Saturday, 15 May 2010

Paul Chambers: Guest Post by CrazyColours

Paul Chambers was prosecuted and convicted for telling a bad joke.

He now has a criminal record.

Below is a guest blogpost on this disgraceful case by his partner, the former journalist who tweets and blogs as CrazyColours

You can donate to Paul's appeal fund
here. Please do.

I was surprised, albeit flattered, that Jack of Kent asked me to do a guest spot on his blog. I should warn you though, that I have no legal training - so you won't find any fresh legal insights into the case of Paul Chambers vs the CPS. But I can talk about my experience.

I am CrazyColours. During the trial, the fact that I hid my true identity was used to highlight the transparency of Paul's twitter account and the fact he used his real and full name. Because if his threat was a real one, he'd have been anonymous, would he not? Whereas, I keep my real identity secret, not so I can threaten to blow up airports without personal consequence; but so I cannot be judged by employers, my father and the head of the industry in which I worked (who followed a twitter account I had under my own real name), for my "fine line" sense of humor and profane hyperbolic venting.

I "met" @pauljchambers on twitter more than a year ago now. We seemed to have the same sense of humor, and a friendship developed fairly quickly. Fast forward a year, and after meeting at a tweet-up in London, he'd planned to come and stay with me in Northern Ireland. Flights were booked and we were counting down the days, excited and nervous. It wasn't a blind date, as some newspapers have reported, although we did expect his trip to result a relationship. You know the type... boy tweets girl, girl tweets boy, boy gets arrested for a hyperbolic outburst at the extreme weather conditions.... no?

When Paul was arrested, we'd been in the middle of a text conversation. Paul, being the prolific tweeter/texter that he is, always replied almost immediately. But this time, I heard nothing from him for hours. This was not usual. I called and left an answerphone message for him. I believe that in the message I joked that I was going to hijack a plane - the police, unbeknown to me, had his phone at this time. They mustn't have listened to the message, or I'd have been arrested too.

It started getting quite late, and I still hadn't heard from Paul when I went to bed. I didn't know what to think. Trying to push the possibility that something was really wrong to the back of my mind, I told myself that his phone was broken. I try not to worry about things unless I know there is definitely something to worry about.

A call woke me at around 11 that night. It was Paul. I could tell by the tone of his voice immediately that something was very wrong. He said he'd been arrested under terror legislation. In my sleepy state, it was hard to take in. I thought it was a wind up. Then I thought that he must have changed his mind about me, and about coming over to see me, and this was an elaborate and over-the-top excuse to get out of it. He had to convince me he was telling the truth, and in the end I believed him.

After the call, I began to panic. I know I retweeted the tweet he was arrested for. Was I going to be arrested too? He'd told the police he was coming to see me - would they think we were both colluding to bomb an airport? Ridiculous paranoia - but this was a pretty ridiculous situation. I looked at my peacefully sleeping five year old - what would happen to him if I was arrested? Should I make provisions for him to be looked after just in case? I had a panic attack. Not something I'm prone to - but I was afraid, worried and confused.

I went onto twitter and contacted a journalist I'd "met" through there - Jason Walsh. I told him what had happened and asked him what to do. He couldn't believe it either. After some advice to keep quiet for now, he promised me that he'd help all he could. And he did. Realising that this was an issue beyond the unfortunate first person to be arrested for it, he ensured the story that subsequently broke was more about the misguided arrest, and less about Paul, which we were grateful for. He also was a valuable friend to have, and reassured both of us constantly over the coming weeks.

Then twitter found out, and the prominent reaction was one of disbelief and disgust. A small minority of people said Paul got what he deserved and branded him foolish (to put it lightly). People feeling they had a right to make personal attacks because this was something now in the public arena, was difficult to take. We both learned to grow a thicker skin.

I came to see Paul a month later and went with him to the police station to find out if he was being formally charged. The general consensus by pretty much everyone, including myself, was that he wouldn't be. When Paul emerged from the office in the police station and said, "I've been charged," I was incredulous. We sat down with his solicitor of the time straight after, and his solicitor had to look up what he was charged under - Section 127 of the Communications Act, 2003 - an obscure and unknown law as he described it - and then advised Paul to plead guilty. It was absolute he said, like speeding. Unless Paul denied writing and sending the tweet, he was guilty.

Paul had been suspended from work since his arrest, where he had progressed for nine years. In my opinion, he handled everything exceptionally well, better than I would have. But he later admitted to having very dark days, his life was suddenly completely out of his control and his chances of qualifying as an accountant, something he'd trained for for years, were gone. His family and friends, and myself, were very concerned about him.

Then Jack of Kent picked up on his story and blogged about it. And what a godsend that was! Suddenly there was hope that Paul didn't have to accept this. Judge Jonathan Bennett accepted Paul's change of plea to "not guilty" and Paul found another solicitor prepared to fight his corner with him.

