Thursday, November 11, 2010

The day the joke was on us

I am very angry. And I am one among a lot of angry people. They may not be in the room or even necessarily on the same continent as me but we are all seething together over the verdict at today's appeal in the so-called 'Twitter joke trial'.

Here's the story in a nutshell (skip past this paragraph if you're au fait). Back in January, a trainee accountant called Paul Chambers was experiencing some frustration in his life. His local airport was closed by snow. In annoyance he left this comment on Twitter: 'Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!' Trainee accountant, remember? Not trainee Al Queda-trained terrorist. Not trainee IRA provisional. Not a disgruntled sociopath with a hatred of airports either. Just a normal guy expressing his frustration in the same way that we all do at times. Haven't we all said things like 'I could kill her/him/it for what they did' or 'This place is a shambles and should be levelled' or worse? It's our right to say what we want, to speak our minds ... within reason, naturally. Certain things are simply not acceptable in a civilised society: overt racism, incitement to violence and such. But venting your spleen by jokingly suggesting that you're going to blow up an airport is not one of them. Unless, of course, people think you're serious. And if they think that, they must believe that you intend to cause panic and fear and have the wherewithal to carry out your threat. Those are important points to remember: Intent and capability.

If I were serious about blowing up an airport I would inform the airport of my intent. Of course I would. Otherwise, how are they going to know to feel threatened? How else can I cause disruption and panic? So what method would I use? I'd probably do what 100% of terrorists do and I'd phone a national newspaper. Or the police. Or I'd call the airport itself. Would I use Twitter? Not really. It would be way down my list of choices of medium. Especially if the airport wasn't following me. That's the thing about Twitter you see; only the people following you can see your tweets. I don't know how many followers Paul Chambers had back in January but I wonder how many of them suffered fear and distress at seeing his tweet. And he didn't direct the tweet at the airport either. He voiced his frustration to a mum in Northern Ireland that he'd befriended online.

The other thing I'd probably want to do, of course, is disguise my identity. Terrorist organisations would soon run out of active members if their bomb threats went something like: 'This is Terry Smith of 128 Acacia Avenue, Dimwich. I'm going to blow up the airport.' Terrorists hide behind their organisation name or their motivation e.g. 'Striking a blow against global coffee franchises.' Paul Chambers was up front about who he was. He didn't even hide behind a false name or 'avatar', or make any attempt to hide his ISP. But he wouldn't would he? Because he's not a terrorist.

I would also probably not give my intended target 'a week and a bit' to prepare for my attack. That seems a bit silly. It offers the police a generous amount of time to (a) find me, (b) bolster airport security and (c) find my stash of explosives. Bear in mind that I've already helped them immensely by providing my identity on a platter. Oh, and if I was frustrated that the airport was closed due to snow, I probably wouldn't want to add to my frustration by blowing the place up and putting it out of commission for even longer would I? That's cutting off my nose to spite my face. The more you start to examine this case the more it becomes transparently clear that this was not the act of a terrorist.

He's not a terrorist. He's a very naughty boy.

So why then, just a short while later, was Chambers arrested under the Terrorism Act for issuing a 'genuine threat'? It's madness. I was a cop for 30 years and five minutes with the bloke would have easily convinced me that there was no threat and no intent to cause panic. Even the police officer investigating the case branded it a 'foolish comment posted on Twitter as a joke for only his close friends to see'. It's blindingly obvious that there was no malice behind it. It even ended in a brace of comedy exclamation marks!! Terrorists don't do that!! They really don't!! See how silly it is!!? There was no intent to cause terror or to inflict terror and I'm damned sure that Chambers didn't have the capability to blow up an airport. Sadly, the Crown Prosecution Service didn't agree and took the matter to court in May where, to almost every sane person's dismay, he was found guilty and fined £385 and a £15 victim surcharge. Chambers decided to appeal and today, unbelievably, he lost that appeal and was ordered to pay the outstanding fine plus new prosecution costs of £2,600. He's also been banned from Robin Hood Airport.

