Having narrowly beaten Kirsty Brimelow in the last battle of the top QCs, Twitter Joke Trial barrister John Cooper QC today found himself up against none other than Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Keir Starmer QC.
Cooper got things underway by ridiculing the DPP’s new social media prosecution guidelines, which he described as “the longest ever explanation of common sense I’ve seen”.
When presenter Sarah Montague put Cooper’s words to Starmer on this morning’s Today Programme, the usually unflappable DPP lost his cool, hitting back angrily…
“Well I don’t think John Cooper with all respect has seen anything like the number of cases I have. I don’t think he has thought about the sophistication of the issues. There are many cases…I mean he can point to one case [the Twitter Joke Trial]…yeah he makes a cheap point about one case, I’ve got to deal with the many thousands of cases that come in, I’ve got to deal with all the chief constables. So, yes, nice cheap point, but actually let’s get back to reality.”
A couple of hours later, Cooper took to the airwaves himself, reiterating his earlier criticism of Starmer’s guidelines to Radio 5’s Victoria Derbyshire. They were, he said: “totally and utterly unnecessary”, adding that the 25 pages would be better condensed to “two words: common sense”.
Cooper also flagged up, via Twitter, one of the most controversial aspects of the guidelines, which will see “unpopular or unfashionable opinion” potentially fall within the “grossly offensive” threshold necessary for prosecution under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 (which the guidelines supplement).
Meanwhile, UK Human Rights Blog editor and barrister Adam Wagner – who took part in a series of roundtable discussions with the DPP over how the guidelines would look – is unhappy that the finished product still leaves the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) deciding what “grossly offensive” means.
“The underlying point,” Wagner writes, “is that this law, which was designed for a completely different purpose, has given the CPS the role of policing speech on social media. And that was never Parliament’s intention when it approved the law in 2003…Do we really want police and prosecutors deciding what speech is tolerable and acceptable? Do they have the experience, intelligence and social sensitivity to do so?”