Sabir on Security Twitter Trial: You must (not) be joking!
New in Ceasefire, Sabir on Security - Posted on Friday, November 12, 2010 18:14 - 7 Comments
By Rizwaan Sabir
When Paul Chambers, a 27 year old accountant from South Yorkshire tweeted in January 2010 that he would “blow up Robin Hood Airport sky high” if the airport failed to “get [its] shit together”, the last thing he probably expected was to be swiftly arrested by anti-terrorism officers and to find himself facing a charge, and now a conviction, for apparently causing a “menace” to public safety and security under the Communications Act 2003.
Chambers appealed his conviction, but his appeal failed yesterday, and his conviction was upheld on every count because the judge felt his words were menacing and threatening. He was fined an additional £2,000 on top of his original fine, taking the grand total (at the time of writing) to £3,600.
Luckily for Chambers, Stephen Fry has volunteered to pay the fine. Fry tweeted yesterday: “My offer still stands. Whatever they fine you, I’ll pay”. For Chambers, who has lost his job as a financial advisor, Fry’s intervention and his promise of picking up the bill for making a ‘joke’ will be welcomed, however, as Chambers will have undoubtedly wondered, his case has highlighted some problematic issues in relation to what is becoming unacceptable speech in the public space.
One could argue that ‘joking’ about airports or bombs, especially when the jokes are made at a time when the government is seemingly ‘concerned’ about terrorism is not a particularly wise idea. However, having a bad sense of humour or employing ill-advised satirical metaphors is not a criminal offence – not yet anyway.
If Chambers is guilty of something, he should have been convicted for ‘inappropriate use of political satire’, punishable by 2 days detention at a ‘political satire boot camp for dummies’; and not, as has happened, awarded a real criminal conviction and a £3,600 fine.
Instead of being mindlessly criminalised, joking, mocking and laughing about politically volatile issues are, one could argue, exactly the sort of tools we should be using in addressing very thorny issues that are otherwise difficult to discuss. For one thing, they are an excellent way of explaining illogical concepts and arguments to those individuals that might not understand your reasoning and explanations. There is obviously a reason why political satire is one of the most liked and enjoyable features in our TV schedules.
The mind actually boggles at how and why the prosecution felt the Chambers ‘tweet’ could actually cause a nuisance. It seems that if anybody has been a nuisance it’s the prosecution (and the judge) who have ruined the life of an innocent man, who will now have the ‘convicted criminal’ label attached to him for the foreseeable future.
The police, much to everyone’s surprise, were the only ones that seemingly brought a semblance of logic to this debacle. Even though the arrest and charging of Chambers are debatable in themselves, the police have at least admitted that there wasn’t much in terms of evidence to suggest that Chambers comments were “anything other than a foolish comment posted on Twitter for his close friends to see”. A senior airport official reinforced this by suggesting that Chambers words were considered “a non-credible threat” by the airport authorities.
If Chambers’ conviction highlights anything, it is that the ‘normal person’s’ right to joke or make remarks of a political nature in this so-called time of ‘insecurity’ and ‘terrorism’ is a dangerous idea, and one that can land you with exceedingly high fines and a criminal conviction. The mind wonders: had Chambers fitted the stereotypical profile of ‘the terrorist’, how more insane and disproportionate would the reaction have been?
This entire case and the incredibly disproportionate manner in which the Judge and prosecution have handled it is an affront to common sense, to justice and, sadly, to the lost art of satire too.
A comment posted by “ashforcash” on the Guardian’s website summarises this case in the most simple, yet eloquent, of fashions:
“This is f*****g ridiculous”
Rizwaan Sabir is a human rights activist and doctoral researcher at the University of Strathclyde. He is researching the role of Islam in British and Scottish government policy, with a special focus on counter-terrorism.
In May 2008 he was detained for six days as a suspected member of al-Qaida for being in possession of primary research literature. He was released without charge.
His column on counter-terrorism and security appears every other Friday.