The Obscurer

Category: Law

Hearsay Corner

There’s this fellow who calls himself The Heresiarch. He has a blog, and you can find him on Twitter. I’m not sure what he thinks his heresy is, but on his website he states that he’s into “countering complacency, received opinions and incoherent thoughts”; further, that he “continues to campaign against all form of orthodoxy”. Speaking truth to power, I guess; a noble cause. So how’s that going?

I don’t read Heresy Corner, or follow The Heresiarch on Twitter. But I do occasionally stumble upon his work, and yesterday was one of those occasions, when the excellent Left Outside retweeted his comment that

tweet

Sounds pretty bad. So what is the story actually about? Well the headline is as clear as the Daily Mail can be.

headline

But that’s just the headline. What about those all-important bullet points?

bullets

Oh no. Looks like we have another Twitter joke trial on our hands. Except there’s no reference here to Twitter. At least not yet. But let’s not split hairs; onto the article itself.

A sandwich shop owner endured eight hours of questioning by police and had his computer seized for three weeks – after making tasteless Nelson Mandela jokes on the internet.

Neil Phillips, who runs Crumbs in Rugeley, Staffordshire, says he was also finger-printed and DNA-swabbed after officers received complaints about what he insists were harmless gags.

In one online post, the 44-year-old wrote: ‘My PC takes so long to shut down I’ve decided to call it Nelson Mandela.’

So far, so bad. The Heresiarch (let’s call him H to save time and spellchecking) is rightly miffed that the police – or should that be the “thought police” – are a bunch of PC twats (geddit!), running around now that Mandela has died and arresting people for innocent if not-very-good jokes that they made some months ago. Haven’t they got anything better to do?

Sadly, though, this is the high water mark of H’s “analysis”.

Mr Phillips was arrested at his home on September 10 and was taken to a police station where he was quizzed about the postings on the Rugeley Soap Box website.

Oh. So still no mention of Twitter (don’t look, it isn’t there, not anywhere) and now we find that this whole thing happened months ago, and that it’s not just the police acting now on a comment from September. Is this news in December? Well the Mail certainly thinks so.

From there the story goes south pretty quickly. After a further bit of a protestation that this whole arrest was simply over some innocent Bernard Manning-type jokes which the unfortunate Mr Phillips had cut-and-pasted, we read that he is in fact

one of two men interviewed by police following a bitter, ill-tempered feud over plans for a mining memorial in the town centre has been ambushed by some members of the Far Right and used as a propaganda platform.

So, perhaps not just arrested for making some mild jokes, do we think?

The other individual was pensioner and former miner Tom Christopher, 72, who was quizzed by police at his home in Cheadle, Greater Manchester, over claims he issued threats on the net.

“Cheadle, Greater Manchester”? Hey, that’s where I live. Perhaps I can pop round and find out the unadulterated truth behind the sorry affair? Sadly I suspect they mean the Cheadle in Staffordshire, what with everything else in this tale being Staffordshire based. Still, that likely lazy journalistic error is far from the most important thing here. More important is that “threats” and “jokes” are not the same thing, at least according to the law, and so the introduction of this second, threatening man makes the waters ever muddier. In fairness to Mr Phillips, though, we can’t hold him responsible for Mr Christopher’s threats, now can we? All Mr Phillips did was copy a few harmless one-liners. Who could possibly be offended by that?

Liberal Democrat Councillor Tim Jones was so incensed by the one-liners, aired at a time when Mandela was critically ill, that he made an official complaint.

Ah, the guilty party. So it seems that Councillor Jones could be offended. He’d better have some pretty hard evidence to back up his obvious overreaction. What does he do?

He then sent the Sunday Mercury – a Birmingham-based newspaper – screen grabs.

One was of a shocking image of decapitation, another featuring a wheelchair-bound individual, both posted by Mr Phillips.

He said: ‘They are vile and deeply offensive, anti-Muslim, anti-disabled.’

Hmm. Whatever the rights and wrongs about Mr Phillips’ arrest, I think we’ve strayed a little way from believing it was all because of him making some mild jokes, as the Mail initially suggested and which The Heresiarch credulously accepted.

Okay then, so time to wrap this up. I could get mad with the Daily Mail here, but what can you expect? There’s nothing especially unusual about this as far as they’re concerned, it just follows their standard MO: there’s that bold headline, followed by the slightly more equivocal opening paragraph, then by the time you reach the end you find that the whole premise of the article has been pretty much denied. But, to be fair to the Mail, should you read the whole article you should at least have a fair idea about the truth of the matter. Unless you’re already tapping away on Twitter by the time you get that far.

If you even do get that far. Because I find it impossible to believe that you can read the whole article and come away thinking that someone has simply been arrested for making an off-colour joke. Forget analysis. Hell, don’t even bother with basic comprehension. To come away thinking that someone has been arrested for making a joke means you either haven’t read the article, or I don’t even think you can read.

All of which suggest that The Heresiarch really is the Daily Mail’s ideal customer. Which is fine. There are over 600-odd comments at the moment on the story, and no one else seems to have read it fully either, so H has plenty of company. And, in fairness, after being challenged, he has now deleted the tweet in question, although to the best of my knowledge he hasn’t refuted it.

