A few days ago I referred to J K Rowling in slightly rude – but I think rather apt – terms after she gave £1 million to the Better Together Campaign. I wasn’t the first person to do so, and some people may have used less appropriate language than I did. Now it turns out that the police are “considering” a report of online crime in relation to Saint Rowling, and the Crown Office has said that it will prosecute over “grossly offensive” remarks.
My article was mainly intended to draw attention to the difficulties that are apt to arise as a result of political action by an individual with extreme levels of wealth and influence. I also wished to highlight the related question of the way that public figures and the media can manipulate people’s perception of events around them. The notion that anti-English hatred is a significant feature of the campaign for Scottish independence was first popularised by Nigel Farage, has been seized upon by some members of the No campaign (including J K Rowling) and seems to be gaining a spurious credibility that I do not think is rooted in day-to-day experience.
J K Rowling is richer than the Queen. Her economic and political clout, like the Queen’s, is probably even greater than her personal wealth would suggest. The Harry Potter brand was valued in 2011 at $15 billion, a figure that dwarfs J R Rowling’s personal fortune of £570 million. She appears to be well-connected politically. The fact that her primary industry is entertainment, rather than say uranium-mining, potentially eases her path to public influence. So do her charitable activities, which include support for the Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic at Edinburgh University. She is an institution as well as a person.
It’s easy to see why J K Rowling, and people connected to the No campaign, would like the rest of us to respond only in ways that wouldn’t breach etiquette if they were repeated in Rowling’s drawing room. There is no reason why we, or the law, should pay any attention to that wish.
In my article I suggested one vocabulary – the vocabulary of misogyny – that I think should be left out of public (or for that matter private) discourse. There are other vocabularies that I would also rather avoid. But I do not think it is the job of the police or the Crown Office to enforce my preferences.
Statements that amount to a real threat, or to incitement, are of course a different matter. So are statements that promote forms of hate so dangerous that the law provides special protection against them. But I would be surprised if any of the comments about J K Rowling, viewed realistically, come close to the level of menace of statements routinely made by racist and far-right groups and tolerated by police and prosecutors.
It’s quite clear that no prosecution could be brought over my article. Others may have been less careful in what they said, and may be at risk if the police take an imaginative and aggressive approach to the law. I hope that the police will instead show a little commonsense. If they don’t, I hope that the courts will have no patience with their folly. Scotland is not a very equal country, but it is not yet an oligarchy.