Saturday, 16 April 2011

A drunk's-eye view of the #TwitterJokeTrial gig

UPDATE: This was originally published as part one of a two part series, but I decided that I wanted it all in one piece.


I got very drunk last night. Very, very drunk. It would have been hard for me not to. The atmosphere was not conducive to staying sober. Luckily my wife was there to make sure it didn't get too far out of hand. From today, I am on the proverbial wagon. It's not that I'm ashamed of anything I got up to last night. I'm not. It was a blast and fortunately I have retained the memory of it. The truth is that I had already given up. It was the first drinking I'd done in nearly three weeks. Call it a temporary suspension of the wagon. I won't really get into why I've decided to quit except to say that this is the third time in my life that I've done this. I've gone years without drinking and I've felt that my life generally runs better in that mode. Drinking doesn't really go well with my depression. When I've come off the wagon after these experiences it has always been in a conscious and controlled manner. I'd felt more mature, as though I'd turned a corner and things would be different. Somehow though I always seem to end up back here. Excess. So here we go again.

Anyway, enough about that. That's not really what this piece is about. This is about a very special night and some very special people. The Twitter Joke Trial gig was a comedy event hosted by the very slick Al Murray, a.k.a. the Pub Landlord. Before the gig a bunch of us met up in a pub not far from the venue. Bee got to meet Paul and Sarah for the first time and we also met Martin, Danny, Louise, Helen, Maria, Clive, Emi and many others. I'm sorry I didn't get to meet Gavin. Maybe next time. I got to meet up again with David and Mo and Vanessa, who have become friends. All great tweeps. All lovely people. I drank a lot of beer. Paul's mum and a bunch of her family turned up and it was really delightful to see the support from that quarter. I think they were a bit in awe of what this has turned into. Who could blame them? Stephen FryAl MurrayJack WhitehallGraham LinehanRufus HoundDavid SchneiderRobert PopperStephen GrantGary DelaneySusan CalmanKaty Brand. All these excellent people of comedy came out to do this benefit gig in support of the cause that Paul Chambers has become identified with. And they all felt honoured to be a part of it. It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy really. I suppose that's the point. If Paul were a jerk this would still be important, but it wouldn't be quite so apt. The willingness (perhaps eagerness) of the police, the Crown and the courts to make criminals out of decent people in order to show that the criminal justice system is vigilant on our behalves is frightening. We are letting them know that this is not acceptable - that they have overreached the set of responsibilities that our consent endows upon them. The ordinary person test that judge Jacqueline Davies concocted in her ridiculous judgement to deny appeal cannot possibly stand up in court now. Not after all this welcome attention. As we head into a possible summertime High Court appeal, let's hope it's third time lucky.

I digress. Back to the gig and the people. That's what this is really about. Bee and I were pleased to discover another friend, Ashley, sitting in the row behind us. We also met Audrey and Liam. There were many highlights to the show. My personal favourite was a bit where Rufus Hound played an audio clip of an argument he'd had on Radio 5 Live with Edwina Currie. It's a must listen. Stephen Fry made headlines by declaring that he'd be prepared to go to prison in order to ensure that the verdict is not allowed to stand in law. Robert Popper showed some of his zany call in pranks that are the hallmark of his comedy. Emi (@krunchie_frog) got called up on stage with David Schneider, who was on great form. Gary Delaney dazzled with his superb puns. Paul's solicitor David Allen Green made a terrific speech after the interval in which he expressed how the decisions in this case have made him feel as an officer of the court. I'm not so coy as to fail to mention that I was pleased for the name check he gave me on account of my campaigning work. He didn't have to do that. It was nice of him. Well, we are mates after all. Because of this. All because some guy got annoyed in January 2010 and blew off a little steam. All because we are apparently not allowed to make jokes about terrorism in public.

I remember the second time I met David. It was at the second meeting I attended of Westminster Skeptics in the Pub, which he convenes. It just happened to be the evening of the day when Paul lost his case in the magistrates court. We both wore the same wounded, incredulous expression. It was something nearing shell shock. He shook my hand and said "this was a terrible, terrible decision today." So strongly did he feel about that decision that he took the step of organizing Paul's appeal, which he undertook pro-bono. Nearly a year on, I find myself sitting in the audience of a comedy concert in which the fabulous Graham Linehan shows off some of his favourite corners of the web. Funny stuff, whether or not that was the creators' intentions. Two video clips in particular are worth a mention. UGLY FURNITURE and the Super Broker Shuffle. I briefly met Graham at the after show party and had a nice chat with his wife Helen. Of all the performers at this gig, Graham is the one whom I most wanted to meet. He has been a very active and eager supporter of Paul since quite early on.

