Anorak | #twitterjoketrial – Paul Chambers, Tony Blair and a case of extreme stupidity

#twitterjoketrial – Paul Chambers, Tony Blair and a case of extreme stupidity

by | 8th, February 2012

IN September 2010, Paul Chambers lost his appeal against a conviction of “menace” for threatening to blow up an airport. His “foolish prank” on Twitter would stand as a sign that only quick thinking and rule of law prevented carnage.

In January 2010, Chambers tweeted to his friend Sarah Tonner, aka @crazycolours, his frustration that snow had stymied their efforts to hook up at her place in Northern Ireland:

“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!!”

Staff at Doncaster’s Robin Hood airport saw the tweet. They called the police. The police called the Crown Prosecution Service. They said Chambers had a case to answer:

The Crown Prosecution Service caused controversy by using a law aimed against nuisance calls – originally to protect “female telephonists at the Post Office” in the 1930s – rather than specific bomb hoax legislation, which requires stronger evidence of intent.

Would every call to violence on twitter – however jokey – be so censured? No. Emma West was the victim of twitter hunt in which the illiberal liberals called for ‘racist tram lady” to be raped and murdered. These rapists and killers walk free.

Chambers was being an example of. Only the example tells us that the justice system is selective and prejudiced.

After that incendiary tweet, the chain of events went like this:

* Shaun Duffield, a worker at Robin Hood airport, searches for “Robin Hood Airport” using Twitter. He finds Chambers’ tweet a few days after it has been posted.

* Duffield tells airport security head Steven Armson. He says the tweet is a “non credible” threat. But he duty bound to had no choice but to pass it on to police Special Branch.

* Chambers is arrested at his workplace. Five police officers arrest Chambers.

Do you have any weapons in your car?” they asked.

“I said I had some golf clubs in the boot,” said Chambers. “But they didn’t think it was funny. I kept wondering, ‘When are they going to slap my wrists and let me go?’ Instead, they hauled me into a police car while my colleagues watched.”

At the station:

Chambers: “My first thought upon hearing it was the police was that perhaps a member of my family had been in an accident. Then they said I was being arrested under the Terrorism Act and produced a piece of paper. It was a print-out of my Twitter page. That was when it dawned on me… I had to explain Twitter to them in its entirety because they’d never heard of it. Then they asked all about my home life, and how work was going, and other personal things.”

The best line being:

“The lead investigator kept asking, ‘Do you understand why this is happening?’ and saying, ‘It is the world we live in’.”

* At Doncaster Magistrates’ Court Chambers said:

“I was disappointed and frustrated that the airport had been closed. I just sent out a message to Twitter. My followers had been following how I was going to fly out to Northern Ireland and knew how much I was looking forward to it… I do now. I apologise for whatever consequences have happened but at the time that was not my intention at all. It did not cross my mind that Robin Hood would ever look at Twitter or take it seriously because it was innocuous hyperbole.”

* In court, more of his tweets are read out. The context is humorous:

“I was thinking that if it does I’ve decided that I’m going to resort to terrorism.”

* District judge Jonathan Bennett finds Chambers guilty of sending a message by means of a public electronic message that was grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character contrary to the Communications Act 2003. He rules: “I am therefore satisfied, so that I am sure, that the defendant sent the message via Twitter and it was of a menacing nature in the context of the times in which we live. Furthermore I am satisfied the defendant was, at the very least, aware that this was of a menacing nature and I find him guilty of the offence.”

And so to the appeal at Doncaster Crown Court. Judge Jacqueline Davies dismisses Chambers’s appeal on every count. She tells him to pay a further £2,000 legal bill for his failed appeal. She says:

“Anyone in this country in the present climate of terrorist threats, especially at airports, could not be unaware of the possible consequences.”


She says the tweet was “menacing in its content and obviously so. It could not be more clear. Any ordinary person reading this would see it in that way and be alarmed.”

