High Court to give "Twitter Joke Trial" appeal verdict

Lord Chief Justice to hand down judgment today

Later this morning the Lord Chief Justice will be handing down judgment for the High Court appeal of the "Twitter Joke Trial". 

This case is about whether a tweet constitutes a "communication of a menacing character" in circumstances where the tweet was self-evidently non-serious and caused no alarm or menace at the time.

In January 2010, an exasperated Paul Chambers suddenly saw news that his local airport was closed, thereby meaning he would not be able to travel to Northern Ireland to see a woman he had met through Twitter.  He tweeted to his 600 or so followers:

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!!

This was not sent to the airport.  Paul did not use the airport's Twitter address.  The tweet was clearly not meant to be credible: the use of hyperbolic language, the two swear words, and the excessive punctuation all point to the tweet being in effect a joke.  Even the ultimatum was absurd - the period given was a vague "week and a bit".  The plain meaning of the tweet was not that Paul wanted the airport to close or in any way menaced; this was a communication of someone who dearly wanted the airport to stay open.

However, some days later the tweet was found by an airport employee in an internet search.  He referred it to the airport security manager, who graded it "non-credible".  He in turn, because of process, passed it to airport security police.  They did nothing but referred it to South Yorkshire police.

And then, one fine day, and without having done anything wrong, Paul Chambers was arrested at his workplace by anti-terrorism police and marched in handcuffs to a police van in front of his colleagues.

After a day of interviews the police themselves realise the tweet was a joke intended for Paul's followers and decide not to charge for the "bomb hoax" offence for which he was arrested.  However, the police consult the Crown Prosecution Service.  The CPS decide to prosecute Paul under section 127(1) of the Communications Act 2003 for sending by means of a "public electronic communications network" a message "of a menacing character".  This offence was previously limited to telephony and dates back to the 1930s; but parliament - without debate - had widened it in 2003 to cover all internet communications.  Paul appears to have been one of the first prosecuted in respect of a communication sent over the internet.

Paul is then convicted in May 2010 by Doncaster Magistrates' Court and ordered to pay a fine and costs totaling £1000.  This conviction was upheld in November 2010 by Doncaster Crown Court by Judge Jacqueline Davis and two lay magistrates.  She ruled:

We are satisfied, on the evidence, that the message in question is menacing in its content and obviously so. It is difficult to imagine anything more clear. [...]

It is, in our judgment, menacing per se.

Paul was ordered to pay a further £1000 in costs.

Paul appealed to the High Court.  In February 2012, a two-judge court failed to agree, and a further appeal was ordered to take place before a three-judge court.  This hearing took place on 22 June 2012 before the Lord Chief Justice (who is also the head of the criminal justice system) and two other experienced criminal appeal judges.  

The appeal judgment is likely to deal with four matters: was Paul's tweet at the time it was found by the search engine still a message sent by means of a "public electronic communications network"; was the tweet as a matter of fact (or "actus reus") of a menacing character; was the tweet sent with sufficient intention that a criminal act be committed (the "mens reus"); and whether overall there was a violation of Paul's right to free expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The High Court has a wide jurisdiction: it can uphold the conviction; it can reduce (or increase) the sentence; it can discharge the conviction (which means that technically the offence was committed but Paul no longer has a criminal record); it can remit the case back for a re-trial; or it can grant the appeal outright and order an acquittal.

In the event Paul loses today the next step would be to apply to the Supreme Court for a further appeal on a matter of general public importance.

So today will be Paul's ninth day in court in a case which has now lasted two-and-a-half years.  

The decision is expected at 9.45 am.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and solicitor for Paul Chambers in this appeal.  He has been given permission to tweet the result from the High Court at @davidallengreen.  

There is a round-up of links on the last hearing at his Jack of Kent blog.

 

 

 

Royal Courts of Justice. Photograph: Getty Images

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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"Michael Gove is a nasty bit of work": A Thatcherite's lonely crusade for technical colleges

Kenneth Baker, Margaret Thatcher's education secretary, has been in a war of words with one of his successors. 

When I meet Kenneth Baker, once Margaret Thatcher’s reforming education secretary, conversation quickly turns to an unexpected coincidence. We are old boys of the same school: a sixth-form college in Southport that was, in Baker’s day, the local grammar. Fittingly for a man enraged by the exclusion of technical subjects from the modern curriculum, he can only recall one lesson: carpentry.

Seven decades on, Lord Baker – who counts Sats, the national curriculum, league tables, and student loans among his innovations – is still preoccupied with technical education. His charity, the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, oversees university technical colleges (UTCs), the specialist free schools that work with businesses and higher education institutions to provide a vocational curriculum for students aged 14-19. He is also a working peer, and a doughty evangelist for technical education and apprenticeships in the upper chamber. 

But when we meet at the charity’s glass-panelled Westminster office at 4 Millbank, he is on the defensive – and with good reason. Recent weeks have been particularly unkind to the project that, aged 82, he still works full-time to promote. First, a technical college in Oldham, Greater Manchester, became the seventh to close its doors since 2015. In three years, not one of its pupils passed a single GCSE, and locals complained it had become a “dumping ground” for the most troubled and disruptive children from Oldham’s other schools (Baker agrees, and puts the closure down to “bad governorship and bad headship”). 

