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Thoughts On Twitter Crime

This is a guest post by David

There has been outrage over the failure of Paul Chambers’ appeal. Mr Chambers was the man who made what appeared to be a very obviously flippant quip on Twitter about blowing up an airport, and was promptly arrested and convicted for “sending a menacing electronic communication”.

I’m certainly unhappy that the appeal did not succeed. However, I suppose that a case might be made for outlawing all public ‘jokes’ about bombs and airports, because of the expense and waste of resources that checking them out involves. And sadly, even jokes need checking out, these days. Think of it as the equivalent to the criminalisation of imitation firearms.

However, the Yasmin Alibhai-Brown/Councillor Gareth Compton case falls into a different category. I do see why Councillor Gareth Compton’s tweet so upset Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. She might be right that it was a racist joke. However, I think it is more likely that it was an offensive error. I am also astounded and dismayed that he has been arrested.

I’m interested to see the commentariat’s  reaction to this business. There was a storm over the Airport Twitter case. So far, there hasn’t been much discussion on the blogs about this. The Tories have nothing to say. The Leftie blogs aren’t really talking about it either. Index on Censorship has stuck its oar in, and the nutter who blogs at Londonmuslim has too. But not many others, yet.

So it could be something which kind of just blows over. Sometimes, when stories are ‘a bit complicated’ as this one is, or raise a potential ‘racism’ controversy, people avoid talking about them.

Alternatively, this issue will take off. It has the capacity to annoy so many little chatterati subcultures. Tories will, of course, be pissed off – although they’ll not want to say anything because this chap has now been suspended by the Conservative Party. People who worry about freedom of expression will be pissed off. People who angst about the ‘nanny state’ will be pissed off. People who think that the police are out of control will be pissed off. People who think that “Muslims are taking the piss” will be pissed off. People who don’t like liberals will be pissed off. Twitter users will be pissed off. That’s a whole bunch of constituencies of pissed off people.

Here’s former CiF-star, FrankFisher:

This country is fucked. For a couple of decades now the slide to moral totalitarianism has been clear – you either accept the metropolitan, north london, soggy-left dimwitted PC mindset in its entirety, and treat their sacred cows as your own, or you go to jail. This is no longer a joke, this is happening. In B&Bs, on radio phones ins, on street corners, no in the council chamber. And the reason *why* it’s happening is perfectly demonstrated in this post – where the writer actually has to struggle to find iit within himself to defend a tory councillor’s free speech. This is the classic response of the left to a censorship issue – they first look at who is being censored. If it’s someone they don’t like, they call it “hate speech” and support the censorship, as Index has done. The Left did this. But then, they always do.

So, I’d expect to hear a bit of that sort of stuff.

Who won’t be pissed off? People who think that ‘stoning’ jokes should never be made, and people who think that the tweet was actually a death threat will applaud the arrest. Similarly, if you think that this guy was having a go at Yasmin Alibhai-Brown because she is a Muslim, or because the ‘joke’ was racist, then you might think the arrest was justified.

I think that the former category will outnumber the latter. But if you add in “people who hate Tories”, that might tip the balance.

OK. What, specifically, was offensive and unpleasant about the Twitter “joke”? Here it is:

The context of the joke is that Yasmin Alibhai-Brown expressed the view that the United Kingdom was not entitled to object to Iran stoning a woman, during a chat show on Radio 5 Live. This prompted Mr Compton’s response: which was to wish a stoning on her.

Here is an analogy which we can use as a tool.

A few years ago, Ken Livingstone taunted a Jewish reporter, who had asked him whether he had had a nice evening, as he left a public event, by comparing him to a concentration camp guard. That was a disgraceful thing to say for a number of reasons. First of all, it was a flippant playing on a painful aspect of Jewish identity. Secondly, it amounted to accusing a Jew of being a Nazi Jew-killer.

