#twitterjoketrial,  twitter

A conspiracy of sentiment

Yesterday Paul Chambers lost his appeal against his fine and conviction for posting a joke on twitter which was prosecuted under the anti-terrorist legislation.

The case was so obviously ridiculous that everyone thought common-sense would prevail, but eschewing humour and reality, Judge Jacqueline Davies deemed the tweet "menacing in its content and obviously so. It could not be more clear. Any ordinary person reading this would see it in that way and be alarmed."

Any ordinary person would have seen it as a joke. I had previously thought this was simply a case of the law getting itself in a mess, escalating something and then being unable to climb down. Added to that a healthy dose of people not understanding twitter

Now though I'm convinced it's more than that. I don't believe in conspiracy theories, I know all those involved haven't got together at some late night meeting and decided to make a random citizen's life a misery. But when something so nonsensical progresses through multiple stages and possibilities to put an end to it, then you have to look for some explanation. I think although there is no outright conspiracy, what we do have is a conspiracy of sentiment. All those involved at various stages: politicians, the police, CPS, judges, media are all acting from the same unspoken emotional base. This can be summarised as: they hate you.

They hate that you undermine their carefully crafted messages and turn them into jokes. They hate that you are forming new methods of entertainment that they don't understand. They hate that you can organise yourselves without them knowing about it. They hate that power has been democratised. They hate that you get at content for free. They hate it, hate it, hate it. So when the opportunity arises to stamp on one of you snivelling social media types, they grasp it with both hands.

And that's why the Twitter Joke Trial is important – because it reveals the mindset of those in power, and because it will be the first of many attempts by them to control or at least seek revenge on what they don't understand and loathe.


  • Steve Wheeler

    Agree totally. The entire thing was a farce, but underlying it is an insidious and cynical movement by the ‘powers that be’ to maintain control. A warning to them all – it’s not possible to control the web. Remember King Cnut.

  • Andy Powell

    I’m not sure I agree…
    It’s just a prime example of ignorance and stupidity isn’t it? No more, no less.
    That people in power are capable of ignorance and stupidity on such a mass scale is disappointing in the extreme … but shouldn’t really come as too much of a surprise 🙁
    There’s no point in judging these people by the standards of ordinary people because, more often then not, they are not ordinary people – that is one of the problems with our system of ‘government’ (I’m using that term very broadly here). But I don’t think that ‘hatred’ as such is at play here… just stupidity and ignorance.
    Let’s give them some credit! 🙂

  • Crosbie Fitch

    There’s still a heck of a lot of indoctrination in ‘social media types’ too.
    How many people will exhibit the doublethink of finding jokes about bombs fine (even if overheard by people listening in to someone else’s conversation), but maintain that infringing a comedian’s copyright over their joke is not fine?

  • Martin

    @Andy – that’s what I thought, but that might account for one or two failures of common sense, but there seems to be something more systematic here. Maybe hatred is too strong (though when you see some of the sentiment from the likes of the Daily Mail towards social media, maybe not), but I think the authorities are all operating from the same emotional base of suspicion and mistrust.
    @Niall – yes, that one is certainly more problematic, and difficult to defend. I think in the Chambers case it is so obviously a joke, and to his friends that there is no case to answer. In Compton’s case it is less clearly so because a) it can be seen as racist incitement and b) he’s an elected councillor. Nevertheless, I still think applying the full force of the law is a dangerous path to go down for any society that really values free speech. I take it that you’re not suggesting the Chambers verdict is appropriate?

  • Will Reader

    I agree with Niall here. I would be interesting to see whether Gareth Compton has received anything like as much support as Paul Chambers. There are differences in that Compton is a public servant and that his tweet was directed at an individual rather than a building (which, admittedly, contains individuals). Further, the tweet directed at Yasmin Alibhai-Brown was offensive to her. But is offence a good enough reason to prosecute someone?
    Good debate about this on FiveLive at the moment.

