At some point saying “offensive” things online stopped being a social faux pas and became a potentially criminal act.
Dare to be rude about the wrong person or group and, in a bad parody of Erich Honecker’s East Germany, you could hear the knock on the door in the middle of the night and be dragged off to some dreary police cell for questioning.
I exaggerate of course, but not much: around 20,000 people in Britain have been investigated in the past three years for comments made online, with around 20 people a day being looked into by the forces of the law, according to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
The overused Orwellian cliché has finally become the reality: Big Brother in the form of an overzealous and under regulated police force really is watching you. As Police Scotland terrifyingly informed us this week, “Please be aware that we will continue to monitor comments on social media and any offensive comments will be investigated.”
And so, in a further erosion of free expression, the police in Scotland have this week decided to investigate former Apprentice star and professional controversialist Katie Hopkins for off-colour comments made online about the Scottish nurse who contracted Ebola.
Doing what she is paid handsomely to do (and presumably what got her 291,000 Twitter followers), Hopkins came up with the most grotesque thing she could say about the issue and condensed it into 140 characters, tweeting that the nurse in question was a “sweaty Glaswegian” and referring to Scots as “Jocks”.
In response, the perennially thin-skinned of Twitter cobbled together a 12,000-strong petition demanding that Hopkins be charged over the tweets and handed it to a police force desperately looking to justify its place in the world at a time of falling crime.
Predictably the police pounced on it. As Detective Inspector Glyn Roberts of Police Scotland put it: “Inquiries are ongoing into the nature of these tweets and to establish any potential criminality.”
Katie Hopkins' most offensive moments
Katie Hopkins' most offensive moments
1/16 Katie Hopkins on 'plus size'
'To call yourself 'plus-size' is just a euphemism for being fat. Life is much easier when you're thinner. Big is not beautiful, of course a job comes down to how you look.'
2/16 Katie Hopkins on naming children
‘I think you can tell a great deal from a name. For me, there are certain names that I hear and I think ‘Urgh’. For me, a name is a shortcut of finding out what class that child comes from and makes me ask, ‘Do I want my children to play with them?’ There’s a whole set of things that go with children like that and that’s why I don’t like those sorts of children. ‘Hi, this is my daughter Charmaine’. I hear: ‘Hi, I am thick and ignorant.’’
3/16 Katie Hopkins on gender equality
'Women don't want equal treatment, they couldn't handle it if they got it. It's a tough world out there. What a lot of women are actually looking for is special treatment. What women need to realise is that they have to toughen up.'
4/16 Katie Hopkins on immigration
'I've always said if you go into a school playground and shout Mohammad, you'll probably get 100 children running towards you!"
5/16 Katie Hopkins to Benefits Street's White Dee
'Do you not feel like the patron saint of druggies and dropouts?'
6/16 Katie Hopkins on tattoos
'Are tattoos just a badge for the stupid? For me, and for lots of people like me, when you see tatoos you think of someone who is just looking for attention, who hasn't managed to find a way in their life through conventional means and who is just shouting 'I want attention! I want to be looked at!'
7/16 Katie Hopkins on addiction
‘I don’t believe what Russell Brand says about addiction. I just don’t buy it. Gazza likes drinking, let him crack on. He is enjoying himself.’
8/16 Katie Hopkins on The X Factor
'The X Factor 2013 has ended in a painful showdown between a fat mum in a jumpsuit (Sam Bailey) and a small boy in whatever his mum laid out for him on his bed (Nicholas McDonald)'
9/16 Katie Hopkins on the Egyptian uprising
'The difference between most mothers and me is that I didn’t sit around drinking coffee at baby group for 12 months after the birth of my baby. No, in three weeks I was back in my suit, back at my desk earning profit for my business and I don’t see why other women shouldn’t do the same.'
10/16 Katie Hopkins on maternity leave
'Egyptian uprising continues to look like Bonfire Night. Protest fireworks. Right up there with angry cup cakes.'
11/16 Katie Hopkins on 'gingerism'
'Ginger babies. Like a baby. Just so much harder to love. A ginger person with tattoos called Jayden? The triumvirate of horror!'
12/16 Katie Hopkins on affairs
'I lied to get someone else's husband because I wanted him. I give myself 8 out of 10 for ruthlessness for that one.'
13/16 Katie Hopkins on the elderly
‘Personally I hate mobility scooters. I find their owners intolerable. Ran past a mobility scooter going up hill. Made me giggle. I need to grow up and stop being an arse.’
14/16 Katie Hopkins after the Glasgow helicopter crash
'Life expectancy in Scotland is 59.5. Goodness me. That lot will do anything to avoid working until retirement.'
15/16 Katie Hopkins on Ramadan
'Channel 4 broadcasts Islamic calls to prayer for Ramadan. A 30 day reminder that minority rules in the UK. Any more PC, it'd be a bloody laptop.'
16/16 Katie Hopkins on self-harming
'I am advised by the Twitterati to 'cut myself'. I grazed myself on my house gate yesterday. Will that suffice?'
Since the birth of social media a fruitful relationship has developed between those who seek to offend and those who spend every waking hour looking desperately for something to be offended by. Indeed, notoriety of Katie Hopkins is largely due to the legions of people who froth with outrage at (and publicise) her every utterance.
But now things are getting really serious, for at some point we accepted the dreadful premise that unpleasant – and yes “offensive” – opinions ought to be silenced by force. Idiotic views are now considered matters for law enforcement and it is utterly terrifying.
This isn’t only about professional controversialists like Hopkins: what of the woman found guilty of a public order offence for saying that David Cameron had “blood on his hands”? Or Azhar Ahmed, who was prosecuted for an online post mocking the deaths of six British soldiers killed in Afghanistan?
All vile and grossly insensitive certainly; but on balance I think I’m more afraid of the Twitter Stasi and their increasingly zealous police enforcers.
Rather than obsessing over their tweets, we ought to leave the Katie Hopkins’s of the world to the obscurity they so richly deserve. And more importantly, we should keep the police out of it.