Who breaks a Twitterer upon a wheel?

In recent days Britain has started to resemble an earlier era of intolerance. People are using social networks like Twitter and Facebook to be themselves, but the Police, the judiciary and the Establishment are showing worrying signs of not understanding this shift in society. Two recent cases, the “Twitter Joke Trial” and the “#welovebaskers” case currently exploding on Twitter serve to highlight this. And there is a direct comparison to an earlier era.

In 1968 William Rees-Mogg, as editor of The Times newspaper, quoted Poet Alexander Pope, for an editorial about the “Redlands” court case brought against the Rolling Stones. The Stones had been partying at a house, whereupon they’d been busted by the Police for possessing a small amount of drugs. The case resulted in prison sentences for Rolling Stones members Keith Richards and Mick Jagger.

But Rees-Mogg’s Times editorial came to the Stones defence, concluding “If we are going to make any case a symbol of the conflict between the sound traditional values of Britain and the new hedonism, then we must be sure that the sound traditional values include those of tolerance and equity. It should be the particular quality of British justice to ensure that Mr. Jagger is treated exactly the same as anyone else, no better and no worse. There must remain a suspicion in this case that Mr. Jagger received a more severe sentence than would have been thought proper for any purely anonymous young man.”

Swap out “new hedonism” for “the new social networking” and you find that the public nature of social networks is causing a disconnect in British society which has implications for our freedom of speech.

Indeed, while Prime Minister David Cameron was this week in China talking about freedom of speech, at home, a free-thinking British civil servant in the Department for Transport quietly tweeting about her job is now fearing for her job in row over her tweets which criticise coalition policy, though in the rather casual manner of one who might chat to someone in a cafe. Her account, now gone protected, was marked “personal”, not official.

Yesterday The Daily Mail, a right wing newspaper, attacked Sarah Baskerville for this. Today The Independent on Sunday, supposedly centre, repeated the story, and went even further.

However, this is not a high-ranking civil servant or a publicly elected policitian. Baskerville is a mid-grade CS, who is tweeting within the bounds layed down by civil servant policy, as attested to by the person who wrote the rules.

Paul Clarke, a consultant to government on public data, robustly defends Baskerville here.

To me this case is worrying. It used to be the case that journalist would go after the bosses of the civial servants to ask, exactly why are your staff so worried about cuts? Why are they having to work in their spare time to open up government data to do their job better?

Baskerville’s contribution to the open public data is well known, and easily accessible by any journalist wanting to read her publicly available blog.

The press used to support whistleblowers. Instead, today they seem more intent in going after the Twitterrers.

If the best they can do is come up with is a few grumbling tweets from a civil servant who isn’t accountable for government policy, what future is there for the media?

Instead, taking a leaf out of Joanthan Swift’s book, I propose that we should perhaps simply turn on the journalists who Tweet.

How about starting with Independent on Sunday journalist Matt Chorley, who, like Baskerville, has been tweeting about the X-Factor and pretty girls selling newspapers. Inane stuff like that, but let’s ignore that and go for the jugular shall we? Was he tweeting during working hours? Can any of his tweets be interpretted as supporting one political party or not?

Let’s turn on each-other shall we? Perhaps if we all go “protected” on our twitter account the world will be a more ethical place?

Let’s imagine if Deep Throat had had a Twitter account – admittedly it would have a been anonymous or private if Twitter had been invented in the early 1970s. Would the journalist have gone after the user? Or gone after what they were talking about?

As further evidence of British society gone mad, look at the Twitter Joke Trial.

Paul Chambers, a 27-year-old accountant had an online courtship with another Twitter which led to him off-handidly threaten to blow up an airport if it wasn’t open in time for his flight to visit her.

The judge in the case called the frustrated Tweet “menacing in its content and obviously so. It could not be more clear. Any ordinary person reading this would see it in that way and be alarmed.”

No, any ordinary person would see it as a black humoured joke posted on a social network.

So I ask again.

Who breaks a Twitterer on a wheel?

Update: A further thought occurs to me: the relevancy of this debate to startups and entrepreneurs. Because here is the deal: government is in the process of working out how to save money. Under Labour, and now under the Conservatives, they’ve realised that a great way to do this is to open up public data and let entrepreneurs and other third parties develop services on top of that data, which serve the public interest, often for free. Some of these can be real businesses (e.g. iPhone apps which help you find spare Boris Bikes in London), some just publicly-minded web sites. Sarah Baskerville is one of the civil servants keenly interested in this movement, which requires her to engage online with it. If she has her voice cut off then that has implications for all the other other people in government trying to work with others outside government. And no, just allowing civil servants to use email does not cut it. They have to be on social networks in order to help this process. Right now, all the tech people I know are on Twitter. Enough said.

[ Second Image courtesy @fellowcreative, Some rights reserved ]