Blackpool Magistrates recently came down hard on a Thornton rat-catcher.
Mark Seddon’s love life had had its ups and downs. During one of its downs his girl-friend left him. She took up with a man who Mr Seddon didn’t like.
Some pest control consultants might have resorted to violence, but Mr Seddon was more restrained. He turned to social media. He sent his ex a “Whats App” message setting out succinctly his opinion of the new man in her life:
He is, said Mr Seddon, a “fat-bellied codhead.”
As one would expect these days, the police were informed and Mr Seddon was prosecuted under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 for sending:
“by means of a public electronic communications network a message … that [was] grossly offensive.
It is a surprisingly serious charge, carrying a possible sentence of 6 months imprisonment.
A no-doubt contrite Mr Seddon admitted the charge earlier this month, and the Magistrates were merciful. Instead of locking him up, they fined him £500.00.
Some commentators have expressed surprise at the size of the fine, and even more at the fact that Mr Seddon was prosecuted at all.
In 2012, in the well-known “Twitter joke” case1, the Divisional Court helpfully ruled that “for those who have the inclination to use “Twitter” for the purpose, Shakespeare can be quoted unbowdlerised,” and there is no reason why WhatsApp should be treated differently. On this authority, Mr Seddon could lawfully have called his rival:
Thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch!”
If he wanted to emphasise his portly figure, he would have been quite safe with another WhatsApp message from Henry IV Part 1:
“trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that grey Iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in years.”
Or, if he wanted to stick to a vaguely fishy theme:
“you eel-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, you bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish–O for breath to utter what is like thee!-you tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bow-case, you vile standing tuck”
would have been quite acceptable.
The editor of the authoritative UK Criminal Law Blog, Dan Bunting, even went so far as to to describe Mr Seddon’s prosecution as perhaps “the most ludicrous of 2016.” Well maybe; but as Mr Bunting himself pointed out, there was perhaps more going on than meets the eye. Possibly, speculates Bunting, there was a history of harassment. Mr Seddon was also issued with a restraining order preventing him from contacting “the complainant” (who one assumes was the ex-girlfriend rather than the fat-bellied codhead himself), which certainly hints if not at past harassment then at a fear of what the future could bring if Mr Seddon is not deterred.
It was nevertheless a pretty odd charge. The CPS has guidelines on prosecuting such offences. No prosecution should be brought unless the communication in question is more than:
* Offensive, shocking or disturbing; or
* Satirical, iconoclastic or rude comment; or
* The expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, or banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it.
Even then, the guidelines point out that “there is the potential for a chilling effect on free speech and prosecutors should exercise considerable caution before bringing charges ….”
Others have criticised Seddon’s solicitor, John McLaren of the well-respected Blackpool firm W H Darbyshire. “Why is everyone so feeble and dense these days?” asked the always combative Barbara Hewson, “are they lawyers or muppets? Where,” she asked, “are the heirs to Garrow, Carson and Marshall Hall?”
She may be being a little hard on Mr McLaren. She doesn’t know what advice he gave to his client. Quite possibly he advised him that he should fight the case, but Mr Seddon simply wanted to get it over with. For all we know, he took a commercial decision that he could earn more money in a day’s rat-catching than he could save by sitting in the dock watching Mr McLaren argue the toss about a cod’s head.
Moreover, a fact little known outside Lancashire is that the expression “codhead” is more insulting than it may appear at first blush. In that part of the world “cods heads” is a term sometimes applied to residents of the nearby fishing port of Fleetwood, and particularly to supporters of the town’s football club. Indeed, although Fleetwood Town supporters style themselves “The Cod Army,” many residents of Fleetwood take strong exception to being called cods-heads, especially by people from Blackpool.
Perhaps the object of Mr Seddon’s offensive communication was from Fleetwood.
Where “hate-crime” is involved Crown Prosecutors are instructed to take a much tougher line than in other cases.
Did Mr Seddon commit a hate-crime against his Fleetwood love rival?
The guidelines say:
“Prosecutors must also have regard to whether the offence was motivated by any form of discrimination against the victim’s ethnic or national origin, gender, disability, age, religion or belief, sexual orientation or gender identity; or the suspect demonstrated hostility towards the victim based on any of those characteristics. The presence of any such motivation or hostility will mean that it is more likely that prosecution is required.”
It is hard to see that coming from Fleetwood amounts to an “ethnic or national origin,” and being “fat-bellied” is surely not a “disability”; but the guidelines go on:
“Prosecutors should be alert to any additional reference or context to the communication in question. Such references or context may sometimes elevate a communication that would otherwise not meet the high threshold to one that, in all the circumstances, can be considered grossly offensive.”
We must therefore assume that there was some “additional reference or context” that elevated Mr Seddon’s message into something deserving of prosecution. As with Shakespeare, apparently innocuous lines sometimes turn out to be startlingly obscene to those with specialist knowledge. We can only assume that to those in the know there is some deeper and even nastier meaning in the words “fat-bellied codhead.”
As an afterthought it’s worth pointing out that The Cod Army should not always be seen as helpless victims in need of protection from grossly offensive insults. Sometimes they can dish it out, as a visit to the website terracechants.me.uk reveals. When Fleetwood plays Blackpool the terraces ring to the sound of:
Your mum’s a crack whore
Your dad’s a queen
We fucking hate tangerine!
It’s certainly not as Shakespearean as Mr Seddon’s insult, and to my mind at least somewhat more offensive. As the Crown Prosecution Service recently pointed out:
“There is a place for humour in football but where the line between humour and offensive behaviour is crossed then positive action will be taken ….”
As a result, a CPS hate crime co-ordinator has taken positive action and written a more suitable chant for such occasions which avoids giving offence, although terracechants.me.uk says it has yet to achieve quite the same popularity:
Since I was young da da da da I followed on da da da da F T F C da da da da the team for me da da da da da da da da da da da da da (Repeat)
Again, it’s not Shakespeare but at least if you tweet that (you’ll have to cut out a few da da das) you won’t be prosecuted.
1Chambers v. DPP  EWHC 2157 (Admin)