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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.