Monday 27 September 2010

FOI - How much taxpayer money has the CPS spent in prosecuting Paul Chambers?

This post is an archive. The live version can be found on a new blog called Arsehole Justice (no offence).

Like many, I'm personally disgusted with the sheer waste of time, money and resources being spent by a public body (the Crown Prosecution Service) on the prosecution of a blameless individual. How much money is it? I'd like to know. Therefore, I have made a request under the Freedom of Information Act to the South Yorkshire office of the CPS for disclosure of all the information related to the costs of the prosecution. I've directed my request for the attention of Roger Tricklebank, a Senior Crown Prosecutor with whom I've had communications in the past, and copied Naheed Hussain, the Chief Crown Prosecutor for that region. I believe that I worded my request clearly and properly, and therefore we should have an answer within 20 working days unless the CPS require more time. Though it's hard to imagine how they would require more time.

Guest Post - Mark Phillips explains how Paul's #TwitterJokeTrial tweet was very clearly a joke.

This post is an archive. The live version can be found on a new blog called Arsehole Justice (no offence).

I had an email today from a very bright guy I've previously had some dealings with about the Paul Chambers case. Mark Phillips is a linguistics expert who became intrigued by the implications of this case and made numerous comments under articles in The Guardian's online Comment-Is-Free section back in May using the screen name 'justasillyjoke'. It is Mark who deserves the credit for formulating the line of thinking that suggests Paul was frustrated by a situation beyond his control and made an exaggerated remark assuming powers that he does not have in order to compensate for his feelings of lack of control. A very astute observation, I'm sure you'll agree. Mark was trying to post a comment to my previous entry but ran into some problems. With his permission, I am publishing what Mark had wanted to say:

This tweet was a joke. Not only was it a joke, it was very clearly a joke. Is a joke ‘menacing?’ Maybe, taken out of context. The point is, the CPS is trying to convey Paul as being knowingly ‘threatening, menacing’ etc. But, Paul is a joker, and he’s not pretending or even trying to be anything else.

Here is a linguistic breakdown of the joke. It is in ‘cartoon’ style. It builds on an exaggerated bluff, with the basic force of the joke being a stooge, the device being a bluff, and the special force of the joke being an ‘irony’. I’ll explain everything below. Enough to say, the bigger the bluff, the bigger the irony, and the bigger the joke! That is the linguistic recipe.

There are four very visible cartoon elements in the joke:

First, 'Crap!' This is derived historically from the interjection 'Holy Crap!', meaning unbelievable. As an interjection, it has been used extensively as an ‘entry’ into jokes. Think of ‘Wow!’, or ‘D’ya know what…?’, ‘You’ll never believe this…’, or more recently ‘I don’t believe it…’ (One Foot in the Grave). But it is perhaps best remembered in its cartoon form in Robin’s ‘Holy smoke!’ catchphrase from Batman and Robin. This 'unbelievable' meaning sets up the whole joke. After all, it’s not a joke if you believe it! The interjection is therefore the first ‘marker’ that it is a joke.

Second, the jokes main ‘device’ is the weapon bluff, the ‘banana passed off as a gun’. In Paul’s case, it was some imaginary TNT, one might assume. This is hugely important, because it sets up the ‘stooge’ of the joke. The stooge has been somehow duped into believing the banana can pass for a real weapon (maybe they believe they can hypnotise people or some such dupe). Their ‘stupidity’ is therefore the essence of the joke; they cannot see that they appear ridiculous waving around a banana.

Third, the bank robber takes his bluff weapon (the banana) and threatens to 'blow everyone's brains out' unless he 'gets the dough'. The exaggerated toughness (‘get your shit together’) gives the joke extra force, because it sets the stooge up further as a ‘fake’, as a weak character.

Fourth, 'Sky high' is what we might call ‘the hyperbolic flourish’; it serves two functions, it ends the joke with the required flourish, i.e., a punch line, and it reinforces the ‘cartoonish’ nature of the joke, just in case you missed it (pay attention CPS!).