It is similarly offensive, in multiple ways, taunt a liberal Ismaili Muslim woman, who opposes stoning, with the prospect of her own lapidation. As a Muslim, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown lives with the daily taunts that she is a secret supporter of huddud punishments from anti-Muslim bigots and Islamophobes. At the same time, as a liberal Muslim, an Ismaili, and as a woman, she triply risks execution by people who would indeed stone her to death, or kill her in another vicious manner. I believe her when she says that she receives death threats.

Whatever your conclusion about this particular case, therefore, try to have a little sympathy for Muslims, who face a similar sort of rolling inquisition of their cultural identity, as Jews are also experiencing. For reasons I’ll explain later, I think it likely that the offence Councillor Compton undoubtedly intended to cause Yasmin Alibhai Brown was not racial in nature. But it is worth remembering that Muslims do face a pretty tedious barrage of jokes about such things as stoning, polygamy, child brides, terrorism, ‘taqqiyah’ and so on.

Here’s another analogy – if you’re going to write about gays, it is best to avoid references to pedophilia. Or saying things which might make people think you’re joking about homosexuality. Even if you write with the best of intentions, they’re inevitably going to be taken the wrong way.

It is worth mentioning, as a footnote to all this, that Yasmin Alibhai-Brown frequently deploys, in the most offensive manner possible, rhetoric which implies that Jews are Nazis. Take, for example, her statement:

How many Palestinian Anne Franks did the Israelis murder, maim or turn mad?

Condemn Israel for its war against Hamas by all means, but surely taunting Jews with the memory of their slaughter should be an anathema to any kind person. Such analogies, I’m afraid, are now standard in public debate, from David Cameron to a 16 year old with a placard.

I can see why Yasmin Alibhai-Brown was so upset by this tweet. I understand why she believed it was racist. I don’t think it was, intentionally so at least. Councillor Compton’s target was her views on Britain’s moral authority to speak out against stoning – he might have said the same thing, in that context, to any member of the chatterati expressing similarly hackneyed views, irrespective of their ethnicity or religious affiliation. The subtext was that she deserved stoning because she was silly, not because she was Muslim or Asian. This wasn’t like Ken Livingstone’s jibe: deliberately aimed at a Jew, in response to the statement: “No, I’m Jewish, and I’m actually quite offended by that”.


– This statement was not an incitement or a threat to kill. It was merely offensive. Offensive statements should very rarely if ever be criminalised.

– It was also wrong for the Journalist to call the police on the Politician, when they could just have debated it out. Yasmin Alibai-Brown has multiple pulpits. This chap has a twitter account. She could have slapped him down, publicly, in her next Indie column. He could have written a blog in reply.

– It is particularly a matter of concern that this case involves a two people who are in one sense or another, public figures. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a columnist and a media commentator. She is paid to have opinions which provoke reactions. All newspaper and radio ‘talking heads’ are like this. They are hired because they are outspoken, and have strong views which they express in a trenchant manner. They invite a reaction. Nobody would care to read – and newspapers and radio stations would not pay for – ambivalence.
Similarly, politicians – even local ones – carve out their political space by sharing their views, in public. Freedom of expression is not just about the freedom to impart, but also the freedom to receive, opinions and information. We have a right to hear what our political representatives think about current issues. If they’re being arrested for expressing them, that’s a little bit tricky.
Had this been a gratuitous attack on Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, that would be one thing. However, this was a specific response, by a politician, to the political views of a media commentator.

I don’t know what the effect of this arrest will be Councillor Compton. He may well be ruined by this. In the wake of the Twitter Airport appeal failure, he may well be convicted, and as a result, disbarred – he is a Barrister. Perhaps he’ll find something else to do, other than law, and make a great success of his life. Or perhaps he’ll lose his house. It goes without saying that his political career is over, unless there is a huge groundswell of public support for him, at the highest levels – which, given the accusation of racism, there won’t be.

It would be gracious of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to intervene to request that the police drop the case.