Sabir on Security Twitter Trial: You must (not) be joking!

Ten months ago, Paul Chambers wrote a joke tweet mockingly threatening to blow up his local airport. He has since been arrested, charged and convicted. His appeal against his conviction was turned down yesterday. In this week's column, Rizwaan Sabir discusses the ramifications of an absurd case

New in Ceasefire, Sabir on Security - Posted on Friday, November 12, 2010 18:14 - 7 Comments

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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.

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7 Comments

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James
Nov 12, 2010 22:22

Great article. Have you heard about the ‘I Am Sparatcus’ campaign on Twitter, with hundreds of people reposting his original Twitter status? Absolutely brilliant.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2010/nov/12/iamspartacus-campaign-twitter-airport

Guy C
Nov 12, 2010 22:27

http://twitter.com/#!/search/%23iamspartacus reminds me most people think nothing like judges.

Shah
Nov 13, 2010 8:55

Interesting piece Rizwaan. Should one not accept that we live in a FREE country where Freedom to Suppress & freedom to be irrational like the judgement in this case should be accepted (not).
Long live Freedom.

Rizwaan
Nov 13, 2010 12:28

Thanks for comments….

James:

I’ve heard of the “IamSpartacus campagin” and think it’s a wonderful idea; one that quite clearly highlights that people do not appreciate this sort of infringement upon their basic human rights. Moreover, it’s a brilliant way of highlighting the absurdity with the whole case. I’d just love to see the police and judiciary TRY to hold to account the thousands that have, according to this judge, caused a nuisance now by making those tweets!

Guy:

I’ve never met a judge, other than when i was in the dock once, so i would be biased toward them anyhow, but, yes, i don’t think the judge in this case has quite understood the concept of twitter and satire.

Shah:

It seems that the freedoms that the government holds in (theoretical) high regards and lectures and imposes on other peoples and countries (i.e., China) are being systematically eroded and diminished in his country. We live in a free country, but our freedom is ever diminishing!

RB
Nov 14, 2010 15:26

A disproportionate response by the system perhaps, but the lad should have applied a little common sense before violating the communications act.

We all react to our environments. Just as we put a coat on when its cold outside, talking of blowing up airports just isn’t acceptable in current economic times. One would (or should) not be so surprised if it carries consequences.

If the government wanted to make a point however, it has backfired in the worst of ways. A small but meaningful fine and a slap on the wrist would have sent out the right message to future ‘satire abusers’ and smart alecs, but as usual they’ve dealt with it so badly its actually been a victory for left wing activists, who will no doubt use this as ammunition for quite some time.

A lesson for all involved.

Major Afzaal Shafi
Nov 15, 2010 10:16

The most important consideration in any crime is the intentions of the accused. In this particular case, I do not see any criminal intentions, however, irresponsible behaviour of making a joke, it might be. He could have been warned by the police, that such jokes under the present circumstances can result in wasting the precious time of the police.

This case has been handled by individuals at all level, who need to be reminded about their narrow minded and self centred approach.

Thanks

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Mar 5, 2011 11:48

[…] use of modern-day tools to enforce draconian policies (monitoring, tracking etc.) is hardly a secret. However, this nascent revolutionary movement has proven that these very same tools can be quickly […]

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