It was once the case that the police could issue stern warnings and face little in the way of challenge.
‘If you do this, you could be breaking the law’ is a threatening phrase designed to intimidate and restrict action. Yes, someone with legal expertise (or not) might have written a rebuttal for The Times or if the issue was significant and David Dimbleby wasn’t on holiday, you might have seen Shami Chakrabarti on Question Time – standing up for rights and against abuse of the law – but for the most part the warnings were reported throughout our news media, often unchallenged.
Yesterday, news of the callous murder of James Foley broke. This excellent journalist was brutally killed to make a political point and the world was rightly shocked. Don’t look for the video – it’s haunting and deeply distressing. The Met Police issued one of their stern warnings yesterday about watching the video: ‘Don’t look for the video – it might be illegal’. That is, of course a paraphrase but the threat is clear – if you watch this video you could be committing a criminal offence.
Except you won’t be committing a criminal offence. A community on Twitter has made sure of that.
We Brits tend not to know that much about the laws of this country. We have a vague notion that there’s a deep history behind our set of laws. We pick up bits and pieces from the TV and movies, often conflated with the US approach to law *bangs gavel*. We might know more from specific legal actions we have been involved in: Jury Duty, parking tickets *pulls collar* and suing your neighbour for shifting a boundary fence. We don’t have civics lessons like in the US and if you asked someone on the street, like as not they won’t be able to define the constitution, the separation of powers, the difference between common law and statutory law, the difference between a tort and a tart etc.
It’s not the failing of the public, it’s the failing of our executive that we just don’t have as much access to legal knowledge as we should.
As a result, the legal field still has a magnificent air of authority and is shrouded in a mystical belief in the power of the lawyer and the judge. Thankfully, the judiciary is working ever further towards plain speaking – fewer obiter dicta sui generis a priori plaintiff writs – and bringing down the magical barriers separating people from righting wrongs and enforcing rights.
Sadly the air of authority extends by association, often to the benefit of those with money, power or experience; you’re more likely to (successfully) challenge your neighbour, Bob, than you are teams of lawyers from EVILCORP writing endless reams of words and threatening to force you to pay for the privilege.
That air of authority and mystical belief goes all the way to the police, usually with darker association. After all, lawyers tend to not have a reputation for cabalistic self-protection and using any opportunity to get a sneaky punch in or abuse their authority to make a point. “Alright, you’re an ambulance.”
That authority is being challenged. Practising lawyers, academics, students and people with some interest in the law have a greater voice than ever. More importantly, they have an open forum to discuss and challenge each other: Twitter. It’s one of the most exciting uses of Twitter. We’re not just saying lolwigs accounts like @barristerhotties, we’re seeing people like @DavidAllenGreen, @AdamWagner1, @ObscenityLawyer, @CarlGardner and @RebeccaHerber44 tweet about the law on everything from copyright to obscenity to terrorism to sexual violence. It’s incredible to see them in action. Legal opinions, agreements, dissensions and driving each other through criticism, encouragement and challenging blog posts.
Why is this so important? It’s no longer so easy for the Met to make such threats easily or obfuscate through silence or counter press releases. David Green (cited above) immediately challenged them on their statement. Directly on Twitter and then through email. It’s ongoing but the Met have already delved into absurdity. You can see a Tweet summary here by @IanBetteridge. He has been supported (either directly or indirectly) by several other lawyers on Twitter and while I don’t expect this to necessarily force a backpedal on the part of the Met, whose language was intentionally weasely, I do expect David and others’ challenges to filter through to national media and, perhaps, the public conscience.
The public is the better off for Twitter being used as a tool for open discussion by legal bods. Discussions around the law have never been so accessible.
I’d also like a moment to praise James Foley’s courage. He died striving to tell us all about a dark war. Many other freelance journalists are coming up against similar risks: kidnapping, torture or death. If you’d like to know more about the risks freelancers face across the world, follow @RoryPeckTrust, a charity specialising in the support, safety and welfare of freelancers.
Hamid Sirhan is social and content lead at Huge