Consideration of ill conceived jokes

You see, I believe in freedom, Mr Lipwig. Not many people do, although they will of course protest otherwise. And no practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences. Indeed, it is the freedom upon which all the others are based. [1]

OK hands up if you’ve ever said or done something stupid. Told a joke you regret, maybe? Got drunk and told your boss what you think of them? Threatened to ‘kill’ someone if they don’t stop, say, kicking the back of your seat during a performance or have upset one of your friends? I know I’ve done it. The thing is most of us don’t mean it. They’re just words, words said in anger and later regretted. If like me, you said these words in the privacy of your own home or to your friends you can apologise for them and take the purely personal consequences. A joke could cause you to lose your job: telling your boss what you think of them almost certainly will but you could ‘just’ get a reprimand and the world will carry on as before; making inappropriate jokes in front of customers/clients/electorate would also probably be a sacking offence (and, yes, that does include public forums such as social networking sites and blogs). You could lose a friend for telling them what you really think and I’m sure social networking, with its illusion of privacy and nasty habit of making your views public knowledge, has terminated several friendships. Social networking sites have probably started many friendships as well (I have at least two new friends as a result of my Twitter presence).

So, you make the stupid joke in the ‘privacy’ of your twitter feed. Unless you have ‘protected’ your tweets it is now available for anyone to see on the public feed AND anyone searching the site for key-words you used. If you also used a hash-tag, it will appear in the feed of anyone currently following that too, and anyone searching for information about something that someone else said using that tag. This is where the problems start occurring, because you didn’t think that joke through and now you regret it. If you’re lucky no one will have noticed, you might have lost some followers or be flamed as a result, and you may have to apologise. Which you do, and think nothing more of it. Remember it was a joke, dark humour admittedly, but now you’ve been arrested because your joke is seen as a threat. This has happened at least twice so far: on 06 January 2010, Paul Chambers was arrested under Section 51 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 and on 10 November 2010, Gareth Compton was arrested under Section 127 of The Communications Act 2003. There are several important differences between the two cases but also several parallels. Both have been arrested as a direct result of throw-away comments on their Twitter sites.

**

PAUL CHAMBERS:

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!!

This has been widely reported in the media and popping up all over Twitter accompanied by the hash-tag ‘#IamSpartacus’[2] since his appeal was denied. The history and sequence of events in this case has been extremely well documented on David Allen Green’s personal blog.

At the point Chambers sent it he was a trainee accountant, he was arrested in his place of work and has subsequently lost his job. He will struggle to find anyone to complete his training contract and if he does by some miracle manage to find someone willing to complete his training now that he has a conviction under section 127 of the Communication Act 2003, he will almost certainly never work for any of the larger corporations or banks.

GARETH COMPTON

Won’t someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death. I won’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing, really. #R5L [3]

After the twitter outcry he sent the following by way of apology:

I did not ‘call’ for the stoning of anybody, I made an ill-conceived attempt at humour in response to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown saying on Radio 5

Live this morning, that no politician had the right to comment on human rights abuses, even the stoning of women in Iran. I apologise for

any offence caused. It was wholly unintentional. [4]

At the point he sent it he was a Conservative Councillor for Erdington in Birmingham. He has been ‘indefinitely’ suspended by the Conservative party and there are calls from Unison West Midlands region [5] for him to step down as a result of his tweet. These are the personal consequences he could potentially have suffered if he hadn’t announced it in a public forum but had been overheard. Because he chose to tweet his joke complaints have been made and he was reported to the police. From there I’m struggling to find any official confirmation, however, it has been widely reported that he was arrested and later bailed. The circumstances of his arrest (where he was etc) have not been made public.

**

Both of these ‘jokes’ have long since ceased being funny, if indeed they ever were. But I am not debating the stupidity of tweeting wry thoughts. I’m sure I’ve done it myself. Putting this kind of thing onto a social networking site seems very safe when you do it. Of course there is the risk of trolls (the internet kind rather than the ‘lives beneath goat crossing bridges’ [6] kind) but any sort of social interaction (especially social interaction with strangers) opens one up to the risk of being insulted.

