A knock on Betjeman’s door

Why the CPS prosecution of Paul Chambers matters.

Why the CPS prosecution of Paul Chambers matters.

Imagine Sir John Betjeman was still with us and, like that other national treasure, Stephen Fry, had become a fan of Twitter.

Imagine him now sitting down and cheerfully beginning to tweet to his devoted followers a much-loved poem.

"Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!" he starts.

Now imagine some security officer at Slough Council doing internet searches.

He or she comes across this tweet.

The tweet is immediately passed to Special Branch; and Special Branch decides to send a squad of dedicated and trained anti-terrorist officers to Betjeman's undoubtedly idyllic, semi-rural home.

There is a knock on the door.

The squad of anti-terrorost police then arrests Betjeman and, in front of bemused family and neighbours, marches him to the waiting police cars.

It gets worse for our former poet laureate. For, although the anti-terrorist police do not see the tweet about Slough as a credible threat, it is referred to the Crown Prosecution Service.

The CPS quickly realises that Betjeman cannot be prosecuted under anti-terrorist legislation or the specific bomb hoax offence; but it decides to prosecute him anyway, using an obscure provison in telecommuinications law -- Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 -- which hitherto has only been used for offensive telephone calls and messages.

After all, the prosecutors' reasoning goes, a message sent over the internet is also a message sent over a public telecommunications system.

The CPS turns up to court and tells the judge and the defence -- wrongly -- that intention is irrelevant to this offence. Betjeman is reluctantly advised to plead guilty.

The defendant is asked by the judge to stand, and he hangs his head in shame as the sentence is read out.

Sir John Betjeman now has a criminal record, and just because he tweeted: "Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!"

Absurd? Well, this is the logic of the CPS position in the Paul Chambers case, whose conviction under Section 127 is being heard by Doncaster Crown Court on Friday.

Paul's tweet, sent as a joking statement of exasperation to his followers after realising he would not get to stay with a new girlfriend, was:

"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!!"

Perhaps not as elegant as Betjeman's first line, but it does share the following features: a specific target (Robin Hood Airport/Slough), an exclamation mark, and the prospect of a bombing exercise.

As a matter of legal analysis, the CPS position on someone who tweeted Betjeman's line cannot be distinguished from Chambers's ill-conceived comment. Under Section 127, both would be "menacing communications".

And so would any "menacing" comment sent by anyone by email, or put on a blog, or loaded on to YouTube; indeed, any content sent over the internet whatsoever.

So, this Friday, it is not only Paul Chambers in the dock: it is also the ghost of John Betjeman.

And it is all of us who have ever sent content over the internet that some person at the CPS could somehow deem "menacing" and so commence the horrifying and inescapable bureaucratic procedures that lead to the imposition of a criminal record, simply for making a light-hearted comment.

This cannot be right.

So, if you are on Twitter at 10am on Friday, why not tweet: "Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!" in support of Paul (hashtag #TwitterJokeTrial) as his appeal begins?

If we are all now to be done over by anti-terrorist officers and the CPS for comments of such a nature, we may as well go down quoting Betjeman.

David Allen Green blogs on policy and legal matters for the New Statesman and was shortlisted for the George Orwell Prize in 2010. He is also head of media at the City law firm Preiskel & Co, which is assisting Paul Chambers and his criminal lawyers pro bono in this appeal.

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.)

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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