Recap from first day of trial as Sunderland man Len Lowther stands accused of harassing Labour MP Julie Elliott
The trial has begun of a man charged with the harassment of Sunderland Central Labour MP Julie Elliott.
Leonard Lowther, 66, of Pier Cottages, Marine Walk, Roker, denies that between February 2018 and October 2018 he harassed her by repeatedly publishing a menacing message and contacted her via Twitter.
The charge also sets out he repeatedly alleged she was guilty of perverting the course of justice and accusing her of conspiring with others to “use Northumbria Police as a personal police force.”
Rachel Masters, prosecuting at South Tyneside Magistrates’ Court, said the case was set against a lengthy background of issues Lowther has with Sunderland City Council about the redevelopment of sites, including those close to his home.
District Judge Kathryn Meek was told an inquiry into the council’s dealings found no issues, other than regarding communications with South Tyneside Council over the plans.
The defendant raised his concerns with Ms Elliott, who carried out her own investigation and found no wrong doing.
The court was told the case centres around a Twitter account he used, along with his personal page on Facebook and a group he was an administrator of called The Problem with Sunderland is Labour.
It is linked to two other court cases, one against a man convicted of posting the phrase “Hang the old hag” in relation to Ms Elliott – under which Lowther posted the phrase “More of this please”.
It is said Lowther – who sent scores of tweets to Ms Elliott – invited others on his page and via messenger to add the same phrase under the post, which had led to the man’s arrest.
He stated “It’s one rule for them and another for us” because action had not been taken against Labour’s John McDonnell when he made and declined to withdraw his views that Conservative politician Esther McVey should be “lynched.”
The court was told an investigation against another man was closed after police failed to capture their own evidence, reportedly of an image of a woman hanging, shared in a closed group, said to be in reference to the MP.
A screen grab was sent to police and Ms Elliott’s office by someone who declined to give evidence, leading Lowther to claim it was a “fake document.”
The trial is expected to last two days.
See below for updates from the hearing on Tuesday.
Recap from court as man appears accused of harassing Sunderland MP Julie Elliott on Twitter
Last updated: Tuesday, 16 February, 2021, 16:15
Earlier today, Detective Sergeant David Reeves, of Northumbria Police, gave evidence.
He explained he had been tasked with dealing with a number of similar inquiries to bring some “coherence” to the investigations.
He noted the phrase used in the post on social media which had led to another man’s conviction had been found to cause upset through that trial held before a magistrates’ court.
He said: “Ms Elliott found the material to be of a threatening nature.
“To then make contact with Ms Elliott through an ongoing process and inviting to return to that image to her would seem to actively lead her to make a complaint about the tweets and seems to me a clear case of harassment.”
Julie Elliott MP gives evidence
Julie Elliott is now giving evidence in court and has introduced herself and agreed with the prosecution she has an office manager called Graham March and that her son Miles, who has served as a Sunderland councillor, worked in her office at the time.
She has explained she does not know the defendant but understands he has social media pages.
She first came across him as a MP following his contact about the development around Roker Pier by the council.
She’s explained she has “nothing at all” to do with those plans, but had asked her to get involved.
She looked to gather a “comprehensive response” about his concerns and went to some length.
“I was satisfied everything had been done correctly” and she informed the defendant of her detailed findings and would not offer any further correspondence, but would about any other matters.
MP tells court harassment was ‘relentless’
Ms Elliott’s office became aware in February 2018 about a post on The Problem with Sunderland is Labour Facebook page by a man using the phrase: “Hang the old hag” and police were contacted by her office.
Ms Masters is referring to another case, which was dropped following issues with the police investigation.
Ms Elliott explained she did not have any involved in that case, but her son Miles did.
Ms Masters has referred to a Twitter post she was included in sent by the defendant which said they should get the outcome of the case against the convicted man overturned.
Ms Elliott says she found the tweets upsetting because they were accusing her, her staff and son of lying.
She said it was a small example of that was going on and it was “absolutely relentless.”
Defendant encouraged ‘malicious and nasty’ messages, court hears
Ms Elliott was made aware of a post by the defendant asking people to post the phrase 'hang the hag' and believes that he encouraged others to add it to the page.
She had also been told of a message the defendant sent directly to a woman saying the same.
She said: “Even after all these years, its an expression I find deeply distressing and to encourage people to keep posting it, I find quite malicious and nasty.”
When asked about the police, she said: “The police have nothing to do with the Labour Party, they are there to look after people.”
Claims MP ‘faked documents’ were repeated back to her on doorsteps after social media and leaflet campaign
She says she believes the reference to a “fake document” was in relation to a court case which did not proceed and says the claims her office fabricated it are “not true.”
She said in addition to social media, claims her office had fabricated documents were put on leaflets and put through people’s doors.
She said even if she had wanted to escape it on social media, she couldn’t because people would send it on or ring her about it.
She said the damage to her reputation had been “big” with the claims said back to her on the doorstep when she spoke to voters.
MP ‘muted’ Len Lowther’s Twitter account
The muting or blocking facility has been raised in the court hearing.
Ms Elliott has told the court he was muted from her Twitter account, but her team and family needed to know what was being said.
MP believes false claims impacted 2019 election
Ms Elliott has told the court she believes the claims the allegations had an impact on the 2019 general elections.
Ms Elliott has detailed how the situation has put pressure on her team and impacted on her family.
She said it has completely changed how she operates as a MP.
The MP said she was left fearful and would not go into the city centre alone and sometimes would not leave the house at all.
Julie Elliott MP is being cross examined by Simon Myerson QC.
He has asked why she muted the defendant.
It would be possible for someone else to monitor the account, she says.
Mr Myerson QC asked: "When she was distressed did she look to mitigate that?"
Ms Elliott said she spoke to the police during the whole period and most of the issues were on Facebook, which she doesn’t look at.
In terms of Twitter, no one suggested she do anything different.
Mr Myerson QC asked Ms Elliott if she would support a prosecution of Labour's John McDonnell over comments he made about 'lynching' a Conservative MP.
Ms Elliott told the court she has no view on that and that she was only made aware of the comments through the defendant.
She would not condone the language, she says.
When asked about freedom of expression and whether people should be able to make offence she says “there is a line.”
MP feared she would be physically attacked
Mr Myerson has said that in regards to Ms Elliott's concerns she would be physically attacked, the evidence was not strong enough.
Ms Elliott said that she did not know that.
She said her office manager would be keeping an eye on posts and it was something which impacting on her team.
Defence asks MP why she didn’t sue defendant
Mr Myerson QC questioned Ms Elliott as to why she didn't Sue Mr Lowther and said the reputational impact of the defamation, he says, could have been acted on by suing someone.
Ms Elliott said that can only be done with enough money.
She said she did not take civil action, such as an injunction, but she said she reported them to the police and her party.
Mr Myserson QC suggested that an injunction could have dealt with the matter within days.
Ms Elliott again said that costs money, and she reported it to the police and parliamentary authorities.
Ms Eliott said her team was advised the only route was if Miles took action and they would only get back what was spent.
Mr Myerson QC tells the court Ms Elliottdid not take any steps to stop it.
Ms Elliott said she took all action she could through the police and others. She did not spend money privately to take action.