Recap from day two at court as Len Lowther stands accused of harassing MP Julie Elliott on Twitter
The trial of a Sunderland man accused of harassing a Sunderland MP using social media went into its second day on Wednesday, February 17.
Leonard Lowther denies that between February 2018 and October 2018 he harassed Sunderland Central MP Julie Elliott by repeatedly publishing a menacing message online and contacting her via Twitter.
The charge continues to say Lowther, of Pier Cottages in Marine Walk, Roker, repeatedly claimed Ms Elliott was guilty of perverting the course of justice and accused her of conspiring with others to “use Northumbria Police as a personal police force” in online posts and flyers.
The case is being heard at South Tyneside Magistrates’ Court before District Judge Kathryn Meek and is scheduled to conclude later on Wednesday.
Lowther had raised the matter with Ms Elliott, who carried out her own probe, and found no problems with its conduct.
Tuesday’s witnesses included Detective Sergeant David Reeves, of Northumbria Police, who detailed the investigation into the 66-year-old.
The court heard the case is linked with a Twitter account belonging to Lowther, his own Facebook page and one called The Problem with Sunderland is Labour, which he was an administrator of.
It is also connected to two other cases, one which led to a conviction of a man who posted the phrase “Hang the old hag” and of another man involving an image of woman hanging.
Screenshots of this second purposed post were sent to police and Ms Elliott’s office, but the case was dropped when police failed to gather evidence independently, leading Lowther to claim it was “fake document” made by the MP and her team.
She said they had changed the way her office worked, caused concern for both her staff and family and left her unable to walk into the city centre on her own.
See below for updates on how Wednesday’s hearing unfolded. The case has now been adjourned to a date to be determined.
Recap from day two at court as Sunderland man stands accused of harassing MP Julie Elliott on Twitter
Last updated: Wednesday, 17 February, 2021, 16:01
Evidence begins on day two of trial
Graham March, Julie Elliott’s office manager is giving evidence at Wednesday's hearing.
He had explained he has been in the role for 10 years, having been involved in Labour politics for more than 25 years.
He said his first contact with Lowther was in 2013, in relation to contact they had regarding the defendant’s concerns about the Pier Point development.
Knowing there was a history, Ms Elliott’s office’s inquiry was very thorough and was completed in December 2017.
Mr March was aware of the defendant’s Twitter account and monitors social media, but did not tweet from Ms Elliott's account.
He said it was his role to look at that, with a view to looking after his staff.
He became aware of concerning tweets in January 2018, and then sent posts on to the police.
Mr March continues evidence
Rachel Masters, prosecuting, has asked Mr March about a post saying “Hang the old hag” by a man on the Problem with Sunderland is Labour Facebook page.
He gave evidence in the trial against that man, and said lots of posts were made daily.
In his role, Mr March checked posts each morning to look at the risk to his team.
He told the court that one man had already been found guilty of posting the phrase.
“It was established that it was harassment, we all knew that, yet this man was trying to whip up a mob to commit harassment of Julie Elliott," Mr March said.
“So yes, I was disgusted.”
He continued to say the team felt like “sitting ducks” with concerns someone would be attacked or hurt.
He also said it was felt to be a better idea to monitor posts on social media, rather than mute or block, so they knew and could assess the risk.
Mr March notes Lowther was banned from Facebook, but people were still reacting to posts, so monitoring continued.
Ms Masters has also referred to a post made by another man, of a woman hanging. This was made in around April 2018, and was reported to police.
Ms Elliott's office were also aware of a post by Lowther, which said the MP wanted to get people arrested and asking people to share the same phrase on the Facebook page.
Witness is cross examined
Mr March is now being cross examined by Simon Myerson QC.
Mr Myerson questions the term “whipping up a mob” and says that is a very serious allegation.
He is asking why, if that is a central point of evidence, it was not in Mr March’s statement.
Mr March says that point is in that document, noting posts discussing where Ms Elliott lived on a post about a protest.
He added that this, and other posts, were an “inflammatory act” to target the MP.
Mr March also said Lowther posted several times a day, and had numerous conversations with police.
Mr Myerson has questioned Mr March about an earlier comment he made about images of guns - not made by the defendant Lowther.
The officer manager says they were not central to this.
He says those seeking Ms Elliott's address were on the Facebook page the defendant ran, and added a thumbs up under the post.
The page had 12,000 members.
Mr Myerson says the Facebook page was a place where people vented frustration online about how Sunderland is run.
Mr March said Lowther was able to delete and monitor the page, with many people reacting to things the defendant had posted.
