The diplomat, the bishop, the bomber, and the fruit bat

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What speech acts are permitted under the various restrictive laws current in the British Isles, and what penalties accrue to people who step outside the bounds laid down by the law? As I have often mentioned here before, the UK has no real constitutional guarantee of free speech, so a lot of things that any American would take to be unquestionably expressible turn out to bring down fines or imprisonment if you say them in the UK. But since all the cases have hidden complexities, and the issue strikes me as important, and I am currently the only Language Log correspondent in the British Isles, I thought I would give you an update. I will deal with four cases: the Ranting Diplomat, the Mad Bishop, the Robin Hood Airport Twitter Bomber, and (perhaps the strangest of them all, a story from Ireland): Fruit Bat Fellatiogate.

The Ranting Diplomat

Quite a few newspapers (the Daily Mail being foremost amongst the sensationalizers here) wrote in February last year that UK Foreign Office bureau chief Rowan Laxton had been convicted for expressing anti-Israeli views. The contrast with the USA, where being convicted for expressing obnoxious political views is basically impossible, is what led me to write about the case here. But many newspapers were giving decidedly misleading characterizations. For a fairly detailed description of the background and the failings of the news coverage see this blog post on Denry.

[Note: This section was updated on the morning of 26 November 2010 after a phone conversation with Rowan Laxton.]

The actual offense for which Laxton was prosecuted was not (as the Mail incorrectly reported) the very serious offense of inciting racial hatred (a "Section 4" charge, possibly carrying a jail sentence) but the more minor one ("Section 5") of "using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour … within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby." It counts as an aggravating factor if the abusive or insulting words in a Section 5 charge have a racial or ethnic element to them. And it was alleged that Laxton shouted both "fucking Israelis" and "fucking Jews" (the latter seems to have been a false allegation, as we shall see).

In retrospect, it seems extraordinary (even more so than I thought last year when I first mentioned the case) that he was prosecuted. When he committed the alleged offense he was alone. He was riding an exercise bike alone on the mezzanine floor of a gym. A few feet in front of him was a TV screen showing footage of an elderly Palestinian man who had been killed during the Israeli assault on Gaza. "Fucking Israelis," he swore angrily at the screen. Down below on another floor, exercising with free weights, was another gym user, Gideon Falter, who heard the swearing from upstairs. Ten minutes later Falter and Laxton had a short conversation about the incident. (They were not acquaintances, but Falter had apparently found out Laxton's name by reading it off his gym card.) It was a calm conversation, during which Laxton said something about how he assumed the attack on Gaza had been stimulated by electoral politics and the encouragement of "the Jewish lobby", by which he tells me he meant the ultra-orthodox lobby within Israel, and nothing to do with British Jews.

The police were going to let Laxton off with a caution, but before it could be arranged the whole affair became big news. Gideon Falter had found out that Laxton was in a senior Foreign Office position, and had taken the story to half a dozen newspapers. The police decided the prosecution had to go ahead. At the trial District Judge Howard Riddle said: "It is hard to imagine the circumstances when saying 'fucking Jews' in a gym used by other people, and overheard by two strangers 20 ft away, could be considered reasonable." And certainly that is true. It would be offensive, and possibly an offense. Coming from a man at the Foreign Office who was in charge of the UK's relations with the whole of South Asia, it would be eyebrow-raising indeed (and indeed, Laxton was immediately suspended from his job). But Laxton insists he never at any time said "Fucking Jews". Close Jewish friends of his testified for him at his trial and at the appeal. His momentary anger was at the military actions of the Israeli government (later judged by a UN special rapporteur on human rights to have constituted a serious war crime).

So what's the update? Although Laxton was indeed convicted and ordered to pay a fine, on 5 March this year his appeal against this was heard at the Southwark Crown Court, and resulted in a complete overturning of the conviction. He has no criminal record now. The judge and two magistrates who heard his appeal are unanimous in agreeing that he never at any time said "fucking Jews"; the racial aggravation claim was bogus. There may have been about 225 anti-Semitic incidents during the period of the Gaza conflict, but this apparently was not one of them. In a particularly disgraceful act of journalistic omission, the Daily Mail, which played the primary role in ensuring that the case received national attention and went to trial, seems not to have reported his appeal and acquittal at all. After many months, Laxton did begin working for the Foreign Office again.

The Mad Bishop

When the Bishop of Willesden, Peter Broadbent, heard the joyous news of the forthcoming marriage of Prince William (the Queen's grandson) to his girlfriend Kate Middleton, he wrote on a Facebook page that "We need a party in Calais for all good republicans who can't stand the nauseating tosh that surrounds this event." He wrote about the "fawning deferential nonsense" in the newspapers, the "corrupt and sexist" hereditary principle of succession, and the "national flim-flam paid for out of our taxes". He referred to Prince William's father and mother (Prince Charles and his first wife the late Princess Diana) as "Big Ears and the Porcelain Doll".

All this from an appointed high official of the church whose ultimate head, ex officio, is the monarch (the UK is a fairly extreme case of theocracy) — the church that will one day have Prince William (assuming he succeeds to the throne as King William) as its head!

As soon as Bishop Broadbent (who wrote as "Pete Broadbent") was outed over his treasonous online life (looks like it was the Daily Mail again!), he expressed sincere apologies to the royal couple and to anyone who had been offended. In his Facebook ranting he had said that in view of the royal family's penchant for infidelity and broken marriages, combined with the bitchiness of the British press, "I give the marriage seven years"; but now he wished the young couple a long and happy married life.

