Last week saw the mobilisation of a large body of opinion via Twitter in support of the airport “joker” Paul Chambers. If we cannot exactly claim success, we have at least seen how quickly a mass protest can pick up. By contrast, the same week saw a violent student protest which was entirely counter-productive. If the law was an ass in one court, it was guardian of our rights in two others where the courts acted as counter-balance to politicians.
Legal commentator CharonQC (http://charonqc.wordpress.com and http://twitter.com/Charonqc hides a deep concern for freedom and the law behind a façade of banter and quizzical amusement. He was quick to spot the irony of the conjunction between the trial and conviction of airport “terror” tweeter Paul Chambers and the launch last week of Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary celebrations. Those who do not know about Chambers’ twitter “joke” (it was not that funny, really, but equally was patently not serious) can catch the details of the original conviction here and of the appeal here; those who do not know about Magna Carta include the humourless little man in a regional CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) office who authorised Chambers’ prosecution. Quite what to make of the judge, I do not know, and had better not say.
Neither the airport staff nor the police took Chambers’ tweet very seriously. I do not know what it takes to become a prosecutor in a regional office of the CPS – I have always assumed that it is what you do if you aren’t good enough to get a place in a barristers’ chambers or a firm of solicitors. Meanwhile, Twitter is full of people repeating the original tweet with the hashtag #iamspartacus; lawyers are announcing their shame at their profession; greatest living Englishman Stephen Fry has effected a remarkable comeback from his recent vilification; and the little drone at the CPS continues to assert that the prosecution was justified.
Both Spartacus and Stephen Fry may be unfamiliar characters to some of my readers. In the film Spartacus (1960) Kirk Douglas played the slave leader of that name who led a revolt against Rome. The Romans’ attempt to identify Spartacus is thwarted when all the captured survivors of the rebel force cry “I am Spartacus” – see video clip. The Chambers affair may be a cause célèbre, but is a drop in the ocean compared with the many other threats to our freedom of expression, and those of us who like to speak our minds have become slightly wary. The solidarity implicit in the #iamspartacus hashtag is comforting – they cannot prosecute us all. Stephen Fry is an actor, writer, egghead and polymath, the quintessential Englishman despite, or perhaps because of, being one-quarter Hungarian. The most recent of his periodic fallings out with his generally adoring public arose from his alleged (he has denied it, at great length) assertion that women do not enjoy sex, which allowed the respectable press to run titillating articles from women keen to prove him wrong. He withdrew briefly from Twitter in the resulting uproar, but is now back as a hero for his support of Paul Chambers and his offer to underwrite any fine.
These last few days, ending in the ceremony at which the Justice Secretary and the Master of the Rolls officially launched Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary, have been interesting ones for anyone concerned about freedom of expression (or just freedom in some cases), and about reasoned argument and proportionate responses to things you dislike or disapprove of.
Just as we are turning violent criminals out of our prisons for want of space for them, a mother is jailed for fleeing with her child to avoid heavy-handed social workers, and the child is in care – a double win, then, for the social workers (you probably cannot read Camilla Cavendish’s story about this in the Times thanks to the paywall). A man who tried to make an offensive yob apologise for his conduct is surrounded by ten policemen, and prosecuted for kidnap by another CPS official (the awful thought crosses my mind that it might be the same one as hounded Paul Chambers), and persists despite the appalled reaction of the judge. In these cases, the sense of what is right felt by the common man (that’s you and me) is offended by an official reaction which seems disproportionate, unjust, expensive and downright stupid. Who are these ghastly people whose whims and prejudices govern our lives with power so out of proportion to their intelligence?
Part of the offence derives from the knowledge that the majority of social workers, CPS officials and policeman (we will come on to them below) go about their duties in a thoughtful and conscientious manner and are let down by a minority. We hear of social workers only when they either neglect a child whom they should have helped or trample on the rights of both parents and child by conduct which can only be described as cruel. The majority of CPS officials presumably plod blamelessly through their paper-shuffling lives keeping the wheels of justice turning; they reach attention either in situations like the ones referred to above or in one of those all-too-frequent cases where their representative turns up in the wrong court, with the wrong papers received only ten minutes before. Most policemen go stolidly about their business of form-filling and watching crime happen on CCTV; we hear about them only when, for example, their neglect drives a mother to blow up herself and her daughter or, conversely, when they exercise brutal and disproportionate force (as at the G20 protest – see below) or harass innocent tourists photographing national monuments (see links from my recent article which covered this).