The trial was on Monday. Paul and I travelled from Northern Ireland (where he'd spent the previous 3 weeks) and were hopeful of a positive outcome. On the day, nerves and emotions were running high. It was all down to the judge now, Paul's future was left entirely at his discretion. We hoped for common sense, at last.

I'd been in a court before, reporting on cases for a daily newspaper; but this was entirely different. Watching this trial just play out, passively, as I'd done many times before was suddenly very difficult. Many points were made by the prosecuting witness, the prosecuting solicitor and the prosecuting judge that I silently contested. It was incredibly frustrating.

The prosecuting witness, head of security at Robin Hood Airport was asked, since reporting Paul's tweet to the Special Branch, does he still continue to preform Internet searches on Robin Hood Airport? He answered affirmatively.

"Why then," I thought, "doesn't he report all the other threats about Robin Hood Airport?!" I know there have been hundreds of threats against it since, in protest of Paul's arrest. Of course, common sense dictates that subsequent threats were in fact in protest, and non-credible, but Paul's original tweet was also deemed non-credible. If he had a duty to report Paul's to the police, surely he had a duty to report the others? Or had the airport changed their security policy in the 48 hours since Paul's arrest and the start of the subsequent protest threats? Maybe they realised that common sense was something to be exercised in matters serious enough to destroy a person's career and life. One can hope!

The lack of understanding by the prosecution and the judge about twitter irked me, as did the pious attitudes towards Paul's hyperbolic, and sometimes profane tweets. It smacked of hypocrisy. Who hasn't communicated in a way which, out of context or in context, can't be described as menacing, obscene or threatening? Fuck. There - an obscene message, communicated electronically. Arrest me officer!

Before the verdict, the prosecution solicitor was heard saying he expected Paul would get acquitted. The prosecution did more to aid Paul's case than offend it in my opinion - something Paul's defence solicitor corroborated when he made the same point while addressing the judge.

It was for the prosecution to prove guilt with mens rea, not for Paul to prove his innocence. Paul spoke under oath, his good character was not contested and was used as evidence, so the judge SHOULD have had no other option but to take what he said about his lack of awareness and intent as read. Forgive my ignorance, as I said, I am not legally trained, but why testify under oath at all if the judge is going to simply dismiss it? Did the judge decide, against all evidence, that Paul lied under oath? Isn't that an offence in itself?

The judge delivered a guilty verdict. It almost amused me that the judge found him guilty because of the "context of times in which we live," and decided that any other form of context in twitter, Paul's timeline, his followers, his good character, and indeed common sense were completely irrelevant.

Then, the statement released after the trial from the CPS actually contradicted the prosecution evidence in court FROM THE CPS. The verdict just didn't make sense.

Since the verdict, there's been a public outcry on twitter and in the media. A fund has been set up for legal and appeal costs, and to date, the total stands at more than £4000. Paul, uncomfortable at accepting any money at all, realises that this must be fought, not only for himself, but for everyone else now at risk of similar prosecutions. The level of support he's received means he can't, in all conscience, just let it lie.

We fully expect to be able to get this verdict overturned. Many in legal circles believe this ruling to be misguided at best, and reckless and dangerous at worst. There are many legal points which are disputed, and although I can just about understand them, I won't repeat what Jack of Kent has already said in previous posts (not that I could if I tried).

The future for Paul is in a state of limbo. After losing his job over this, finding a new one is going to be difficult in today's tough climate. More so with a conviction. He has a mortgage to pay; financial ruin is a very real possibility. His career is over before it has begun. His good character has been compromised. For a tweet.

The media frenzy that has resulted out of his conviction, and all the busyness that goes with it, serves as a momentary welcome distraction to the fact that in front of him is an uphill struggle to rebuild his life and find a chink of security amid the uncertainty. He retains his sense of humour, pragmatism and humble attitude. I'm very proud of how he has dealt with everything, and I hope that EVENTUALLY, this is resolved sensibly and we can put it behind us, and carry on with our lives.

I also hope that in future I won't risk prosecution for making an exaggerated, sarcastic or humorous comment; how it is received or how it is meant, deemed completely irrelevant.


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.


antheald said...

Great to have more of the human insight behind this story.

Once something like this enters the public domain it takes on a life of its own that must be bizarre to witness when you're involved.

The narrative seems to have crystallised mainly into 'dumb guy makes stupid joke on twitter but doesn't really deserve what he got', but as I've said myself in a number of places, I don't even think it's quite right to call what Paul tweeted a 'joke', and I really don't think it can be called 'stupid' except in some Orwellian world where it *becomes* stupid after the fact because of its consequences.

But then, it seems we are increasingly living in such a world.

It's 'the times in which we live', you know.

crnt said...

A great post. Every new development of this story has outraged me, and seeing the effect it has had on the people most deeply involved in it enrages me more.

I wish you every piece of luck with getting the future overturned. A link to the site where we can donate to the fund to help you out might not go amiss!

