Monday, 12 November 2012

Burning poppies and flaming idiots

And so another Remembrance Day has been and gone. Some buffoon in a fluorescent pink costume and enormous silver horns tried to disrupt yesterday's service in Bristol before being arrested and charged with public order offences. It is unclear what point, if any, he was trying to make, apart from making a scene

And yet another buffoon, 19-year-old Linford House, posted a picture of a cigarette lighter burning a poppy. The less-than-articulate caption was: "How about that you squadey cunt". He has been arrested for  "malicious telecommunications" and remains in custody at the time of writing.

According to British law, "malicious communications" offences "[deal] with the sending to another of any article which is indecent or grossly offensive, or which conveys a threat, or which is false, provided there is an intent to cause distress and anxiety to the recipient."

In this instance, the "recipient" is Linford House's Facebook friends. And anyone who can see his Facebook page - it would seem his privacy settings for his account aren't particularly tight. The illiterate caption was more attention-seeking than threatening and whether his Facebook friends found the posting indecent or grossly offensive is unclear. To prove that part of the offence would require analysing the how his friends felt about it all. Perhaps they are all like-minded tools.

Perhaps some of his friends saw the posting and removed him from their respective Facebook worlds. I've defriended people over racist comments and rape apologia. Such people can say such crap in a free world and, equally, I am free to not be subjected to it. It is the Facebook equivalent of turning off the TV rather than watching something I can do without.

If you're offended by House's actions, that is your right. In a free society with free speech, you have the right to speak out in response, to tell him he is being childish and disrespectful. I have the right to write this blog posting on the matter but that right needs to exist alongside House's right to say something completely stupid.

But if Britain is going to start arresting people for mindless Facebook postings according to the "malicious communications" definition, the police are going to find themselves busier than ever. When I lived in the Middle East, I was far more cautious with my Facebook postings than I am here in Britain - but am I being naive?

In my own online world, I have seen postings on Facebook that are false. This happens pretty much every time someone is murdered or goes missing. The armchair detectives come out in full force. Should they be arrested for making comments that may prejudice a fair trial or are kneejerk accusations merely "banter"? This week, someone I know updated their status with a threat to set the dogs on local louts who were trespassing on their property. Would that fall foul of the "convey a threat" part of the law? Maybe, but I'm not going to have a friend arrested for blowing off steam on Facebook. When friends feel the need to share a link to some Daily Mail body shaming, I might find that offends my feminist principles but I'm not going to call the police because of the "grossly offensive" part of the law. That would be a complete waste of everyone's time.  

Then there is the annual pasting Channel 4's Jon Snow* receives for not wearing a poppy when he reads the news. I didn't realise it was compulsory to wear anything on one's lapel. Snow, who wears the poppy when he is not on air, says he is approached by countless charities every year with requests to don assorted ribbons and pins. As such, he doesn't wear any of the unsolicited adornments. Not even the poppy. As a journalist, this is an admirable stance. It is a way to appear neutral and objective. If any of the charities were involved in a scandal and Snow was seen to endorse them on TV, that is a compromise of his own journalistic integrity.

And it is hard to separate politics from pretty much any charity, including the British Legion. Indeed, it may be said that it is unfortunate such a charity needs to exist because society is not taking enough care of veterans. With any health charity, it could be argued that the NHS needs to do more or that the government needs to fund more research. And human rights charities, such as Amnesty International, cannot help but be political in the stances they take. With this is mind, it does not behoove a journalist to wear any charity-related adornment when they are on duty as an objective reporter.

It may seem churlish to say that when men and women died for our freedoms, those freedoms include the freedom to burn poppies while making mindless comments, but when you start placing your own limitations on free speech based on your own opinions and emotions, you are riding a slippery slope. If you keep sliding down this slope, you may one day find your own views curtailed because they go against the views of the masses. Or against those with the loudest voices who are masquerading as the masses.


* I am a little bit delighted that Jon Snow has has seen this piece and sent me this lovely tweet in response: "In truth Georgia, it was a bit of a poppy 'sit' rather than 'stand' as I was fortunately out of the country this time around."

Image courtesy of

1 comment:

  1. I dislike the idea that you "have" to wear a poppy, and I think too many people wear them to conform (BBC News seems to have a policy that all newsreaders must wear poppies). I also think things like the Legion allow governments to send soldiers off to stupid and wrong wars with untainted consciences.

    However, I do want to contribute to the welfare of veterans, so my solution is to buy a poppy, but not wear it.

    I do agree with what you say on free speech, by the way, and Jon Snow must be right. To take an extreme example, what if everyone had worn some ribbon for Jimmy Savile's Stoke Mandeville Trust? The charity's aims are laudable, irrespective of the motives of its founder.