Scare Tactics

I spent most of last weekend languishing on the sofa subjecting my weary brain to every single episode of the SyFy Channel’s Scare Tactics. If you’ve never seen it before, it’s a hidden camera show presented by 30 Rock’s Tracy Morgan (the show’s third presenter, following Shannon Doherty and Stephen Baldwin) in which people set up their friends and family to have the bejesus scared out of them.

The best way to describe it is to imagine how Beadle’s About might have looked if it had been devised by Dick Cheney.

Thankfully, it’s not a series that demands too much thought, so my weary brain just slumped inside my cranium for 12 hours, occasionally scratching its frontal lobes and sniggering every now and then.

Scare Tactics’ scenarios range from the patently absurd (assisting in the delivery of the Antichrist) to the faintly plausible (unknowingly delivering a briefcase full of narcotics to an FBI agent during a drugs sting). However, one thing’s for sure: the scenarios nearly always leave the mark (referred to as “the victim”) experiencing some level of buttock-trembling fear.

I’m ashamed to say that I laughed heartily at an episode in which a man feared he was about to be put through a wood chipper by a psychotic farm owner. So much colour drained out of his face, he must have been sweating his own complexion. But it’s usually that moment – when the victim is about to weepily collapse into the fetal position – that the actors ask them the question: “are you scared?”. When the perplexed victim confirms that they are indeed scared shitless, it’s then revealed that they’re the unwitting star on Scare Tactics.

Ha! You thought you were going to die! LOL!

You haven’t really been irradiated! ROFL!

I couldn’t help but think about Scare Tactics when I was reading Nick Cohen’s piece in the Observer yesterday about the Paul Chambers case, which I find truly terrifying. If it wasn’t so painfully true I’d suspect that the writers of Scare Tactics had cooked up the whole thing in a sweaty, windowless room.

I can see the treatment now…

When a man’s travel plans are disrupted due to adverse weather conditions, he tweets a joke to his followers on Twitter about blowing up a snowbound airport. He’s subsequently arrested and charged for his trouble, gaining a criminal record in the process and losing his job (then another job after that).

But I can also see the TV executive casting doubt on the plot…

“This guy’s never going to believe that you can get arrested and charged for THAT. It’s absurd. We need something more believable. Why don’t we turn his computer into something like Proteus from Demon Seed?”

You can find the full details of the Chambers case here. But in a nutshell, after the South Yorkshire Police arrested Paul Chambers at his workplace in January and questioned him on suspicion of communicating a bomb hoax under the 1977 Criminal Law Act, they passed the case to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Following this, the CPS – who realised that they didn’t have sufficient evidence for the bomb hoax offence – decided to prosecute him anyway. So they came up with section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which makes it an offence for a person to send a “menacing” message over a public telecommunications network. Chambers was subsequently charged and prosecuted; the first Briton to be convicted of a criminal offence on Twitter.

Crazy.

All this got me thinking about some of things that I’ve said on social networks in the past couple of years, which could be construed as menacing or threatening language. For instance, I ‘jokily’ updated my Facebook status three times in 2008 with thoughts about how I might kill my unbearably noisy neighbours.

In the first status update, I ‘joked’ about the manner in which I would snuff them out (i.e. with a hammer). In the second, I explicitly said that I wanted to kill them. And in the third, I suggested that maybe blowing up their TV and radio was the way forward. I tweeted a similar thing about some noisy hotel guests during a weekend away with my girlfriend last year.

Now, anyone who knows me well should know that, not only would I not say boo to a goose (I wouldn’t even like to inadvertently startle one if my phone went off as I walked by), but I’m also not in the murdering business. If anything, the status updates and tweets I’ve mentioned expose me as being rather dull and repetitive. They were simply a product of my intense frustration at people’s inconsiderateness. Only a moron would’ve thought: “maybe I’d better call the police and get them to search Andy’s flat for a claw hammer caked in blood-matted hair and skull fragments”.

But even if the police had been informed about my status updates, I assume they would’ve been able to tell the difference between something written on a social network in a moment of frustration (perhaps in bad taste, admittedly) and a genuine murderous threat from a cold-bloodied sociopath.

Well, I used to believe that. But since the Paul Chambers case I’m not so sure. Common sense no longer seems to prevail.

Chambers will be appealing his conviction under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 at Doncaster Crown Court this Friday. The appeal is due to begin at around 10am, at which time, David Allen Green (formerly @jackofkent) has suggested that we should all RT the following line from Betjeman’s ‘Slough’:

“Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough! It isn’t fit for humans now.”

According to Green, there’s no difference in law between Paul Chambers’ original tweet and quoting Betjeman. So in support of both Chambers and free speech, I’ll be making damn sure it’s in my Twitter timeline on Friday morning. I hope you will too.

Am I scared right now? Well if this is what can happen to you for tweeting something thoughtless but ultimately innocent, then, yes, I’m terrified.

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