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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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