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.)

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496