As Paul Chambers appeals against his ludicrous conviction in May for sending a joke on Twitter, deemed to constitute a “menacing electronic communication”, it’s perhaps opportune to reflect on just how daft we’ve become.
Of course, Mr Chambers’ legal team have to make arguments on their client’s behalf that address the finer points of a not very fine law, and inevitably in so doing they end up dignifying its manifold stupidities. The rest of us can range wider and freer. And we can start with some fundamentals.
If the actions of a free citizen are to be constrained by the law, then it must surely be on the basis that not so constraining them will result in some demonstrable harm. Citizens should indeed not be free to conspire to blow up airports, nor to threaten to do so. Does tweeting, “Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week… otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!” constitute a credible conspiracy or threat? What would make it credible? Take the threat bit first. Well, to count as being credible as a threat, having some access to the means to blow it up might be one useful thing. And so would some history of planning terrorist outrages. What about the conspiracy side of things? I imagine having a few co-conspirators would surely be the minimum requirement, and I’m not at all sure that merely having 600 followers on Twitter really cuts the mustard.
It was a joke. But there might be circumstances in which even a joke might be dangerous. What sort of circumstances? Well, perhaps if the joke was misinterpreted by, I don’t know, the security forces, and they rushed over to the airport in question firing at random. Or if many hundreds of passengers had been put to serious inconvenience short of being massacred in a military over-reaction. But the whole point of this joke was that the airport was closed anyway, and thus it’s hard to argue that any further inconvenience was caused.
It was a joke. It was self-evidently a joke, and it was delivered via a mechanism that I should have thought would be unlikely to figure as the terrorist’s first option when contemplating a channel of communication. It even ended with an exclamation mark, for God’s sake, and surely a self-respecting terrorist takes their work more seriously than that? If Paul Chambers was a terrorist, he should have been prosecuted for incompetence. And if terrorists operate like Paul Chambers, then I suspect we’re over-spending a bit on the MI6 wages bill. Just pay a few unemployed tweeters to keep an eagle eye out for menacing tweets, and distract their attention away from #oneofmyfavoritemovies and #iwannaknowwhy. They’ll probably be grateful.
It was a joke. But not as good a joke as the one about wasting thousands of pounds of public money to prosecute someone for joking on Twitter. Nor as much of a joke as this country’s prosecuting authorities. Yes, the law is indeed an ass.