Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Twitter joke trial: Judge Jacqueline Davies hands a victory to the terrorists

Terrorism works by spreading fear among the population, forcing us to live diminished lives. The security precautions we have to undergo at airports and the screen that divides MPs from the public gallery at Westminster are both victories for the terrorists.

They were handed another one by the confirmation of Paul Chambers' conviction in Doncaster today. At a magistrates court hearing in May he was found guilty of sending a menacing electronic communication after posting a joke about blowing up the local airport on Twitter. According to BBC News, he was originally was fined £385 and ordered to pay a £15 victim surcharge. Today he was also ordered to pay prosecution costs of £2600.

Chambers' conviction strikes at our conception of what it means to be English. Whatever faults we might own up to, we value our ability to make a joke of everything. That was how we won the war, wasn't it?

Or as Heresy Corner puts it:
What has been on trial is the possibility of humour itself, the right of a freeborn Englishman to be facetious as and when he feels like it, about any subject whatsoever.
Against that age-old national instinct to make light of adverse circumstances - the spirit that got us through the Blitz - we now find a new and alien notion that there are some things that are beyond joking, that even an obvious joke must be treated seriously. Because it's no laughing matter. Because you can't be too careful. Because any imagined threat, however patently absurd, must be ritually investigated.
And the person making the joke must bear the responsibility for the time-consuming and costly process of investigation, even though the possibility of such an investigation never crossed his mind, just to drive the message home that You Cannot Make Jokes About Terrorism.
So I imagine Al-Qaeda are toasting the name of Judge Jacqueline Davies in the Tribal Areas tonight. She has handed them a significant victory.

We also need to ask why the Crown Prosecution Service insisted on bringing this case, apparently against the wishes of the police. Though the fact that it wastes time and public money in this was does give a clue as to why it was unable to bring any charges in the case of Ian Tomlinson.

Today has also seen the arrest of Gareth Compton, a Conservative councillor from Birmingham, for (again on Twitter) calling for Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to be stoned to death. I have been known to say harsh things about certain columnists myself, but I have to say I find that a bit extreme.

Unless, of course, you think it was a joke.

I suppose you could argue there was a tinge of racism in associating Alibhai-Brown's name with stoning. But it is hard to resist the view that the West Midlands Police must have many more important things to do than trawl Twitter for off-colour jokes.

And the sooner the Coalition's Freedom Bill appears the better. These are the sort of cases that can unite in opposition both lefty Liberal Democrats and Daily Mail reading Tories.


Mark said...

A 'tinge' of racism? A 'tinge'???

40 years ago, Compton's type would have probably freely bandied around the 'N' word and thought 'Love Thy Neighbour' was perfectly acceptable TV entertainment.

Luckily we live in more enlightened times now.

The police are right to arrest him.

Anonymous said...

While Compton indeed sounds like a rather unpleasant individual, please do not forgot what prompted his comment. It was the decidedly illiberal claim from Yasmin Alibhai-Brown that politicians do not have the right to comment on human rights abuses, even the stoning of women in Iran. Context is all.

@adambanksdotcom said...

@Mark Hang on, Alibhai-Brown raised the subject of stoning. It wasn't used by Compton as a generic racist characterisation. He was making a joke directly satirising her own remarks, which, as @Anonymous points out, were themselves highly controversial.

Do you really think everyone who makes an off-the-cuff joke at this level of offensiveness should be arrested and charged with a criminal offence? Seriously? That's enlightened?

Mark said...

It doesn't matter how controversial her statement was.

If a Jewish commentator said that politicians don't have the right to comment on human rights, even the gassing of Jews in Nazi Germany, it would be ok to tweet
'Someone should put him in a gas oven'?

Likewise if Gary Younge said that politicians don't have the right to comment on human rights, even the lynching of black people in the USA it would be ok to tweet 'Someone should hang Gary Younge from a tree'?

It wasn't an off-the-cuff comment. It was deliberately offensive and downright racist. Yet the best Jonathan can manage is 'tinged'.

Anonymous said...

@Mark, it is the nature of satire to be offensive. If it isn't offending somebody then it's not doing its job. To paraphrase Wilde, it is a category error to talk of moral or immoral satire; it should rather be considered only in artistic terms.

Personally, I thought Compton's comments were crass in the extreme. But to live in a world that forbids the making of such comments is an affront to liberty.

Jonathan Calder said...

I once said that the only moral value still recognised on the left was Not Being Racist. It seems I was right.

Yonmei said...

No one's yet provided any evidence that Yasmin Alibhai-Brown said what Gareth Compton claims she said. He's now deleted his twitterfeed but the tweet about having her stoned to death was in the middle of an argument he was having about the Demo2010 riots - in which, ironically enough, he was claiming he couldn't condone violence.

It's a perfect situation for half-listening to the radio and misunderstanding (or taking completely out of context) something that was said by someone whom Gareth Compton already disliked, as a woman and as a Muslim and as a left-wing journalist - his twitterfeed suggested a young Tory of the thoroughly closed-minded arrogant sort.

Defense of free speech should not require justification of Gareth Compton's "joke" as acceptable to anyone but his own little coterie of right-wing racists who think it's hideously funny to joke about killing horribly a woman they don't like. Just that he has a right to make such jokes without being arrested.

davidgilray said...

The problem is that a single tweet may be adjudged to be 'Improper use of public electronic communications network' in accordance with the Communications Act 2003.

The context of Paul Chamber's tweet has been ignored. The CPS brought a prosecution under the Communications Act 2003 because they knew the tweet was not a credible terrorist threat.

Anonymous said...

As ever, the Daily Mash shows the po-faced Left up for what they are:

Anonymous said...

Brilliant! I love it! England is a communist country - the sooner everyone faces it the quicker we can break it down and start again.
The state controls more here than Communist China. At the end of the day this Judge and all her cronies knew exactly waht they were doing, they knew it was a massive waste of time and money but still felt they needed to make an example out of someone just to flex their power.

Hands up if you think this country is democratic and forward thinking!! hahahaha aaaaaaahhhh hahahahaha - Muggs!!!

admin said...

If we are going to start arresting people up for making bad taste jokes then where you do you draw the line? Half the country will be in gaol before we are done. Why are the CPS (and the government via the AG) being so divisive?