Friday, February 10, 2012

Not a Joke

I've written here before about how fond I am of Twitter. Not everyone shares my liking for it, which is fine with me. I think I've also mentioned a friend who seethes at the very mention of it. 'It's just egomaniacs passing on pointless observations of life, as if we should care,' he says. 'Or cracking terrible jokes. It's trivial and inane.'

He often has a point. But this week Twitter became slightly less trivial. A case that began with a lame joke on Twitter in January 2010 wound up in front of two senior judges at the High Court.

To give the background. A trainee accountant named Paul Chambers noticed that  Robin Hood airport had been closed because of snow. He was due to fly out to meet his girlfriend in Northern Ireland (who, apparently, he met via Twitter.) So he 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!!'

I know. Hardly funny. Or subtle. But comments and reactions like these are ten-a-penny on Twitter. I doubt anyone following him, or seeing the comment, took it seriously.

Except for the police. A week later he was arrested by five police officers, had his computer and mobile phone seized, interrogated for eight hours and eventually charged with causing a menace under the Communications Act of 2003. A bit extreme you might think. After all most bombers don't announce their intentions in detail a week and a half in advance and give their name. But the police no doubt felt they should investigate. Once they realised it was a poor gag, it ended there, surely?

No. The case was sent to Magistrates Court in Doncaster where Chambers was, um, convicted of causing a menace. Understandably, not wanting this on his record, Chambers appealed and it was sent to Doncaster Crown Court where sanity prevailed. Or you would have hoped it would. It didn't. The judge upheld the conviction and said: "Anyone in this country in the present climate of terrorist threats, especially at airports, could not be unaware of the possible consequences. The message is 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."

It was difficult to work out who was joking now. Chambers was meanwhile left £3000 out of pocket in legal fees. He was tempted to let it lie until a ragtag group of lawyers, comedians, and ordinary Twitter users an, troubled by what this meant, came together to raise money and offer their services in Chambers defence. The result was this week's High Court appearance, when one hopes sanity will be restored. Don't hold your breath though. The QC defending the judgement said, with a straight face: "The message was posted at a time when the potential threat to airport security was high. It was capable of being read by members of the airport staff and members of the public as a threat to airport safety and public safety."

If I worked at Robin Hood airport - and before this case I didn't even know there was a Robin Hood airport and I used to live relatively nearby  - I'd be consulting my lawyers for being made to look dumber than a box of frogs in court.

Judgement was reserved. Everyone now waits to see whether making a poor joke in questionable taste is a criminal offence. As one of Chambers' supporters, comedy writer Graham Linehan, said: "If we were all to be convicted because of bad jokes we'd be in terrible trouble."


Dan - Friday


  1. He should have known better, but this episode could have stopped earlier too. He learnt his lesson quite quickly. Over dinner tonight Michael and I asked the question, Dan: how did the police learn of the Tweet? Automatic eavesdropping? A tip off from the CIA's automatic eavesdropping? Someone blowing the whistle? Was the source ever revealed?

  2. Tip off from the member of the public apparently. Come to think of it, they're probably the real villain of the piece. After all, if someone cracks a terrible joke on Twitter, most people ignore it. Or at least they do with mine.

  3. This is a case study on the importance of the exercise of discretionary judgment by those we endow with prosecutorial and judicial powers. Society, of course, wants them to take their responsibilities seriously, but there is the very real danger of injustice when every offense is seen as one that must be punished.

    In Chambers case, his words appear to have violated the law, and though absent a demonstrated intent on his part to do the harm he describes many would say the law should not apply, there is an argument for lumping him in with the fool who yells, "FIRE" in a crowed theater.

    Although I see it not as that, but rather as an obvious bad joke, the problem is that it's now in the system. Unless there's a factual or legal out, Chambers faces the real risk that serious minded judges up the line who in their hearts wish the case had never been brought in the first place, will fall back upon the old legal adage that "bad cases make bad law" and as unpleasant as it may be to uphold the conviction they will do so for "the greater good of the law."

    Let's hope that better judgment prevails at the top than did at the bottom.

  4. We live in the age of zero tolerance, and zero tolerance is a manifestation of governmental contempt. It demonstrates contempt for the people who are supposed to enforce the rules -- school administrators expelling a kid with a butterknife in her knapsack, TSA confiscating cupcakes because the frosting is a "gel" and therefore forbidden -- and contempt for the citizenry, who are presumed to be capable only of speaking literally.

    In the old days -- before bin Laden won -- this guy would be recognized as an idiot, publicly labeled as such, and then left to stew. Instead, we have this wildly wrong-minded (and expensive) and mindlessly useless exercise of governmental power.

    Good thing we haven't got governmental deficits or anything and we have all this money to throw at idiocy like this.