  • Niall Sclater

    @Martin @Will We hold freedom of speech dear but there are areas where society has deemed it unacceptable or illegal to say certain things such as libellous or racist comments. Here are some controversial examples:
    Rangers fans singing the song “Billy Boys”. This is technically illegal and has been deemed unacceptable by the club. Section 74 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act can be used in cases of religious and sectarian prejudice. A bit of harmless banter between fans which livens up the atmosphere of Old Firm matches? That’s one way to look at it. If you’re a catholic who’s had a kid killed by sectarian violence you would certainly find it offensive. Tweeting lyrics from this song would arguably bear similarities to the attack on Alibhai-Brown, though not aimed at one individual.
    Another problematic case is that of the Danish cartoons of Mohammed. Most people in the UK would consider that the media should be free to publish what it likes and to lampoon any religion. On the other hand out of respect for Moslems and other people of faith I would never personally consider publishing anything likely to cause such widespread offence. Should the law be used to crack down on such cases because of their potential to incite religious hatred or is that going too far in a democracy?
    Now to threats of bombing airports. There have been widely reported cases of people being arrested at airports as they’re going through security because they’ve made some comment about having a bomb in their bag. Is arresting the individual at that point acceptable? Should the security people give them the benefit of the doubt and let them pass through? If tweeting a bomb threat from your home is acceptable what about tweeting it from your mobile as you’re about to go through security?

  • Martin

    But Niall, come now – he didn’t send the message to the airport, but rather to his friends. And as many have commented if this is considered a threat then Betjeman should have been arrested for ‘Slough’. And many many people make jokey threats all the time eg ‘I’m going to swing for Martin if he mentions digital scholarship once again’. To be unable to differentiate an obvious non-literal use of the language and prosecute every possible threat would effectively silence society. It’d make China look like a bastion of free speech for a start.

  • Will Reader

    @Martin @Niall or indeed Kenny Everett exhorting the Tory faithful to “bomb Russia” and “kick Michael Foot’s stick away”. The Chambers story is safe. No racist undertones, no suspicion of a threat directed at an individual, and he’s not a public servant nor is he a Tory.
    We need to grasp the nettle with Compton and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. The guy is clearly an arse and as a public servant should have realised that he cannot expect to be treated as a private person. What he said was clearly offensive. However I don’t think people should be prosecuted simply because they offend someone. The law that he was prosecuted under was designed to prevent people sending threatening messages to another person (e.g. demands for money backed up by threats of violence). This was a bad joke not a threat.
    I also think that Yasmin Alibhai-Brown reacted in a disappointing way when she said that she considered it an “incitement to murder” and supported his arrest.
    She is a journalist, I’d have thought that she had more respect for freedom of speech than she does.Will

  • Niall Sclater

    A tweet is potentially a pretty public thing, Martin, whether aimed at your pals or not. I go back to the questions in my last paragraph above – is there any point in your opinion where it becomes unacceptable to say or tweet that you’re going to bomb an airport? When you’re in the airport itself?

  • Martin

    But that isn’t the point is it? It wasn’t done in an airport or directed at anyone who might take offence. We can imagine scenarios where it might have done and hypothesise but it wasn’t. And as the IAmSpartacus thread shows they can’t prosecute everyone. It’s plainly Kafkaesque nonsense and we shouldn’t even consider finding justification for it.

  • Will Reader

    Shouting “fire” in a crowded cinema should be against the law. Tweeting “fire” from the comfort of your own home should not.

  • Niall Sclater

    The implication from your last comment then Martin is that if it had been tweeted in the airport that might be unacceptable… Anyway the IAmSpartacus thread is beginning to give a fair bit of weight to your arguments, I have to admit.

