Tweeted like a criminal

Penny Nicholas on today's theat to free speech

I'm concerned about the Twitter Joke Trial. I – and many, many others – have been tweeting about it a lot today.

A young man, Paul Chambers, made a tasteless joke when he became frustrated over the closure of Robin Hood airport in Doncaster. His quip that he was going to blow it ‘sky high’ led to his arrest, and he subsequently lost not one but two jobs over it. Today he lost his appeal, and not only has to pay the £1,000 original fine but now an additional £2,000 in prosecution costs,

Tweeting facetious jokes is illegal.  It's official.  It doesn't matter that the joke was not intended to be menacing, it doesn't matter that the security officers at the airport and the police didn't think it was a credible threat.  You don't have to mean it.  The conclusion to be drawn from the failure of this appeal is that if you tweet a joke that anyone at all might possibly be offended or scared by, you're breaking the law.   I'd laugh, but I have a horrible feeling I might be arrested...

We read about Amnesty campaigning for comedians who have been arrested for making jokes their Government doesn't like.  Is this the tip of the iceberg?  The British are always terribly worried about making jokes in case they are thought un-PC and rude, but having to worry about being arrested if you make a tasteless joke?  It's become Orwellian.   

Many of my friends make tasteless jokes for a living.  Some of them might even be considered ‘menacing’ while they do it.  But they tell jokes in a comedy club, people go ‘oh, it's a joke’; they might not like it, but they go home, they get over it.

They don't call the police.  Same comedian makes the same joke on Twitter, suddenly they're going to have to worry about whether the police are going to come knocking because they are now transmitting their un-PC jokes on a public network, and that makes it illegal, apparently.  

Breaking news is that Conservative councillor Gareth Compton, from Birmingham, has just been arrested for making a rather tasteless joke about stoning someone, again on Twitter.  I am interested to see if he, being a politician, will be let off with a light slap to the wrists.

History was my specialist subject at school.  You can learn a lot from history.  There's a very famous poem about the thin end of the wedge  I paraphrase: ‘They came first for jokes about airports, and I didn’t speak up because I don’t make jokes about airports /They came first for Zarganar, and I didn't speak up because I'm not a Burmese comedian.’

All you comedians reading this, those jokes you tell that might be considered a bit ‘Frankie Boyle’, beware.  If a punter can be arrested and charged in a criminal court for making a crap joke about blowing up an airport if he can't get to see his girlfriend, your joke in poor taste you tell on the television might get you in a lot of trouble in future.

Follow #twitterjoketrial, find the blogs by Jack of Kent aka lawyer and writer David Allen Green and read what he has been talking about.  Find out why everyone is quoting Betjeman on Twitter all of a sudden. ‘Come friendly bombs, and fall on Slough’.  Quoting poetry is not threatening, is it.  Or is it?  

It seems that if one person makes a facetious, ill-advised comment, it's against the law.  Thousands of people doing it, making it the highest trending topic on UK Twitter on that day, and we have safety in numbers.  Moral to the story is, if you're making a joke that (to someone with no sense of humour) might seem a bit ‘menacing’, try and get thousands of people to repeat it, and you'll be fine.

Sit there thinking ‘it was a stupid joke’ and relax with a cup of tea because they're not arresting you for your stupid jokes.  Yet.  Every time you tweet ‘I could murder that idiot next door with his bloody whistling’, wonder if the idiot is reading it.  Be very nice about your mother-in-law.  Big Brother is watching you, and Big Brother is paranoid.

My main point is this.  Comedians get away with telling tasteless, often offensive jokes, because they are in a comedy club or on the television, and it is somewhat expected of them.  It's easier for them to say ‘I was joking’, because that is their profession.  

But enthusiastic amateurs telling tasteless jokes for the amusement of their friends alone (or so they thought) seems to have become a criminal offence in a very sinister and quiet way.  Remember that having a criminal record, even one as minor as this only resulted in a small fine, can close doors.

Remember the likes of Zarganar and Hadi Khorsandi.  If you don't know who they are, find out.  Remember that the defence of ‘it was only a joke’ may stop applying to comedians, as it has stopped applying to the general public and politicians, it seems.

‘It'll never happen’is another thin paper shield to hide behind.  If you'd have told me ten years ago that someone would be arrested and criminalised for telling what is obviously a joke, I'd have laughed.  But it's happened now.

Published: 11 Nov 2010

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