The irony behind the joke is simply that although Paul sets himself up as the stooge, he knows that everyone knows that he knows the ‘banana is not a gun’. He happily sacrifices any appearance of intelligence (tweeting a bomb threat!), in order to set himself up as the stooge for his own joke.

Of course, language doesn’t happen in a vacuum. All communication is ‘primed’, in the way that mention of the word ‘dog’ will invoke ‘cat’. It’s therefore correct to mention that ‘the times in which we live’ create some of the context here: travelling by plan[sic] brings up thoughts of terrorism, as does mention of Northern Ireland. No doubt, if Paul had been writing to a Thai girlfriend, he might have plumbed for a good joke about riding a Tsunami wave, if he was brave. You see, good comedy does require bravery, because it skirts the borders of acceptability and social embarrassment. More than that, it reveals our tensions about things, and by so doing, helps to alleviate them somewhat. Hence, all the jokes about marriage, about our boss, about travelling, about sex, and about terrorists etc.

In fact, if we didn’t live in a world where we are more afraid of terrorists than ever, there probably wouldn’t have been much material there for Paul to joke about.

Saturday 25 September 2010

How the CPS managed to score an 'own goal' in the Paul Chambers appeal

This post is an archive. The live version can be found on a new blog called Arsehole Justice (no offence).

UPDATE: Please read this followup guest post where the semantics of Paul's tweet are deconstructed by a lingustics expert. Also it is incumbent upon me to reveal that two inaccuracies have been pointed out. @crazycolours has informed me that the related tweets mentioned below were not direct messages but replies in the public timeline. This was something that the prosecution was confused about. No surprise there. This information does not alter my argument. I've also been informed that the prison inmate example offered by Caroline Wiggin was in response to a question from the judge and was not pre-prepared. Original entry below:

Right. If you look at the archives of this blog you will see that I don't write very often. There are large gaps between periods of modest activity. In all honesty, I find it a bit of a chore. Writing is not something that I've ever been accustomed to and life puts up its typical array of barriers. The result is that I tend only to write when something really pushes my buttons. The case of Robin Hood Airport v Paul J Chambers of Balby, Doncaster has never failed to push my buttons.

I won't rehash my history of involvement with this case, as earlier entries set that out fairly comprehensively. You might wish to read my first three entries from the month of May for a start. I'm writing this new post because Paul's appeal was heard and then adjourned yesterday in Doncaster Crown Court and because the prosecution has, in my opinion, not only failed to strenghten its case since May but has offered evidence that actually weakens it to a never before seen level of farce. This is impressive. I would not have believed it possible. The trophy for "Most Ridiculously Argued Prosecution in a Crown Court" goes to Ms Caroline Wiggin of the South Yorkshire Crown Prosecution Service for this astonishing argument (from an article published in The Guardian today):
Caroline Wiggin, for the prosecution, said Chambers had earlier sent direct messages to the woman in Northern Ireland as it appeared possible that the airport might close. In one he wrote: “I was thinking if it does I have decided to resort to terrorism.” She argued that the context provided by such messages strengthened the case that Chambers intended to cause menace. “If a man in prison were to send a message to his wife that he was going to come and beat her up, the court might consider that were menacing, albeit the man himself may have difficulty in putting it into effect,” she said.
The context strengthens the case. What an interesting supposition! It's honestly hard for me to read that and keep a straight face. Is she really that deluded? What context is she imagining here? It might be the context that the CPS conjured out of thin air and District Judge Jonathan Bennett failed to see through when he offered his ridiculous judgement back in May. The context of "the times in which we live" and its association with the perpetual threat of airport terrorism. It is certainly not the context in which Paul's tweet or any of the related direct (private) messages were delivered. Before I talk about the weaknesses of the above argument, let's look at the REAL context, shall we? It deserves its own heading.

