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