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This article was first published on the Spectator Arts Blog on the 22nd November, 2010.
I am a crazed demon. That’s right, you heard: a crazed demon. A journalist on a national newspaper says so.
And how do I manifest how crazed and demoniac I am? Do I roam the streets gobbling up children, waving my withered, sulphurous genitals, and committing small but necessary acts of petty vandalism? No. Do I reside inside the head of a young girl forcing her to utter profanities and spew forth a violently-green combination of bile and Cheestrings? No. Do I believe that hospitalised, pregnant women should be shackled in case they feel like running off? No
(Incidentally, Anne Widdecombe has proven the truth of Oscar Wilde’s quip that dancing is the vertical expression of a horizontal desire. In her case: sleeping…)
No, I believe that we should treat jokes as, you know, jokes. Unfunny, distasteful, worthless they may be, but jokes they remain.
And, so, according to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, I am a ‘crazed demon’.
This afternoon, we will learn if Paul Chambers, he of the #twitterjoketrial, is going to attempt to have his conviction overturned in the High Court, or whether he has decided to draw a line under the whole affair. Whilst part of me hopes that he decides to do everything he can to overturn his conviction, to correct in court some of the damage done both to him and to the concept of free speech in this country, I shall understand if he chooses to cut his losses.
Paul Chambers has lost two jobs, and been fined £3,000 because he used figurative language to express himself to his friends the way millions of us do every day. The problem was, he did it on Twitter.
For those not familiar with the case, there is a great summary of the events that led up to today from blogger Jack Of Kent (who is now providing pro bono legal advice to Mr Chambers), here. In essence, Mr Chambers was convicted for having, on learning that Doncatser Airport was closed because of snow, sent a tweet that read: “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!”
What should perhaps be most worrying to us, is the assertion of the security services that they cannot distinguish between a flippant remark made to friends, and a serious threat to an airport. The people we trust to deal with the threats of terrorism cannot distinguish between a threat of terrorism, and hyperbole.
Would we trust a dentist who finds it difficult to distinguish between evidence of tooth decay and the music of the Ramones? Would we feel safe in the hands of a surgeon who, just as we go under, says, “Looking at your X-rays you’ve either got a massive tumour or a Ford Capri lodged in your thorax. I’ll fill you with car polish, just to be on the safe side”? Our air traffic controllers hopefully don’t sit, staring at their monitors with a baffled look, going “What are all these crazy moving dots? Obviously some are planes, but what are the others? Poptarts? Angels? The original line-up of Simply Red? We just have no way of knowing!”
Do they really think that terrorists give ‘a week and a bit’s’ warning of their intention to blow up an airport? Does the list of demands usually come down to ‘getting your shit together’? Assuming, of course, that their shit hadn’t been got together, the airport would have been empty, still closed by bad weather; is it usual for terrorists to threaten empty buildings?
No. They don’t do any of those things, and the police and the CPS and the security services know it.
The key point is that, knowing that they would not be able to prosecute Mr Chambers under existing bomb threat or bomb hoax legislation, the CPS discovered s. 127 of the Communications Act 2003. Mr Chambers was not on trial for having issued a credible threat, but for having sent a ‘menacing’ message over a public network.
Had Mr Chambers said the same thing on stage at a comedy gig, he would have had no case to answer. Had he written in in a newspaper or blog (as Charlie Brooker excellently points out here) he would have had no case to answer. Had he said it to his friends in the pub he would have had no case to answer. Had he said it on Mock The Week, The Now Show, or Have I Got News For You he would have had no case to answer. Paul Chambers has a criminal record because he assumed that the rules of public discourse were the same on Twitter as they were in the rest of the country. He was wrong.
Twitter is a strange service. It feels more private than it is. Even though Mr Chambers only had around 690 followers at the time, all of whom were familiar with the ways in which he tweeted, his tweet was publicly visible if you searched for it. Whilst it was intended for the eyes of his friends, it was open to the scrutiny of the world. The District Judge the first time the case was heard suggested that the result would have been different if Mr Chambers had made his comment as an @-reply rather than as a comment on his general timeline.
In 2010, that’s the difference between being a menacing criminal, and someone joking with friends: @
Still, it’s just an isolated and unfortunate example, isn’t it? Except that, ten days ago, a Conservative councillor in Birmingham was arrested under s.127 of the Communications Act 2003 for tweeting: “Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing, really.”
On the face of it, that’s a particularly unpleasant thing to say about a Muslim woman. However, he didn’t just tweet that. At the end of the tweet was the hashtag ‘#R5L’, indicating that this was a response to his listening to Radio Five Live. Ms Alibhai-Brown was on Radio Five Live at the time, arguing that (I understand, I have not heard the original segment) the fact that women were stoned to death in a country didn’t give us an imprimatur to invade. After all, she argued, the hands of The West are hardly morally spotless.
Mr Compton’s comment above, then, in context, becomes a spirited response from someone engaging her arguments, rather than a personal threat. The thrust is that Ms Alibhai-Brown can only be so dismissive of stoning women because she lives in a culture that doesn’t stone women. It’s common right-wing pablum – You’re only allowed your liberal lefty opinions because you live in a civilised country, civilised at least in part because there were people willing to bomb Dresden for that privilege – dressed up in a pithy way for the 140-character audience.
