MP ‘feared for her safety’ after ‘relentless’ social media posts, court heard

A Sunderland MP who was allegedly harassed on Facebook and Twitter told the court how the posts were “relentless” and had her “fearing for her safety”.

Leonard Lowther, 66, of Marine Walk, Sunderland, is accused of one count of harassment against Sunderland Central Labour MP Julie Elliott between February 2018 and October 2018.

During the first day of the trial at South Tyneside Magistrates’ Court on Tuesday, the court was told how Lowther alleged that Ms Elliott had “faked documents” in order to prosecute a man.

In the posts, Lowther also accused Ms Elliott of using Northumbria Police as her “personal police force.”

Prosecutor Rachel Masters said Lowther had a number of issues with Sunderland City Council about the redevelopment in his local area and that Ms Elliott launched an investigation which found nothing untoward.

The court heard how a personal Facebook account, a Facebook group called ‘The Problem with Sunderland is Labour’ which Lowther was administrator of and a Twitter account, were allegedly used to posts comments.

Giving evidence in court, Detective Sergeant David Reeves said he was asked to take “ownership” of the investigation so it was run in a “coherent fashion”.

He explained how a man was prosecuted after the phrase ‘Hang the old hag’ was posted on ‘The Problem with Sunderland is Labour’ page in relation to Ms Elliott.

The officer told the court how Lowther then commented ‘More please’ underneath the post on February 6, 2018.

Following the man’s conviction on May 17, 2018, Lowther, is said to have posted a number of tweets directed towards Ms Elliott.

He made reference to when Labour’s John McDonnell said during a meeting that Conservative Esther McVey “should be lynched”.

Lowther said in one post: “It’s one rule for us and one for them”.

On March 9, another man was investigated by police for allegedly posting a threatening comment in relation to staff working at Ms Elliott’s office in Sunderland.

However, the case was dropped due to “evidential issues”.

A member of the public, who did not want to become involved in the investigation, sent a screenshot of the post to the police and Ms Elliott but officers had to source the content independently.

Det Sgt Reeves explained: “The individual who provided the material did not want to provide a statement to police.

“The CPS asked the police to capture the material independently, however, the material in question couldn’t be recovered as it was part of a closed Facebook group.

“We couldn’t gain access and we were unable to recover it ourselves.”

After the case was dropped, Lowther accused Ms Elliott and her office of “faking documents” and “perverting the course of justice”.

The officer said: “He believed whether it by Julie Elliott, her office or the police some sort of collusion occurred and that the post was manufactured by ourselves in some way to have the man investigated and prosecuted.”

Following further posts, Lowther was arrested on September 20, 2018, and the police seized a number of devices from his home including a mobile phone.

On examination of his devices, officers found messages on Facebook messenger which asked people to repeat the phrase ‘Hang the old hag’.

It said: “We need to work together to stop Julie Elliott use her personal police force to prosecute people.”

Giving evidence, Ms Elliott said she found the tweets “very upsetting” and said they were “just not true”.

She told the court: “I found all these tweets very upsetting because they were accusing myself, my office and my son of lying.

“Those tweets were saying my office and family were lying and that we were breaking the law which was just not true.

“It questions our credibility, our honesty and none of it was true. I have lost staff because they didn’t feel like they could cope with the constant threat and fear.

“This was just a small sample of what was actually going on it was absolutely relentless.

“I would see, most days, this kind of stuff, it felt like it was non-stop.

“To encourage people to keep posting something I found quite distressing, I find quite malicious and quite nasty. I still find it distressing all these years after it happened.”

Ms Elliott also said the allegations were repeated to her when she visited constituents and said it impacted the 2019 general election.

She said she had to take extra safety measures and wouldn’t walk in the city centre alone.

When asked about the allegations Lowther made of using Northumbria Police as her “personal police force” she said: “It’s just ridiculous. The police have nothing to do with the Labour Party, they are there to look after people.”

During cross-examination, Simon Myerson QC asked Ms Elliott why she didn’t block Lowther on Twitter to which she replied: “I felt I needed to know what was being said for my office and family.”

He asked why she didn’t look to take civil action for defamation against Lowther but Ms Elliott said you “need funds to do that” and insisted she took “all the action” she could.

Mr Myerson then turned to the point made by Lowther about John McDonnell not being prosecuted after his remarks and repeatedly asked: “Do you understand the point that is being made?” To which the MP replied: “No I don’t.”

Asked if she believes in freedom of expression and whether offensive language should be used, Ms Elliott said: “there is a line”.

The defence lawyer read out an extract from an interview Ms Elliott gave to the Mirror about concerns for MP’s safety.

He said: “In November 2019, you are making a public statement that extra security measures have been part of your office since November 2017.

“Were these extra safety measures really put in place because of this defendant?”

She said: “After my friend, Jo Cox was murdered all MP’s had had certain security measures put in place. The extra security was as a result of all of these issues.

Ms Elliott added: “They were entirely down to Mr Lowther and the people he knows.”

The trial continues.

Chronicle Live – Sunderland