  • Nicola Avery

    Hi Martin,
    As someone who has recently been working in online collaboration with the NPIA and the police, I thought I’d add my two cents, however biased they may be.
    I don’t think that it is that “the police” hate Paul Chambers. Yes it is correct that large numbers of the police have been unfamiliar with several social networking and media tools, but this is changing rapidly and they are not alone in that anyway. A colleague I worked with at the NPIA, Nick Keane has been working with many police across the country in this area and there are now over 200 cops who are individually tweetingmostly in specific local areas to develop their relationships with the public, beyond the force official twitter accounts. Some forces and individuals are using Facebook and others too. The majority of the twittering police have started in the last 15 mths – year, so they are learning along the way. There are also initiatives like MyPolice who are working closely with police forces and the public to improve feedback.
    That does not mean that injustice does not occur but as across most organisations who are looking at using social media / networking, it is still fairly new to large numbers so there are not many legal precedents against which to base decisions (I am not saying that the Paul Chambers decision is right).
    Policing and justice reform is a massive area – to bring cases to court could involve many different individuals in the police, government organisations, justice agencies who are also at mixed levels in terms of understanding social media and social networks.
    Some of the ones I’ve worked with are much more open to the idea of sharing, giving social media and networking a try – discussing openness and technology with its inherent complexity, than some university staff that I have previously worked with.
    I’m not trying to be them and us, I agree that there is an emotional base of uncertainty and/or maybe fear in some cases, but hopefully these kinds of issues (Paul has the right of appeal), will help to bring this to a wider debate and better resolution.

  • Martin

    Hi Nicola
    thanks for your comments and giving that side to it. I was going to say that I was probably giving way to a bit of hyperbole in the ‘hate’ angle, but then the Baskers story broke over the weekend and you can see from the Mail (and shamefully The Independent) that they really do hate it. So I’m more inclined to think this is the case now. Imagine if Paul Chambers had made that comment in a social setting that the CPS were sympathetic to (eg his local golf club), I’m sure they’d have dismissed it and appreciated the context. I’m not sure how much of this is due to, as you say, a lack of knowledge and a bit of anxiety. But to fail to _try_ and appreciate the context or new technology seems to me a problem, but it may even be downright hostility in many sectors.

  • Nicola Avery

    Hi Martin, thank you for your reply and yes I agree re context. Until all the different agencies, police etc involved are able to see how people are using social media in ways that are relevant to them (your golf club point being a good example) and also examples provided across their work – until everyone has experienced something that makes them want to discuss these issues in a meaningful way, I also agree there may still be problems.
    I still have to disagree with the hatred in that I have not come across police who have demonstrated a hatred towards social media tools, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
    I can’t really speak for those in criminal justice agencies but most people that I was in contact with have all been really really keen to connect and share examples of good practices, using blogs, wikis etc and connect with the police and others, in principle. We had the support of senior policing individuals, but it is early days though.
    There appeared to be an overall growing acceptance with the people that I spoke to – that with younger people entering policing, legal positions etc who are more familiar with the technologies, that they will do their jobs better if they use them.
    I read the articles in the Independent and the Mail and it looks like in the comments, people are mixed.
    He has had a celebrity offer to pay his fine, but that doesn’t seem to solve anything. Maybe if Paul’s lawyers decide now to pursue this through e.g. Criminal Cases Review Commission, Liberty, Innocent or Justice organisations – then there is a greater opportunity of reforming any related legal practices.
    As the police begin to now use FB, Twitter etc in their training too soon, this may all help.

  • frankrennie

    @Niall – re the Mohammed cartoons – on the other hand,we don’t need to go back too far in this country to find people who were thrown in jail (previously executed!) for supposed blasphemy. Personally I object to the religious beliefs of other people being thrust at me, but if I am to take offence every time a Christian comes on “thought for the day” on the radio, or each time some idiotic piece of dogma is presented as a physical or historical ‘fact’ then I would be a quivering mass of perpetual indignation (which I’m not!) I think a key factor is the *intention* to cause harm or offence, and private remarks between friends may be objectionable when relayed to the wider public, but they are on a different scale to intentional rabble-rousing and hate-mail.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *