Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General, is having an argumentative couple of weeks. It seems only yesterday that he upset British Pakistanis by complaining that corruption was increasing in the UK because of people in public life “from backgrounds where corruption is endemic” and, when pressed to be more specific, said, “Yes, it’s mainly the Pakistani community.” He later apologised.
This week, perhaps still smarting from that climb-down, he prodded the European Union in the chest and warned it to stop trying to extend bogus new powers over the British justice system, or else. The UK, he said darkly, “will not shy away” from taking legal action. For all his lean and beaky bureaucratic demeanour, this is a guy constantly spoiling for a fight. Now, to complete a hat-trick of provocation, he’s gone for Twitter.
Actually he’s had Twitter in his sights for a while. In April last year he was considering the ethics of serving privacy injunctions on Internet companies, just as they’re served on newspapers and broadcasters. A month later, he warned that tweeters just couldn’t do as they jolly well liked: “If somebody goes down to the pub with printed sheets of paper and hands it out, that’s no different than if somebody goes and does a tweet,” he said. “The idea that you have immunity because you’re an anonymous tweeter is a big mistake.” Now he’s playing with the contempt of court laws, in order to make them cover Twitter and Facebook, to make sure that, in future, high-profile prosecutions won’t suddenly be forced to a halt because a random tweeter has disclosed facts – or rumours – that might undermine the case.
I don’t know any court cases, yet, that have been torpedoed by Twitter contempt, but the Peaches Geldof affair (she revealed the alleged names of two mothers who had allowed the Lostprophets singer, Ian Watkins, to abuse their babies) evidently spurred Mr Grieves into action. In his announcement he sounded anxious to present his initiative as a kindly, well-meant thing, designed to stop silly chumps on social media from straying into a legal minefield and breaking the law. From now on, his office will publish on Twitter the “court advisory notes” that routinely warn newspapers and broadcasters about sensitive up-and-coming court cases and the legal dangers they may face if they report a witness’s name or a juicy accusation.
Newspaper journalists are used to getting these notes in their email in-boxes, usually accompanied by a cheery pep-talk from the paper’s media lawyer, saying, “On no account will you write one single word on the subject of Regina vs Ms Marjorie Massivefraud without consulting the legal department first, will you?” So, naturally, you don’t. Nor do you publish the fact that you’ve been given this warning. Nor do you hint to friends that you have access to a legal secret about a big court case, tempting though it may be.
What, though, will happen when the advisory notes start to appear? The Attorney General will have two problems. One is the febrile nature of Twitter itself. As everyone knows, it’s a fantastic echo-chamber of views, a forum of ideas, an agora of smart remarks, a circus of visual and sonic effects, a medley of extemporanea – and, above all else, it loves to be first with the news.
I think of Mr Grieves’s advisory notes about imminent court cases and instantly I see a red rag being waved under the noses of a million bulls, and the words “Court case! Court case with secrets!!” yelled across the Twittersphere. It’ll be like (as George Orwell once defined advertising) “the rattle of the stick in the swill bucket” to stir a million busy imaginations into action online. The owners of the imaginations may realise they’re straying into areas of possible contempt, but they will, I guarantee, test that word “possible” to its outer limits.
The second problem is internationalism. Twitter’s reach is global. Does the Attorney General have jurisdiction over what can be tweeted from Venezuela or Vietnam? If, by some mischance, sensitive facts about a British court case turned up in Cyberspace and found its way onto Twitter, would the UK’s top legal policeman have the power to criminalise whoever generated, or retweeted, it?
Poor Mr Grieves. Life was so much simpler when you could have a murmured word with the newspapers, and the radio and TV people, about sensitive forthcoming trials, and they’d fall into line and do as they were told. Trying to alert Twitter to the existence of an exciting trial, and simultaneously attempting to control its response, is like trying to harness a huge, billowing barrage balloon, and drag it into a tiny shed.