#TwitterJokeTrial: an update

Just a brief post to link you to David Allen Green’s “Jack of Kent” blog, where he gives an account of what happened in Day One of Paul Chambers’ appeal hearing (the appeal has yet to re-convene and conclude). Three factors leapt out at me from David’s summary:

First, there’s a very strange incongruity in the way the police and CPS interpreted Mr Chambers’ Twitter message. They took his remark about ‘blowing Robin Hood Airport sky high’ absolutely literally. They were prepared to give it no other interpretation than that it meant he intended to blow up the airport. On the other hand, they clearly did not take so seriously his statement that the airport ‘had a week to get its act together’ to pre-empt his alleged threat of revenge…

If they took that phrase as literally as the rest of the message, surely it was an act of utter recklessness on their part, that they left it until the afternoon of the seventh day following his tweet before having him arrested. After all, a competent and determined master criminal would, presumably, already have planted his bomb by that stage and retired to a safe distance with an alibi and a long-haired white cat.

Second, there is the following passage from David’s blog:

The police appear to accept Paul’s account. The police case file states:

“There is no evidence at this stage that this is anything other than a foolish comment posted on Twitter as a joke for only his close friends to see.”

For some reason, the CPS did not disclose this file note at the original trial and it was only disclosed to the defence for the appeal on 23rd August 2010.

That, more than anything else, must surely damage the credibility of the CPS’ case beyond repair.

And third, if that doesn’t do it, then surely the police press office statement should. Among other things, the statement says that:

“due to the wide-spread interest in the use of Twitter in this way, the case was referred to CPS to make the decision on disposal. Based on this “public interest test” it was not appropriate for police to make this decision.”

That reflects a fundamental misunderstanding and misapplication of the “public interest test”. The police have, here, chosen to use the phrase to mean what I call the “tabloid defence”. This is what you see when a newspaper says something like “we acknowledge that the paparazzi photographs of this footballer snogging someone else’s wife violated their expectations of privacy, but we were justified in publishing them because of the enormous public interest in his sexual antics”.

The critical distinction here is between the phrase “in the public interest” and “of interest to the public”. They are not at all the same, and for the police to be confusing them in both their decision-making and their public statements is absolutely shocking.

In this case, a proper application of the”public interest test” should have concluded that the public interest was in no way served by prosecuting Paul Chambers, because it was an inappropriate and wasteful use of public money, for no rational purpose and with no reasonable prospect of achieving a productive outcome. As it is, because the “public interest test” was incorrectly formulated (at least according to the police press office statement) and incorrectly applied, the net outcome has been a further, avoidable drain on the public purse so that Mr Chambers can pursue his appeal.