Magna Carta for sale

‘Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?’ Tony Hancock - Ted Vallance ex

On 18 December Sotheby’s New York will auction off the last copy of Magna Carta still in private hands.

The seller is Ross Perot, American billionaire and former presidential candidate. Sotheby’s anticipate the Great Charter will fetch somewhere between $20-30 million dollars, which is still a lot of money, even with the dollar currently weaker than an American cup of tea. Avaricious old King John must be spinning in his Worcester Cathedral grave.

When news of the sale of the Charter first broke in September of this year, the media on both sides of the Atlantic were unanimous in declaring the importance of the document. The BBC described Magna Carta as enshrining ‘human rights in English law’.

Peter Oborne, in The Daily Mail spoke of its ‘protections’ as ‘priceless’. The New York Times stated that the Charter ‘laid the foundation for fundamental principles of English law’. David Redden, the vice-chairman of Sotheby’s, anxious not to undersell the document, called Magna Carta "the first rung on the ladder to freedom. This document symbolises mankind’s eternal quest for freedom; it is a talisman of liberty."

The seventeen surviving manuscript versions of the Charter are now venerated like holy relics. Until the auction, the Perot Charter had resided at the National Archives, Washington, where it sat in a glass display box embedded in a marble plinth, sheltered under a vast wooden cupola. (The news of the auction came as something of a surprise to the archives, and they are now left with the possibility of having to find something else to put in that big glass case).

In the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, which houses the British Library’s ‘treasures’, including the Gutenberg Bible, a first folio edition of Shakespeare, and the lyrics to ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ by the Beatles, the library’s two copies of Magna Carta sit in their own private room, the doorway framed in regal purple (implicit message: John Lennon and Paul McCartney are important, but not as important as Magna Carta).

Not to be outdone, the Bodleian Library, Oxford, is opening an exhibition on 11 December, displaying its four manuscripts of the Charter.

Fetishised, idolised, Magna Carta is treated more as a national symbol than as a historic text. The anniversary of ‘the signing of Magna Carta’, as the BBC egregiously described it (as every schoolboy used to know, the Charter was sealed, not signed) surprisingly emerged as the most popular choice in a poll for a new ‘British Day’, beating VE Day and D-Day. It has even been nominated as one of the ‘icons of England’ (alongside a pint of beer, the Archers and Dr. Who’s Tardis).

News of the sale of the Magna Carta roused some correspondents to the Times to a fever of indignant, nationalistic fury. According to J. Roberts of Manchester: "The fact that one of the greatest documents of democracy ever written is to be sold at a crass and vulgar auction by some crass and vulgar Americans says everything you need to know about American 'culture' and what their brand of ugly capitalism means for the world."

J. Roberts overlooked the fact that the Charter was sold to its current American owners by members of the English aristocracy in the mid-1980s (confirming Magna Carta’s original intent: to increase the wealth and power of the peerage).

It might also be worth noting that the money will be spent, according to Perot’s charitable foundation, on "medical research, ... improving public education and ... assisting wounded soldiers and their families."

In any case, Americans, crass or otherwise, have just as much right to feel attached to the Magna Carta as the English. The Charter is a document whose influence has been felt the world over. Elements from the Great Charter are incorporated into the 5th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and cap. 29 of the 1225 Charter is also represented in the Indian Constitution of 1950 article 21, in the 1960 Canadian Bill of Rights, Pakistan Constitution of 1956 and the Malayan Constitution of 1963.

Indeed, as elements of Magna Carta have been incorporated into the US constitution, the Charter unquestionably has greater legal power in North America than it does in the UK.

The inspeximus of 1297 (which the Perot Charter is an engrossment of) is the version of the charter which is still part of British law. There is not much of this medieval document that retains any legal force. Of the four clauses that remain in effect, three have little real importance (one deals with the privileges of the City of London, one is statement concerning the independence of the Church of England -regularly ignored- and another is merely a general saving clause).

It is only chapter 29 of the Charter that retains any significance. This states: "No Freeman shall be taken, or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any otherwise destroyed; nor will we pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful Judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right."

This chapter of the Charter has been revered from thirteenth century to the present day. Edmund Burke described it as being ‘engraven on the hearts of Englishmen’. But what does c. 29 actually guarantee? The answer is, historically, not very much.

This chapter has been overridden by British Governments on a number of occasions, namely the suspensions of Habeas Corpus during the 18th and 19th century (largely, it should be noted, to suppress public agitation for democratic rights) and the Defence of the Realm Acts imposed during the two world wars. In legal cases where there has appeared to have been a clash between the actions of government ministers and the Charter, British judges have nearly always sided with the minister, as in the case of Rex. vs Halliday (1917) and Liversidge vs. Anderson (1942).

More recent attempts to invoke the Charter to defend the liberties of British citizens have also proved a failure. The Chagos islanders hoped that ch. 29 might be used to challenge their forced eviction from Diego Garcia to make way for a US airbase on the grounds that this constituted unlawful exile.

The judges agreed that Charter liberties did extend to the BIOC (the colonial entity which includes Diego Garcia) and as individuals with dual British and Mauritian citizenship the Chagos Islanders were protected by its terms.

However, all ch. 29 guaranteed was that the process of law set down in a particular territory would be followed accordingly. The 1971 Immigration Ordinance which covered the BIOC effectively banned anyone other than US military personnel from living on the island. This was ‘the law of the land’ in Diego Garcia and so, the judges concluded, the Chagos Islanders had been lawfully ejected from their homeland. Despite subsequent legal victories in 2000 and 2007, which did not rely on arguments based on Magna Carta, repeated legal appeals from the British Government mean that the Chagos Islanders still cannot return to Diego Garcia.

The problem then is not, as writers on the right, such as Peter Oborne, have suggested, that Magna Carta liberties are under ‘sustained and ruthless attack’ by the Labour government. The problem is that Magna Carta, whilst it may be seen as a symbol of freedom and democracy the world over, in a British legal context guarantees sweet FA.

In fact, it is this ‘ancient constitution’, so revered by conservatives, which essentially hobbles those few modern concessions to civil rights, such as the Human Rights Act of 1998, that have appeared on the statute books.

As Lord Hoffman explained in 1999: "Parliamentary sovereignty means that Parliament can, if it chooses, legislate contrary to fundamental principles of human rights. The Human Rights Act 1998 will not detract from this power. The constraints upon its exercise by Parliament are ultimately political, not legal."

Hoffman’s argument was essentially that British governments would avoid committing human rights abuses because it would be too politically damaging in a mass democracy. These political costs have not been deemed so high by Blair and Brown that they have rejected the use of legal instruments in the fight against terror, (control orders, 90-day detention limits), which seem in conflict with the HRA.

Magna Carta remains only sentimentally, rather than practically, a part of our constitution. What goes on sale at Sotheby’s, New York, this Tuesday is a very rare thirteenth-century royal charter, not the quintessence of liberty and democracy.

As the Leveller William Walwyn argued 352 years ago, Britain’s medieval constitution requires complete reformation, not piecemeal renovation.

"When so choice a People ... shall insist upon such inferior things, neglecting greater matters, and be so unskilful in the nature of common and just freedom as to call bondage libertie, and the grants of Conquerors their Birthrights, no marvaile such a people make so little use of the greatest advantages; and when they might have made a newer and better Charter, have falne to patching the old".

Ted Vallance is lecturer in early modern history at the University of Liverpool. He is the author of The Glorious Revolution: 1688 and Britain's Fight for Liberty (Little, Brown and Co, 2006) and is currently writing a history of English radicalism from Magna Carta to the present day

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.