Despite being alluded to by many a fine blogger, including David Allen Green and @flayman and even the odd journalist, it wasn’t until I attended Court 2 of Doncaster Crown Court on Friday 24th August 2010 that I realised I was getting the emphasis in #TwitterJokeTrial all wrong.
I now realise that it is not “#Twitter Joke: (The) Trial” but in fact is “#Twitter: (The) Joke Trial”.
The sheer ridiculousness of the case against Paul Chambers is astonishing. The whole series of jobsworth decisions from the Airport Duty Manager who originally discovered the message, through to his Line Manager, the Police, then the Crown Prosecution Service and ultimately the Magistrate who convicted Paul, handing him a £1000 fine and a criminal record that would see him lose not one but two jobs, is mindboggling.
The case itself is incredibly simple and well documented, so I will not rehash the details other than to make a point about how many people could have stopped this. The chain starts with Robin Hood’s Airport Duty Manager Shaun Duffield who explained to the appeal court that he was responsible for the running of the airport, when on duty, and that this included managing security risks. Whilst on a day off, he claims that he decided to search for Robin Hood Airports new Twitter/internet presence (this man must really love his job) and stumbled upon Paul’s frustrated post.
Mr Duffield freely admitted to the court that this was the first threat of this kind that he had had to deal with and that he was not authorised to dismiss this “threat” for the exasperated rant that it clearly was. So, the message was pasted into an email and sent to Mr Duffield’s Line Manager whereupon it was passed further to the police. These latter parties did not regard the tweet as being menacing (the police didn’t even follow-up this potential terrorist threat for two days) and Mr Duffield admitted in court that Paul’s words had not affect the running of the airport one bit, other than Mr Duffield himself having to miss an important training day to attend the appeal (karma?). So, despite having the name and photograph of the author within the tweet (I’m pretty sure the IRA weren’t this cooperative when they gave advance notice of threats) the oil-tanker that is this case sailed on and even more time, money and effort was wasted by the criminal justice system in order to teach someone a lesson. If it was really felt necessary to make that point then I am sure the same effect could have been achieved by a single police constable knocking on Paul’s door in the evening and telling him to think twice before venting his disappointment in future.
So, on to the appeal.
The prosecution’s case was so weak as to be laughable. Indeed, but for the nature of the setting, and the awareness that the law clearly does not have a sense of humour, I am sure that there would have been people rolling in the aisles of the court. Instead we had to content ourselves with disbelieving ‘tuts’ and silent headshakes as Caroline Wiggin for the prosecution vainly tried to convince us that this tweet could, and indeed should, be seen as a serious threat to security. During one break I tweeted that, in terms of (street) “cred” the prosecution reminded me of Miss Marple, whilst the defence were The Sweeney. This comparison, I feel, is a good one as the prosecution were presenting a case from a bygone era where the bad words of the nasty man represented a threat of real and serious danger, whereas the defence knew that this is how people in the real world let off steam.
Twitter was explained with such tortuous detail that it was hardly recognisable. The additional evidence that Paul had tweeted directly to his girlfriend suggesting that he hijack a plane and get it to fly to Northern Ireland (instead of somewhere more traditional for a hijacking) was irreverently swept aside by barrister Stephen Ferguson who, using his best Northern Irish accent, accepted this comment as a joke on behalf of his countrymen; if only someone (anyone) earlier in the process had shown such grace.
So why hasn’t the case been thrown out already then? I can only think it is because the judge is aware that she stands to make everyone involved in the prosecution’s case, and the law itself, look pretty bloody stupid for being inflexible and unable to cope with the modern age. Furthermore, there are implications for case law and how this judgment will then be used to influence the defence, or prosecution, of others in future cases.
So not a decision to be taken lightly but, I hope, one that the judge and magistrates have the guts to make. The criminal justice system does not need another name adding to the Role of Shame that has criminalised a young man who was merely frustrated.
If the law cannot see this case for what it is then the law is more dangerous, misguided and misjudged than Paul Chambers has ever been.