Fear and Loathing in Wakefield: Hollie Bentley

I’ve recorded the facts of Hollie Bentley’s magistrate’s court appearance already. I would now like to add my own personal perceptions of the event.

When I arrived at the magistrate’s court today my heart was in my mouth. I can only begin to imagine the feelings that Hollie and her family were experiencing. It must be truly terrifying to be catapulted from a simple Facebook post, into an inexorable legal process which has already applied its most fearsome punishments against other Facebook users.

I learned that Hollie and her family had been subjected to physical threats from visitors to their home and from internet users. I found myself wondering how people managed to lose their sense of perspective so badly: what drives people to threaten a teenage girl with violence over something they wrote on a website? When did it become acceptable to exercise vigilante justice on a young person because you don’t agree with what they said?

The only answer I could come up with, was that some people have been whipped up into such a state of fear and paranoia by the recent riots that they have lost any sense of scale. I have to wonder to what extent this could be the fault of the mainstream media: newspapers and television.

Hollie is not unlike many teenage girls. She seemed shy and quiet, smiling nerviously as she sat in the waiting area before the hearing began. She sat and chatted to a university student friend of hers, who had attended the hearing to show moral support to Hollie. I got the feeling that Hollie had very little real conception of the enormous political and legal machine which appears to have set its great implacable heart against her.

Looking at her, I don’t see a master criminal who was orchestrating civil disobedience from her Facebook account. I see a teenage girl who made a controversial and arguably misguided Facebook post. I cannot visualise this girl arriving in Wakefield town centre on 13-14th August and throwing chairs through the window of JJB Sports in the company of her Facebook friends.

Listening to the magistrate during the hearing, I experienced a sensation of creeping dread. She talked of the lengthy sentences handed down to others found guilty of encouraging violent disoder under the Serious Crime Act in the past 2 weeks. She spoke of how people had died during the riots. She referred the case on to a higher court, which had greater sentencing powers.

If Hollie is found guilty of this offence under the Serious Crime Act, she will at the very least end up with a criminal record. If she is given a custodial sentence, she will be torn out of her community and away from her parents. On the basis of a Facebook post, which was at its very worst foolish, she will be thrown into a criminal system which will chew her up and spit her out, in order to make an example of her. The modern equivalent of placing her head upon a spike outside the Tower of London.

For the simple fact of showing support to the rioters, Hollie Bentley is facing criminalisation. For the purposes of the Serious Crime Act, it is necessary for the accused to have intended to cause a crime to be committed. However, the judicial system seems to be requiring Facebook users caught up in this process to prove their innocence, rather than requiring the prosecution to prove their guilt.

It is as if the vigilante behaviour of the public has now spread to our judicial system.

Hollie Bentley at Wakefield Magistrates Court

Today I attended Hollie Bentley’s hearing at Wakefield Magistrate’s court.

I met Hollie and her family in the waiting room outside court number 1, where I chatted briefly to her mother. Clearly shaken and upset by the events of the last 2 weeks, the family were waiting for police to arrive to talk to them about violent threats which had been made against the family just the previous night at their home. Police were in attendance outside the court building and at Hollie’s home throughout the hearing, in order to protect her and her family from violent attack.

At commencement of the hearing, the court was told that Hollie’s home address was not to be published in light of the threats made against her and her family on the internet and in person at their home.

The hearing itself took less than half an hour. Hollie is charged with encouraging violent disorder against The Serious Crime Act 2007 after she created a Facebook event entitled “Wakey Riots”. The event was posted on the 9th of August, and was scheduled to take place on the 13-14th of August. Hollie also wrote in the event “Who’s up for it LMFAO.” It was not made clear whether this was written in the event description, or as a post to the event wall.

Hollie entered no initial plea.

The magistrate highlighted the lengthy prison sentences handed to previous people found guilty of this offence, and stated that it was beyond the powers of the magistrates court to sentence in this matter, referring it on to the Crown Court. She emphasised the serious of the charge, stating that “people died in the riots.”

