Avid readers of the verdicts of the Court of Appeal would have seen the verdict from Lord Judge, Lord Thomas and Lord Leveson upholding lengthy punitive sentences on two young men who incited a riot on Facebook (a riot remember that no one turned up to take part in).
It would normally be a case of far be it for me to disagree with the Court of Appeal or with the view of Joshua Rozenburg, who commented that the upheld sentences were “firm but fair”. But in this case I’d argue that they were anything but.
In fact, Lord Judge’s reasoning showed more “fear than fair”, and the fear was that of the leading judiciary whose terror of social media forces one to question their rationality in any verdict where use of social media has formed part of the defendant’s actions.
You need to read one section of Lord Judge’s verdict to see the true absurdity of his position:
"Modern technology has done away with the need for such direct personal communication. It can all be done through Facebook or other social media. In other words, the abuse of modern technology for criminal purposes extends to and includes incitement of very many people by a single step. It is a sinister aspect of these cases that modern technology almost certainly assisted rioters in other places to organise the rapid movement and congregation of disorderly groups in new and unpoliced areas."
Possibly all very true for a brilliantly organised and coordinated social media campaign.
But as so many of us who work in social media know, a badly organised campaign is no more likely to incite anyone than would a whisper on a crowded street.
If the Facebook-two had organised an effective social media campaign inciting hundreds to turn up and cause damage then they would have deserved everything that the law could throw at them. However, being the rather hopeless teenage boys that they were, the reality was that their Facebook call to action was no more threatening than if they had shouted out of their bedroom windows. And just because it was carried out on a digital medium does not mean that it deserved to be treated any more harshly.
The Court of Appeal’s verdict is though far more damaging than (serious as it is) whether there has been an injustice for two stupid boys.
By creating this absurd precedent, Lord Judge has given licence to future criminals, who may use social media to organise really serious crimes, to campaign that their sentences are unfair because the judiciary is inherently out of touch with what is serious and what is frivolous in social media. And let’s be honest, would it be easy to defend judges against that charge?
So my solution is that we desperately need some speedy, remedial training for the judiciary on modern communications channels. Here’s my offer to the Judicial College: we’ll deliver it for free as part of both your initial training and CPD programmes, and direct you to the best in communications knowledge to weave into the Judicial Studies Board lecture programme.
If you don’t want it from us then get it from somewhere else. But let’s do something to break the cycle that judges react to any mention of social media with confusion, fear and absurd decisions.