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.