Twitter, Tom Daley and ‘malicious communications’

Tom Daley practicing at the Aquatic Centre during previews for the London Olympic games. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

Police have arrested a 17-year-old in Weymouth, Dorset, on suspicion of sending “malicious communications” to the British diver Tom Daley.

The communications in question were alleged Tweets which Daley said he had been sent after he and Pete Waterfield failed to win a medal in the 10m synchronised diving competition.

The first tweet, which the diver retweeted to his 792,000 followers on the social media site, told Daley: “You let your dad down i hope you know that.”

Daley’s father died of brain cancer last year and the 18-year-old diver had said he was inspired by that loss to try to win an Olympic medal.

On the face of it, while grossly offensive and showing a lack of taste and decency which no human being could be proud of, that Tweet would not merit prosecution. After all, many public figures receive offensive Tweets all the time. You only have to look at some of the messages sent to leading business figures such as @rupertmurdoch, who choose to inhabit the Twittersphere.

But it would appear that after a brief attempt to apologise to Daley, the user then allegedly issued a threat to find him and drown him, and then Tweeted threats to other users who had berated him for his earlier posts. However unlikely it is to be carried out, a threat made in public is an offence and in this case police are probably acting under the Malicious Communications act 1998, or the Protection from Harassment act 1997.

A spokesman for Dorset police said on Tuesday morning: “A 17-year-old man was arrested by Dorset police officers in the early hours this morning at a guesthouse in the Weymouth area on suspicion of malicious communications. He is currently helping police with their inquiries.”

While I find the alleged conduct aimed at Daley reprehensible in the extreme, it remains the case that the alleged criminal conduct may well not have happened if the diver had not chosen to draw attention to it.

Last week saw the case of the so-called Twitter Joke Trial, in which a Tweet threatening to blow up Robin Hood Airport in Nottingham led to the conviction of its author, only for that to be overturned by the Court of Appeal. The law is going to have to be cleared up on this kind of behaviour.

As I said before, many public figures are subject to offensive Tweets, even threats, but they are not alone. Private citizens with far fewer followers and little or nothing in the way of public profile can be threatened on Twitter – I have had at least one mild threat – but it would be impractical to pursue each one.

Are we heading down a road where only the celebrated are protected from offensive or threatening behaviour?