It included posts of politicians being shot. Mr March says he probably did send them to police at the time.
Mr March continues to answer questions
Mr March has said he checked social media as a duty of care for the team. Some posts would say people planned to attend Ms Elliott's office, and one person did.
A set of rules and measures were put in place to ensure the staff were kept safe.
Lowther would still be posting numerous times a day.
Mr March said it was “uncharted waters” and it was hard to judge at what stage something was more than venting or beyond freedom of speech.
He says he may have contacted police about the image of the gun, which was posted on the Facebook page.
Mr Myerson asked, does Mr March contact police knowing they would act, to which he has said no.
He started to contact police with concerns around January 2018.
Mr March in a statement that these concerns were directly and indirectly linked with the defendant.
Tweets from Lowther were noted, but he told police it appears others had been deleted.
Mr Myerson is questioning why Mr March's statement is from April, if there were concerns earlier.
Mr March has explained this was a process and gained momentum and the language became inflamed and got to the point where something had to be done.
Cross-examination of Mr March continues
Mr Myerson has read a social media post to the court, which said: “The whole bunch are as bent as nine-bob notes, let battle commence” and another saying “The fight is just starting.”
He questions whether these are threatening.
Mr Myerson also notes a post referring to the man already convicted of harassing Ms Elliott, which says they should try to get it overturned.
He makes reference to posts about the document the defendant Lowther has claimed is faked by the MP's office, with the aim of perverting the course of justice.
Another post asked if the MP would be attending a public protest.
Mr Myerson goes on to detail a post where Lowther asked people to post the phrase “Hang the old hag”.
Mr March said: “Mr Lowther was fairly obsessed with Julie at the time, if you’re asking me about his reasoning, I’m not clear.
He compared the post calling for others to post the phrase “Hang the old hag” as an “I’m Spartacus” situation and that “chatter” develops into something else.
He also says someone called the office and issued threats, adding that posts like the defendant’s could influence others.
Mr March says he does view the phrase “Hang the old hag” as something which could lead to violence.
As a man had been convicted of using it, it was known to break the law under a malicious communication, he added.
Discussions of evidence and timeline
Another man posted an image of concern, and it is agreed that Ms Elliott found the post threatening. That man was under threat of prosecution.
Mr Myerson says it’s claimed the intensity of the situation increased, and asks where that became clear.
Mr March says he can’t say why that was, because there was so much evidence.
He said it was him who lived through it and knows of his experience. Whether that’s in his statement is open to interpretation, he added.
Mr Myerson suggests the office waited until they had enough to report the defendant.
Mr March said that wasn’t the case and it was “grim reading on a daily basis.”
Mr Myerson has said he himself is blocked by George Galloway, but is still able to see what he tweets by bringing up the account in an internet window.
To that end, Lowther could have been blocked and they still could have read what he posted, he added.
Mr March agreed the issue might be handled differently today, and they may have just blocked. In a statement, he said it was policy not to block at that stage.
He added that they may have also sought advice from Parliament.
‘Duty of care'
Mr Myerson had asked about the use of the phase “duty of care.”
Mr March has said they didn’t show Ms Elliott all of the messages because they were “incessant” and it would have been detrimental to her mental health.
It was a judgement call he had to make, whether he showed her the posts or not.
Mr March says they took extra security measures in the time the defendant was active on social media.
Mr March’s evidence ends
Mr March has finished his evidence following a final point about the defendant being banned from Facebook for life.
This happened 10 months to a year after Mr March contacted Facebook’s public affairs team, the court heard.
He said the site is “loath to ban anybody” and it is not a quick process.
Recess until 1.30pm
Court has adjourned until 1.30pm on Wednesday.
An update from this morning’s hearing
The court had been told this morning by Mr Myerson that the defendant will not be called to give evidence.
Ms Masters had read written statements Lowther gave to police during the hearing.
In the first, he makes reference to an image he shared, but did not make, which he said was political and had been interviewed over three times.
He said he believed this was harassment by the police and the police and crime commissioner (PCC), with his computer seized. He requested his computer back.
Lowther also referred to a document he says was sent by Ms Elliott and her son Miles to try and incriminate a man, also mentioning the PCC and the Chief Constable.
In another, he said he did tweet Ms Elliott - and as an MP and politician she should be open to criticism, but it did not intend to intimate, scare, threaten or intimidate her.
He also referred to a fake document again, which he said was from her office.
On both occasions he declined to answer any questions.
In one of the statements, Lowther also flagged concerns about the right to freedom of speech during a police interview.