No, of course it wasn’t the 8:12 offical start of the Olympic Games.
It was the news that Paul Chambers had been acquitted.
Over two and a half years ago, on 6th January 2010, Paul Chambers – then a trainee accountant – tweeted
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!!
The tweet was noticed a week later by a manager at Robin Hood airport, who realised it wasn’t a credible threat but reported it to his managers. (In the whole trail of actions, this part was the one action I found reasonable: looking out for mentions of your workplace on social media and passing it on to management if it’s in any way unusual is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.) His managers also realised it wasn’t a credible threat, but contacted the police anyway. Why? Who knows. Some jobsworth decided.
The police for some reason (anti-terrorist squad hadn’t had enough to do lately?) sent some officers over to Chambers’ workpalce and to his home. He was arrested and taken to the station in handcuffs. His home was searched and his mobile phone, laptop, and desktop hard drive were confiscated. He was charged with
“sending a public electronic message that was grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character contrary to the Communications Act 2003”
On 10th May 2010, he was found guilty at Doncaster magistrates court by the district judge Jonathan Bennett, fined £385 plus £600 costs, and as you cannot be an accountant with a criminal record, he lost his job.
He then moved to Northern Ireland and got a job there, to be with his partner Sarah Tonner, whom he’d been looking forward to flying to meet from Robin Hood Airport in January. When he appealled, his employer heard the word “terrorist” and sacked him without paying attention to any of the context: and the crown court judge Jacqueline Davies, dismissed his appeal claiming that the tweet was “clearly menacing” as airport staff were “sufficiently concerned” to report it. Both Bennett and Davies should be feeling very, very embarrassed today.
Over two years after the original conviction, as the British justice system made itself look increasingly, stuffily ridiculous trying to defend the police decision to arrest and the Doncaster magistrate’s decision to convict, finally the Royal Courts of Justice handed down a sensible verdict, concluding with:
The appeal against conviction will be allowed on the basis that this “tweet” did not constitute or include a message of a menacing character; we cannot usefully take this aspect of the appeal further.
The absurdity of Twitter Joke Trial was all along that it was clear no one – not the airport, not anyone who had seen the tweet, not the police, not even any of the courts who handed down a guilty verdict or defended one – had ever thought that Paul Chambers’ 6th January tweet was intended to convey, or could convey, any real threat of an attack on any airport.
John Cooper QC, representing Chambers, said:
“It’s an important decision for social networks. It means that in future not only does a message have to be of a truly menacing character but the person who sends it has to intend it to be menacing.
“Now people can have a joke even if it’s a bad joke … this case should never have been prosecuted and it may be that the CPS will have questions to answer about this.”
David Allen Green, acting as Chambers’s solicitor, said:
“This shameful prosecution should never have been brought. For two and a half years the CPS have adopted a ridiculous position. There are very serious questions for the director of public prosecutions to answer in this case. We welcome this very clear judgment that sets out a high threshold for what constitutes a menacing character.”
In an attempt to get some ghastly “good balance” into the otherwise joyous reporting for a clear victory for freedom of speech even when that means making bad jokes, the Guardian dug up a self-appointed “social media expert” named Chris Watson.
As far as I can tell, he doesn’t have a Twitter account. He works for the law firm CMS Cameron McKenna LLP, which, brightly enough, has two Twitter accounts.
(David Allen Green, who actually is a social media expert, as @DavidAllenGreen has made 1,245 tweets, Follows 939 accounts, and has 33,177 Followers. In terms of Twitter clout, that makes @DavidAllenGreen rather more than 25 times as effective as @CMS_law.)
Chris Watson bloviates:
“This verdict will be seen as a victory for freedom of speech campaigners, but I can see why the CPS pursued this case.
“The police have a duty to take all terrorism threats seriously, but specifically on the question of what people can say on social media, the public seems very unaware that the same rules apply to social media as any other public forum.
“While the ruling today suggests the threat to Robin Hood airport should not have been considered credible, the public would be very wrong to take this as a green light to say whatever they want on social media, without consequence. I expect to see the police and CPS to bring similar cases to court in an attempt to correct public misconceptions on where the law stands.”