The update? He is still a bishop (which amazes me: this man is apparently quite unsuited to such an administrative role in the established church). He was rapidly suspended from public duties, but he has not been prosecuted for expressing his scurrilous anti-monarchist opinions.

The Robin Hood Airport Twitter Bomber

Paul Chambers was anxious to fly to Northern Ireland from Yorkshire to see his girlfriend, but discovered that his local airport, the Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster, had been closed because of weather conditions. In frustration, he used Twitter to communicate with his girlfriend and a circle of other friends, and wrote jokingly that the authorities had "got a week … otherwise I'm blowing the airport skyhigh." The tweet was discovered in a routine online search for terrorist threats, and although it was not thought serious (a terrorist announcing his bombing intentions on Twitter?) it was passed to South Yorkshire police. They prosecuted, and Chambers has been convicted and fined. He has incurred thousands of dollars of costs and has lost his job.

The update: he is appealing the conviction and the fine, and has plenty of support, both from a guerilla army of tweeters who are repeating his threat online, adding the tag "I am Spartacus", and from a celebrity (Stephen Fry) who pledges to pay the fine. (More news as it happens about this one.)

Fruit Bat Fellatiogate

I believe I may have failed to let you know about Fruit Bat Fellatiogate. Sorry about that. I may have felt that the linguistic angle was too slender. After all, this is Language Log, not Fruit Bat Sex Log. But the story concerns a scientist at University College Cork (part of the National University of Ireland), Dylan Evans, who stopped by a female colleague's office to chat with her and to show her a scientific paper. Afterwards she complained to university authorities, who found that he had committed an act of sexual harassment.

The title of the paper was relevant. It was "Fellatio by fruit bats prolongs copulation time." Apparently the female fruit bat is supple enough to bend right down (or would it be up, given that they spend their bedtime hanging upside down?) and orally massage the penis of her copulatory partner during the act of intercourse. And the females that do this enjoy longer copulation times with their mates. An interesting finding indeed. But the married female colleague felt that Evans had done enough hanging around her, and stopping by her office early in the morning, and he was beginning to show more than a few signs of hitting on her. The fruit bat fellatio conversation topic was the last straw, and she reported her feelings of unease. Evans was disciplined and put on monitoring and counseling for two years. He is now appealing that through the courts, claiming that he never had legal representation.

The update: Evans has won a teaching award at the university. (He reckons the right hand simply didn't know what the left hand was doing when the university managed to honour him and a female colleague for pedagogical innovation while continuing to fight him in the courts.)

Summary and conclusions

There we have it, as of today. The Ranting Diplomat has been let off with no charges; the Mad Bishop is off public engagements but is still a bishop; the Robin Hood Airport Twitter Bomber is appealing his conviction and has a lot of support; and the protagonist in the Fruit Bat Fellatio scandal has won an award and may yet win an appeal against his university's disciplinary finding.

What should we conclude? I'll tell you what I think. I think an outbreak of plain common sense would do these islands an enormous amount of good and save a lot of money. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of hours have been spent on these cases. It could have been reduced to just minutes.

For the Ranting Diplomat: a brief word from a constable. "Don't let your rage at Israeli policy in Gaza get out of control again; shouting abuse in a public place is an offense. Understand? OK; you have been cautioned." Cost: three or four minutes of police time.

For the Mad Bishop: advice from his archbishop's executive assistant on how to shut down his Facebook account and get help for his compulsive online flaming. Cost: half an hour on the archbishop's executive assistant's calendar.

For the Robin Hood Airport Twitter Bomber: a phone call from a constable saying "Don't ever tweet like that again; we take all threats against airports seriously, and we'll have your butt in jail for the night if you ever do something as stupid again. Understand?" Cost: maybe five minutes of a constable's day to make the call.

And for the Cork fruit bat sexologist: a warning from the head of department. "Stay away from Dr So-and-so; she thinks you're hitting on her. No more saucy offprints about megachiropteran oral sex, no more early morning visits to her office. Avoid her. Save me the trouble of dealing with a sexual harassment case. If I hear you've been hanging around her again this semester, or that you've spoken to her in the next six months other than in faculty meetings, you'll be teaching Bio 1 at 8 a.m. every semester for three years. You understand what I'm telling you?" Cost: two minutes of a tough department chairman's time.

Instead, we have seen two criminal cases, a bishop and a diplomat on suspension, and a full sexual harassment hearing followed by an appeal to the courts. Doubtless hundreds of thousands of dollars in all. The problem isn't so much that free speech is nonexistent in the British Isles; that isn't true (in Ireland, in fact, article 40 section 6.1 of the Bunreacht guarantees free speech). To the minimal extent that the issue was ever about freedom to state or debate opinions in these cases, things have mostly ended as they should. This isn't China; no one is in jail. Rather, the problem is that everyone — members of the public, police, and university authorities alike — seems to be stone crazy. People behaving badly are handled by overreaction and absurd misuse of the courts in deadpan hearings on silliness. Things are taken seriously that should have been laughed at, or tackled by sharp warnings about the necessity to grow up.

Comments are closed because I'm not completely insane: I'd sooner blow up the Robin Hood Airport than moderate an open forum involving racism, anti-Semitism, Israel, Gaza, religion, terrorism, police, sexism, harassment, upside-down fucking, and fellatio. You'd have to be fruitbat-shit crazy. Barmy as an airport Twitter monitor. As mad as a Facebook bishop.

Comments are closed.