‘There was a bounty on my head’: the chilling rise of the death threat

When Jon Burke went into local politics in 2014 he never imagined there would come a time when he considered carrying a rolling pin hidden inside his raincoat when he left the house – “just in case someone jumped out of a car at me with a wrench”. But his mind turned to raiding his kitchen drawers for protection last September, after Hackney council officials called him to say they had received a handwritten letter that threatened to burn down his house while he was sleeping and hurt not just him, but his wife and children.

His crime? Trying to make Hackney a better, safer place – in his eyes – to walk or ride a bike, via the introduction of low traffic neighbourhoods. As the London borough’s cabinet member for transport, Burke found himself at the centre of a row that had become part of the culture wars in which four wheels were pitted against two. The anonymous letter writer made clear they were a car driver: “You fucking cunts ride a bicycle,” they observed.

The council called the police but Burke, a Labour councillor, didn’t hold his breath: “We lost 265 officers from the streets of Hackney in a decade. Frankly, those left were not going to have time to dust a letter for fingerprints. I never heard from them again.”

Although much of the attention has been on the threats posed to MPs since the murder of the Conservative MP Sir David Amess in October, Burke’s experience shows how ubiquitous death threats have become and how little is needed to spark them. You can, for instance, work in a GP’s surgery and be threatened with having your throat cut for not being able to offer enough face-to-face appointments. Patsy Stevenson, who attended a vigil after the murder of Sarah Everard and was arrested, said she couldn’t “count the amount of death threats I’ve had” after appearing on newspaper front pages.

Even teachers are targeted. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) says some of its members received death threats for teaching LGBT equality, but none would talk to the Guardian. “One head is too scarred by the experience to want to talk about it again, and the other is currently under attack so doesn’t want to bring more attention on themselves or their school,” an NAHT spokesperson says.

The statistics make for frightening reading. Last year, there was a 13% increase in reports of threats to kill in England and Wales, with 42,307 threats received between April 2020 and March 2021, up from 37,347 the year before. In the past decade there has been a four-fold rise, with only 9,480 threats recorded in 2010/11, according to the annual Crime Survey. Looking further back, in 1981 there were just 620 reports of “threat or conspiracy to murder” (the old name for the offence), and just 102 in 1971. A century ago, in 1921, there were 16.

Today, only a tiny proportion of cases reach court – just 1,228 in 2020, less than half of which (435) resulted in a conviction. In fact, prosecution rates have dropped over the past decade, with 1,579 cases making it to court in 2010. Most of those prosecuted made little or no attempt to hide their identities: spend any time in a magistrates court and you’ll see most “threat to kill” cases involve domestic violence.

Then there are the people charged under the Communications Act 2003, for sending “grossly offensive messages by electronic communications”. In 2020/21, there were a staggering 275,628 reports of malicious communications, according to the Crime Survey of England and Wales. Of these, just 1,096 reached court in 2020, down from 1,511 in 2010.

Yet Prof Neil Chakraborti, director of the Centre for Hate Studies at Leicester University, thinks even these statistics may underestimate the true scale of the problem. “In reality, the numbers are likely to be much higher because many recipients of death rates just won’t report them. There’s often a fear of retaliatory violence,” he says. Also, victims think: “It’ll be futile.”

Having interviewed more than 2,000 victims of hate crime, Chakraborti puts the boom in death threats down to three things. First, social media and email have made sending a death threat extremely low effort, and immediate – you no longer have to take the trouble even to go and buy a stamp. Online communication “gives perpetrators this cloak of anonymity to be abusive and hateful, but worse than that, it gives them a sense of invincibility, too,” says Chakraborti. His first death threats were a series of letters signed by “Death Incarnate” back in the early 00s, after he published research into rural racism in England.

His second explanation is the modern blame culture and the polarising culture wars playing out across all the media, which he sees as “an extension of this kind of binary, entrenched, distorted world. Blame just seems everywhere, in every context, and we can attach blame to ordinary people now.”

