A hyperlocal news editor who feared his office and home could be attacked following a malicious Facebook post about him has urged more severe sentencing powers for offences targeting journalists after his aggressor was fined £200.
Michael Casey, who runs the Your Harlow and Your Thurrock websites in Essex, feared for his family’s safety after a man posted lies that he had been caught with thousands of indecent images of children.
Local pub landlord Karl Morris pleaded guilty on Thursday to sending a public online communication that he knew to be false and for the purposes of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety contrary to Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.
Casey (pictured) had reported that police raided Morris’ pub as part of a series of drug searches across the town, citing a police press release.
Morris, 33, of Markwell Wood in Harlow, contacted Your Harlow claiming the story was inaccurate and, although the piece correctly stated what happened as per Essex Police, Casey added a clarification that no drugs had been found nor any arrests made at the pub.
However, Morris demanded the whole story be taken down, later sending a text telling Casey he was outside his office and that he was “starting his own news reports”, according to Casey’s report of events.
He then falsely claimed on Facebook, in a post that was extensively shared throughout the local community, that Casey had been arrested on suspicion of child porn offences.
The post included the full address and a photo of Casey’s home, which is also where he works.
Morris wrote: “Officers raided Michael Casey the editor of Your Harlow’s home address in the early hours of this morning and recovered three laptops containing thousands of indecent images of children.
“There is now a local petition to remand Michael after he was given bail by police pending further investigations.
“As responsible Harlow residents we need to stop vile people like him from living in our community!”
Casey was abroad at the time and feared his home could be subject to a vigilante attack.
His daughter, who lives nearby, was asked if it was true by other parents when she collected her children from school the following day, and she became distressed that social services may want to take them away.
Morris pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity and was told to pay a £200 fine, a £34 victim surcharge and £105 costs to the CPS.
Casey, who worked at Newsquest’s Thurrock Gazette before starting his own websites, told Press Gazette he worried that the size of the fine might make others think it is “worth a punt” to post similar falsehoods or abuse against journalists.
He said “suppose it had worked and everybody believed it”, suggesting he could have been forced to close Your Harlow. He also pointed out that he was still out of pocket from having to install security measures in response.
He suggested specific laws or sentencing guidelines for cases involving journalists, as there is when emergency workers are threatened on duty.
“Why not do it in 2021 before it’s too late. What would it take? If somebody dies in the UK, if some journalist dies, people will say ‘right, they do seem to be getting threatened’. Often it comes to that. Something must be done.”
Casey, a member of the advisory board for the Independent Community News Network based at Cardiff University, also said he would consider warning student journalists “if you go into journalism this now might be the norm”.
He said: “If I wanted to be popular I would go to the local petting zoo and work as a volunteer. I accept there will be criticism… but this was so, so, so far over the line and the impact on my family is what distressed me.”
Casey’s local MP, the Conservative Robert Halfon, promised to raise the issue in Parliament and write to both the CPS and the Justice Secretary.
“I am so sorry that this has happened,” Halfon said. “Too often people in public life, including journalists are harassed, intimated, threatened on social media and in person. Too often the perpetrators get away with a slap on the wrist from the legal system.
“It is unacceptable for the editor of Your Harlow to be treated in this
way, fearing for his and his family’s safety and livelihood.
“The courts should ensure that a signal is given out to guilty offenders
that this will not be tolerated. Much tougher legal sanction is needed.”
The UK Government set up a National Committee for the Safety of Journalists last year with representatives from the police, prosecuting authorities, NGOs, the BBC and press organisations with the aim of making sure journalists can work free from threats and violence.
They held their first meeting in July, with the second due in the winter, and are currently producing a draft action plan but Casey urged them not to “overpromise and underdeliver”.
Casey feared the committee could be compared to a Robin Williams joke: “You know in England if you commit a crime, the police don’t have a gun and you don’t have a gun. So if you commit a crime: ‘Stop! Or, or I’ll say stop again!’
“What they are going to say is ‘please stop this or we’ll have another meeting and we will say please stop again’,” he said.
The increasing barrage of threats and abuse against journalists was raised in the House of Commons in October after a survey of regional journalists found more than 80% feel the problem has got “significantly worse” since the start of their careers.
In just two examples from 2020, a right-wing activist was given a restraining order in November for abusing an Independent journalist at court while a local journalist in Cumbria was put under police protection amid repeated threats against her just months after a man was separately jailed for posting on Facebook that she “needed raping”.
Picture: Michael Casey