I meet Luciana Berger in her Westminster office on a grim winter’s day. She’s relaxed and remarkably upbeat considering she spent the past week in court, reliving the sickening torrent of abuse that was directed at her over several months in 2014.
Earlier this month, one of the men responsible, Joshua Bonehill-Paine, 24, was found guilty of racially aggravated harassment and sentenced to two years in prison. Labour Cooperative MP for Liverpool Wavertree, Luciana is young, Jewish and female – three things that have made her a prime candidate for unprecedented abuse from neo-Nazis.
‘This abuse wasn’t over anything I’d done or said as an MP – these were just very specific attacks on me as a person,’ Luciana says. ‘At its height, the police told me I received 2500 messages over a three-day period. It went on for months and it came via blogs, Twitter, my inbox, my Facebook, my personal Instagram, and in the post. People also turned up outside my office.’
Back in October 2014, neo-Nazi Garron Helm was jailed for four weeks for tweeting a picture of Luciana with a Holocaust yellow star superimposed on her forehead, alongside the hashtag ‘Hitler was right’. His supporters were angry at his sentencing and an American neo-Nazi website started a #FilthyJewBitch campaign urging people to contact and abuse the ‘ratfaced parasite’ MP using that hashtag, and explained how to do so in an untraceable way.
Joshua Bonehill-Paine, from Somerset published several similar blogs on his own site and urging his followers to bombard Luciana with abuse for the jailing of his ‘comrade’ Garron Helm.
Luciana took screenshots of the abuse when they started coming through, but very quickly, she was unable to keep up and the police got involved.
‘I know the impact just one of these messages can have, but when you’re subject to the volume and scale of messages that I was receiving, I felt truly under attack,’ Luciana explains. ‘They were extreme, violent and anti-Semitic – often pornographic, too. It was incredibly difficult – not only for me but for my friends, my family, my team and my partner.’
Luciana had every reason to be afraid. The battle language that Bonehill-Paine used emboldened far-right demonstrators to turn up outside her Liverpool office, and ten arrests were made. In the midst of the abuse, she remembers having to attend Liverpool’s outdoor service for Remembrance Sunday. ‘I really felt quite exposed at that moment but it didn’t keep me away,’ she says. She was in constant contact with the police about her safety and since then, Luciana never advertises where she’s going to be on social media.
Photographs: David Yeo
Ironically, Luciana has always been a huge advocate of social media – she pushed for MPs to be able to use their phones in the House of Commons chamber. But having seen the very worst of humanity show up in her own feeds, she hopes that Bonehill-Paine’s conviction will send out a powerful message.
‘We should be treating what happens online exactly the same way as we do what happens offline. I’m fortunate that as an MP, I have a voice, a platform, a wonderful support structure, close family and friends and an excellent team. And, I happen to be pretty resilient. But not everybody has the luxury of all those things.’
The abuse Luciana has suffered comes in the context of Jo Cox’s murder by neo-Nazi Thomas Mair in June and the rise of the far right across Europe. Dark corners of the internet have become fertile spaces for hatred to flourish and perpetrators to feel emboldened. The task of ‘winning the Internet back’ just seems so enormous, I say. Does Luciana agree?
‘I do think social media companies can and should be doing more. If you search the hashtag #filthyjewbitch, you will still find material there from 2014 – my face defaced, using all manner of anti-Semitic language. Some of it’s been removed but not all.
‘We need safe online and offline spaces – where we can have fantastic debates and really engaging disagreements. I hope my case provides reassurance that if people suffer abuse, they will be taken seriously.’
For now, Luciana is relieved that justice has been done, but the problem isn’t going anywhere. In the first week of January, John Nimmo will be sentenced for making death threats towards Luciana, including an email in which he said she would ‘get it like Jo Cox’. She knows his sentencing will prompt an upsurge in abuse.
Luciana says, ‘I’m very conscious that my example is an extreme one. But I haven’t stopped doing my weekly surgery, I haven’t stopped knocking on doors in my constituency. I still love what I do and I’m not going anywhere.’
As I leave her office, I notice a handwritten sign on a whiteboard. It says ‘Answer the question’ (always good advice for politicians) and above that, ‘Always be extraordinary’. Considering what she’s been through, Luciana has no worries on that front.