Hollie Bentley was bailed to re-appear at Wakefield Crown Court on the 21st September.

These are the facts thus far. I’ll post some comment on it later.

I’m Going to Court Today

This morning I’m planning to attend Wakefield Magistrates court to observe the hearing for Hollie Bentley – accused of encouraging riot in posts to Facebook.

I hope to come back armed with more detail on the case, and (hopefully) news of a more rational verdict then the ones we have seen in recent days.

I’m sure I’ll not be alone in wishing Hollie good luck.

21 year old Bangor man jailed for Facebook riot event post

The BBC News website reports that David Glyn Jones, 21, of Bangor has been today jailed for 4 months for an “offence against the Communications Act”

According to the report, Jones created a Facebook event for a riot on 9th August, and also wrote:

“I don’t see why everyone’s complaining about the rioters.

“Given the chance I’d love to smash up a police car, wouldn’t you?”

The event was then later deleted by Jones some 20 minutes later.

I’m interested to see that once again this is reported as an offence covered by the Communications Act 2003 rather than the Serious Crime Act 2007. If anybody has any further information, please comment below.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-north-west-wales-14631184

Is the Tide Turning on Draconian Riot Sentencing?

The BBC News website today reports the first overturning of a riot related sentence on a appeal.

Ursula Nevin was originally jailed for five months by a district judge in Manchester on 13 August.

Today, Judge Andrew Gilbart QC set aside the jail sentence because Nevin had not actually taken part in the riots. The judge has instead required her to perform 75 of hours of unpaid voluntary work.

This is fabulous news for those accused of “encouraging” rioting by means of social media posts. The message here is that custodial sentences are not appropriate for those not directly involved in the rioting. Here’s hoping our Magistrates and Crown Courts are paying attention.

 

17 Year Old was Charged Under Communications Act

According to a newspaper report, the Bury St Edmunds teenager recently handed 12 month rehabilitation order, was charged under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.

According to the Guardian, he wrote:

“I think we should start rioting, it’s about time we stopped the authorities pushing us about and ruining this country.

“It’s about time we stood up for ourselves for once. So come on rioters – get some. LOL.”

It seems pretty clear from the above, that his post was to some extent politically motivated, and represents his views on the rioting. However, as to whether the post was in any way “menacing” for the purposes of the Communications Act? That seems like a bit of stretch to me.

I also note with interest that this boy was not charged under the Serious Crime Act 2007, as others, such as the Cheshire Facebook posters and Hollie Bentley were. Looking at the content of the post, it is clearly not a direct incitement to commit a specific crime. It doesn’t contain a place, date or time, and doesn’t attempt to organise anything.

It strikes me that the CPS realised they weren’t going to be able the charge this boy under the Serious Crime Act, just as they couldn’t charge Paul Chambers under the Criminal Law act, and just as with that case, they resorted to the vague section 127 of the Communications Act instead.

Speaking to magistrates, the boy said: “I meant it as a joke which is why I wrote LOL at the end.”

The boy’s friends replied to his post almost immediately, “telling him in no uncertain terms what a poor opinion they now have of him,” according to the prosecution. The boy also entered into a specific conversation with another Facebook user discussing the Shooting of Mark Duggan.

Do we have a case of a magistrate failing to understand the nature of the conversation taking place in, and the audience on, social media? Was this sentence appropriate, or is this criminalising open expression of a political viewpoint? Whilst recognising the difficulties police were having dealing with BBM/social media agitation during the riots on August 2011, the seriousness of the crimes committed by the rioters and the need for punishment for those involved, we must be careful not to suppress freedom of speech in our response.

Hollie Bentley

19 year old Hollie Bentley was arrested by West Yorkshire Police around the period of the riots of 6-11 August 2011. A resident of Wakefield, she had posted messages on Facebook, allegedly “encouraging” the rioters. The precise text of those messages is unknown to me at this time.

