Liam Cruivie and Saunders Leitrim | 24 April 2018
The Medusa travelled to Airdrie Sheriff Court to cover the sentencing of Markus Meechan (aka Count Dankula) and gained access to the courtroom.
April is the cruellest month, or at least it nearly was for Markus Meechan (aka Count Dankula). Though ultimately found guilty of causing “gross offense” under the Communications Act (2003), the penalty of an £800 fine will obviously come as a much lighter burden than the six-month prison sentence tabled by the Crown in March. What may well have pushed the court into deciding on the more lenient verdict was the not inconsiderable social media noise that had grown up around this case. A part of what caused that noise found itself outside Airdrie Sheriff Court this St George’s Day, either in solidarity with Meechan or merely in protest of what has come to be viewed as the unfair treatment of a citizen by a judiciary arbitrarily enacting a recondite law.
From 9:00 to 10:00 am, a mostly male (and bearded) group slowly assembled outside the court. Some came as members of political groups- there seemed to be a large cohort from one such called “the Liberalists”, and the Scottish Libertarians even arrived kitted out with a 5ft banner in the interest of organisational solidarity (or self-promotion). But most seemed to be there representing no one but themselves and their firm sense of an unjust ruling in a hate-speech case where intent and context were counted as naught. This is an important fact to keep in mind when one considers the number of protesters who told the Medusa they were neither familiar with nor fans of Meechan’s YouTube activities. The diehards came out in full (of course), but what seemed to have motivated most of the twenty-something protesters to leave their beds and stand in the drizzle outside the grey, brutalist courthouse was the recognition of a disturbing precedent for the jurisdiction within which they live.
Alongside these were fourteen or so police officers, who were available in three different flavours: the normal bobbies decked in the usual lime-green hi-vis jackets, the boys and girls in blue of the liaison officers’ unit, and the more exotic white-vested type from the hate-speech division. The good-cop/bad-cop approach of fielding liaison officers with the more rough-and-ready hi-vis bobbies the Medusa can understand, but the role of the two hate-speech coppers was not so easy to guess. We were told they were there to protect our right to free-speech and to advise on anything related to hate-speech: you can just about make sense of the second part of that job description by simultaneously bringing to mind the words “parental supervision”, but who knows what the first part means. They were presumably not there to cuff anyone uttering the words “You can’t say that!” with the same vigilance they do the owners of anti-Semitic house pets.
Gone 10am, people began taking their seats in courtroom two of Airdrie Sheriff Court. Meechan’s visibly strained family and girlfriend occupied the left-hand side of the room, with the press and other members of the public on the right. Proceedings got underway with a statement from the representative for the defence, Mr Brown. Though a somewhat sluggish performance (the politically charged nature of the case did perhaps demand a more muted approach), the court’s attendees seemed to sympathise with his arguments more readily than the sheriff’s that followed. Mr Brown reminded the court that Mr Meechan had no prior conviction and “considered himself a tolerant and liberal man”. He was unequivocal concerning who was to blame for the failings that had culminated in this sentencing: Police Scotland, who after arresting Mr Meechan informed a national newspaper, and a judiciary unprepared to tolerate humour if it’s perceived to cross that vague boundary into the territory of hate-speech. By tipping off the national press, Police Scotland triggered the media barrage that has left Mr Meechan unable to hold down a job, a state of affairs for which the sheriff later gave his own analysis. But most of Mr Brown’s rhetoric was reserved for the perplexing situation the judiciary had found themselves in; having ruled that Mr Meechan’s intent in publishing the offending video had no bearing on the verdict whatsoever. What would happen to John Cleese, a video of whom joking about skin lampshades and wearing a Nazi uniform exists online, if he found himself North of the border? Or to Larry David if he mentioned the Shoah at the Edinburgh Festival? Should Frankie Boyle be questioned for the dozen or so jokes that have as a punchline “the Holocaust”?