The subject of justice and proportionate response came up in a different context last week when a student protest about university fees turned into a riot for which the police were ill-prepared. There is something binary about Britain’s police – they are full-on or full-off, with nothing measured in between. In the 1970s, many of them behaved as if being black was itself an offence, with their use of the “sus” laws giving rise to the apparent new offence of “driving whilst black”. Heavily criticised for this, they over-reacted and became the epitome of equally mindless political correctness. This extended to other minorities – see, for example, the story of the policeman who criticised a witness for describing a hit-and-run driver as “fat”.
We see this same binary election in relation to public order. The Metropolitan Police were severely criticised for their conduct at the G20 protests last year when cameras (those cameras which they would like to suppress) showed a huge brute in uniform carefully and deliberately beating a small woman with his stick when she “threatened” him with a fruit juice container; on the same day a bystander was brutally attacked from behind by another police thug, dying soon afterwards. Police tactics on that occasion were described as excessive and inflammatory. Instead of moderating their tactics, and perhaps weeding the obviously psychotic from their ranks, the police reacted to the student protest by ignoring it. By the time the students had begun smashing windows, throwing fire extinguishers and setting fire to things, it was too late.
The rule of law and the role of judges came up twice last week in the context of politics. Three MPs and a peer facing false accounting charges over their expenses will now face the criminal courts; the Court of Appeal, rejecting their claim for immunity from prosecution, said that “parliamentary privilege or immunity from criminal prosecution has never, ever attached to ordinary criminal activities by members of parliament.” They are, of course, innocent until proved guilty; but for the courts, they would not be facing charges at all, and we would resemble the European Parliament and the European Commission where expenses frauds are barely investigated, let alone punished.
The biggest story of the week in relation to the judicial involvement in Parliamentary matters was, however, the finding that Labour MP Phil Woolas should be deprived of his seat for lying about his Liberal Democrat opponent at the general election. Even serious newspapers like the Times complained that “unelected judges” were interfering with the will of the people as pronounced at the ballot box. The judgment means nothing of the kind, of course – Woolas is an unpleasant man who lied about a political opponent’s personal characteristics in order to influence the outcome of an election. Parliament has decided that this is an offence under the Representation of the People Act and gave the courts the power to adjudicate on such matters. The court found against Woolas, his appeal has been rejected and he has been disowned by his party. Good riddance and be thankful that we have the courts to moderate the conduct of elected politicians. See CharonQC and Rosalind English in the UK Human Rights Blog for cool analysis of the position.
Other stories coincide with the launch of Magna Carta’s 800th birthday. The Telegraph reports that Big Brother Britain has grown out of all proportion. In the same week the government announces plans for the complete destruction of the computers which held the pilot data for Labour’s ID card scheme (though curiously some of the data is to be kept). I am quietly optimistic. The see-saw between neglect and repression which characterises so many social workers and policemen must surely settle to an equilibrium in the face of protests which come from all sorts of respectable and responsible people (me for example) who are traditionally hard to rouse to action. Some at least of the 4,000 new laws created during Labour’s time in office – more than one a day – will be repealed. Petty local authority officers, policemen, social workers, and health and safety officials may have their wings clipped as much by budget cuts as by statutory intervention. The problem is not so much the disconnect between power and brain which afflicts so many of them, as the complete absence of any sense of proportion, seen most obviously in the little tick from the CPS who thought it right to prosecute Paul Chambers.
Perhaps most interesting of all last week was the comparison between the power of Twitter and the power of physical protest. All political parties were on the ropes over the increase in student fees: the coalition (and particularly the Lib Dems) were embarrassed by their broken promises; Labour (who both invented the concept of university fees and caused the deficit by pissing all our money up against the wall) were forced to admit, through Alan Johnson, their amiable if economically illiterate Shadow Chancellor, that they “never meant it to end this way”. All are freed with one bound by photographs of a few students breaking windows. The tide of opinion has turned against a group who did have some public sympathy. The Twitter support for Chambers and the whole #iamspartacus thing, on the other hand, has shown the latent power of a much larger group. We will see it again.