It’s not an incitement to stone to death a leading light of the commenterati. Not, that is, until you strip it of all context, of all meaning, and presume to be able to deduce intent from its literal meaning.
The British public prides itself on its sense of humour. The British establishment is apparently unable to spot a joke when it sees one, even when that joke comes with a helpful hashtag explaining what it is in reference to.
The Daily Mail (and one week I really will go through a whole article without mentioning them) recently ran a story suggesting that gingerbread men were being advertised as ‘gingerbread persons’ in Lancashire schools (there’s a good rundown of the story at Five Chinese Crackers) because of ‘political correctness gone mad’. Of course, what had actually happened was that someone, playing on a sense of ‘PC-gone-mad’ wrote the menus with a joke in.
You can tell it’s a joke because they were advertised as ‘gingerbread persons’ and not ‘gingerbread people’. It’s (moderately) funny. Or a threat to our great British way of life. Whatever.
I suspect that we’re losing our sense of humour because the culture of the last ten years, has been deliberately humourless. We used to be able to distinguish figurative language from literal. No one really expected Denis Healey to go around grabbing rich people and squeezing them until the pips squeaked. Where would that have left the Queen, who, as a woman, doesn’t even have pips? No, the thought of Denis Healey grasping Her Royal Highness in a half nelson, wrestling her to the floor, and compressing her ribcage in the hopes of hearing things she didn’t have make a noise they wouldn’t make never occurred to anyone. Until just now.
This is the age of ‘You are either with us or with the terrorists.’ There is no room for nuance, and those who seek distinctions between what similar things actually mean, those who question whether Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party were actually comparable, those who look for subtleties are helping the enemy. We are at war with monstrous theocrats and that is all ye need to know.
Everything must be judged in the simplest possible terms. To admit doubt, to suggest that meaning varies based on context is a heresy. The world is divided into good people and evil people, and to see shades of grey is giving the evil people a free pass.
A lot of comments on the Paul Chambers case have stated variations on the fact that ‘in the current security climate’ you shouldn’t even risk making jokes, or speaking figuratively about terrorism. Which would make a little more sense if they were saying it on July 8th 2005. They’re not. And we should ask when ‘the current climate’ is likely to end. There has been a half a decade since the last successful terrorist attack on mainland Britain. When are we allowed to tell jokes about it again?
Between 1982 and 1996, there were nine bombs in mainland Britain, set off by variants on the IRA. Why must we feel more threatened now, why should we curtail our liberties more now than we ever did then?
Do these commenters actually believe that Messrs Chambers and Compton were actually threatening anyone? On the whole, no, but they believe that the state has a duty to punish ‘silly’ behaviour, just to show it is serious about keeping us safe. We like to see examples made of people who aren’t taking the whole thing seriously because we are afraid. We like the police to step in when someone says something that upsets us.
Christianity used to be offered specific protections under the blasphemy laws. To correct that egregious state of affairs, did New Labour get rid of the blasphemy laws? No. It introduced the Religious Hatred Act 2006, which put all other religions on the same legal footing. Now all religions, even Jedi, which is recognised as an ‘emerging religion’ following a concerted campaign in the 2001 census, are offered the same protection against people saying things they don’t like. If I foment hatred against the Jedi, I am committing a crime. Even if I am a Sith, and mandated to hunt the Jedi across the galaxy and exterminate them by my religious beliefs.
We have become a nation of Ayatollahs, howling for state reprisals every time someone says something we think we don’t like. We are just as happy to see the world in black and white. We are just as happy to rip things out of context, and present them (sometimes with extra things added, like they did to the Danish cartoons) as things that are insupportable.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has decided not to press charges against Mr Compton, but still opines that those of us who think that s.127 (designed originally to protect female telephone operators from menacing phone calls in the 1930s) and its application in the last few months have been an affront to civilised society are ‘crazed demons’.
Of course, if doesn’t matter that she isn’t pressing charges, as it is up to the CPS to decide whether or not there is a case to answer. It’s not reliant on her. Mr Compton may still face trial, but Ms Alibhai-Brown has at least had the good grace to wash her hands of it.
(This sort of not-quite-liberal liberalism was again on display with Ed Balls this week. He was cheered on by various left-wing bloggers as “accepting the importance of civil liberties” while still arguing that the state should be able to hold terror suspects for 14 days without charge. If he actually accepted the importance of civil liberties he should be suggesting that it should be 0 days.)
We are in a fight with a murderous ideology that wants to curtail our way of life and strip humanity of any joy and colour and subversion and humour. In fact, we are in a fight with two: Islamism and neoconservatism.
Benjamin Franklin said: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” We’re doing something far worse. We’re giving up our sense of humour.
Update – News has just come through Paul Chambers will be challenging his conviction in the High Court. He’s making a stand for free speech for which we can all be grateful. And what’s the best way to express gratitude? Money. Lots of money. He will need another £10,000 to pay the legal fees for the appeal.
To contribute to the fighting fund, if you feel inclined, please donate here
- When a Twitter Post Can Land You in Court (time.com)
- The CPS, judiciary and Yasmin Alibhai Brown just don’t get Twitter (leftfootforward.org)