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.)

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What it’s like to fall victim to the Mail Online’s aggregation machine

I recently travelled to Iraq at my own expense to write a piece about war graves. Within five hours of the story's publication by the Times, huge chunks of it appeared on Mail Online – under someone else's byline.

I recently returned from a trip to Iraq, and wrote an article for the Times on the desecration of Commonwealth war cemeteries in the southern cities of Amara and Basra. It appeared in Monday’s paper, and began:

“‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the engraving reads, but the words ring hollow. The stone on which they appear lies shattered in a foreign field that should forever be England, but patently is anything but.”

By 6am, less than five hours after the Times put it online, a remarkably similar story had appeared on Mail Online, the world’s biggest and most successful English-language website with 200 million unique visitors a month.

It began: “Despite being etched with the immortal line: ‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the truth could not be further from the sentiment for the memorials in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Amara.”

The article ran under the byline of someone called Euan McLelland, who describes himself on his personal website as a “driven, proactive and reliable multi-media reporter”. Alas, he was not driven or proactive enough to visit Iraq himself. His story was lifted straight from mine – every fact, every quote, every observation, the only significant difference being the introduction of a few errors and some lyrical flights of fancy. McLelland’s journalistic research extended to discovering the name of a Victoria Cross winner buried in one of the cemeteries – then getting it wrong.

Within the trade, lifting quotes and other material without proper acknowledgement is called plagiarism. In the wider world it is called theft. As a freelance, I had financed my trip to Iraq (though I should eventually recoup my expenses of nearly £1,000). I had arranged a guide and transport. I had expended considerable time and energy on the travel and research, and had taken the risk of visiting a notoriously unstable country. Yet McLelland had seen fit not only to filch my work but put his name on it. In doing so, he also precluded the possibility of me selling the story to any other publication.

I’m being unfair, of course. McLelland is merely a lackey. His job is to repackage and regurgitate. He has no time to do what proper journalists do – investigate, find things out, speak to real people, check facts. As the astute media blog SubScribe pointed out, on the same day that he “exposed” the state of Iraq’s cemeteries McLelland also wrote stories about the junior doctors’ strike, British special forces fighting Isis in Iraq, a policeman’s killer enjoying supervised outings from prison, methods of teaching children to read, the development of odourless garlic, a book by Lee Rigby’s mother serialised in the rival Mirror, and Michael Gove’s warning of an immigration free-for-all if Britain brexits. That’s some workload.

Last year James King published a damning insider’s account of working at Mail Online for the website Gawker. “I saw basic journalism standards and ethics casually and routinely ignored. I saw other publications’ work lifted wholesale. I watched editors...publish information they knew to be inaccurate,” he wrote. “The Mail’s editorial model depends on little more than dishonesty, theft of copyrighted material, and sensationalism so absurd that it crosses into fabrication.”

Mail Online strenuously denied the charges, but there is plenty of evidence to support them. In 2014, for example, it was famously forced to apologise to George Clooney for publishing what the actor described as a bogus, baseless and “premeditated lie” about his future mother-in-law opposing his marriage to Amal Alamuddin.

That same year it had to pay a “sizeable amount” to a freelance journalist named Jonathan Krohn for stealing his exclusive account in the Sunday Telegraph of being besieged with the Yazidis on northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar by Islamic State fighters. It had to compensate another freelance, Ali Kefford, for ripping off her exclusive interview for the Mirror with Sarah West, the first female commander of a Navy warship.

Incensed by the theft of my own story, I emailed Martin Clarke, publisher of Mail Online, attaching an invoice for several hundred pounds. I heard nothing, so emailed McLelland to ask if he intended to pay me for using my work. Again I heard nothing, so I posted both emails on Facebook and Twitter.

I was astonished by the support I received, especially from my fellow journalists, some of them household names, including several victims of Mail Online themselves. They clearly loathed the website and the way it tarnishes and debases their profession. “Keep pestering and shaming them till you get a response,” one urged me. Take legal action, others exhorted me. “Could a groundswell from working journalists develop into a concerted effort to stop the theft?” SubScribe asked hopefully.

Then, as pressure from social media grew, Mail Online capitulated. Scott Langham, its deputy managing editor, emailed to say it would pay my invoice – but “with no admission of liability”. He even asked if it could keep the offending article up online, only with my byline instead of McLelland’s. I declined that generous offer and demanded its removal.

When I announced my little victory on Facebook some journalistic colleagues expressed disappointment, not satisfaction. They had hoped this would be a test case, they said. They wanted Mail Online’s brand of “journalism” exposed for what it is. “I was spoiling for a long war of attrition,” one well-known television correspondent lamented. Instead, they complained, a website widely seen as the model for future online journalism had simply bought off yet another of its victims.