People queuing outside Jobcentre Plus. Pic courtesy: The Guardian
For the last year an extraordinary war has been going on between the Department of Work and Pensions and some of Britain’s tweeters and bloggers.
The battle has been over the centuries old right to free speech, to send up self-seeking bureaucrats and insult and satirize government ministers and the heads of private companies profiting from public services. This example is very modern, the battleground is Twitter rather than over some pamphlet.
The row began over a year ago when the Department of Work and Pensions used Twitter’s complaint procedure to lodge a trademark complaint against @UKJCP, a satirical account attacking Jobcentre Plus.
The application came from one Jon Woodcock, calling himself brand and information manager – his actual title is senior public information publishing manager – objecting to the site using the Jobcentre Plus trademark.
What was extraordinary was his reasoning. I quote from the document :
“The @UKJCP account has been set up with deliberate and malicious intent to devalue and criticise the work of Jobcentre Plus. In addition, there are a number of rude and potentially libelous tweets aimed at UK government, elected politicians and the heads of large private sector organisations who are committed to working with government on reducing unemployment.”
Not surprisingly Twitter quite rightly rejected such a request.
But the ministry came back – this time I am told using a discreet phone call – specifically objecting to what are called PTs – parody tweets – which were frankly taking the Mickey out of Jobcentre Plus – but where quite clearly linked to information that showed it couldn’t possibly have come from them. Some were true. One was a link to an article showing Jobcentre Plus backed sending claimants to work at strip clubs and for porn film companies – providing they didn’t participate- which I ‘m afraid is correct.
There has been storm of protest from bloggers and tweeters who used Twitter’s appeal process to overturn the decision. The account was restored on February 8 after ten days.
An official spokesperson from the DWP Press Office told me :
“The changes we’re making to the welfare system to ensure that work pays are important to many people, and we work hard to make sure claimants have access to correct factual information.
“We alerted twitter to an account that was falsely sending out tweets claiming to have been published by our official account. It’s for twitter to decide what action is appropriate – we have not asked for any account to be taken down or suspended.”
An official spokesperson for @UKJCP told me:”I am sure @DWPgovuk has no basis to complain about anyone who does a Parody of a Parody Tweet …Some of what was tweeted by me after 9/1/14 was focused on letting followers know what DWP and Jobcentre rights they have. I take the view that the DWP inspired suspension of @UKJCP was not only to censor Freedom of Expression and criticism of the Government but an attempt to suppress the sharing of rights based information.”
What is interesting is that I have been told that NO minister – not even Iain Duncan Smith – asked for Jobcentre Plus to close down this Twitter account,. The idea that ministers, MPs, and anyone running a big private business should be immune from rude comments or libelous views seems to have been taken by managers at Jobcentre Plus’s HQ in Sheffield
Sorry DWP there is a very long tradition in this country from John Wilkes and Liberty to Hogarth,Steve Bell and comedians like Mark Thomas, to poke fun and be rude and tear the governing classes apart. David Cameron is regularly portrayed by Steve Bell as a condom ( he doesn’t like it and has complained to no avail to The Guardian).
If Mps and big bosses don’t like it they should take out a writ and sue. But they know that under the coalition the cost of a writ has risen to £1600 and legal fees are phenomenal. And they know claimants aren’t worth suing because they could never recover their money. That’s why they would love the government to resort to censorship, particularly if they haven’t even asked them to do it.