But you have to wonder how this all fits in with “countering complacency, received opinions and incoherent thoughts”. Does it really rate as speaking truth to power if while you think you’re railing against the powers-that-be you’re actually just dumbly falling hook, line and sinker for the usual Daily Mail copybook scare tactics because they happen to bolster your world view? Well I don’t think it does.

So thank you, Heresiarch, for bravely standing up for what you believe in; but should I ever again stumble upon your work then I think I’ll jog on. And next time I feel the urge to read an alternative viewpoint which challenges the orthodoxy, at least now I know that I’ll have to look elsewhere.

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My Name Is Changed Daily

When did the standard police practice of not revealing the names of those arrested suddenly become a bad thing? I’d always thought of it as a protection for people who are mere suspects, or could even be considered the police’s helpers (as in people who are “helping the police with their enquiries”). These people are entitled to full legal representation, and also entitled to not being the subject of gossip and speculation until the evidence is considered sufficiently strong enough for them to be at least charged with an offence. Now, however, all of a sudden this practice is being mentioned as if it is sinister; as part of a lack of transparency indicative of a “secret arrest” that must surely presage some extra-judicial disappearance. So what changed? And why? I can remember no clamour from the public to suddenly name names, so where has it come from?

While you’re here, do you remember Dave Jones? The erstwhile manager of Southampton, he was kindly relieved of that position after he had been charged with twenty-one offences of child abuse dating from when he was a social worker in Formby between in 1986 to 1990. In the event the case collapsed like a house of cards; it appeared that the police, unable to obtain the evidence to make an individual charge stick, had engaged in the process of “trawling”, whereby rather than gathering the evidence to prove a single offence they had instead presented several similar offences at the same time in the hope that the weight of each allegation would strengthen and support the other, so to produce a guilty verdict. It failed, and the police were heavily criticised for their behaviour. Fast forward a few years, of course, and various police forces were investigating various complaints against Jimmy Savile but were again struggling to make their cases. Alas, these different police forces were investigating individually and had failed to share their evidence. If only they had communicated better, it was said, then they could have pooled their investigations and surely the combined weight of these separate investigations would have strengthened and supported the other, so to produce a guilty verdict? But that didn’t happen, they failed, and the police were heavily criticised for their behaviour.

Anyway. Back in the world of “secret arrests”; and the Daily Telegraph is vexed. It is appalled that recent police guidelines on the matter of revealing suspects names, which were previously subject to interpretation by different forces, have been tightened up to favour a policy of “not telling”. Their editorial features a lovely screenshot from the film 1984 just to hammer home where they’re coming from, in case you were wondering. Their nose has been especially put out of joint by the fact that “ACPO could not be convinced by the arguments of this newspaper” in opposing the plan, and they go on to bewail that they are “a profession whose reputation has plummeted in recent years”. Oh, to clarify, I ought to point out that it’s the police they’re referring to there, not the media.

Meanwhile, elsewhere the paper reports that Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, is also arguing against such a “blanket ban” on naming suspects. He doesn’t call for codifying specific instances where suspects should be named, however; for instance, dangerous suspects on the run. No, instead he calls for “wriggle room”, specifically where “there’s not enough evidence to charge but there may be other allegations out there”. Okay. I guess that’s not trawling; but it certainly seems like an invitation to be trawled. Does he remember Dave Jones? Perhaps. But he’s not thinking of Dave Jones here; at least not for now (he’s not been in the papers for a bit). No, he’s thinking of Stuart Hall, and understandably so considering the role the publicity of his arrest made in further victims coming forward; but forgetting, perhaps, that, Hall pleaded guilty before his case made it far as Jones’s did.

In truth I have no strongly held feelings either way on the matter of naming suspects. I can for sure see the pros and cons in both approaches, and although I think calling for “wriggle room” is a bit like calling for “more vagueness and confusion”, I just hope Starmer’s statement is a considered one which takes account of the long view, and is not one largely based upon whatever is flavour of the month today. But I’m ultimately glad that I’m not the one who has to draw the boundaries here; and I’m especially ultimately glad that the Telegraph’s noble position is based upon their firm, long-running and continuing commitment to our individual human rights, and not upon their displeasure at being initially thwarted in splashing Rolf Harris’s name across their front page at the earliest possible opportunity.

Police. Camera. Action?

Don Paskini recently pointed me in the direction of the blog of “Libertarian Lib Dem Charlotte Gore”, and specifically a post in which she explains why she will not be standing in a parliamentary election any time soon. This is probably a good decision on her part; among other reasons, Charlotte dismisses running for parliament because “It’s not for me, this life of trying to appeal to ‘people’.” Hmm. Libertarians “are at some point going to have to figure out how to address this problem about the “people” not wanting to vote for them,” points out Don, unless they are happy to run with

the alternative to winning popular support…to wait for a military dictator to do the hard work of securing power and then persuade him to hire them as policy advisers, as in Pinochet’s Chile. There’s nothing quite like having the overwhelming might of the state to crush dissent to enable libertarian ideas to get tried out.

