A ‘LONER’ who had originally been given a three months jail term for telling a UK national newspaper columnist he hoped he received a “bullet in the brain” regarding coverage of Brexit, has now, on appeal, had the sentence suspended for a period of three years.
Ryan McKillop was originally given a three months jail term at Ballymena Magistrates Court after pleading guilty to sending a ‘menacing’ message by an electronic communications network – Instagram – to the columnist, named in Antrim County Court as Owen Jones of The Guardian.
The defendant had accepted the original conviction but was appealing the length of sentence and the case was back in court on Monday morning.
Prosecution barrister Eoghan McCarthy had told the County Court, last Friday, that at approximately 5.47am on September 1, 2019, “Owen Jones, a journalist working for The Guardian newspaper”, received a message from an Instagram account in the name of Ryan McKillop.
The prosecutor said Mr Jones then shared that message on social media “to show his followers the type of abuse he gets from Far Right activists”.
The prosecutor said McKillop’s message read: ‘As a supporter of the Far Right I think I speak for a lot of people when I say I hope you get a bullet to the brain’.
The message continued: ‘The Far Right is taking over all of Europe slowly but surely, the numbers don’t lie, and when we are in charge all you liberals, traitors and fake news journalists and dead meat, along with your families, you will be first up against the wall, you just wait and see’.
The prosecutor said police found the Instagram account was registered to the defendant who admitted sending the message but that McKillop had told police he didn’t believe it was “threatening or menacing”.
The prosecutor said the defendant told police he had sent the message in a “state of anger as the injured party, Owen Jones, was calling for the Brexit vote to be overturned”.
The lawyer said McKillop believed such a call had “amounted to treason”.
The defendant watched the court proceedings through a video link from the offices of his defence solicitor Sara Edge.
Defence barrister Neil Moore had told Friday’s Court McKillop had seen Mr Jones in television interviews at “the height” of Brexit coverage and he sent the columnist a “private message” on Instagram.
Mr Moore said the columnist had then re-tweeted the message on Twitter to his “many, many, thousands of followers” and it was one of the Twitter followers who reported the matter to police.
The defence barrister claimed it was not the case that Mr Jones “believed that the threat would be carried out”.
Mr Moore said McKillop was a “very isolated and lonely individual”.
The lawyer said the case was a “prime example” of how social media has changed the world and how people are now surrounded by the internet.
The barrister said McKillop had sent the message “in the midst of a frenzy throughout the UK” regarding Brexit and people could now join the debate by picking up their phone.
Mr Moore said the defendant had looked at the views of the journalist “who has aligned himself to some of the views of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party”.
He said McKillop was not a “scholar” and held “no particular political view”.
Mr Moore said celebrities were trolled and the trolls were “never prosecuted” but when police saw McKillop’s message officers were of the opinion it was a “menacing” message.
The lawyer said District Judge Nigel Broderick had made it clear previously at the Magistrates Court that the press needed to be protected.
Mr Moore said he did not detract from that and was not excusing what McKillop had done but said it was a situation were the journalist made the point it was the sort of abuse he received on a daily basis.
The lawyer said it would be “much more difficult” for McKillop – who he described as a “loner” – to do Probation as a prison sentence would teach him very little.
The barrister said the defendant was on “state benefits” and had been described by many people as an “armchair warrior”,
Mr Moore said the “tenor” of the message was certainly concerning but said the “irony” in the case and that of multi-media was that McKillop has now “received over one hundred death threats through multimedia”.
The lawyer said the defendant had reported those to police and “nothing has happened about them because they have come from all walks of life, from people all over the internet, all different sources, and that was the backlash he himself received because of what he did”.
The lawyer submitted that if the judge wished to teach the defendant a lesson and ensure that the public would be better protected in the future, the intervention of Probation would be much more difficult for McKillop than spending six weeks in jail – half of the three months sentence.
Her Honour Judge Patricia Smyth had said on Friday she was “going to reflect on” the case and adjourned sentencing.
Back at court she has now given her ruling, saying the background appeared to be McKillop’s “disagreement” with the views expressed by the journalist regarding the Brexit debate and whether there should be a second vote.
The judge added: “There is no question that in a democratic society people must be free to express opinion without fear of retribution from those who hold a different opinion”.
She said “the freedom of the press to articulate and express opinion must be jealously guarded”.
Judge Smyth said any attempt to threaten or cause harm to a journalist was “particularly serious”.
The judge said there was no victim impact statement and the prosecution accepted McKillop’s message was not reported to police by the journalist but rather he re-tweeted it to his large number of followers “to illustrate the daily abuse to which he was subjected by those we commonly refer to as trolls”.
She said there was no evidence that the journalist was “significantly distressed or particularly anxious about this threat materalising” and it was accepted that McKillop did not know the “victim’s whereabouts in England”.
Judge Smyth said there was nothing to suggest the defendant had information that may have led the journalist to be concerned for his “immediate safety or that of his family”.
The judge said she was not wishing to undermine the seriousness of “vile, abusive, messages to journalists,” but said in this case “however shameful and offensive” the message had been, there were grounds for suspending the three months sentence.
Judge Smyth said she wished to make it quite clear that had the victim “been a local journalist”; if the offending had been repeated or if there was evidence of pre-planning and acting with others, she would have imposed an immediate three months prison term.
Sentencing the defendant to a three months jail term, but suspending it for three years, the judge warned McKillop (40), of Bank Road, Larne, if he committed another offence the likelihood was that he would be jailed.