Paul Chambers and the Press – Where were you in 2003?

June 28, 2012

Paul Chambers was convicted under the Communications Act (2003) for sending a “menacing” tweet. After having a flight grounded while he was pursuing a ladyfriend, back in January 2010, Chambers became annoyed at Robin Hood Airport, tweeting:

“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!!”

What most (99%) of people would surely see as a piece of humour, Doncaster magistrates deemed to have contravened the 2003 Act, section 127 of which prohibits “Improper use of public electronic communications network”, which includes “[sending] by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.”

The case was only heard by accident. Over a week after Chambers sent his tweet, an employee of the airport was carrying out a search of social media while off-duty. He informed his manager, who informed their manager etc… and – to use a tired old cliche – a Kafkaesque “nightmare” ensued.

In the first instance, Chambers received a £385 fine plus £600 costs and, as a result of the trial, he lost his job. He them mounted an appeal, which failed, and took his case to the High Court and, he failed again.

Hearteningly, many well known names have supported chambers, including Graham Linehan (writer of Father Ted), Stephen Fry and Nick Cohen of the Observer. But until now, their pressure has not been able to force a lenient interpretation of tha Act or, even better, to force its total revision. Clearly, if speech like this is punishable by law (a six month imprisonment is possible), then the law is, as it often is, an ass.

But there is another disturbing point which the press is less keen to publicize. This perhaps gets closer to the nub of the matter, as it touches upon our means of preventing such sneaky legislation being passed again (the Communications Act is enormous, and the damaging section 127 is tucked away deep within its recesses).

When the Act was passed, not one media outlet pointed out its massive shortcomings. This suggests to me that few people, if any (and this includes legislators) actually read its text. A Nexis search across all UK newspapers in 2002 and 2003 brings up no hits for the search terms “Communications Act” and “freedom of speech” or “section 127.”

In a society wedded to freedom of speech this would not happen. Clearly there should be many eyes in the press peeled eagerly to pick up any legislation which penalises something as woolly as “menacing” speech or – in another clause of the same section, anything which causes “needless anxiety” when transmitted over an electronic network.

Now, although his support for Chambers is laudable, Nick Cohen is a good example of how such things get passed the lions of Fleet Street. For most of 2002 and 2003 he was busy writing articles in support of Tony Blair’s war against Iraq, when he should have been sticking to what he does best – writing about free speech. But, drawn by the glamour of war, he dropped the ball. Don’t blame him though, he was the opposite of alone.

I’d be interested to know if any journalists thought about writing a piece on the Communications Act (excepting its sections on media ownership which certain press outlets had a very strong interest in discussing). Perhaps editors weren’t interested? Maybe the issue was misunderstood, or electronic media was a little too new. Would that it was true. The truth is, I suspect, that the press needs to be more mature in covering issues concerning liberty. Some focus on the Trade Union laws would be a decent start.

Sadly, and this is no slight on the noble profession of comedians, we still tend to rely on them to highlight crucial issues. This shouldn’t be the case, and despite the hoo-ha about “press ethics” it doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon.

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