Why the Fortnum & Mason protesters’ case matters

The judge said we had not been personally intimidating, then found us guilty anyway. What now for th

If 300 football fans chant together and then one assaults a rival supporter, are they all responsible? If you're on a protest and someone commits a crime and you don't leave immediately, can you be held to account for the person's actions? That was the question put before Westminster Magistrates' Court as we, the first ten defendants in the trials of those arrested for staging a sit-in at Fortnum & Mason on 26 March 2011, faced our verdict. We were found guilty of aggravated trespass; nine of us were given a conditional discharge and order to pay costs of £1,000 each, while the tenth was also fined.

The prosecution was required to prove an act beyond ordinary trespass — which on its own is not a crime. In this case, it argued that the protesters demonstrated intent to intimidate. Michael Snow, the district judge, accepted in his sentencing that none of us had been personally intimidating towards staff and shoppers, but said that under the terms of "joint enterprise" we were responsible for the actions of other protesters.

For the first few days of the trial, prosecution witness after prosecution witness — staff, customers and police officers — explained that most of those inside the store were, in the words of the chief inspector on the scene, "sensible" and "non-violent". One key prosecution witness, when asked by the prosecution barrister if he had seen anyone inside the store doing anything he believed to be criminal, said: "No." The police officers co-ordinating the case held their heads in their hands.

There is some evidence that a small number of acts inside the store may have been intimidating. There is no evidence that any of us on trial was responsible for these. In fact, in the case of many defendants, no individual evidence has been presented at all, and in my own case the court was shown footage of me engaged in the intimidating act of . . . facilitating a meeting inside the shop. But the prosecution maintained that we were guilty because we didn't leave when the intimidating acts allegedly took place. We will find out if the high court agrees when we take the case to appeal.

In a sense, this sort of verdict has been waiting to happen. In the past, it was hard to go on a potentially civilly disobedient protest without first knowing each other and planning it together. But in the Internet Age, it is increasingly easy to read a tweet and just pitch up at a location along with strangers. Can you, in this situation, be accused of "joint enterprise" with everyone at the resulting protest, even though you have never previously met them? Should everyone at such a protest be held accountable for the actions of everyone else? The implications of a guilty verdict are pretty scary — in effect, the Crown Prosecution Service and District Judge Snow believe that the only evidence they need to convict you for protesting is that someone else at the protest did something illegal.

This rests on a ludicrous premise: that it is acceptable to drag through the courts a group of people whose only crime is to have attended a "sensible" protest. Aggravated trespass legislation was introduced in 1994 as an explicit attempt to criminalise certain types of protest. Yet even this dubious law wasn't written so broadly as to include any demonstration in a shop.

This new development is worrying. Perhaps more worrying, however, is the disparity between the Crown's enthusiasm in pursuing the case, compared to their complete failure to convict a single banker over the acts that led to the financial crisis of 2007-2008. We'll see them again in the high court.

Adam Ramsay blogs for Bright Green

Adam Ramsay is co-editor of the UK section of openDemocracy, a contributor to bright-green.org and a long standing Green Party member.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder