Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Freedom isn't free.

FREEDOM is a funny thing.

If you haven't got it, you want it. When you've got it you want to give it away.

We insist on the right to self-determination, on not being controlled by despots or having our hands tied by the whims of others. And we spend a lot of time changing our behaviour to fit in with loved ones and enemies while reducing our freedoms with monogamy, laws, and an ever-changing public debate about what's moral and what's not.

We have a free Press, for example, a media which is the blueprint for newspapers all over the world. Yet in the space of the past year as journalists have been arrested and a year-long inquiry into our practices has picked through our bins, Britain has slipped from 19th to 28th in the global index of press freedom.

And that's the worst thing those guilty of causing the phone-hacking scandal have done. Listening to a missing schoolgirl's messages is appalling, but at least it harms only a few. The fact that it's led to a situation where the freedoms of an entire nation are less than those of a landlocked west African state where the army overthrew the government in March is terrifying.

If those responsible for hacking Milly Dowler's voicemail are convicted, it will be for the least of their wrongdoing.

We expect people to behave nicely with the freedoms they've got. And people, I'm afraid, are often stupid.

Two and a half years ago a man called Paul did something stupid. He did what most of us, stood at an airport check-in and asked by a po-faced attendant if anyone has fiddled with our luggage, have often been tempted to.

We normally control the urge to say "only some bloke called Osama, but he said he needed the Semtex out of the country" because the po-face in question is in front of us, and it doesn't look like it would find it funny. We momentarily trade our freedom of speech in return for not being cavity-searched.

So when he got to the airport and found it shut, an annoyed Paul wanted to make a joke about blowing it up. He didn't do it to the face of anyone at the airport, probably because subconsciously everyone knows that's not wise. He did it to few hundred followers on Twitter, where he thought they'd get it.

They did, and no-one minded. The tweet was noticed five days later by an off-duty security manager from the airport, who was also not concerned. But as a matter of process it got passed along a chain of officials and when it arrived at the Crown Prosecution Service they decided to haul him to court, because the CPS can be stupid too.

He was convicted and fined a little under £1,000, and for most of us it would be an object lesson in keeping your mouth shut. But Paul was a trainee accountant and couldn't get a job with the conviction hanging over him, however ridiculous it was.

He quite rightly began a two and a half year fight for common sense to prevail and on Friday the Lord Chief Justice, equally rightly, acquitted him of committing any crime. He said: "Satirical or iconoclastic or rude comment, the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it should and no doubt will continue at their customary level, quite undiminished."

The court was right, eventually, but perhaps accountants ought to have got their shit together as well and been happy to employ a man who makes silly jokes.

When the decision was handed down on Friday people were highly delighted that our freedom to be idiots had been protected. And by Monday we were demanding that a child be personally banned from doing the same.

Just three days after Paul's victory we've arrested a 17-year-old lad for doing something not much different.

Reece Sonny James - the name he gives on his online profile - is not a trainee accountant. He's a thuggy little twit with a gob the size of Dorset and the emotional intelligence of a mistreated pitbull. Here he is having a debate with another young male about matters of the heart.

A charmer, as you can see.

The above didn't get him arrested, although issuing threats at people you and 'your girl' actually know probably should do.

No, Reece was nicked because he sent some tweets to someone famous. More than just the one that Paul sent, and rather different in tone. After not-so-golden boy Tom Daley failing to land a diving medal yesterday Reece told him he'd let down his recently-deceased and much-loved father.

Tom, as many of us on Twitter sometimes do, decided to shame the troll by retweeting some of the abuse to his followers. Reece went on to threaten to drown him, and shoot, stab and harm his supporters. He laughably threatened Sky News with a lawsuit for reporting on it, and alternated between apologies to Tom and foul-mouthed tirades which you can read here.

Tom's only a year older than Reece, and infinitely better behaved, inspiring and pleasant. Reece on the other hand is a psychologist's wet dream and if he doesn't have a few family problems I'd be very surprised. His behaviour caused his name to trend worldwide on Twitter, and the abuser was abused a million times over by people who demanded he be banned from the site.

He was arrested by Dorset Police in a Weymouth guesthouse in the early hours of this morning. But how likely was he to act on any of the threats he made? Would he really have travelled to Stratford, bypassed the army guards, broken into the atheletes' village and drowned Tom Daley?

Would he have been able to track down a supporter of Tom's, who used the name of a fictional Coronation Street character, and strangle him as suggested?

No. Anyone sensible would see those tweets and know them for what they were - a big mouth being operated by a tiny and unwell brain. In normal circumstances Tom's retweet would have shut him up, but when Olympics fever is gripping the nation it became front-page news and caused the local bobbies to trundle round and nick him.

Nick him for something they hadn't bothered to nick him for doing before, which he did to someone who wasn't famous.

I wonder if Reece will go to court, I wonder what the effect will be on his future prospects, and I wonder if Stephen Fry would lead a charge of famous people demanding Reece be free to be an idiot, and offering to fund his legal team.

It is an uncomfortable fact, but a fact nonetheless, that if Paul is free to tweet a bad joke about blowing up an airport then Reece is able to call Tom Daley a prick and say he's let his dad down. The Lord Chief Justice said so. Remember?

"Satirical or iconoclastic or rude comment, the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it should and no doubt will continue at their customary level, quite undiminished."

Tom is equally able to shame him; the troll should be forced to defend himself or apologise for his actions; that's what freedom of speech means. It's not about allowing only the people we agree with to tweet what we want them to.

It doesn't just apply to trainee accountants. Trolls have rights too, even with threats to kill, if it's quite apparent they've no serious intent or ability to act upon them.

Freedom, you see, isn't free. The price we pay for it is that we have to give it to people who don't know how to use it properly, and just hope that they learn.

Sometimes you have to spend thousands on good lawyers in order to protect your freedoms, but very rarely have I ever seen it won and then thrown away within the space of just three days.

Amazing how quick it can go.


kebab time said...

Good post.

"Free speech is easy to support when you agree with what is being said, the test comes when you dont agree"

vegemitevix said...

Thought provoking post. Yes the twerp's tweets were offensive and unkind, but were they criminal?

Anonymous said...

You're right I didn't like most of it.How do you know that the little shit doesn't have the time of the funds to go after Tom Daley.Yours is the third article I have read today about a very nasty homophobic hater.If the police can give him a fright then I am all for it.Death threats are wrong imo.

Rob The Builder. said...

I think a trawl back through this guy's timeline suggests he's a serial offender, regardless of his Tom Daley episode. Notes such as 'fuck off you black cunt' are surely one's that we do want the CPS involved in, they have nothing to do with Paul Chambers or freedom of speech.

Anonymous said...

It's just bullying and *normally* bully's aren't arrested...although we can all agree it's nasty and should be in some way punishable. Technically until he started with the threats he wasn't breaking the law it - was just plain nasty.
Perhaps it is time that the social networks start to take responsibility, how can they block someone who tweeted an already public email address yet thousands of these trolls are free to abuse.
Well done to Tom for naming and shaming and not resulting to cheap blows, but it should be Twitter and Facebook who start to take control of trolling (like playground assistances in a playground) and not waste police time on matters that could be easily sorted out without a waste of tax payers money. (KK)

Anonymous said...

Or you could just use the block function.

Daniel Owen said...

I think there are two key differences between the Twitter joke trial case and this one, both of which relate to intent.

Paul Chambers' tweet was (1) intended as a joke and (2) not aimed at anyone in particular. Regardless of Reece's actual ability to carry out any of his threats, he did intend them to be menacing, and he aimed his abuse at specific individuals. I'm not sure how far I'd go in defending someone's right to hurl threatening abuse at someone but, irrespective of that, this would seem to be qualitatively a very different set of circumstances from those of Paul Chambers.

daveyboy said...

Threats are threats, no matter how realistic they could be. In Paul's case it was just a one-off whereas Reece threatened Tom Daley several times, which clearly shows 'intent'. Threats made to Reece are no better.

Anonymous said...

If you are worried that some idiot may say something spiteful to you - don't go on the Internet, you won't like it!

Matt Bradley said...

I can't entirely agree with this analysis. s127 of the Communications Act 2003 covers threats made with the specific intent of causing distress in another individual. This continues to be the case.

When Reece Sonny James was simply making off colour remarks towards Tom Daley, he had the protection of a right to free speech. By the same token, when Daley retweeted James' tweet, and others sent tweets to James, they too had the same protection.

In my view, things took a turn for the worse once James and others started threatening each other with violence. Specifically in the case of James: his threats to drown Daley, whilst highly unlikely to be carried out were sent with the express intent of causing distress in the recipient. In all likelihood, Daley had blocked James by this point, but as we know, whether those messages were received or not is irrelevant to the creation of the offence.

Now, I'd hate to see this sorry episode end in a conviction, or worse, imprisonment, however I personally am comfortable with the notion that the police were within their rights at this point to act, and that it may in fact have been the best thing for James for them to do so. In his apparently fragile mental state he may have harmed himself or others, and it seems pretty clear that there wasn't a more mature guiding force around at the time, or he would have stopped tweeting long before things got to this point.

I'm also dubious of this self flagellating discussion of how Twitter became outraged and behaved with an almost mob mentality towards James. We already know that this is how Twitter behaves. It is emergent property of the medium. Trolls in fact use this behaviour for their enjoyment. I don't lay the blame at Twitter for being itself.

Instead, what I see is tragic, confused young man who clearly has inadequate guidance from the people around him and stepped into a social media arena which he cannot cope with. It is unfortunate in the extreme that it appears the only guiding influence available to him is the police.

Stacey Guthrie said...

Freedom of speech does have boundaries though. Or should we tolerate racism and homophobia too?

27feet said...

@Matt Bradley - please don't blame or forgive Twitter in you're penultimate para. It's all about people. As you point out, twitter is merely a medium, like speech or e-mail, and can be used for many things. It is *people* that became outraged, *people* that behave this way and it is in no way restricted to this one medium.

@Stacey we don't have to tolerate anything. We can laugh at it, we can choose to engage (intellectually) those who clearly believe it and we can choose to ignore those using it purely for attention. *THAT* is the mark of a civillised society, not the ability to launch a lynch mob that thirsts for blood to validate how good and pure of thought and action its members are. As Foxy says, freedom of speech is exactly that - freedom to offend, take offense, disagree and debate without limitation.

Tom Daley (ideally) shouldn't have retweeted Reece's abuse. Maybe he was seeking validation, maybe he wanted the comfort of strangers, who knows. If the support or validation of faceless masses is so important to people I fear for what we've become. All Tom should have needed was a pat on the back - from anyone who knows him and knew his dad - saying "you know that's crap" and that should have been enough for him.

Reece - well, Reece is clearly a troubled person. I'll bet he's not had a happy life. There are a lot of them out there and they all react differently. Let's not get into persecuting people - people who are, generally, a product of their environment and society - and therefore something we are all responsible for.

How is kicking someone who's clearly already down right or just - nomatter how unpleasant you may find them or their views?

Whoever said...


Why do people write stuff like this based on one event?

Check the guy out - google is an amazing tool. He has been a racist, bullying bigot on twitter for months. What has happened with Tom Daley merely got him onto your radar - your views appear merely based on one event. They guy needs medical help, or a cell.

Anonymous said...

It's a nice idea to suggest a connection between the two events but, aside from the social media platform they were sent via, there is no connection. The Robin Hood airport Tweet was blown out of all proportion by the CPS for reasons I still don't get.

This little thug, however, comes very close to the legal definition of assault ( and I'm fairly sure a good trawl of his timeline will throw up enough examples to create mens rea, as they say in law.

Anonymous said...

Hi Matt, Thank you for this well thought-out response. I couldn't agree more with you..Particularly your last paragraph. I also agree with Foxy that this would not have come to the fore if James' tweets hadn't been aimed at a 'famous' individual. It is the way it works in this day and age (sadly) and many 'famous' individuals have made good use of their fame for the better good. James is obviously in need of help and I for one (the mother of a cyber-loving 17 year daughter) am pleased that James will now have to take responsibility for his lack of social respect and the subsequent fall-out of such stupid immature behaviour.

Barry Patton said...

I have said on Twitter many times that freedom of speech is being eroded, I might not like what you say but I defend your right to say it. How can nasty tweets be called bullying? They are only words so block them, something Stan Collymore does every day as indeed I do If I don't agree with them and they won't listen to reason. Do not retweet it only feeds there notoriety.

Paul W said...

I thought the jailing of the student for the nasty tweet about Fabrice Muamba was awful, an arrogant, cruel judge playing to the gallery. I don't see why it has got less attention than the airport case which resulted in a much lesser sentence

PaintingWithNumbers said...

Yes, very good point.

My only reservation is that these threats, were they to be issued face to face, and not via social media, would be unlikely to attract police or CPS attention. So could it be that the authorities are pursuing social media cases because they want to "chill" its capacity for free expression?

Anonymous said...

No one would dare to answer yes to that question for fear of arrest.

Anonymous said...

Well said. Particularly the last sentence

Soap said...

So he should have been able dish out threats and face no consequences then? The only thing that can do is to reinforce his belief that he is within his right to say that sort of thing and that can only lead to him acting on his threats at some point. Maybe not the ones to Daley but maybe to some other person on Twitter or some random guy in the street who maybe just 'looks at him wrong'.
I normally agree with you Foxy but comparing this incident to the TJT is just absurd, the two have nothing in common.

Anonymous said...

The two cases you cite are IMO chalk and cheese. The Airport Twitter Joke Trial was a single throwaway comment made to no-one in particular in which the person in question did not repeat it, and I'm sure if someone had questioned it to him he would have said "of course I'm joking", and would have immediately climbed down if his single tweet had been questioned by someone from Robin Hood Airport.

In the case of this idiot who tweeted Tom Daley, he made a series of increasingly violent and hysterical tweets directed at Tom Daley and at others who dared to step in. It was either deliberate harassment, or was of someone who was mentally unstable. His clear objective was to cause someone distress. Whether he would have actually looked to carry out such threats is largely irrelevant - no-one (celebrity or otherwise) should have to put up with death threats.

As such the police were right to step in and arrest him. Freedom of speech is important in life, but it does have boundaries - anyone who thinks making death threats is acceptable really needs to have a good long think about what they're advocating here.

Pete Whitehead said...

Why are 'racism' and 'homphobia' so uniquely awful, or are these just a couple of examples from a long list of things 'we' should not tolerate.
What do you mean by "racism and homophobia" anyway? Calling people names? Maybe suggesting, as some religios groups do, that homosexuality is a sin? Expressing a view that third world immigration has on balance had a detrimental effect on this country? These might be considered 'homphobic' or 'racist' respectively (rightly or wrongly) by those who take the opposite view. So in what sense do 'we' not tolerate such expressions? - what form should our intolerance take? Shunning or verbally lambasting those who express views which offend us seems reasonable enough. But that isn't what this article is about, so I would get the impression that in that context you are advocating criminalising views you find offensive. So please explain where these boundaries of yours should lie. Who gets to set the boundaries? Presumably whoever enjoys political power at any given time. Have you thought this through to the extent of what may happen when the prevailing orthodoxies are different and your views are deemed intolerable?

martin sutton said...

One day a simpletons comment won't make the national news

Anonymous said...

I fully understand your point but when my child comes home crying because she is bullied I won't say "do nothing here is a pat on the back, you are ok"...I will then be giving her bullies permission to carry on! Tom was well within his rights to highlight abuse that is thrown at him.

Reece does seem a troubled person (although we don't know this for sure) but that should not give him a right to behave in the way he has. The rest of his time line is full of the same abuse and it is our responsibility to break the cycle...otherwise he will develop from a bully into something worse. Hopefully this short sharp shock (I don't believe it should go to court)may actually make him realise he is responsible for his actions and that it is not correct. We can't let trolls and bullies get away with their actions just because of there backgrounds. (KK)

Emma said...

The two couldn't be more different! Common sense can see that. I agree with the messages above that are along those lines. Has anyone read his timeline? He's out on bail whilst the police investigate the rest of his timeline. He's had a warning for harassing Tom.

Matt said...

...should and no doubt will continue at their customary level, quite undiminished."

The abuse this idiot tried to dish out is waaay above any customary level. I have no problem with being robust, but as others have pointed out, sometimes it isn't freedom of speech, it is hate speech.

And btw, the twitter joke trial joke wasn't really very funny. But people should be allowed to make shit jokes.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Saying that, because of your religion, you believe homosexuality is a sin is not homophobia under the eyes of the law - neither is commenting about immigration racism per se. However, abusing or threatening or attacking someone because they are, eg, gay or black thankfully is.

Anonymous said...

There are too many people writing articles that confuse a *qualified* right to free speech with abuse. This is yet another.

The guy issued death threats - thankfully, that is illegal in the UK irrespective of medium. It was issued on a "one to one" basis, albeit in a publicly viewable medium (how stupid can you get?.

This is markedly different from #joketwittertrial, where threats were not issued against a specific person and were on a scale that was ludicrously exaggerated - hence the reasonably claim it is a "joke".

I will tell you now: anyone who is defending this loon and the right to issue death threats has never been on the receiving end of one. So you are in a poor position to judge whether someone should have the right to issue them. These kind of idiots can actually destroy others people's lives with ongoing threat.

Some people issue death threats and then carry them out, others don't. How do you propose to tell the difference between the two?

Anonymous said...

And if he had condoned the Holocaust? Then what?

eddypfunk said...

It's interesting to see the amateur psychologists giving diagnosis. I don't think Reece is any more mentally disturbed than a significant proportion of the population. As I understand, he is 17, living in a guesthouse, a dead mother and living in Weymouth! I suspect that he has always been told that he is a bad person through family and school and deep down probably already knows that his life will amount to nothing. Compare this to Tom Daley who's life took on a wholly different trajectory through the good fortune of having parents that supported his talents and gave him the belief that he is a good person. Of course what Reece said was unpleasant but all this incident shows us is that expressing the frustration of unsurmountable injustice between two people brought up not 50 miles apart will only lead you to another of life's kickings. The winner takes it all unfortunately. I don't know the exact circumstances of Reece's life but generally those that lead to this behavior are incredibly difficult to rise out of. This is not mental illness, this is a shit society.

James said...

We're all free to be an idiot, and as the judge said we're free to make coarse jokes, but we are accountable in law for racism and threatening behaviour and I'm not entirely sure how you've mixed the two things up?

James said...

Totally agree

Anonymous said...

We should block idiots like this not follow them. The guy picked up thousands of new followers after his moment under the spotlight. Shame on us!

Paul Richards said...

Plenty of people above me have made the same point, so I'll just chime in - the big differences in the two cases are identification, malice and intent.

If Paul Chambers had posted six times, saying he was going to go back to the airport and "slit the f***ing throat of that black security guard", then he'd be as guilty as Riley was. Riley said things that would not be tolerated in the street, so should not be online either.

Anonymous said...

I you Crash on a remote desert road it might go unnoticed, What this guy did was crash on a busy motorway. Everyone saw it and it was entirely his own fault.

He is a vile, racist scumbag who should be treated the same as the troll in the Muamba case. And if you don't see the threats as anything other than menacing you're mad. Peoples reaction to such thing may vary wildly, some might not care, some may be deeply disturbed. The reason it is illegal.

