Tweet and sour reaction to that bomb 'joke'
LET ME tell you a story about something that happened to my cousin’s gardener. He and his family were approaching the security gate at Orlando airport when his daughter began arguing about bubble gum.
“You’ve got the gum! Give me the gum!” she shouted at her dad. Well, a dozen men in flak jackets suddenly sprang from the shadows, produced machine guns and marched the family into detention. They thought she’d said: “You’ve got the gun.” Honest. It’s true.
Ever since the 9/11 attacks, saloon bars have buzzed with apocryphal stories about innocent travellers being hauled off to solitary confinement for wearing aggressive T-shirts, lacing their shoes in the Islamic style or having suspiciously bushy moustaches.
On first hearing, the “Twitter Joke” trial sounds like just such a tall tale. If you’ve missed the details, here’s what happened. In January 2010, one Paul Chambers was preparing to travel from the quaintly named Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster to visit a new acquaintance in Northern Ireland. Upon finding the flight cancelled, he turned to stupid Twitter. “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise Im blowing the airport sky high!!” he tweeted.
A week later, an off-duty airport employee saw the message (how?) and set the creaky wheels of justice into motion. Chambers was convicted for sending a message of “menacing intent” and fined £1,000.
Happily, he and his lawyers are not taking it lying down. Last week, their latest appeal reached the high court in London.
One hardly knows where to begin when addressing the story. It reads like the plot for an allegorical Czechoslovakian protest play from the Warsaw Pact years.
It would be unsurprising if the judge turned out to be an animated statue and if Chambers lived life as a talking squirrel. (Those plays were a bit like that, you understand.)
Considering the misery Twitter brings to honest folk’s lives – so many poisonous dollops of malicious gossip spread by yellow-backed bullies – it seems remarkable the state is bothering with a case that doesn’t involve any conspicuous victims. Given that nobody spotted the tweet for a week, we can safely assume airport security did not move towards red alert. No more flights were delayed. No panic ensued.
The appeal has drawn a number of high-profile comedy professionals to the court. Stephen Fry, Al Murray and our own inestimable Graham Linehan all turned up to offer Chambers their support. They argue that the right to free speech is at stake.
This is where it gets interesting. One could argue that the case touches upon the oldest, hoariest cliche concerning this slippery subject. You recall. Attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, the distinguished American jurist, the saw states that freedom of speech does not cover shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre. Was Chambers engaging in the modern, digital version of that offence? Of course not. It should be obvious to anybody with working frontal lobes the tweet was intended as a joke. Chambers did not keep his identity secret. He broadcast his supposed intentions to 600 followers.
“The conviction is crazy; there is no other way of putting it,” Al Murray, who performs as The Pub Landlord, thundered. “It is like saying: ‘Oh God, I could murder the boss.’”
Indeed. The real question is this: in what circumstances can the phrase “it’s only a joke” be used as a defence? Consider Jeremy Clarkson (if you can bear it). Last year, appearing on an early-evening magazine show, he suggested that striking public sector workers be shot in front of their families. It was very difficult to take the unions’ objections seriously. The automotive blowhard was clearly expressing his objection to the strike through vivid hyperbole.
We wander into more complicated territory when we consider the racist quips that peppered the acts of English comics such as Bernard Manning throughout the 1970s. They were only joking? Well, yes. But if the audience does not share the prejudices being paraded then the gags make absolutely no sense. Here, the intent is suspect. (Which is not to suggest such unpleasant gags should be banned.)
John Cooper QC, Chambers’s lawyer, put it very nicely when he suggested that if the original court’s standards were applied John Betjeman might have got in trouble for writing: “Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough.”
Exactly so. The poet was not keen on the Berkshire town. But he didn’t really want to see it levelled. “It’s only a joke” acts as a sound defence when the speaker’s intent is significantly different to the relevant phrase’s literal meaning and when – if the words are broadcast publicly – no reasonable person could be expected to take that statement at face value.
Oh, I could murder that original judge.