trend of targeting women and it’s quite often angry, shouty men who are doing most of the abusing."

Lana Hempsall, is a Conservative county councillor who experienced a series of online attacks while running as an MP in 2017. She said the behaviour towards Mr Whitty is not acceptable. 

Lana Hempsall, Broadland Conservative and county councillor.

Lana Hempsall, Broadland Conservative and county councillor. - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2017

“It’s almost like it’s okay to be awful if you're in pursuit of ‘the truth’,” she said. “And it’s the mindset of, if you’re not with us you’re against us. 

“In part, the social media platforms have a role to play to delete content immediately.  

“Because if it doesn't exist then there is no validation. People do things for effect. Secondly, being tougher when it comes to prosecutions. 

“But it also comes down to, how political figures are addressed and spoken to in the media and on programmes. How are political figures spoken to in those sorts of programmes? With what level of aggression? 

“We have to start toning down and deescalating the aggression, otherwise nobody ends up on the same page.

"You could beat someone into unconsciousness but they still won’t agree with you. You get nowhere unless we can have constructive dialogue. 

“That is how you express your disagreement at the ballot box. That is how democracy works.”