I am back from nearly three weeks in the US and catching up slowly. Changing time zones does not bother me much, but it is tiresome how the world declines to stand still when one is away. I have already written about the first part of the trip – see A holiday interval in California – which brought us (my wife Mary Ann was with me) to Carmel, just south of Monterey where the Carmel Valley eDiscovery Retreat was due to take place. I will write about that in due course and say no more for now than that I enjoyed it, met up with some good people, heard some useful sessions and took part in a couple of them. The accounts by Charles Skamser and by Greg Buckles will, in any event, tell you much of what went on.
We went on from there to San Francisco, a city we are happy just to walk around – or climb around, as our hotel stood at the peak of Nob Hill and every journey had to end in near-vertical mountaineering. It is a good place to shop in, and to photograph, with distant views alternating with finely-decorated houses.
The chief interest beyond our own activities came from back home, where three matters of legal interest unfolded whilst we were away. I started writing about them – the draft is headed Plod the Thug and Runt the Olympic Enforcer, but then the Twitter Joke Trial came to an end, and the addition of and DPP the First-Class Prat made for an unwieldy title [see footnote as to a subsequent “clarification” from the CPS]. It became more important to capture interesting articles by others, and I did this on my Google Plus site mainly to make sure that I did not lose them myself. They illuminate the points which I cover below. There are also a few eDiscovery posts there which I will summarise in a separate post.
The three legal matters – I will come to them in a moment – were not calculated to induce fine feelings about my native country. Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony restored national pride, for me and for many others. My general enthusiasm for most things American took a steep dive with the crass stupidity of NBC’s television coverage, beginning with the decision to wait until long after the opening ceremony (or “cere-moany” as one of the anchors called it) had closed before broadcasting it.
Is there an international Olympic event in crass commentary? I missed the Queen’s Jubilee and the row over the equally idiotic drivel delivered by the BBC. That had the excuse that its flaws followed almost inevitably from the corporate decision to democratise the occasion. The choice of dim, uninformed and inarticulate yoofs led inevitably to dim, uninformed and inarticulate commentary. NBC’s team looked heavyweight, but poured unmitigated oral garbage over the whole event.
NBC’s subsequent survey of social media comment on the Olympics somehow missed my favourite, which I tweeted thus:
“If you haven’t heard of Tim Berners-Lee, we haven’t either. You can Google him if you like”. NBC makes even the BBC sound profound.
There was some irony, as another tweeter pointed out, in the fact that Tim Berners-Lee’s invention would ensure that everyone knew about the gaffe.
There are links to accounts (via my G+ posts) of the opening ceremony from Our Island Story, The LA Times and The New Yorker. The coverage has aroused as much ire and mockery in the US, I should add, as this article from Forbes shows.
And so back to the UK events on legal themes which are off my patch but of concern to anyone interested with the values which Danny Boyle captured subliminally – the Britain which he portrayed implied an underpinning of democracy, justice, shared purpose and common-sense, which seemed to have got lost somewhere in real life as it played out in contemporary Britain. In the order in which they unfolded, the events of interest were the acquittal of PC Harwood on charges of manslaughter and the ensuing revelations about his past and about his employer’s attempts to suppress it, the petty enforcement of Olympic sponsors’ branding rights, and the Twitter Joke Trial which, while it ended all right for Paul Chambers, raised questions about the role of the Director of Public Prosecutions. To round it all off, Twitter itself became the joke when it suppressed the account of a journalist who (like the rest of us) has been critical of Twitter’s event partner, NBC.
Taking each of these in turn.
The acquittal of PC Harwood on charges of manslaughter
PC Simon Harwood struck an unarmed, middle-aged man, not a rioter, who was walking away from him during the G20 protests last year. The man, Ian Tomlinson, died at the scene a few minutes later. Post hoc is not always propter hoc, of course, and Harwood was not automatically guilty of manslaughter because a man died immediately after a savage and unprovoked attack; although a coroner’s inquest had found that Tomlinson was unlawfully killed, it does not necessarily follow that Harwood was guilty of manslaughter.
If a jury acquits, then that is that, and it does not matter if the Crown Prosecuton Service screwed it up, if the medical evidence was botched or if one dislikes the judge’s decision to keep the details of Harwood’s past from the jury.
What matters is that Harwood should never have been employed by the Metropolitan Police in any role which gave him access to people to beat up. Those who described him as a “mindless” thug (which may well have included me in articles written at the time of Tomlinson’s death) were wrong, and not just because of the clichéd juxtaposition of words. There was nothing mindless about Harwood’s thuggery – that seems to have been his way of policing, as five large ring-binders of disciplinary papers apparently show.
The real story here is not the front-line thug, mindless or not, but the Met’s attempts to suppress Harwood’s disciplinary record.