There are to my mind some important differences between the two cases.

Firstly there’s the difference in status between the two: Chambers was an unknown (he’s now infamous), Compton an elected representative.

The outcry in Chambers’ case was about his arrest; in Compton’s it was, initially at least, about the tweet itself.

Paul Chambers’ has resulted in a conviction and a long, expensive appeal process. It is, as yet, unclear whether Compton will be prosecuted [7].

**

Neither of these men should have had the full weight of the law come crashing down on them; it is not the job of the courts to deem what is and is not funny, at least I don’t think it is, I was rather under the impression that criminal proceedings were to keep us safe, all of us, including the wrongly accused. And neither of them would have if they’d made the jokes to their friends rather than the world at large. The ‘#R5L’ on the end of Compton’s tweet made it clear that he was responding to the radio program; it was a stupid, thoughtless and extremely unfunny thing to say but he did not intend any actual threat against Yasmin Alibhai-Brown AND he apologised (the apology was considered glib by some, though I can find nothing particularly ‘glib’ about the words he used) when he realised people had taken offence to his ‘joke’. Alibhai-Brown has enough genuine threats against her life without people making idle ones and frankly, dark humour or not, stoning someone to death is not funny. I personally do not want someone who thinks it’s appropriate to make such jokes in a position of power. That’s just not the behaviour I expect from my elected representatives – I know that makes me an idealist and I don’t care. Alibhai-Brown also responded in anger to the tweet telling The Guardian she would be going to the police, though she has reportedly subsequently announced that she does not want him to face charges. [8]

Chambers’ tweet included an apparent bomb threat in a time of considerable fear about bombs. Once a member of Robin Hood Airport staff had found the tweet they were duty bound to report it, which they did. From that point, there was a chain to be followed whereby the ‘threat’ was passed on and assessed. Chambers was also arrested and questioned – which is where it should have ended. It didn’t and it seems unlikely that Compton’s case will end there either.

**

So, to answer those who asked: yes, I will be defending Compton as voraciously as I have been defending Chambers (which I will admit is not very). I do not want to live in a world where people are prosecuted for ill conceived attempts at humour, because it’s a short step from there to living in a world where any attempts at humour are likely to be subject to legal action, where one cannot criticise anyone even when their opinions are repugnant to you.

I found Compton’s tweet repugnant, and, had his account not disappeared I would probably have told him so. But I don’t want tax payers money spent on his prosecution – that won’t change his mind. Instead I want to convince him that I am right and he is wrong. Using words. Because words are powerful, and they don’t cost much. There will be consequences to his actions, that’s as it should be – as Sir Terry Pratchett so wonderfully put it: ‘no practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences’. [1]

[1] Pratchett, T. 2004. Going Postal. London: Corgi. p. 25

[2] Some people have been playing with the original tweet, changing the words, word order or airport named. According to ‘cripesonfriday’ Heathrow Airport have reported these threats to the police (as they are required to). It will be interesting to see where this new episode leads.

[3] there is a screen dump of the original tweet at the top of this Birmingham Post article, and also at the top of this blog post by Andrew Reeves.

[4] there is a screen dump of Compton’s feed at the end ofthis Daily Mail article.

[5] Unison West Midlands region’s statement can be found on their website.

[6] As Marcus Brigstocke charmingly put it on Twitter.

[7] As David Allen Green explained in a conversation with Dave Gorman on Twitter and I discovered during a domestic violence case there isn’t an elective element to the decision to prosecute in a criminal case. I don’t know whether the fact that the initial complaint did not come from Yasmin Alibhai-Brown will prove to be important.

[8] her position is reported in the Birmingham Mail and has been rumoured on the Twitter site itself though I cannot find any other reference to this aspect of the case – it appears to have gone unreported in traditional national media. If anyone does know of other sources for this information please send me a link, thank you.

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