Two years and nine months: that’s the period of time from my arrest for a tweet — the first of its kind at the time in the UK — to yesterday’s statement by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in relation to a homophobic tweet sent to Tom Daley earlier this year. Having taken the decision not to prosecute Daniel Thomas, Keir Starmer QC has decided this is the time to apply common sense to social media, and to issue guidelines for prosecutors, hopefully to avoid frivolous and nonsensical prosecutions in the future. That’s great. Really great. Its what we all fought for, and it is only right.But, while not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, I want to know why it took so long and so many ill-advised, boot-on-the-throat prosecutions to get the DPP to finally state that “if the fundamental right to free speech is to be respected, the threshold for criminal prosecution has to be a high one, and a prosecution has to be required in the public interest”?
Why wasn’t this the default view, if we live in as decent a society as we like to think? Why were so many people — myself included — dragged through the mud before the Crown Prosecution Services (CPS) could apply some common sense? It seems only an effective backside-kicking from the Lord Chief Justice can get perspectives in the right place.
While we should rightfully celebrate this for the victory that it is, we should not think that all of the sudden the authorities are going to think the way we hope they will. The CPS were made to look silly repeatedly, and this to me looks like nothing more than them wanting to avoid future occurrences. Call me a cynic, but lines in the CPS’ blog saying things like “social media is a new and emerging phenomenon” are laughable. Social media has been a prominent tool for some time, and this excuse is an attempt to whitewash a fundamental inability to understand it.
Let’s focus on the positives though. This really is fantastic news, as social media users can feel more confident that they’re not going to be criminalised when they absolutely should not be. Despite protestations to the contrary, I lost count of how many people unnecessarily self-censored their writing, given what was happening. I’m sure it will take some time for that over-cautious feeling to disappear — but at least we’re getting there.
People can once again use this tool, responsibly, for the good it can do, as they did 99.99 per cent of the time before the law felt it had to get involved. I’ve seen first-hand what social media can do, and during the Arab Spring we lauded Twitter as a platform for freedom. Various cases since then have seemingly changed how it has been perceived, and gave its detractors a stick with which to beat it, the result has changed the whole atmosphere. With this announcement — in Britain at least — we can hopefully focus once more on what made it great, and not on depressing and distressing trivialities. And that can only be good news.
Paul Chambers was acquitted of sending a “menacing” tweet in July of this year, after what became known as the “Twitter Joke Trial”. He now campaigns for free speech. Paul tweets at @pauljchambers