Then, with customary chutzpah, came Michael Gove. In the week of the closure, the former education secretary declared in his Times column that the UTCs project had failed. "The commonest error in politics," he wrote, quoting Lord Salisbury, "is sticking to the carcasses of dead policies". Baker is now embroiled in a remarkable – and increasingly bitter – war of words with his successor and one-time colleague.

It wasn't always this way. In 2013, with UTCs still in their infancy, he told the New Statesman the then education secretary was “a friend”, despite their disagreements on the curriculum. The bonhomie has not lasted. In the course of our hour-long conversation, Gove is derided as “a nasty bit of work”, “very vindictive”, “completely out of touch”, and “Brutus Gove and all the rest of it”. (Three days after we speak, Baker renews their animus with a blistering op-ed for The Telegraph, claiming Gove embraced UTCs about as warmly as “an undertaker”.)

In all of this, Gove, who speaks warmly of Baker, has presented himself as having been initially supportive of the project. He was, after all, the education secretary who gave them the green light. Not so, his one-time colleague says. While David Cameron (Baker's former PA) and George Osborne showed pragmatic enthusiasm, Gove “was pretty reluctant from the word go”.

“Gove has his own theory of education,” Baker tells me. He believes Gove is in thrall to the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch, who believes in focusing on offering children a core academic diet of subjects, whatever their background. "He doesn’t think that schools should worry about employability at all," Baker says. "He thinks as long as you get the basic education right, everything will be fine. That isn’t going to happen – it isn’t how life works!" 

Baker is fond of comparing Gove’s heavily academic English baccalaureate to the similarly narrow School Certificate he sat in 1951, as well as the curriculum of 1904 (there is seldom an interview with Baker that doesn’t feature this comparison). He believes his junior's divisive tenure changed the state sector for the worse: “It’s appalling what’s happening in our schools! The squeezing out of not only design and technology, but drama, music, art – they’re all going down at GCSE, year by year. Now children are just studying a basic eight subjects. I think that’s completely wrong.” 

UTCs, with their university sponsors, workplace ethos (teaching hours coincide with the standard 9-5 working day and pupils wear business dress), and specialist curricula, are Baker's solution. The 46 existing institutions teach 11,500 children, and there are several notable success stories. GCHQ has opened a cyber-security suite at the UTC in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, as part of a bid to diversify its workforce. Just 0.5 per cent of UTC graduates are unemployed, compared to 11.5 per cent of all 18-year-olds. 

But they are not without their critics. Teaching unions have complained that their presence fragments education provision and funding, and others point out that hard-up schools in disadvantaged areas have little desire or incentive to give up children – and the funding they bring – at 14. Ofsted rate twice as many UTCs as inadequate as they do outstanding. Gove doubts that the vocational qualifications on offer are as robust as their academic equivalents, or anywhere near as attractive for middle-class parents. He also considers 14 is too young an age for pupils to pursue a specialist course of vocational study.

Baker accepts that many of his colleges are seen as “useless, wastes of money, monuments to Baker’s vanity and all the rest of it”, but maintains the project is only just finding its legs. He is more hopeful about the current education secretary, Justine Greening, who he believes is an admirer. Indeed, UTCs could provide Greening with a trump card in the vexed debate over grammar schools – last year’s green paper suggested pupils would be able to join new selective institutions at 14, and Baker has long believed specialist academic institutions should complement UTCs.

Discussion of Theresa May’s education policy has tended to start and finish at grammar schools. But Baker believes the conversation could soon be dominated by a much more pressing issue: the financial collapse of multi-academy trusts and the prospect of an NHS-style funding crisis blighting the nation’s schools. Although his city technology colleges may have paved the way for the removal of more and more schools from the control of local authorities, he, perhaps surprisingly, defends a connection to the state.

“What is missing now in the whole education system is that broker in the middle, to balance the demands of education with the funds available," he says. "I think by 2020 all these multi-academy trusts will be like the hospitals... If MATs get into trouble, their immediate cry will be: ‘We need more money!’ We need more teachers, we need more resources, and all the rest of it!’."

It is clear that he is more alert to coming challenges, such as automation, than many politicians half his age. Halfway through our conversation, he leaves the room and returns enthusiastically toting a picture of an driverless lorry. It transpires that this Thatcherite is even increasingly receptive to the idea of the ultimate state handout: a universal basic income. “There’s one part of me that says: ‘How awful to give someone a sum for doing nothing! What are they going to do, for heaven’s sake, for Christ’s sake!’" he says. "But on the other hand, I think the drawback to the four-day working week or four-hour working day... I think it’s going to happen in your lifetime. If people are only working for a very short space of time, they will have to have some sort of basic income.” 

Predictably, the upshot of this vignette is that his beloved UTCs and their multi-skilled graduates are part of the solution. Friend and foe alike praise Baker’s indefatigable dedication to the cause. But, with the ranks of doubters growing and the axe likely to fall on at least one of its institutions again, it remains to be seen in what form the programme will survive.

Despite the ignominy of the last few weeks, however, Baker is typically forthright: “I sense a turning of the tide in our way now. But I still fight. I fight for every bloody one.”