The Twitter Joke Trial carries on

Paul Chambers is going to the High Court.

Paul Chambers has announced that he is seeking to go to the High Court to challenge his conviction under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.

He has instructed me to put the challenge together and I have, in turn, instructed Ben Emmerson QC, the leading human rights and criminal law barrister. The barristers who fought the Crown Court appeal -- Stephen Ferguson and Sarah Przybylska -- continue to be involved. There has been legal help from a number of other firms and individuals. This is a case which has attracted a great deal of support and offers of practical assistance.

Why? After all, it was just a £350 fine (although now with prosecution costs, Paul is being asked to pay £2,600). And there has been no custodial sentence.

But the case continues to cause concern about and widespread ridicule of the English criminal justice system. Writers as accomplished as Graham Linehan, Charlie Brooker, and Nick Cohen have brilliantly exposed the misconceived and illiberal nature of this prosecution and of the upheld conviction. And, although neither Paul nor I have encouraged the "#IAmSpartacus" movement (I personally prefer the use of the Betjeman line about dropping bombs on Slough), it is perhaps significant that Paul's original tweet or variations of it seems now to have been tweeted over 18,000 times. However, it appears that only Paul will incur criminal liability for the words in question.

Paul's original tweet was the hyperbolic statement of exasperation of someone discovering that he may not get to see a girl he fancied. It was not intended to be menacing, and indeed it was not menacing.

Look at the tweet carefully: "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!". From the very first word -- an expletive followed by an exclamation mark -- it is clear to any reader that it was not serious. The proposition which follows -- an emphatic and sweary call for an airport to be opened rather than for it to be closed -- is simply nonsensical as a threat on its own terms. This is not how a terrorist, a hoaxer, or anyone with any menacing intent, would actually make their wrongful statements

At the trial and the appeal, it became clear that no one did find it menacing.

The airport security manager who found it on a random search of Twitter did not know whether it was a jest or not; his manager graded it as having no credibility, but was process-bound to forward it to the airport police; the police saw it as so menacing that they waited three days before acting on it and then, after interviewing Paul, simply said there was no evidence that it was any more than a joke intended just for his Twitter followers; however, the police passed any charging decision on to the Crown Prosecution Service, who quickly realised there was insufficient evidence of intent for the "bomb hoax" offence under the 1977 Criminal Law Act.

So the CPS used the then obscure section 127 of the Communications Act, for which there are no recorded cases other than in respect of nuisance telephone calls, and baldly asserted that the provision now covered communications on social media as well. The CPS turned up to court and told the magistrate and the defence that not only did section 127 cover social media, but that it was also an offence of "strict liability" which required no evidence of intent. (The CPS now accept that the offence does require proof of intent, but one wonders if the prosecution would have proceeded had they realised that at the time.)

The Magistrates' and Crown Courts then found Paul's tweet to be menacing and that he intended to send a menacing communication. They also found that section 127 covers messages sent on a social media platform as much as it would cover nuisance telephone calls. The challenge to be brought by Paul and his legal team at the High Court will seek to establish whether the criminal courts applied the correct legal tests for whether the message was menacing and whether it was sent with any menacing intent; the challenge will also seek to clarify the extent (if any) to which section 127 applies to messages created in and published on social media platforms. It has the makings of a landmark judgment regardless of its outcome: like the Lady Chatterley or Oz trials of previous generations, this case perhaps forces the question as to whether the law has kept up with wider social and cultural changes.

It is brave of Paul to take this case forward. If he loses he faces the upholding of a criminal conviction and the continuance of a criminal record. He is also exposed, if he loses, to the legal costs of the other side. There has been a great deal of generous support for Paul. In part this is because he is clearly a decent bloke placed in an unfair and adverse predicament for a mere exasperated tweet which not a single person whatsoever has yet found menacing.

But there is also a wider battle. English criminal law and practice now appears to have an unfortunate and casual attitude to imposing criminal liability and even using the power of arrest for simple speech acts. As social media is used more and more for everyday communication, this inappropriate use of criminality and of the coercive force of the police has to be somehow checked and the value of routine free expression asserted and endorsed.

To his and other people's surprise, Paul has become the everyman of the social media generation. For there, but for the grace of a god, go almost all of us.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and was shortlisted for the George Orwell prize for blogging in 2010. He is also head of the media law practice at Preiskel & Co, who are acting on a cost-only basis for Paul Chambers in his High Court challenge.

 

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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.