Jack of Kent said...


Link added!

Tony Lloyd said...

Hi CrazyColours (and by extension Paul)

On the getting-life-back-on-track business I think the accountancy qualification is important. Which Institute is Paul hoping to qualify with? I qualified with the Chartered Institute (ICAEW) and seem to remember (it was a while ago) that "criminality" only entered into things when it reflected dishonesty or is really serious. Certainly I would hope that to be disqualified Paul would have had to actually blown the airport up (or have stolen a packet of mints.)

For many jobs (especially in practice rather than industry) you have to disclose any convictions. But then that means what it says on the tin you have to say "I got convicted of saying something on Twitter". It's up to the employer whether or not to take that as an indication that Paul is utterly disreputable and would fiddle any books he came into contact with (and, despite evidence to the contrary, many employers have brains).

ThousandsOfMilesAway said...

Chin up. This is nonsense on stilts - you surely will win any appeal.

All of us together have deep enough pockets to take this as far as you both want to.

Although why anyone in their right mind would want to be a bean-counter is beyond me!

flay said...

A beautiful piece, though I think you meant to say "It was for the prosucution to prove guilt with mens rea", substituting "prosecution" for "defence". The experience is very moving.

nicky2222 said...

Another eloquent article. I particularly agree with your point about the judge ignoring all contexts except the times in which we live. The man is living with his head in a bucket.
As another poster has said, together we can afford to back you as far as necessary. It's only fair that we should. If you win, we all win, but the consequences for us if you lose would be dreadful.

morungos said...

First of all, I hope things work out for both of you. My partner and I once spent two years appealing a decision made by a university on the basis of one person's interpretation. Two years of lost income, stress, and self-doubt. I know the toll this takes on you, and can only say that in the end, it can make you a stronger, tougher person -- with a drive to prevent the same happening to others.

On the other hand, I wish I could believe the decision was "stupid". It actually seemed more naive and paranoid. The references to speech act theory in related postings are interesting. (To me at least, I'm not a lawyer, but I am a cognitive scientist.) Speech acts often have two meanings, one stated, and one intended. The stated one was about airports, but the intended one was pretty clearly: "I'm fucked off because I can't get where I want to."

Which meaning is used depends on shared background and context. Twitter provides that shared background (not to everyone, but especially when it approximates a conversation as people share tweets). Those who don't share the background may get the wrong meaning. In this case, the apparent determiners of the meaning for legal purposes were (a) the police, and (b) the judge -- neither of whom appeared to share that background, and both of whom may be focused more on people who do want to do horrible things to/in airports. This was essentially what Wittgenstein meant when he said "If a lion could talk, we could not understand him." Without the shared context, the meaning is lost, or at least badly distorted. Maybe Paul became the lion to the judge's Wittgenstein.

And this is where I get worried. If guilt can be attached to a communicated message not by original participants in the discussion (even it was copied in the public timeline) but by those whose principal job is to determine guilt, then this appears to be unjust. This is particularly an issue for laws like this where the communication of the message is in itself the offence.

To call it "stupid" implies it was an irrational decision, and I am pretty confident from my skim over the decision that it wasn't that. The same decision could easily be made again in a different case (airport security staff are understandably twitchy). The point is that phrasings like this may appear to demonstrate guilt to those who don't share the same background, and who are predisposed (or trained) to find guilt.

Personally, I'd expect a little more of a balanced view of statements I make than was the case here.

charonqc said...

Bravo - excellent post and beautifully written!

Paul Allen said...

Crazy, my (belfastbiker) thoughts are with you and yer football-loving man.

It's a travesty. And it's important to get it overturned, not just for Paul's sake, but for everyone who says the wrong thing in the heat of the moment. That judge clearly hasn't a clue and needs sent a strong message.

As for those who couldn't keep a civil tongue in their head and said he deserved it or I told you so, shame on you.


Dan said...

And shame on whichever gutless jobsworth employer fired him over this.

Robin said...

Good luck to both of you!

Even in the worst case, if Paul wishes to continue with accountancy, not all employers are stupid (as has been said above), and professional bodies have a measure of discretion (which I am sure could be helped with a letter writing campaign).

battypip said...

I wonder if a campaign to show how stupid this whole thing is might run along the lines of hundreds/thousands of people tweeting something similar at a pre-arranged time... see if the police follow up... if they do they're obviously idiots, if they don't it invalidates Paul's conviction???

stackmonster said...

I've just found out about this now, and I'm finding it difficult to take it all in to be honest. The sheer amorphousness of the law in this instance is genuinely disturbing. Best of luck to Paul.

My facebook status says 'I would kill you all for a pint of beer'. Oops. I also use my real name on my fb account - and my employer will almost certainly see it as I'm self-employed.

diskgrinder said...

good article and fine comments. The law is an ass, the cps is a donkey and the judge is a mule.

I'm donating immediately.