Comparing these two twitter incidents is way off the mark.

Emma said...

Totally agree. The police had to act on the threats.

Andy said...

Sorry, but issuing threats to drown somebody face-to-face are illegal and would attract police attention if they were reported... however many victims of verbal abuse do not report them either because they only felt under threat temporarily or because they are afraid of reprisals from the abuser for involving the police.

The seriousness of a threat such as this is measured by the abusers ability to carry out their threat. Although the more supercilious of those commenting here dismiss Reece's actions because they do not think he has the intelligence to successfully plan Tom Daley's murder, it is actually Reece's mental state, legal culpability and physical prowess which would be called to account. Although not yet legally an adult he is perfectly able to wait for the Olympics to finish and to harm Tom when he is no longer subject to the current security measures placed upon Olympic venues and competitors. His form for racist and other abuse would also have a direct bearing upon the judgement.

Twitter and other social media are not being castigated by the authorities, it is simply because of their broadcast nature that what would have taken place with a minimum of witnesses, such as Paul blowing his top at some unlucky airport employee or Reece having a slanging match with another lad of comparable age, is now being witnessed by thousands of people if not hundreds of thousands. The anonymity which such trolls thinks protects them also encourages them to make threats of a considerably more extreme nature than would have been in a face-to-face encounter.

I can foresee the government introducing "internet asbos". People using IT to trespass, thieve or defraud are regularly banned from using IT (especially equipment connected to the internet) as part of their punishment, it is only a matter of time before long-standing trolls are addressed with similar sanctions.

Anonymous said...

If you think it's clearly okay to go around sending death threats to loads of people...

Anonymous said...

Just over a year ago me and my partner were part of a large campaign against a neighbouring council. After months of provocation, I tweeted that I hoped the council would 'die horrible deaths' and my partner called them a 'waste of skin'. One tweet each, neither of which was sent to the council in question, who did not follow us. The comments are hardly beyond the pale. We were both charged under Comms Act s127. The case was finally dropped nearly 9 months later, after two (aborted) trial dates, a fortune in legal fees, and a doorstepping/monstering by the Sun. So it's not just all about making comments to famous people...I hardly think a piddling little council count as famous, although clearly they had a lot of influence with the police.

Hamish said...

I hope this kid is given help rather than convicted, but I think the police were right to arrest him, as it puts them in a better position than you to judge whether his anger might spill over into the real world.

Anonymous said...

I have the freedom for the moderator to allow my comment to be published.e

As for condoning the Holocaust:

Then what? You think we should arrest people for having deluded opinions? what the hell is wrong with you?

I've been reading these comments in disbelief; Its scary how brainwashed this nation has become. If you don't like someones opinion then ignore it. We can't have nanny government marching to the rescue for name calling.

Dan said...

"We have a free Press, for example, a media which is the blueprint for newspapers all over the world. Yet in the space of the past year as journalists have been arrested and a year-long inquiry into our practices has picked through our bins, Britain has slipped from 19th to 28th in the global index of press freedom."

The reason we're at 28th (the same place we were in 2004) in the Press Freedom Index isn't solely because of Leveson, it's because in Britain we have "a surreal law that allows the entire world to come and sue news media before its courts.", according to the RSF report -

Saying we've slipped down from "good" to "satisfactory" because of an inquiry which is yet to come to any conclusions is disingenuous, it's more likely we've slipped because journalists are being arrested for breaking the law.

Soap said...

It's not about someone's opinion and the kid made repeated death threats, it wasn't just a bit of name calling! Calling you a moron is name calling (and accurate), the riley kid saying he will shove a knife down another persons throat is a death threat, see the difference?

James said...

Just to reiterate, this isn't just name calling. If you read the full text of the exchange and see the unedited You Tube video and also the racist message which isn't in the text above but I have a copy, you should quickly discover this was far from simple name calling.

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