The Real Context
A young man in England has booked a flight in January to Northern Ireland to spend time with a young woman that he has previously met once or twice (not on Twitter by the way. They were personally introduced in London by Paul's best mate). The man likes this woman very much and thinks it might actually be love. The feelings are apparently mutual. This is a very good thing. Unfortunately there has been some snow fall that has resulted in the temporary closure of the local airport from which the flight is due to depart. When I think about what scant amount of snow fall can bring an entire British city to its knees, I feel the urge to punch somebody. It therefore does not surprise me that the man could be moved in a fit of pique to write the now legendary Twitter update "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

The context is that here is a man who feels frustrated with the fragility of his plans and has been rendered powerless. He therefore creates a fantasy in which he has powers not actually available to him in order to compensate for this lack of control. The powers are not available to the man because the man is not in any way capable of blowing up an airport. He has neither the means nor the meanness of character required. How does one actually blow an airport "sky high?" To begin with, how high is the sky? 37,000 feet perhaps? What sort of explosives would be required to achieve this incredible feat? Already, the notion of any intention to cause menace is taking on the stale aroma of farce. The continuation of the context is that the frustrated man, who has a particular sense of humour, decides to vent his frustration with the tweet that we are now all familiar with. The tweet is a form of publishing not unlike this web log, or blog. The act of using a service such as Twitter is known as 'microblogging.'

The audience is often quite limited, unless the author is some famous and prolific Twitterer such as Stephen Fry. At the time, Paul (I've grown tired of referring to him as "the man") had a bit less than 700 followers of his timeline. Most if not all of these were people who understood his brand of humour and would have gotten the true meaning of the tweet. It was not a literal expression of any intention whatsoever. I knew that the moment I first read it. Anyone who cannot see this is not viewing the message in its true context. One person in particular who did not grasp the context is Sean Duffield, the Robin Hood Airport duty manager who, for reasons best known to himself, was at home while not on duty and using Twitter's search facility to look for occurrences of the phrase "Robin Hood Airport." It was purely by coincidence that days after it was sent he came across Paul's tweet. One thing led to another and now here we are.

The Bullshit CPS Imaginary Context
The CPS like to talk about the "times in which we live," and judge Jonathan Bennett has lapped this up. But the times in which we live can have no bearing on this or any other case in terms of whether the CPS decide that public interest is served by a prosecution. Are not all recent cases considered by the CPS in the context of the times in which we live? Assuming this context when making decisions is very dangerous. Anything becomes possible. The one hypothetical act of terrorism which might not have been prevented should this tweet be ignored is enough to demand a criminal prosecution. This is, quite frankly, bullshit and so is the unfortunate argument offered by Crown Prosecutor Wiggin. If anything, the established fact that Paul and his girlfriend were having a private conversation prior to his tweet where hypothetical acts of terrorism were discussed strengthens the defence. This shows that the tweet continues a previous train of thought. Indeed, if you read this Jack-of-Kent guest blog post by the lovely @crazycolours you can see mentions of this. Please do read this poignant article. Poor Sarah has related the human aspect of this story better than anyone else can. In it we see that when Paul was failing to return her messages while he was being questioned at a police station, she left him an answerphone message jokingly threatening to "hijack a plane." They had after all been joking about terrorism earlier in the week. She is after all a Nothern Irish woman who grew up in a place where domestic terrorism has long been a sad fact of life. He was after all flying to Northern Ireland to see her. It really is that simple. Thus completes the picture of the real context.

The comparison of Paul's tweet to that of a prison inmate sending a communication threatening to beat his wife would be hilarious if it weren't so ridiculous. On the surface, such a communication to the prisoner's wife would indeed be menacing not only to the wife but also to anyone else, despite that the inmate did not have the power to carry it out. However, it might not be a literal threat. It might on the other hand be some sort of inside joke. The context needs to be examined. Paul's communication to Sarah was not menacing because she knew he was not serious. It's nobody else's business to make that determination because the message was private. The most basic understanding of messaging context still eludes the hapless CPS.

What Now?
Now the defence team have submitted an application for the case to be struck out on the basis that the prosecution has failed to make a case. This submission is being considered and the trial is expected to reconvene some time in November. Other bits of evidence have also come to light which tend to work in favour of the defence. I see no need to involve those in this discussion. In my view the one mistake I've outlined here ought to be enough to dismantle the prosecution. There has been no other new evidence to add strength to the Crown's case. If the CPS truly believe that the new evidence they've presented is helpful to them, then they are simply deluded. I'll go one further and call them incompetent.

Flayman on LiveJournal (old)