The Olympics Brand Police – Runt the Olympic Enforcer
The second part of my original draft was about the diligent work by lawyers, trading standards officers and policemen to protect the brands of those who had bought alleged rights to exclusive use of terms which you and I would consider to belong to us all.
To understand this, you need to go back to Tony Blair, with garlic, cross and stake at the ready. The defining cartoon of Blair’s time as Prime Minister showed him as a barrow-bow selling the coronets and ermine of the peerage. He got off that imputation after an Inquiry, just as PC Harwood got off his manslaughter charge – not guilty is not guilty. An intangible stench hangs over Blair’s time in office, however, derived in part from his curious and rather distant relationship with the truth, but also from his enthusiasm for cosying up to anyone of power, influence, importance or fame – or money. Bush, Gadaffi, the rich and famous, sundry strummers and crooners and big business were all welcomed into Blair’s Big Tent.
Even I will now concede that it was right to bid for the Olympics. What is not conscionable is the extent of the privileges given to sponsors by Act of Parliament (The London Olympic Games and Paralympics Games Act 2006) – this was Blair’s little present to big business and a good example of his view of the relative importance of democracy and the money of big business.
This Storify Take THAT, LOCOG by Anya Palmer collects together some of the worst examples of heavy-handedness by trading standards officers and other officials, and this one, Unauthorised bunting in the corporate area, records a raid on a popular Stoke Newington shop-keeper, for which large numbers of policemen came along too – it was just as well that PC Harwood was otherwise engaged that week.
Trading standards officers are low-grade pen-pushers working for local councils, the bottom tier of government – not a level at which brains or discretion are required. They have real and useful jobs to do, protecting citizens from false advertising claims and from illegal trading activities which might cause loss or damage. Instead, they are being used to hound small businesses who arrange sausages and bagels in rings, in order to protect the alleged interests of sponsors. The offending terms include words which have been in our dictionaries for centuries. I wonder how many of the MPs who dutifully voted the Olympics Act through at Blair’s behest knew what they were doing.
The Twitter Joke Trial
You will find articles in my Google+ collection about the final victory of both Paul Chambers and common-sense over the Crown Prosecution Service, who had decided that his tweeted “threat” to blow up an airport was menacing in character. The CPS is to the practice of law what local councils are to government – the bottom rung, where (with some exceptions) you end up working if you can’t find anyone else to employ you. The twist in this story comes right at the end, when it is revealed that the CPS decided that there was no public interest in continuing the matter but were over-ruled by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer. As my brief G+ post about this says “So what drove him to this stupid position (“stupid” in principle, not just because the prosecution lost?). Not just loss of face, surely?”. [see footnote as to a subsequent “clarification” from the CPS].
There are links (via my G+ posts) to some of the more interesting commentary on this by Carl Gardner, and Louise Mensch MP, and to a podcast in which Mike Semple Piggot aka Charon QC discusses the case with John Cooper QC, who represented Chambers.
The police, the Olympic Torch and a boy cyclist
The Olympics and heavy-handed policing come together in this video clip of a burly policeman “protecting” the Olympic torch. Many reports of the torch’s tour, including some from hard-bitten, unsentimental people, talk of their cynicism giving way to enthusiasm as the crowds turned out to welcome the passing of the torch on its tour of the country. It’s great, isn’t it, when that happens, and one can quite see how a boy, pedalling along on his bike, can want to join in. PC Thicke, however, sees it differently: without uniform or other obvious identification, without warning or any challenge, he leaps on the boy, dragging him off his bike and throwing him almost under the wheels of the following car. The spirit of Harwood lives on. (The police response can be found here – this violence was necessary for “public safety” apparently; I like the words “dealt with” in the article’s sub-heading).
Twitter censors the anti-NBC sentiment.
Here is a final story in a week in which the establishment – political, corporate and law enforcement – made complete arses of themselves with actions which flew in the face of democracy. One of the many criticisms of NBC’s coverage of the Olympics is that the transmission delay designed to maximise the value of its prime-time advertising was particularly stupid given that social media forms like Twitter are able to duck under the constraints of broadcasting contacts and can broadcast events as they happen. We applauded when the “Arab Spring” made use of Twitter to spread its messages, and Twitter then revelled in the power which it gave ordinary people.
The position is different, it seems, when Twitter has a commercial relationship with mighty old media forms like television and a contract with NBC. The censorship which would have seemed so appalling if invoked by a dictatorship is apparently just fine if NBC is paying the bills. Why else would Twitter suspend the account of a journalist critical of NBC? My G+ posts include a report of the suspension and Twitter’s lame (and self-serving) explanation – a good old-fashioned cock-up, it seems and not censorship at all. My last post on the subject points to a plausible explanation for Twitter’s change of tack.
Note: The CPS has since published a “clarification” which gives a different picture in relation to the role of the DPP and the decision to let the appeal proceed.