Humour 1 – Terror 0

Another story that almost sneaked past me, though good news this time: The appeal judgement in what became known as the Twitter Joke Trial was reached, and Paul Chambers, victim of one of the stupidest miscarriages of justice in years, has had his name cleared. To recap, he made a joke on Twitter and was convicted under laws against issuing threats – even though the judge admitted that it was clearly not meant as a threat.

What made me incandescent with rage (an older form of anger, more intense than modern fluorescent rage) was his bizarre logic that the existence of real terrorist threats meant that things clearly not terrorist threats must be treated as terrorists threats. I quote here what I wrote in the newspaper two years ago:

At what point can we just declare that the terrorists have won and let them get on with running things? Almost every day brings them new victories. I’m not talking about murders and bombings, those are merely weapons. To defeat a democratic society you make it turn on itself. And so a stunning victory was achieved this week in the courts of England, when a man was criminalized for making a joke on Twitter.

Perhaps I should begin by explaining what Twitter is, as many – including it seems the judge in this case – still have no idea. Twitter is confusing to some because it doesn’t easily fit into the categories of public medium or private communication. On one hand it’s very public, in that anyone who joins can post remarks on it. In another sense it is quite private; your posts are (normally) only seen by people who choose to see them, and therefore know who you are.

Paul Chambers was planning a trip to Belfast to see a friend when he heard that his (oddly named) local airport had been shut down by last winter’s bad weather. “Crap!” he wrote, “Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!” Now that wasn’t a very funny joke, but it is quite obvious that it was meant in jest, as a way to vent his frustration. And yet he now has a criminal record – which in turn has destroyed his career as an accountant – for “sending, by a public communications network, a message that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.

Clearly ‘menacing’ is the word at issue here. And clearly it was not menacing, because (a) it was patently not intended to be, (b) menaces are generally sent to the person or persons you are trying to menace, not to your friends, and (c) terrorists never preface their threats with the word “Crap”.

It is also clear that this law was not intended to criminalize casual speech. Judge Jonathan Bennett acknowledged this. Yet using his years of carefully honed stupidity, he managed to reach the conclusion that though not meant as a threat by the sender, the fact that it might be misunderstood to be menacing (by whom?) makes it a criminal act. He was satisfied – and these are his exact words – that the message was of a “menacing nature in the context of the time we live in”.

He may as well have said “I must deliberately misconstrue all jokes as serious expressions of intent, because that is what the terrorists have instructed me to do.” He is doing their bidding. By cooperating with their aim of destroying a free society, this judge may as well be a terrorist himself.

I’m not joking here.

I was pretty pissed off, wasn’t I?

Thankfully more thought was put into the judgement of this final appeal. (Two earlier appeals were – incredibly – rejected.) You can read the whole thing here. A lot of it is spent on legal rumination over which exact points they need to reach a judgement on. Shakespeare is referenced, needlessly. But when they finally get to the meat of it, they just spell out the commonsensical in terms even a district court judge can understand:

The language and punctuation are inconsistent with the writer intending it to be or to be taken as a serious warning. Moreover, as Mr Armson noted, it is unusual for a threat of a terrorist nature to invite the person making it to ready identified, as this message did. Finally, although we are accustomed to very brief messages by terrorists to indicate that a bomb or explosive device has been put in place and will detonate shortly, it is difficult to image a serious threat in which warning of it is given to a large number of tweet “followers” in ample time for the threat to be reported and extinguished.

Well yeah.

An interesting point arising; the judgement also states of Twitter:

Effectively it may communicate any information at all that the user wishes to send, and for some users, at any rate, it represents no more and no less than conversation without speech.

As a friend pointed out (*waves to friend*), if Twitter is accepted to be conversation, then you can’t libel someone on it. Hmm… I might get a little more legal advice though before I start tweeting my allegations about Sean Quinn, the entire board of Anglo Irish Bank, and all those poor, poor gerbils.

Return Of The Gene Genie

You take two days off and they try to pull a fast one on you. On Thursday the green light was given by the Environmental Protection Agency for an experimental GM crop to be grown outdoors in Ireland. This is a Bad Thing.

Why? Not because genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are necessarily dangerous. You cannot absolutely guarantee that engineered genes will be risk free, genomes are extremely complex things, but the likelihood of unforeseen harm must be very low. They may introduce us to a world where corporate lawyers sue gardeners for patent infringement, but that’s a matter of law and politics not technology and science.

I freely admit that they may, possibly, reap huge benefits. The trial is well-intentioned I believe. It is being done by Teagasc, a respected national research agency, without any direct involvement by agribusiness interests. It has been designed to test the long-term effects on the environment of a specific and potentially very useful engineered organism, a more blight-resistant potato. We have to carry out the experiment, promoters say, in order to know if the crop will do any harm.

No we don’t. Because we know that carrying out the experiment will in itself cause harm. Reputational harm. If those genes escape into the wild, harm from which our reputation will never recover. And they will escape.

There may be a lot of money in GM organisms, but they can and will be grown anywhere in the world. Indeed, in places you never could grow crops before. There will also however be a lot of money in GM-free organisms. Very many people will never trust food that has been tampered with on such a fundamental level. They may be right or they may be wrong, we can suspend judgement on that. What is beyond question is that they will be willing to pay more for food that they consider better, greener, more natural. And to grow that you need… an island.

We are never going to be a leading nation in GMO research. Of course we can do it, of course we can be good at it, but we’re simply not big enough to be world leaders at it. It will only ever be a relatively minor contributor to the national bottom line. Non-GM however is something we could really excel at. Being surrounded by a barrier that pollen-carrying insects cannot easily cross, the island of Ireland is better placed than most to be a specialist producer of GM-free food. Further, it fits with the image we enjoy (rightly or wrongly) of more natural agriculture, and with other key industries like tourism. It’s not a matter of projecting ourselves as bucolic or atavistic, merely as less adulterated. Keep GMOs off the island and we have a brand that could be of immense value. Let them escape into the wild from where they can cross into food crops, and that opportunity is gone. Unlike with an oil spill or industrial accident, there will be no feasible way to clean up the genetic environment.

And if one day it turns out that nobody cares anymore if their food is GM-free or not, we can always join that party. We will have the choice. If we embrace GM incautiously now though, all choice is gone for good. We will have squandered one of the greatest opportunities ever presented to this country’s food industry, irretrievably.