What are we to make of this statement?
If Chris Watson has a Twitter account, it is not under the name Chris Watson. If Chris Watson has been following #TwitterJokeTrial at all he could hardly have failed to miss the point that thousands of people who read the original tweet made without benefit of legal training: the tweet wasn’t a menacing threat because (a) Paul Chambers provably didn’t intend it as such (b) No one who saw the tweet treated it as if they felt menaced, including the police.
It seems to us unsurprising, but not irrelevant, that none of those who read the message during the first days after it appeared thought anything of it. In our view, the Crown Court read too much into the observation of Lord Bingham in his judgment in the House of Lords that the criminality of the sender cannot depend upon whether a message is received by A or by A’s reaction. Lord Bingham was saying no more than that a message proved by an objective assessment, applying the standards of an open and multi-racial society to be of a prescribed kind, does not cease to be so just because it was not received or because the person who received it was not, in the context of the present prosecution, menaced. The effect of the message on those who read it is not excluded from the consideration. Among the many followers who would have read the appellant’s “tweet” there would surely have been some who would have reported such a threat if any one of them thought it was to be taken even half seriously. It is not, of course, a requirement of this offence that the threat should immediately have been reported to the police, but given the nature of the “threat”, namely, that an airport would be blown up, it would be surprising if the reasonable member of the public of normal fortitude, alert to the risks of terrorism faced by our society, would have chosen to ignore it. More important, because they would have been quite uninfluenced by their knowledge of the appellant deduced from his previous messages, the two gentlemen responsible for the safety of the airport showed no anxiety or urgency in dealing with it. It was treated and addressed as if it was not a credible threat. The airport police took no action. No evidence was provided to suggest that even minimal consequential protective measures were taken at the airport, or that the level of perceived threat was heightened. Indeed, notwithstanding the nature of the “threat”, we can detect no urgent response to it. Police action was not exactly hurried. After the investigation, the South Yorkshire Police concluded that the appellant presented no threat. Although this conclusion reflected the outcome of the investigation rather than the immediate reaction to the text of the message, it was in fact entirely consistent with the attitude and approach of those who had seen the message before the investigation began.
The police have a duty to take all terrorism threats seriously. The police do not have a duty to take all stupid jokes about blowing things up as seriously as if they were terrorism threats.
Chris Watson says “the public seems very unaware that the same rules apply to social media as any other public forum” – but he himself seems very unaware that it’s precisely because the same rules apply that people who make stupid jokes about blowing up airports should not be arrested as terrorists. If I say “I could murder a curry!” I should not be arrested for inciting racial hatred.
He adds, this “social media expert” that he expects to see the police and CPS “bring similar cases to court”: quite possibly they will, and indeed in Scotland they already have (in 2007 a Glaswegian student who was arrested, tried, convicted and jailed for several years for blogging, for example, got treated even worse than Paul Chambers, perhaps because his name was Mohammed Atif Siddique) but if so, it will be as unjustified as it was in the Twitter Joke Trial.
Not long ago, several fans of Ched Evans were arrested for tweeting the name of the woman he raped: a crime, whether you do it in the headline of a tabloid or the confines of a tweet. People have lost their jobs, lost their chances to stand for election, been arrested, gone to jail, for things they tweeted. What Chris Watson, self-proclaimed “social media expert” missed completely was that everyone on Twitter who had been following the trial is rejoicing because everyone could see that there had been a stupid miscarriage of justice.
No doubt the Guardian wanted to show “balance” by having a negative view in their article. But they really didn’t need to. Sometimes, good news is just good news.
John Betjeman is free to tweet “Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough” without being prosecuted for aid and comfort to the enemy. William Shakespeare can tweet “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” without being prosecuted by a frightened eloquence of barristers, and I can tweet that I think George Osborne should be torn to pieces by a pack of wild dogs witout anyone thinking I would give anything as indigestible as a Tory to dogs I was responsible for.
— David Allen Green (@DavidAllenGreen) July 27, 2012