No rioting took place in Wakefield.

She was then charged with an offence under The Serious Crime Act 2007. Again, at this time, I can’t be precise as to what section of the law which she was charged under, but it seems likely that it was Section 44 or 46:

[44] Intentionally encouraging or assisting an offence
(1) A person commits an offence if—
    (a) he does an act capable of encouraging or assisting the commission of an offence; and
    (b) he intends to encourage or assist its commission.
(2) But he is not to be taken to have intended to encourage or assist the commission of an offence merely because such encouragement or assistance was a foreseeable consequence of his act.

[46] Encouraging or assisting offences believing one or more will be committed
(1) A person commits an offence if—
    (a) he does an act capable of encouraging or assisting the commission of one or more of a number of offences; and
    (b) he believes—
        (i) that one or more of those offences will be committed (but has no belief as to which); and
        (ii) that his act will encourage or assist the commission of one or more of them.
(2) It is immaterial for the purposes of subsection (1)
    (b)
        (ii) whether the person has any belief as to which offence will be encouraged or assisted.

Assuming she has been charged under this section of the law, then pay very close attention to clause 2 of Section 44 and clause 1(b) of Section 46 above. This states that in order to be found guilty, the accused must have intended that the results of their encouragement was the commission of a crime. Appearing to encourage a crime which the accused did not intend to happen is not enough to be found guilty under this act.

Note the also the word “Intentionally” which is the first word in this section of the law.

In fact, there is a further section 45 http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2007/27/section/45

[45] Encouraging or assisting an offence believing it will be committed
A person commits an offence if—
    (a) he does an act capable of encouraging or assisting the commission of an offence; and
    (b) he believes—
        (i) that the offence will be committed; and
        (ii) that his act will encourage or assist its commission.

Intent is pretty key to whether an individual can be proved guilty of this offence.

At this stage, I don’t know how Hollie intends to plead in respect of this case. However in the light of sentence handed down to Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan and Jordan Blackshaw (both charged with a similar offence) it would seem advisable for anybody charged with this offence to plead “not guilty”. It is not suffient for somebody to have posted a message which appears to side with, or to encourage the riots occurring elsewhere in the country. One has to have actively intended to instigate a riot by your actions.

It is a long time since I was 19, but I can still remember the fire and passion of youth, and the passionate outburst which characterised my youth. I imagine that on a strict interpretation of the law, there will have been many things which I said out loud in my teens which could have been subject to a criminal charge, but I never in my wildest dreams wished anybody any real harm. The prosecution in this case has to prove that Hollie’s writing was something other than youthful high spirits.

I’m watching this case with interest.

Liberalism and Riots: Cause and Effect?

The English riots of August 2011 have shocked the nation. An outburst of violence and criminality on this scale is unprecedented is the recent history of our country.

There’s a strand of thinking running through some sections of UK Society, which argues that the creeping liberalisation of Britain is a key cause of the recent riots which shocked the nation. This liberalisation has created an environment in which people feel it is acceptable for them to riot and loot, and that they will not face justice.

It is this line of thinking which lead to David Cameron once again discussing scrapping the Human Rights Act (something of a pet project for him, it seems), and internet users signing a petition to remove benefits for those convicted of rioting or looting.

This logic in turn justifies large punitive sentences for those even tangentially involved in the riots.

So let’s start with the question: “Has the liberalisation of society had a causative contribution to the riots of August 2011?”

The answer, in my opinion, is

“Yes”

Over the past 3 decades, we have sought to create a society which offers everybody increased personal rights and offers all an equal opportunity to succeed. Margaret Thatcher sought to create a society in which everybody could own their own homes. Tony Blair sought to create a society in which everybody obtained a university degree. We have all sought to create a society in which the individual has more personal freedom of expression and behaviour. All of these aims seem to be prima facie worthwhile.