The court was told how Mr Meechan’s financial situation (as a result of unemployment) meant paying a fine could be extremely difficult, part and parcel of a state of affairs described by Mr Brown as “punishment enough”. He also explained that his client “will not accept wearing a tag” and refused to undergo house arrest. As such, Mr Meechan was prepared to go to jail for his belief “that Freedom of Speech is at the heart of our democracy”. In closing, Mr Brown toyed with the idea of using that Voltaire quote, but instead decided to quote from Ephraim Borowski (director of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities), upon whose judgement of Mr Meechan’s video “M8 Yer Dugs a Nazi” as “grossly offensive” the prosecuting argument hangs. Borowski once said: “truth isn’t threatened by controversy, truth is strengthened by controversy.” A nice little irony, perhaps.
With the number of Meechan supporters in and outside the courtroom, it was hard not to see sheriff Derek O’Carroll as a pantomime villain as he began sentencing. He explained how the video posted in 2016 was in violation of section 127 of the Communications Act (2003), which makes it an offense to send a message which may be deemed grossly offensive on a public electronic communications network. Summing up the law’s attitude to Meechan’s crime, sheriff O’Carroll reminded the defendant: “that you (Meechan) did not intend it to be grossly offensive does not do you any good.” The verdict was therefore the result of a reasonable interpretation of parliamentary law, as the sheriff explained.
Mr Meechan’s defence had previously argued that the video of the saluting pug was posted on YouTube to annoy the dog’s owner, Meechan’s girlfriend: in a final response to this, the sheriff pointed out that the defendant’s girlfriend was not a subscriber to Meechan’s “channel” at the time, and therefore somehow invalidating the argument. And rather than laying the blame for Mr Meechan’s inability to find a job at the feet of the media (as Mr Brown had done earlier), the sheriff insisted instead that it “proves that not only Jews found it [the video] offensive.” But when the sheriff referred to the defendant’s “pro-social life”, lack of prior conviction, and low chance of reoffending, he intimated that the conclusion to this two year long trial would be happier than expected for Mr Meechan: in the end he was given an £800 fine to be payed within six-months. At this point, a family member was overheard saying: “He can actually come to the wedding now. Now he’s no goin away.”, which was indicative of the heartening relief which exuded from that corner of the courtroom. It’s perhaps important to keep in mind that, behind the cause celebre, someone’s son/boyfriend/cousin etc. nearly went down for nothing.
On leaving the court, the Medusa was amused to overhear that a group of vexed middle aged women, who’d pressed themselves into the right-hand side of the room, were not a corps of beleaguered aunties from the Meechan clan, but in fact attendees at the wrong sentencing who’d sat confused during the last moments of such a momentous court case. They afterwards grumbled off to the correct courtroom, long after the first professional TV journalists had darted out to break the news.
Outside, more pantomime figures thronged: Tommy Robinson (who previously promised to “live-stream” the sentencing; tough luck Tommy, better get your arse out of bed earlier next time) had arrived by now to do a bit of shouting, alongside the Count Dankula fan-boys who chanted “Dank, Dank!” upon their hero’s exit from the courthouse. At his side, relieved rather than triumphant, was the girlfriend who, understandably, didn’t seem to appreciate the attention much. (We later learned that a cameraman with Sky news reporter James Matthews, who had been lurking since we had arrived at half eight, had in fact attempted to trip her up as she approached the court.) She and his family walked with him up the steps and disappeared (as we later learned, off to the pub; who can blame them?). While Meechan has ended his ordeal a free man, the past months are likely to loom large with him and his family for some time. As for everybody else, it will likely be remembered as one of the more embarrassing days in the history of Scots law.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects of Meechan’s defence that day was the insistence that, come community service, fine, custodial sentence or whatever, he fully intended to appeal. This caused a modicum of surprise to ripple through the courtroom (even his girlfriend, apparently, did not know about this) and in a video posted to his channel the next day, Meechan revealed his intentions. He plans to repeal the fine; and has started a GoFundMe campaign in order to acquire the best representation he can to do so. The development could well be newsworthy in itself when and if the implications of that appeal come to a head. The shitposter from Coatbridge got to where he in now in a blaze of controversy that has seen news channels across the Anglosphere reporting - he certainly has the platform now.