Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Have the authorities not got a twitter of sense?

When light-hearted comments and off-the-cuff remarks are picked up and acted on by the thought police it's another nail in the coffin of free speech, says Don Anderson

Haven't we all felt occasionally that either we ourselves are going mad - or are convinced that we are sane but the rest of the world is going mad.

I felt this way when I read of what has happened to Paul Chambers, a harmless trainee accountant in Doncaster trying to travel by air to Northern Ireland to visit a girlfriend at the beginning of the year. Robin Hood Airport (we are not the only people to give incongruous names to airports) serving Doncaster had been shut by weather and he vented his frustration by posting a message on Twitter from his iPhone.

This was the message. "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week to get your s**t together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!" Because of this, the hapless 27-year-old was landed in court, became a criminal, lost thousands in fines and legal costs and finally forfeited his job. This is a disgraceful, degrading injustice.

There may be those who do not know what the Twitter website is. It is a free internet social messaging tool which allows people to upload text messages of up to 140 characters in length. Twitter is based on people posting their thoughts, observations and trivia in what are known as tweets. The actor and writer Stephen Fry is one of the most famous twitterers in the UK, having once bored the nation exceedingly by telling everyone he was stuck in a lift.

Recently he vented his anger on Twitter against The Observer for, he declared, misquoting a humorous interview, which itself misquoted him joking about women not enjoying sex. A storm in a teacup. But that is the point. Twitter is a teacup.

Twitter is immensely popular and mostly immensely inconsequential. How could anyone take seriously a web site with messages like, 'Everyone should dress their kids as angry birds for Halloween so I don't feel bad when I run them over'? According to some deeply worrying people in authority, this person should have been hounded off the planet as a clear and present danger to all our children.

But deeply worrying people in authority do exist. In July a Lib Dem Cardiff councillor, John Dixon, found himself being investigated by a public standards watchdog for posting this message on Twitter: "I didn't know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off."

The watchdog decided the message was "likely" to have breached the code of conduct for local authority members.

News of the watchdog's decision prompted a flood of messages of support on Twitter for Dixon, who had posted a follow-up message which read: "Just realised the Scientologists are following me. Quick everyone, pretend you're out." The tone says it all - it was jocular. The man was having fun.

Within the past few days Birmingham councillor Gareth Compton was actually arrested for what he wrote on Twitter. He had listened to writer Ms Alibhai-Brown, a Muslim, on Radio 5 Live's breakfast show discussing human rights in China, seemingly expressing opinions with which he disagreed. Afterwards, Mr Compton allegedly tweeted: "Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan't tell Amnesty if you don't. It would be a blessing, really." Later, he said: "I made an ill-conceived attempt at humour in response to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown on Radio 5. I (apologise) for any offence caused, it was wholly unintentional." Too late. The Leader of the House of Commons has jumped upon him and the Conservative Party has suspended his membership for the time being.

Stoning is barbaric and it was a joke in very bad taste, but if everybody who delivered a joke in bad taste, however tasteless and however publicly, was to be arrested, society would be seriously damaged. Writers published by this very newspaper could be in danger. Does anyone really believe Councillor Compton was issuing a Fatwa? Or that Councillor Dixon was really threatening the Church of Scientology? Or that an exasperated Paul Chambers was really preparing to attack an airport?

The instances would be laughable if they were not so serious.

It might be worth picking up Kenan Malik's book, From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy. In it he writes: "Muslim protesters who chant 'Bomb, bomb Denmark' or 'Behead those who insult Islam' may be moronic and offensive. The idea they are inciting murder is equally moronic and offensive to our intelligence. People do not respond to words like robots.

"They think and reason, and act upon their thoughts and reasoning. Bigots are, of course, influenced by bigoted talk. But it is the bigots who must bear responsibility for translating talk into action. In blurring the distinction between speech and action, incitement laws blur the idea of human agency and of moral responsibility."

Anti-terror legislation and political correctness are exploiting a predilection for censorship. The fight for free speech was hard won and we are discarding the fruits of that victory. There is no right not to be offended. Words are not deeds. I have described Twitter as for the most part inconsequential, but not always. It is estimated that over 5,000 tweets have deliberately repeated Paul Chambers' Robin Hood tweet, adding "I am Spartacus," inspired by the famous scene in the 1960s blockbuster film, when slaves stood up one by one to claim "I'm Spartacus" in order to save their slave-revolt leader from detection. Are the authorities now going to prosecute them all, because they are all just as guilty - or as innocent - as Chambers?

Meanwhile, a Singapore court has sentenced the 76-year-old UK author Alan Shadrake to six weeks in prison for insulting their judiciary in a book, Once a Jolly Hangman - Singapore Justice in the Dock. He criticised how the death penalty there is used, alleging a lack of impartiality. Fight back. Buy Shadrake's book. Buy Malik's book. And if you meet Paul Chambers, who I think is now among us, greet him with "I am Spartacus."

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