The rest of the night is a blur. Bee and I stayed at the party until quarter to 2. I consumed a lot of alchohol. I got very silly. There was a lot of karaoke singing and I did a bit of what some have described as interpretive dance to some of the other performances. It was that kind of night, folks. David Allen Green and former Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris sang a duet together while Al Murray looked on in quiet amusement. I can't remember what they did. If anyone has a video of this, please come forward ;-). Alex and I did a duet with Under Pressure. We flipped a coin to decide who got to be Bowie. I won the coin toss but chose Freddie if you can believe it. I didn't realize it at the time, but Alex is Emi's other half and he was splendidly picked on by Al Murray at the beginning of the gig. It was around this time that I met Mike and Chris in person. Mike is often very jokey on Twitter, but he was very serious as we spoke about the absurdities of the Twitter Joke Trial. As we were getting ready to go, I spotted James and Liz who do The POD Delusion podcast. Check out the Twitter Joke Trial special edition, where they were backstage interviewing Paul, Stephen Fry, Graham Linehan and a few of the other performers. They had to miss out on the gig itself, but I rather think it was probably worth it, don't you? I'm in danger of going on and on, so I think I'll wrap it up here. In summary, I'm a drunk. I had a great time. It was an amazing night and it is a great and important movement of which I am proud to be a part. I look forward with some measure of apprehension but a larger portion of hope to the next leg of the appeal, which will probably happen in the late summer or early autumn. I will be there. I moved a pre-booked holiday to be at the gig. I'm not going to miss the trial. If you're anywhere near London, then I hope you'll join me. Whatever the outcome, it will be historic. And you might get to meet some of the special people I've mentioned. The many ordinary people who like myself do not fit the profile described by Judge Davies. People who when the chips are down are prepared to stand up and shout "I am Spartacus!" Ordinary people can make a difference if enough of them get together. Just occasionally, ordinary can become extraordinary. I am Spartacus!

Monday, 11 April 2011

Why is free speech so difficult for some people to comprehend?

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

I haven't been very good about writing in my blog recently. The urge comes and goes. There's something I wanted to write about last week, but I waited too long and lost the desire. Something I've just seen has brought it back though. What I'd intended to write about this time last week was the attitudes of a couple of US Senators towards free speech. The Senators are Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and the context is the recent burning of a copy of the Quran by Florida pastor Terry Jones (the same one who threatened to burn copies of the Quran last year). The two Senators are upset and rightly so by the rioting in Mazar-I-Sharif, Afghanistan that killed eight United Nations workers. But somehow they overlook the fact that these killings were done by people who share a warped sense of justice, regardless of how or even whether they might have been incited to violence.

On Sunday the 3rd of April, Senator Reid had this to say to Bob Schieffer on CBS's Face the Nation explaining that some members of Congress were considering some kind of action in response to the Quran burning, a political expression protected by the First Amendment: "Ten to 20 people have been killed," adding "We'll take a look at this of to whether we need hearings or not, I don't know." On the same program, Senator Graham said the following (which would be laughably ridiculous if he weren't a law maker):

"I wish we could find a way to hold people accountable. Free speech is a great idea, but we're in a war. During World War II, we had limits on what you could say if it would inspire the enemy. So, burning a Koran is a terrible thing but it doesn't justify killing someone. Burning a Bible would be a terrible thing but it doesn't justify murder. Having said that, anytime we can push back here in America against actions like this that put our troops at risk we should do it, and I look forward to working with Senators Kerry, and Reid, and others to condemn this, condemn violence all over the world based on the name of religion. But General Petreaus understand better than anybody else in America what happens when something like this is done in our country and he was right to condemn it and I think Congress would be right to reinforce what General Petreasus said."

So much to pick apart here. Free speech is not just a great idea. It is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy. It must be protected at all costs, barring certain well established exceptions where actual harm is directly caused. Graham is right that Koran burning is a terrible thing (to some) and that it doesn't justify killing someone. Why not leave it there? That says it all. Pastor Jones is in no way responsible for the killings of innocent people in Afghanistan. You might as well claim that the Martin Scorcese film Taxi Driver is responsible for the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan or the rock group AC/DC is responsible for the work of serial killer Richard Ramirez, who claimed to have been influenced by their track Night Prowler. Some have tried to make the latter claim, but thankfully these people have always been a sliver of a minority. It is worrying though that this attitude is becoming acceptable and even mainstream, particularly where terrorism is concerned. The people responsible for the killings are the rioters and the mullahs who spurred them on.

Terrorism is nothing new, although it has taken on elevated political significance since the al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001. The history of terrorism is thought to go back to the beginning of the first century AD, when a Jewish extremist group called the Sicarii Zealots attacked collaborators with Rome. Why should such an ancient form of violence suddenly threaten our core freedoms? Freedom of speech is a great idea especially because we are at war. It is a war that the West will probably always be waging. Although he refers to World War II, Graham is most likely thinking of World War I when President Woodrow Wilson passed the Espionage Act 1917 and the Sedition Act 1918. The second of these two laws was a horrible overreach that forbade the use of "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the United States government, its flag, or its armed forces or that caused others to view the American government or its institutions with contempt. It was thankfully repealed two years later. This goes to show just how fragile freedom of speech can be, particularly in times of war. The Espionage Act is still in force today and Congress are attempting to use it to prosecute Julian Assange of Wikileaks.

Does the action of one crackpot in Florida put our troops at risk? No. That would be attaching too much importance to Pastor Terry Jones. Let's not inflate his ego or next thing he'll be setting mosques alight. What might put our troops at risk is United States foreign policy. I believe General Petraeus would agree. As Jim Treacher of The Daily Caller says in the headline of his article from the 4th of April, "The President of the United States bombs a Muslim country, and some nobody in Florida burns a Koran. Guess which one's to blame for rioting in Afghanistan?" Yes, the rioters were incited to violence. However the blame for this lies squarely on the shoulders of a few angry mullahs, not some idiot halfway round the globe who burned a book.

What got me thinking about this again was something my friend Padraig Reidy of Index on Censorhip wrote about the Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and her "interesting" take on freedom of speech as she outlined it in her column today. Some may remember Alibhai-Brown for her involvement in a case that briefly paralleled the Twitter Joke Trial, when she initially sought the prosecution of conservative councillor Gareth Compton over a provocative comment he made about her on Twitter. Free speech seems to be a difficult concept for some people to grasp. Our prejudices sometimes get in the way. This is precisely why it must be protected.

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