Oh you naughty tweeters – you’ve upset the establishment
As the bishop of Willesden has discovered, punishment awaits those who express themselves online
Two disconnected events last week showed how far we still have to go in understanding our new communications environment. In one, an Anglican bishop was suspended for some remarks he made on his Facebook page about the forthcoming wedding of two graduates of St Andrews University. In the other, a 27-year-old accountant had his appeal against a conviction for posting a joke message on Twitter dismissed.
First, the bishop. Pete Broadbent is (or was?) the suffragan bishop of Willesden. A portrait of him on Facebook suggests that he is a cheery, slightly untidy chap. He is also a political leftie and a republican. Irritated by the sycophantic nonsense in the tabloids that accompanied the announcement of the Windsor-Middleton merger, he logged on to Facebook and gave vent to his feelings. “The Windsors and their predecessors,” he wrote, “don’t have a good track record on the permanence of marriage. But their marriage is their business. I don’t know them and have no part in celebrating it. I just wish we weren’t paying for it.
“I think we need a party in Calais for all good republicans who can’t stand the nauseating tosh that surrounds this event. Never underestimate the capacity of the media to descend into the most fawning nonsense and to rake up trivia and irrelevance until it comes out of their every orifice. I managed to avoid the last disaster in slow motion between Big Ears and the Porcelain Doll and hope to avoid this one too.”
Stirring stuff, eh? And, given what we subsequently discovered about Big Ears’s extramarital activities, quite restrained. But Broadbent’s boss, the bishop of London, was not amused and suspended him from his ministry. Which was a stupid and counter-productive thing to do, given that if the Church of England is to have a future, it takes the form of people in their 20s and 30s who use Facebook. And most of them will be a lot less upset about Bishop Broadbent’s rant than the wrinklies currently running the C of E franchise.
Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, Paul Chambers was arriving at Robin Hood airport, near Doncaster, expecting to catch a flight to see his girlfriend in Northern Ireland. Finding the place closed because of bad weather, he tweeted thus: “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!!” What he didn’t realise at the time was that Inspector Knacker of the war on terrorism department would not only see his tweet, but treat it as an indictable offence. Chambers was arrested, charged under our sweeping anti-terrorism laws, convicted and fined. When his employers discovered about these proceedings, he was also fired from his job.
Astonished, Chambers appealed, reckoning that a crown court would dismiss his conviction and £1,000 fine without a full hearing. But last week, Judge Jacqueline Davies at Doncaster crown court dismissed Chambers’s appeal on every count. She found that his original tweet “contained menace” and that Chambers must have known that it might be taken seriously.
At which point you begin to wonder what’s going on. One well-known blogger, Martin Weller, has a persuasive answer. What we have now, he argues, is “a conspiracy of sentiment”. “All those involved at various stages: politicians, the police, CPS, judges, media are all acting from the same unspoken emotional base. This can be summarised as: they hate you. They hate that you undermine their carefully crafted messages and turn them into jokes. They hate that you are forming new methods of entertainment that they don’t understand. They hate that you can organise yourselves without them knowing about it. They hate that power has been democratised. They hate that you get at content for free. They hate it, hate it, hate it. So when the opportunity arises to stamp on one of you snivelling social media types, they grasp it with both hands.”
Yep. No wonder the guys in Silicon Valley think Britain is quaint. It is.