However, despite the efforts of well-meaning (or otherwise) politicians and social reformers, it remains a fact that some people continue to be excluded from this success, opportunity and freedom. We can discuss the whys and wherefores of this elsewhere.

It cannot possibly be a coincidence that rioting took place in areas which are traditionally associated with such “social exclusion”. Nor that they were largely self-destructive. If the prevailing mood is that you have nothing to lose, and you are not answered or answerable, if your personal freedoms are frequently invaded by the police in their desperate attempts to control a background level of crime, your conduct will inevitably be self-destructive.

Overlay that with a society which evaluates worth in financial terms, and well; the outcome should be obvious.

Grant the individual more freedom, promise them more opportunity, then present them with a reality which differs from the narrative and the wider experience of society; inevitably their response will not be a positive one.

So yes: the liberalisation of society has indisputably contributed to the riots.

But: is there anything fundamentally wrong with the idea that everybody should have an equal opportunity to succeed? Is there anything fundamentally wrong with the idea that the individual should have more freedom in return for greater stake in and responsibility to society as a whole?

It is an unarguable fact that the Emancipation from Slavery Act and later the US Civil Rights movement of 1955–1968 eventually led to the race riots of the late 60s.

The progressive enfranchisement of the British electorate, and the increasing liberation of women eventually led to the Black Friday riot

The liberation of Rwanda from imperialism led almost immediately to the Rwandan genocide.

There are countless examples where a forward progression in social freedoms has been accompanied with concomitant outbursts of violence, but I’d like to think that we can all agree that these are simply the growing pains of an increasingly fair and free world.

Let’s not throw the baby out of the bathwater in our response to these riots. A small minority of criminals played havoc on our streets, and caused damage to the fabric society, but that’s no reason for us to start going backwards. Let’s keep liberalising our society. Let’s keep increasing personal freedoms and opportunity. Let’s keep on giving the individual more resposibility to, and involvement in, the whole of society.

Next time somebody tells you that liberalisation caused the riots, just say, “Yes, but please let’s not turn the clock back on progress.”

 

Footnote: The last time I felt so compelled to preamble my words with a stern condemnation like the one at the start of this post, was in the early years of this century when discussing 9/11. Let’s not make our response to this current crisis as illiberal and damaging as our response to 9/11 was.

Bury St Edmunds Teenager – 12 month social network ban

A 17 year old boy from a Village near Bury St Edmunds was handed a 12-month youth rehabilitation order, a curfew between 7pm and 6am for three months, after he posted a message on Facebook:

“It’s about time we stood up for ourselves for once. So come on rioters – get some. LOL.”

Magistrate Graham Higgins also ordered him to complete 120 hours’ community service, and banned the young man from using social networking sites for 12 months.

This contrasts strongly with the 4 year custodial sentence handed down Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan and Jordan Blackshaw, who were accused of similar offences.

More information on The Guardian Website here.

Jordan Blackshaw & Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan

Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan to four years in prison by a judge at Chester crown court.

20 year old Jordan Blackshaw was sentenced to 4 years in a young offenders institute by Judge Elgan Edwards QC. Blackshaw had created a Facebook event entitled “Smash Down in Northwich Town”. The event was scheduled for 9 August, between 13:00 and 16:00, “behind maccies”. Police were moitoring his event, and Blackshaw was arrested outside McDonalds at the time he had given for the event. No other people turned up.

22 year old Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan of Latchford, Warrington, created a Facebook page entitled “The Warrington Riots”. He was apparently drunk when he created the page. The following morning he removed the page and apologised, saying it had been a joke. The page was posted to approximately 400 Facebook friends, but no rioting broke out as a result.

Jordan Blackshaw has already announced his intention to appeal the sentence

More here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/16/facebook-riot-calls-men-jailed

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/16/uk-riots-four-years-disorder-facebook

http://www.metro.co.uk/news/872572-two-men-jailed-for-four-years-for-inciting-rioting-on-facebook

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-14557772