The medium is the message: free the Twitter Two!
This post has been through a number of title incarnations. At 9.00pm last night it was: ‘Common sense, proportionality and freedom of expression’.
By 11.30 it was: ‘Paul Chambers and Gareth Compton: The imperative of Trial by Jury’.
Then His Grace decided to ditch it altogether in favour of Iain Duncan Smith’s use of the ‘S’ word.
Today he reconsidered and titled it as featured above.
His Grace still cannot decide whether parodic levity or sober gravity is more appropriate.
Or whether to dismiss it as a desperate attempt by both Paul Chambers and Gareth Compton to gain more Twitter followers.
His Grace probably thinks about these things too much.
The essence of the story is the adaptation of Luke 6:45 for the era of mass social networking: “The tweet speaks what the heart is full of.”
It appears that these 140 characters may never again express humour, sarcasm, irony, hyperbole or exaggeration.
Consider this tweet, sent by Paul Chambers to a friend when he discovered the local airport was closed due to heavy snowfall:
"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!"No amount of manifest contextual sarcasm, vernacular levity or punctuated exclamation will mitigate the literal menace inherent in the suggestion that the author really intends to bomb the airport.
This was the finding of Judge Jacqueline Davies who, in rejecting the appeal against the conviction of Mr Chambers who had been fined £1000 for this tweet, insisted that it 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’.
Mr Chambers was also dismissed from his job as a financial manager.
Have we lost all sense of proportion?
How can a law which was designed to prevent acts of terrorism by the alien be used to inhibit the national characteristics of the indigenous?
Admirably, the actor Stephen Fry, who (like Rowan Atkinson) fully appreciates the implications of censorious laws and judicial zealotry, has offered to pay Mr Chambers' fine. But it cannot mitigate the conviction.
And what about this tweet:
"Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan't tell Amnesty if you don't. It would be a blessing, really."This was made by Conservative councillor Gareth Compton, who has since been arrested and suspended indefinitely from his party.
West Midlands Police said: "We can confirm a 38-year-old man from Harborne has been arrested for an offence under section 127 (1a) of the Communications Act of 2003 on suspicion of sending an offensive or indecent message. He has been bailed pending further inquiries."
Cllr Compton is facing imprisonment.
The irony of this is that he was actually responding Yasmin Alibhai-Brown saying on Radio 5 Live that ‘no politician had the right to comment on human rights abuses, even the stoning of women in Iran’.
Ms Alibhai-Brown advocates the stoning of women and condones those who do so: Cllr Compton simply has an ill-judged sense of humour.
But Ms Alibhai-Brown told the BBC she was ‘upset’ when she read the message after being alerted to it by a friend. And not just ‘upset’, but ‘incredibly upset’.
Literally: the level of her upset was quite beyond the capacity of man to believe.
Or perhaps Ms Alibhai-Brown didn’t mean to be quite so literal.
It’s hard to say.
She said: "He was specifically asking that I should be stoned because he didn't agree with a view I expressed. This is not debate, it's incitement."
This is absurd histrionics and purposeful hyperbole from a self-promoting leftist banshee who, if she lived in Iran, would be stoned to death or hanged for flouting a myriad of sharia precepts, like daring to voice an opinion whilst being female.
And there probably aren’t many in the UK who would complain to Amnesty, considering her demise to be a blessing (quite literally) to the airwaves.
Incredibly, the matter was raised in the House of Commons by Labour MP Steve McCabe. He declaimed: "And can we use that debate to hear your response to Birmingham Conservative councillor Gareth Compton's call for the stoning to death of the journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown? Will this disgraceful behaviour be tolerated?" Leader of the House, Sir George Young soberly responded: "Stoning to death is a barbarous form of punishment which the Government, and I am sure every honourable Member of this House, deplores. I hope that no elected person will threaten any member of our society with that sort of punishment."
Why were questions not asked in Parliament about the ‘disgraceful behaviour’ of those who wished Margaret Thatcher would just hurry up and die? Or of the Labour councillor who hopes the Great Lady might burn in hell?