After his arrest in January 20120, Chambers lost his job as a financial manager.

Chambers and @crazycolours now live together in Northern Ireland. Paul Chambers has launched a new appeal to have his name cleared.

When his last appeal failed he said:

“I wouldn’t have minded if they had told me off for being stupid, which was clearly how they saw things really, but it wasn’t like that.”

Now, the matter is before the High Court. Chambers’ lawyer David Allan Green writes:

The appeal of Paul Chambers at the High Court against his conviction undersection 127 of the Communications Act 2003 takes place on 8 February 2012. As I am acting as Paul’s solicitor (I happen to be a qualified lawyer as well as a journalist), I cannot really write too much about the case at the moment. However, the summary and links below should provide all the information and commentary one could want on the case.

In brief: the appeal is entirely on points of law and will centre on the correct interpretation of section 127(1) of the Communications Act 2003. Paul’s legal team, headed by Ben Emmerson QC (widely considered as the leading human rights lawyer of his generation) and Sarah Przybylska will argue that the threshold for criminal liability under section 127 should be far higher than a case such as Paul’s jokey and exasperated tweet. This will be the first time that the High Court has considered the “menacing” communication offence under section 127 and, as Ben Emmerson is leading the appeal, it promises to be a master class in the current state of freedom of expression law.

The hearing starts at 10.30 and is before Lord Justice Gross and Mr Justice Irwin. Lord Justice Gross recently held that anti-war protesters in Luton in 2009 did not have the benefit of Article 10 rights in respect of “breaches of peace”

A few thoughts:

Graham Linehan:

What all these people are essentially saying is this:  because this country was made less safe by  the hasty, reckless, duplicitous way in which  Tony Blair took us into war (a war which only yesterday claimed 114 more lives), and because he will never be brought to justice for that, we must live in a state of paranoid readiness, a state of nervous anxiety, a humorless state that cannot tell the difference between a joke and a threat, for the foreseeable future. Because that one, massive crime will go unpunished, we shall all be punished in thousands of interesting ways.

As Robert Harris said, while we stand at airport security with our shoes in our hands, Tony Blair floats unimpeded through another part of the terminal.

As we sit by a ruined Tube station, picking rubble out of our hair, Tony Blair is on his way to a thousand quid a plate dinner in a bulletproof limo.

To those people who put forward the view that Paul is the one at fault here, I’d like to say,  it’s not supposed to be like this. We’re not supposed to be scared of our shadows. We’re not supposed to be torturing people. We’re not supposed to be letting people get away with murder. We’re not supposed to be prosecuting people for offhand jokes.

Charlie Brooker:

At least when Osama bin Laden broadcasts a warning to the west, his intentions form part of an extremist ideology informed by decades of resentment. Chambers issues bloodcurdling threats at the drop of a snowflake. This makes him the very worst kind of terrorist there is – the kind prepared to slaughter thousands in the name of inclement weather conditions.

Mercifully, in this case, before any innocent blood could be shed, Chambers was arrested, held in a police cell, and convicted of sending a “menacing electronic communication”. His appeal was rejected last week by Judge Jacqueline Davies who described his original tweet as “menacing in its content and obviously so. It could not be more clear. Any ordinary person reading this would see it in that way and be alarmed.”

Quite right too. In fact, throughout this case, the authorities have behaved impeccably – which is why it’s such a crying shame I’m going to have to strangle all of them too.

Nick Cohen:

People joke like this all the time. When they say in a bar: “I’ll strangle my boyfriend if he hasn’t done the washing up” or post on Facebook: “I’ll murder my boss if he makes me work late”, it does not mean that the bodies of boyfriends and bosses will soon be filling morgues.

You know the difference between making a joke and announcing a murder, I’m sure. Apparently the forces of law and order do not.

This is the free world we live in…

Posted: 8th, February 2012 | In: Key Posts, Reviews Comments (2) | TrackBack | Permalink