Anyway, Charlotte does treat us to the sort of letter she would like to write to her prospective constituents, were she to ever give it a go and stand for election in Halifax. Her letter opens

Dear Halifax,
I’m looking for someone. It might be you. It might be someone you know.

It is at this point, were I to receive such a missive through the door, that I would probably scrunch it up and hurl it in the recycling; but this being the internet I did read on. And it’s an okay letter I suppose although somewhat simplistic, and certain points stated as fact are certainly arguable. However, it was Charlotte’s assertion that under this government “it has become illegal to take photographs of the police” that really caught my eye. Now, I don’t want it to seem as if I am singling Charlotte out here – the stated illegality of capturing the police on film is something I’ve read and heard umpteen times already and from many different sources, especially in relation to the footage of police officers’ actions during the G20 demonstrations – it’s just her misfortune that I’ve got a wee bit of time on my hands at the moment, so I’m able to put my thoughts, or what passes for my thought, down in words just now.

The prevalence of this complaint that it is now illegal to photograph the police lends me to believe that many people want this fact to be more widely known, and that they feel that not enough people are aware of this very serious assault on our civil liberties. I disagree. I think that in fact far too many people are aware of this “law”, and for one simple reason: it isn’t true. To inform others that photographing the police is against the law is at best mistaken, certainly hyperbolic, but at its worst it is a plain deception.

The law I’m assuming Charlotte is referring to is Section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008, which amends Section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 to additionally read

58A Eliciting, publishing or communicating information about members of armed forces etc

(1) A person commits an offence who—

  (a) elicits or attempts to elicit information about an individual who is or has been—

  1. a member of Her Majesty’s forces,
  2. a member of any of the intelligence services, or
  3. a constable,

    which is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, or

  (b) publishes or communicates any such information.

(2) It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under this section to prove that they had a reasonable excuse for their action.

I’d say that is pretty straightforward and self-explanatory, certainly not a blanket ban on photographing the police; yet this is the piece of legislation that has been reduced by many journalists and bloggers to read “Wah! We can’t take a picture of a copper! Like not never!” just as the smoking ban was for some bizarre reason over-simplified by many to mean “Wah! I can’t have a fag in the pub!” Except, while it is at least true that you can’t have a fag in a pub anymore (it’s just that the law itself is somewhat more detailed that that) it is clearly not true to say that the law now prevents the routine photographing of police officers.

Now, that is not to say that I don’t have misgivings about this law. There are plenty of pieces of anti-terrorist legislation around already, laws to prevent the commissioning of and acts preparatory to terrorism. Section 76 certainly seems like a classic case of New Labour inventing a brand-new, poorly drafted and pointless offence when there are perfectly decent existing offences that could do as good a job. I am also not so naïve that I’m not fully aware that in practice this law is certain to be misused by some officious officers anxious to prevent their actions from being captured on film and then broadcast to and scrutinised by a wider, curious public. The point is, though, that if they do try to prevent someone from taking legitimate photographs they will be misusing the law.

And the thing is that any law can be misused, laws are already misapplied; but that doesn’t instantly mean we should criticise a law or exaggerate its powers. This press release from the British Journal of Photographers back in January complained about the then prospective implementation of Section 76, by showing existing examples of heavy-handed police behaviour using existing laws. Then there was the example recently of someone being arrested for theft when handing a found mobile phone into a police station; but the fault there lies in the dickish judgement of the officer in question, not with the law. In response to such a case we need to tackle that particular officer’s actions; we don’t decide that we need to repeal the law on theft, or go around spreading erroneous rumour about it now being illegal to hand in found property. Well, certain tabloids may, but they have their own agendas; it’s just what they do.

My argument here is not simply motivated by pedantry; I think that it is vital that we fully and accurately know our rights. If you are arrested when handing-in a mobile phone at a police station it is important to know that “theft by finding” is not a made-up law, as some commenters on the Daily Mail’s website seem to think; but also that theft only applies when you are seeking to permanently deprive the owner of their property, which clearly cannot be the case when you are in the process of returning it. Similarly, if you believe that it is simply illegal to photograph a police officer under any circumstances, then should an officer try to prevent you from taking a snap of him you may feel compelled to comply, feeling that the law, however unjust, is on his side (indeed, perhaps as importantly, from reading some blogs and newspaper articles bemoaning that fact that photographing police officers is now illegal, the police officer in question may himself genuinely believe that the law is on his side). Far better, surely, to know where you stand legally, and to refuse any attempt to prevent you from taking pictures by stating that you know you are fully within your rights.

It all suggest to me a most luxurious indulgence to be able to so exaggerate the police’s powers, something I doubt is required in North Korea or Burma, say, where I would imagine one of the few weapons against a genuine police state is an extensive, and most of all correct, knowledge of your rights. Ultimately, the point I guess I’m trying to make is that claiming that the police have greater powers than they do – and by extension that we have fewer rights than we in fact possess – may be of value if all you are interested in doing is giving New Labour or the police a good old metaphorical kicking; but if it is motivated by a genuine desire to defend our civil liberties then it is surely a thoroughly misguided and counter-productive activity.