Monday, 15 November 2010

The Joke

In a television interview, Milan Kundera’s first book, The Joke, was described as an indictment of Stalinism. The author was quick to respond pointing out that the book was nothing more than a love story. The English language version has since been retranslated and edited to ensure the love story is as obvious in this language as in Kundera’s original version.

For those unfamiliar with the book, a young man living in communist Czechoslovakia writes a note, heavy in irony, in which he praises Trotsky. The authorities intercept this message and take it seriously. His life and love is affected for ever as he is expelled from the communist party and all the disadvantages this brings.

Kundera had already been expelled from the communist party and the banning of his work in his homeland later lead him to live in Paris. Despite Kundera’s view, the book is seen in the same way as 1984 or The Trial as a warning over the interference of the state over the rights of the individual’s life.

In another review suggests “This novel exposes the dangers of living in a humourless world

Why am I talking about his book? Because of a case that mirrors the story. At its heart is a love story. An English young man starts talking to a girl in Northern Ireland using social media. The couple fall in love, and the Englishman arranges to meet her.

A few days before he is due to fly, it snows. It snows heavily and the UK infrastructure grinds to a halt. Robin Hood airport, where he is due to fly from, is closed and he writes a note on Twitter to show his frustration to his friends.

Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week to get your shit together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!

Five days, later he’d forgotten he’d even typed the message but wheels had been set in motion. An off-duty manager at the airport did a search and discovered the message. He did nothing initially, but thought he’d pass it on to his line manager. His line manager saw it as a harmless comment, but, was duty bound to send it to the police. The police saw the message believed it to be of no threat but felt duty bound to check it out. They visited the young man who apologised, showed regret for his comment and cooperated with the Police. They found nothing to indicate this man was a threat.

So far it’s reasonable and proportionate. Then the story takes a twist when the CPS gets hold of the report. Despite no-one seeing this as anything more than a rash statement, the CPS decides to prosecute. Terrorism laws do not cover the tweet as the standard of proof would require some sort of intent. The CPS turns to section 127of the Communications Act 2007, an extension on a law based to protect telephone operators from receiving abusive calls. The 1930s based law added in communications that are electronic.

Despite the “joke” not being seen as menacing by the Police or the airport, two trial judges have ruled the comments were not just “menacing” but “obviously so” and that the public could not see the message as anything else. Context of the comment seems to be irrelevant as does the possibility the comment may have more than one meaning. The meaning implied by the judge, devoid of irony and humour, is the one that stands.

The young man has, as a result of the trial, lost his job and been fined by the courts. He is still unemployed – although he is now living with the Northern Irish girl he struggled to meet almost a year ago.

So far tens of thousands on social media have strongly disagreed with the Judge. Personally, I totally disagree but then I’m not a judge. What is worrying is that the law sets precedent for communications on this medium.

Regular users of twitter will have encountered the problem of misreading someone else’s tweet. The difficulty is in implying tone to words written down. The comedian David Schneider described how he’d tweeted a joke about wishing they could grow apples which didn’t have stickers on them. He received a reply from someone pointing out that the apples had stickers added after the pick process.

Companies have been caught out on twitter from Vodaphone to Habitat. Those in the spotlight get caught out with ill-judged comments, mistakes and worse. Next time you tweet, “I could murder for a cold drink now” you’ll have to think twice. Most of all it seems that the state has lost its sense of humour.

So just be careful if you’re quoting John Betjeman’s Slough or Dr Feelgood's Boom Boom lyrics as the law may see it differently. The state sees fit to interfere with notes and comments with no intent or no impact, just as in The Joke. A book once held up as ludicrous behaviour, possible only under the communist regime, is now reality in the self same country which made the comment.

Even if this isn’t the thin end of the wedge, it affects those linked with communications and might lead to a less engaging and more safety first approach. This does no-one any good.

However it effects us, though, this is a love story between a boy and a girl which the State feels desperate to interfer with.

1 comment:

  1. Additional comment:

    I’m not condoning the comment. As a social media user, I normally check context anyway when I drop into the middle of a conversation. I still believe the police were right to investigate, but that’s where it should have ended. But the loss of ability to see a comment for what it was is worrying. The possibility that a different meaning to the original could be taken as reason to gain a criminal record is frightening. In the words of Churchill "I may not agree with what you say, but ill defend your rights to say it"

    I’ve seen comments that this is like saying you’ve got a bomb on check-in at an airport. I can see the logic. But equally a bad joke at check-in deserves an investigation to check it is purely that. I wouldn’t advocate a criminal record.

    Another has likened it to shouting fire in a theatre. It’s not. It’s more like shouting fire in the theatre toilets half way through the performance. It is unlikely anyone would hear you, and if they did they wouldn’t be panicked. There is no evidence of any response to the tweet apart from the escalation from the single duty manager.

    Equally, if this is due to terrorism threats, then why is this a communications offence and not an anti-terrorism conviction? the answer is the level of proof needed to gain a conviction.