Is it only the Left who can feel want, taste grief and need friends?
Interestingly, when a theatrical production called for the death of Margaret Thatcher, despite many being ‘offended by the viciousness of the attack’, it was excused because the author believed his words ‘reflected the depth of hostility towards Thatcher’.
It was also observed that ‘Lady Thatcher is not that thin-skinned’.
Neither, of course, is the leather-faced, hard-boiled Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, but she has to feign vulnerability in order to milk every minute of a little bonus publicity.
Both Mr Chambers and Cllr Compton might have been incredibly stupid and insensitive, and their tweets may be judged to be ill-conceived attempts at humour.
But it beggars belief that either might be taken so seriously as to lead to their arrest or conviction for menacingly intending the literal meaning.
Have we forgotten the Marshall McLuhan dictum that the medium is the message? Twitter is not a mechanism of formal fatwa proclamation or other serious pronouncement: it is a condensed snippet of ephemeral thought.
Why are tweeters not permitted to ‘reflect the depth of hostility’ in 140 characters?
If either of these statements had been screamed in the street rather than whispered in a tweet, would the perpetrators have been arrested and convicted of terrorist threat or incitement to murder?
If so, why do those professing Muslims who protested outside the High Court demanding the death of Stephen Timms MP get off scot free?
Law enforcement authorities appear to be more tolerant of Islamist risibility than English humour.
The temperament is engrained in the national psyche. But if today the Bard of Avon were to call someone a ‘dwarfish thief’ or a ‘fat guts’, he would probably be prosecuted for offensive discrimination. If he were to wish ‘Boils and plagues plaster you over’, he would be arrested for causing distress. To threaten to ‘daub the wall of a jakes’ with someone or to ‘put their head on a pole’ would doubtless constitute incitements to violence and murder.
The problem is scurvy politicians, humourless police and over-zealous judges.
It was to protect us from such injustices that Trial by Jury was introduced, and history has established that whenever myopic judges may seek to strain at a gnat and apply the letter of the law, 12 good men and true may look to the spirit: they have refused to convict even when a judge has ordered them to do so, insisting upon the principles of common sense proportionality and liberty.
When in 1664 Parliament passed the Conventicle Act to suppress Roman Catholic religious dissent and sedition, the law was applied mainly and disproportionately against the Quakers who frequently preached on the streets of London: thousands of them were imprisoned for holding religious assemblies outside the auspices of the Established Church. But while the judge insisted upon their guilt and conviction for unlawful assembly, the jury of ordinary and reasonable men refused to convict, even on pain of their own imprisonment, insisting that the accused were guilty of nothing but preaching the gospel of Christ.
Since that time, juries have had the constitutional right to determine the facts of a case and the liberty to ignore any judicial ‘direction’ to convict, known as the power of nullification. As our right to trial by jury has gradually been eroded and judges have become increasingly omnipotent and unaccountable in their own courts, we have lost the check to disproportionate power and the balance to judicial zealotry which has been regularly used over the centuries when juries have felt the law has been interpreted incorrectly or applied unjustly.
More recently, a 1999 judgment by Lord Justice Sedley emphasised that freedom of speech is not worth having unless it can cause offence (ie ‘alarm’ or ‘distress’). Citing Socrates and again the Quakers, he said: “The irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and provocative have a right to be heard.” He was speaking about the wrongful conviction of three Christian street preachers, but of relevance to the Twitter case was his conclusion: “To proceed as the Crown Court did from (preaching)…to a reasonable apprehension that violence is going to erupt is, with great respect, both illiberal and illogical.”
Judge Jacqueline Davies would do well to consider the reasoned judgment of Lord Justice Sedley.
Juries have the capacity to look beyond the letter of the law and the limited horizon of the court room. They can interpret Parliament’s legislative intention, motivation and meaning to reach judgments based not merely on pedantic points of law but upon justice. The law of the judge that has no regard for common decency and humanity is dead: the justice of the collective wisdom breathes life into the law.
The Twitter Two are manifestly not guilty. It is for the jury of the mass twitterati to make their verdict known to the world.