Third, he thinks that hateful language has been normalised to such a degree that most people making death threats underestimate their power. There appear to be few consequences for those using intemperate language, whether that’s the Daily Mail calling judges “enemies of the people”, or a US president describing Mexican immigrants as “rapists”.

As a result, he says, perpetrators don’t “necessarily understand the gravity of what they’re doing”.

However, more recipients are speaking out against this onslaught. One of the first was the journalist and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado Perez, who in 2013 successfully campaigned to have Jane Austen on bank notes. This minor change led to hundreds of threats and two people were jailed as a result. In an interview with the Guardian she said: “I feel it’s my responsibility to maintain this defiant stance of: ‘Fuck you, you are not getting to me and you’re not going to win.’”

Attacking strident women is not new. Emmeline Pankhurst received an anonymous postcard, which said of the suffragettes: “If you have no homes, no husbands, no children, no relations, why don’t you just drown yourselves?” Yet previously, only those with the highest profiles were targeted.

Death threats certainly weren’t part of everyday life for public servants. Siobhan Brennan, a GP from Marple, an affluent area of Stockport, had to call police twice recently. First, when a patient said he would wait outside for her that night and “have it out with me” about his wife’s care; and then when a man phoned and threatened to cut a colleague’s throat when she told him registering as a patient wasn’t an instant process. Patients have also thrown masks at colleagues and threatened to spit on them, she added. “I was called a bitch on the phone for not prescribing inappropriate meds, too,” she says. She hears similar horror stories from GPs across the country, with some practices looking at equipping staff with bodycams to record abuse and assaults.

Brennan, who has been a doctor for 25 years, says while most patients appreciate GPs’ hard work, aggression has ramped up “massively” this year. She prides herself on her toughness but admits she’s scared – “I run ultramarathons and I’m used to putting my body through hell. I don’t get afraid when I’m running in the middle of the night in the Lake District, but I have had times at the surgery when I have been terrified.”

She blames sections of the media, particularly newspapers that have run front pages lambasting GPs in recent months, for whipping up emotion against doctors. She also singles out the health secretary Sajid Javid’s criticism of GPs for directing the public’s anger towards doctors. “I shouldn’t be made to feel embarrassed to say what I do for a living,” says Brennan.

Doctors and teachers may be shocked to be targeted, but it is now rare to find an MP who hasn’t been sent death threats. At the end of October, the deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner talked of the “terrifying” abuse she had received as a man was sentenced for telling her to “watch your back and your kids”. The same week, her shadow cabinet colleague Naz Shah was breathing a sigh of relief after Sundas Alam, 30, a woman in her Bradford West constituency, pleaded guilty to sending her death threats.

This was, in fact, the third person convicted for threatening to kill Shah, who became an MP in 2015 after a bitter battle with George Galloway. Her first serious threat was unrelated to this and was intercepted by police when she had only been in parliament for a year. At this time, Shah had been campaigning for an investigation into the suspected “honour” killing of a local girl, Samia Shahid, and “a bounty was put on my head”, she recalls.

The fight has been hard on her physical and mental health. She says she had a “complete breakdown” in 2019 after receiving a particularly awful email. But she insists she will not let the threats stop her doing her job: “Then they would have won”, is how she sees it. But it can be hard on her children, now aged 10, 14 and 17. After the Shahid incident in 2016 she sat her eldest daughter down and said: “If anything happens to me, do not let this baton drop, keep on fighting. I expect you to march through Bradford for the rights of women to live violence-free.”

Defendants, meanwhile, often claim they were only joking. In February 2020, a Conservative activist was jailed for nine weeks after sending messages claiming to have paid “crackheads” £100 to beat up the Labour MP Yvette Cooper and warning that “if you make peaceful revolution difficult you make a violent one inevitable”. In mitigation, Joshua Spencer’s solicitor said his client had sent the messages “in drink” and was never seriously planning an attack. After Amess’s murder, a member of Cooper’s team, Jade Botterill, said she quit under the strain of the threats, having once reported 100 in a week.

