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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Amber Rudd's ignorance isn't just a problem for the laws she writes

Politicians' lack of understanding leads to the wrong laws - and leaves real problems unchecked. 

Amber Rudd’s interview with Andrew Marr yesterday is not going to feature in her highlights reel, that is for certain. Her headline-grabbing howler was her suggesting was that to fight terror “the best people…who understand the necessary hashtags” would stop extremist material “ever being put up, not just taken down”, but the entire performance was riddled with poorly-briefed errors.

During one particularly mystifying exchange, Rudd claimed that she wasn’t asking for permission to “go into the Cloud”, when she is, in fact, asking for permission to go into the Cloud.

That lack of understanding makes itself felt in the misguided attempt to force tech companies to install a backdoor in encrypted communications. I outline some of the problems with that approach here, and Paul Goodman puts it well over at ConservativeHome, the problem with creating a backdoor is that “the security services would indeed be able to travel down it.  So, however, might others – the agencies serving the Chinese and Russian governments, for example, not to mention non-state hackers and criminals”.

But it’s not just in what the government does that makes ministers’ lack of understanding of tech issues a problem. As I’ve written before, there is a problem where hate speech is allowed to flourish freely on new media platforms. After-the-fact enforcement means that jihadist terrorism and white supremacist content can attract a large audience on YouTube and Facebook before it is taken down, while Twitter is notoriously sluggish about removing abuse and hosts a large number of extremists on its site. At time of writing, David Duke, the former head of the Ku Klux Klan, has free use of YouTube to post videos with titles such as “CNN interview on Bannon exposes Jewish bias”, “Will the white race survive?” and “Stop the genocide of European mankind”. It’s somewhat odd, to put it mildly, that WhatsApp is facing more heat for a service that is enjoyed by and protects millions of honest consumers while new media is allowed to be intensely relaxed about hosting hate speech.

Outside of the field of anti-terror, technological illiteracy means that old-fashioned exploitation becomes innovative “disruption” provided it is facilitated by an app. Government and opposition politicians simultaneously decry old businesses’ use of zero-hours contracts and abuse of self-employment status to secure the benefits of a full-time employee without having to bear the costs, while hailing and facilitating the same behaviour provided the company in question was founded after 2007.

As funny as Rudd’s ill-briefed turn on the BBC was, the consequences are anything but funny. 

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