I can honestly say that today - a very poignant day as it happens - I'm almost ashamed to be British. What kind of democratic and fair society persecutes an individual for a flippant comment with clearly no real malice behind it? It's so obvious to even the most mean intelligence that his tweet was not a terrorist threat. Read it again: 'Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!' Has the judicial system suddenly dropped a hundred IQ points overnight? Where's the public interest in this nonsense going to court?

The problem may lie, sadly, with the fact that the judge needed to have Twitter explained and simply didn't 'get it'. Graham Linehan of Father Ted and IT Crowd fame wrote this on the Free Speech Blog:

'The Twitter joke trial is the clearest indication yet that the world is divided into two sorts of people at the moment. The people who “get it”, and the people who don’t. The people who get it are those who are living in a world that the internet has created. A new world which would have been unimaginable as little as 15 years ago. Few predicted that this place of cat videos and porn would also allow ordinary people to create content, to engage in citizen journalism, to organise peaceful online protests that bring about actual change, or to do any of the other countless, enriching things that it has made possible.

The people who don’t get it are the people in charge. Politicians (for the most part), judges (for the most part), the policemen who came to Paul Chambers’ place of work and arrested him for posting a piece of frustrated, jokey hyperbole on Twitter. These are the people who, more than anyone, need to understand the modern world. And they simply don’t. From what I understand, much of the Twitter joke trial has involved trying to communicate to judge and prosecution what Twitter actually is. And if they don’t understand it, then how can they be trusted to make proportionate, reasonable or just decisions about it?

This is the kind of case that would make me refuse jury service. It obliterates my confidence in the judicial system. Why should I let people who don’t “get it” have any power over me or anyone else? We’re trying to evolve here, and the people who don’t get it are slowing us down. If they can’t keep up, they need to get out of the way.'

David Mitchell argued that Chambers had been 'punished for flippancy', Guardian writer and snake-oil debunker Dr Ben Goldacre called the verdict 'staggeringly stupid'. Dara O'Briain said: 'An astonishing, ludicrous result. A victory for crushing literalism and scaremongering by the judiciary. Horrible. So that's the banning of sarcasm, irony, sub-text and any of the other subtleties of language that we use AS GROWN UPS.' And Stephen Fry, love that he is, tweeted that he was happy to pay Chambers' fine. 'My offer still stands,' he said, 'Whatever they fine you, I'll pay.'

This is a landmark case for those of us who choose to communicate, converse and otherwise interract with each other using social media. Does this now mean that we have to carefully consider everything we write in case someone misreads it as a threat? Good grief. Frankie Boyle better top himself right now. One tweeter made the comment, 'If you think that this doesn't affect you then just read back through what you've tweeted in the last few months'. He's right. By these new rules I'm a terrorist and so is almost everyone I know. I roared with laughter when someone tweeted, 'We'd better arrest Sophie Ellis Bextor because she said she was going to burn this place down'. In the same vein, I guess we all better cancel Friday night due to a predicted disco inferno.

The law can be as ass sometimes and today was one of those sometimes. And it's hideously ironic that this morning at eleven minutes past eleven we all gave two minutes of silence to remember those who fought and died for us so that we could live in a free and open democracy.

If you want to complain about the appeal verdict and the CPS handling of the case, you can do so here. I know I have.

And if you want to contribute to Paul's fighting fund to overturn this hugely unjust criminal conviction click here and support the Twitter Joke Trial Fund.


liam c said...

Iv just read that he lost his job over it aswell. Poor guy.

Stevyn Colgan said...


I know. It's a disgrace. Grr.

Anonymous said...

I think he should be grateful. It all forms part of the love story of his relationship with crazy colours. One to tell the grand-kids about. If not for the indulgent actions of this Judge, he might've lived the whole of his life in unpunctured anonymity. Truly a lucky chap.