The war on terror is over. We lost.
The tell-tale signs are everywhere. You can see them in our buildings and our transport networks. You can read them in your morning paper. You can hear them echoing down the corridors of Whitehall. Galvanised by fear whipped up by the media, to which our politicians pander persistently in pursuit of power, we’ve changed our society into one where nobody dares take a decision. We live in a post-accountability world where bureaucracies ruin lives for the want of someone – anyone – displaying a bit of courage or leadership or common sense.
Nowhere is this illustrated more starkly than in the case of Paul Chambers.
In the snowy depths of January 2010 Paul sent a message of frustration to his Twitter friends when he discovered the weather could affect his travel plans: “Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together or I’m blowing the airport sky high!!”
A member of staff at Robin Hood Airport saw the tweet because they were searching Twitter for their employer’s name (goodness knows why). They judged it to be harmless, but reported it anyway, presumably so their ass would be covered if it turned out to be otherwise; and anyway, it didn’t cost them anything personally, so why not? Especially since the consequences of inaction might have proved career-limiting.
I imagine similar thinking drove the airport security team’s decision to tip off the police about the message, or rather, their decision to make it their policy to report every tip-off they receive no matter how improbable it seems. After all, it would have been no skin off their noses to include Paul’s tweet in their routine report, and the consequences would have been unthinkable if they’d failed to mention something that might, just might, have been important. Same with the police: it’s no problem for them to investigate any possible threat. They could have decided Paul’s tweet was a foolish act of bravado, yet if they had declined to act and something bad had happened, it would have been be their responsibility. Far be it for the police to take responsibility. That’s what the Crown Prosecution Service is for, right? Wrong.
At least when cases like this are blown out of proportion by a bunch of jobsworths, they’re usually set straight by the courts, aren’t they? Not this time. This was ass-covering at it’s finest, all the way down the line. Paul was convicted of sending “a message or other matter” which is “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character” by means of a “public electronic communications network”. His fine currently stands at £384 plus £2600 in costs. He’s been given a criminal record and has lost two jobs as a consequence.
This is bigger than one man’s misguided message. Other tweeters have been arrested under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 since Paul’s conviction, which was upheld unequivocally by Doncaster Crown Court last Thursday, and those people are still waiting to learn their fate. The chilling effect this ruling could have on freedom of expression is no laughing matter.
This is how the War on Terror has ended. Not with the capture of Osama Bin Laden and the routing of Al-Qaeda. Not with world peace nor by treating each other as we would wish to be treated. Instead, it’s ended with innocent people looking over their shoulders, thinking twice about what they say online and being thankful for every day they escape the dreaded knock that could ruin their lives.
There may be hope yet. Paul and his legal team are considering whether to appeal to the high court. Nobody would blame Paul if he decided to draw a line under this sorry affair and turn his energy towards rebuilding his life. If he decides to continue though (and I hope he does) he deserves our full support.
That’s why some of us are having a rally in Sheffield, tomorrow, to express solidarity with Paul, to protest against his conviction, and to champion the cause of free speech on the Internet.
If you fancy joining us the information you need is here: http://bit.ly/jokesontrial – but be quick. You’ve got less than 24 hours to get your shit together, and if you don’t make it, I’m gonna blow you sky high!!!!1