Even people in the public eye to entertain, rather than effect change, do not escape, however. This autumn, Morag Crichton, a 31-year-old trainee vet from Essex, appeared on the E4 reality show Married at First Sight. She had a “blind marriage” with a Welsh firefighter called Luke.

Crichton had told researchers she liked confident, muscular men. The experts thought she’d be better off with shy but thoughtful Luke, who’d had his heart broken in the past. On the show, Crichton appeared to be trying to make Luke into a totally different person, forcing him to buy new clothes costing hundreds of pounds, and saying she could only get intimate with him after drinking. The show wrapped in July and was broadcast from 30 August. The torrent of abuse was instant, says Crichton, who has been offered antidepressants and therapy to cope.

At first, she was called ugly and fake. Then it “became a lot worse where it was comments, like: ‘Kill yourself. I hope you get raped. I hope you get Aids, cancer.’ One of them was even like: ‘I hope I die so I don’t have to put up with you any more.’”

The vast majority of abuse came from other women, “mothers, daughters, sisters, grandmas”, making no attempt to hide their identities. The worst was anonymous. Recently, she was on a night out and received a message saying “Come outside”, which made her worry that someone was watching her.

Crichton believes she was deliberately edited to look bad – a claim denied by a spokesperson for E4, who said: “Episodes can represent several days in the lives of the couples. What we broadcast is a fair reflection of the events that unfolded.”

The network said it was supporting Crichton and that “robust protocols are in place” to ensure “appropriate support is available”.

Sarah Schulman is the American author behind Conflict Is Not Abuse, which explored whether a culture of victimhood had led people to overstate the harm posed to them by others. She believes “the 1%” – whether major corporations or world leaders – have set the tone for an era of intolerance and aggression, by committing “every possible violation with absolutely no consequence”. This high-level lack of accountability filters down to ordinary people who feel emboldened to do or say whatever they want “because they know nothing is going to happen”, she argues.

What Schulman sees as the “chaos” of the world has led to people feeling “so violated and unprotected” that they feel disproportionately threatened by people with other viewpoints. “This idea of difference is so threatening at a time when everything is polarised politically. People feel that the fact that somebody else is different means that they are in danger, because we’re in a heightened state of political paranoia,” she says.

Jon Burke, who is no longer a councillor, points out the internet has also radicalised new communities of “oddballs” who may have previously been isolated, but find networks and “egg each other on”. Conspiracy theories spreading online don’t help either: after the Everard protest, Stevenson said she was accused of being a “crisis actor” paid to attend the vigil and get arrested to legitimise attacks on the police.

Since the threats, Burke has left Hackney and works as a carbon reduction consultant for local authorities. “If you’re in a situation where your wife turns around and says: ‘I don’t think we should go to that shop that we go to every year with the kids to get the Christmas tree in case someone spots us on the street’, that is no way to live,” he says.

“People need to ask themselves, if you were an 18-year-old woman doing a politics degree or getting into trade unionism on the shop floor, and you looked at what came with the territory of being a local councillor, would you put your hand up in the air and say: ‘I’ll do that?’”

He makes the point that it is women of colour, notably his former local MP, Diane Abbott, who often draw the most abuse. “If you are from a minority ethnic background and you had a look at the kind of abuse that Diane’s been subjected to – most of which is misogynistic, or racially motivated – are you going to bother going into politics?”

Changing society and the prevailing culture won’t be easy, warns Chakraborti, but social media companies must do more to deal with death threats and prove that they take them seriously. The police, too, must do “everything they can to be empathic” when a threat is reported to them.

Schulman, however, believes that ultimately the solution may lie offline in reinforcing social norms in which death threats have no place. “People need to have more in-real-life gatherings, more subcultural communities. We need more congresses and festivals and galas and discussions about what their feelings are towards each other and what their standards of behaviour should be. You can’t rely on the people in power for the solutions.”

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by emailing jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org.

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