As I write this, Paul Chambers is appealing a criminal conviction for menacing use of a public communication system. His case is being heard in the High Court to overturn his criminal record and £1000 fine.
So what was his crime?
Chambers met a girl online. They got on well and planned to meet up in Northern Ireland in January 2010. Just over a week before the flight, Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster was closed due to bad weather. Chambers posted on Twitter, saying “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!!”
A week later he was arrested at work by five anti-terror police officers, questioned, charged and later convicted under the Communications Act 2003.
Does he deserve that? Is it right that a throwaway comment, a joke, should have such damaging consequences to a person’s life?
The prosecution’s case rests on the assumption that, joke or not, the tweet constituted a clear threat to the security of Robin Hood Airport. The defense argues that this is clearly bollocks. It is a joke that has been taken out of context.
Robert Smith QC (presumably no relation to the portly frontman of The Cure) is arguing that the conviction should remain, saying that the comment “was not viewed as a joke by those responsible for airport security” and that “it constituted a threat to blow up Doncaster airport”.
In this age of social networking and instant messaging, do we need to re-evaluate the way in which the written word is viewed? A few short decades ago, anything that was written down would not be seen by anyone else unless you wanted it to, and even then you could go back to it again and again before exposing it to public perusal. That is no longer the case. In the case of Twitter, Facebook and so on, people have a thought, write it down and fire it out into cyberspace, where it can be read, reposted, replied to by (potentially) millions of people. Should we be more careful about the things we post online? Or does society need to lighten up, to stop treating everything written down as a declaration of intent?
If Chambers had been overheard in the pub commenting on how he would blow the airport “sky high”, this case would never have happened. He would have been seen to be joking through his body language, tone of voice and the reactions of his audience. In other words, the social context of the comment would have provided a defense. In real life, people make comments like this every day. How often have you said “you are so dead” in response to an insult, or “I’ll murder him if he hasn’t done the washing up”? These are clichés, verbal tics that we use to signal that we are not serious. On Twitter there is no such signalling. His comment is there, in black and white, singular glory, unable to defend or explain itself to those who choose to be offended.
And it is a choice. When we hear a joke we instantly react, often without conscious thought. This may be a groan, a belly laugh, a short, involuntary bark of laughter followed by a guilty groan. We may not find a joke funny, because it resonates with us in the wrong way. A joke about death, or sexual abuse, or any other taboo subject may make us recoil in horror because we are too close to it. That doesn’t mean that the joke is not funny, it is just not funny to us. Our sense of humour is just that: ours. It is, by its very nature, subjective. What I find funny will not always be the same as you. And that’s ok. I don’t expect you to find all my jokes funny, in the same way that I don’t expect to like all the same music as you. But just because we like different things, it doesn’t mean that one of us is wrong.
And that is the problem in the Chambers case. A joke was made that someone didn’t find funny. Someone saw the comment that he had made and had a sense of humour failure. They obviously didn’t think it was a joke, although how that came to be is difficult to understand, and they reacted by informing the relevant authorities. The wheels of the legal system rumbled into motion and Chambers found himself treated like a terrorist.
This is not the first time that jokes have been misunderstood, deliberately or otherwise. Jeremy Clarkson recently outraged a section of the British media and public by suggesting that striking public sector workers should be shot. This was another case of a comment taken out of context. What he was actually doing was making a joke about the BBCs policy of ‘balance’, in which both sides of an argument must be fairly represented.
American comedian Joe Lipardi made the headlines when, after continuing problems with his iPhone, claimed on Facebook that he “might walk into an Apple store on Fifth Avenue with an Armalite AR-10 gas powered semi-automatic weapon and pump round after round into one of those smug, fruity little concierges”, a clear reference to one of Ed Norton’s lines in Fight Club. He was arrested by armed police and charged under terrorism laws.
Comedian Russell Brand, along with presenter Jonathan Ross, made a series of phone calls to Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs on Brand’s radio show, in which comments were made about the actor’s grand-daughter Georgina Baillie, member of the burlesque group The Satanic Sluts. After a handful of complaints, the right-wing UK newspaper the Daily Mail ran the story on its front page, generating thousands of further complaints. Brand and Ross were sacked, despite apologising for their comments.
These cases highlight the problem with jokes. If what you say (or especially write) has the possibility of being funny, it almost certainly has the possibility to offend. Should we self-censor in order to avoid this? Should the government censor us if it feels we will offend someone? Should Twitter or Facebook be held accountable for the messages posted on them?
The Chambers case is relying on the European Court of Human Rights and the expression of Free Speech. Do we have the right to say what we want, regardless of who may be offended?
I believe we do. It is your right to be offended by whatever you hear, if you so choose. I also believe that if I say something that is calculated to dehumanize a group, or to promote hatred or violence towards them, then I deserve to be charged and fined. But for making a joke, however lame it may be? No.
And if you disagree, I’ll kill you.