Here’s the real joke: getting shot down for my Facebook quip

“I’m very opinionated,” says Emma Sayle. “I say things to provoke debate. But even so, this was a private comment. I wouldn’t have put it on Twitter, for all the world to see.”

In December, Sayle posted a comment to friends on Facebook that resulted in her being interviewed under caution by police. “Just had a two-hour shooting lesson,” she wrote. “Will now be using this skill on the top of east London high rises to help with the UK’s illegal immigrant problem.”

It is not a joke that will make everybody laugh. Nor will it necessarily make you warm to Sayle. But are there not more important things for police to deal with than a casual, if provocative, aside on a social networking website?

An alarming trend has developed over the past few years, in which the forces of law and order have started to regulate what are, in effect, private jokes.

The most notable case in Britain has been that of Paul Chambers. Last January the 27-year-old accountant was frustrated when his flight from Doncaster’s airport was cancelled because of snow. “Crap!” he posted on the social network Twitter. “Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”

Foolish, maybe, given the heightened terrorist alert we live under, but worthy of prosecution? Yet, in November, Chambers lost an appeal against his conviction for sending a menacing electronic communication as defined by the Communications Act. He had already acquired a criminal record, been fined £384 and, in losing his appeal, became liable for £2,600 in legal costs.

The seeming injustice of his arrest and prosecution struck a chord with many. In an attempt to show solidarity with Chambers, thousands of other Twitter users re-tweeted — that is, repeated — his joke.

As the latest person to be hauled up for jocular online remarks, Sayle thinks we have a problem. “This country’s gone tits-up on the PC front.” Many will agree.

Where her case differs from Chambers’s is that she made her remarks on her Facebook “wall”, where they were visible only to her friends. “The thing that gets me,” she says, “is that if you went onto my Facebook page [as an outside user] you couldn’t see anything. It’s not as if I put this up there to shock everybody. The only people who can see it are people I’ve accepted as a friend.”

But one of those supposed friends (she thinks she knows who) reported her joke to police, and the story leaked to newspapers because Sayle is a friend (albeit not a close one) of Prince William’s fiancée, Kate Middleton. “Kate’s pal is quizzed over ‘shoot illegal migrants’ jibe”, ran one headline.

She got to know Middleton through the Sisterhood, a women’s charity that does extreme sports. They trained together for a dragon-boat race across the Channel, though Middleton eventually dropped out.

Newspapers did not overlook the fact that Sayle runs a social network “for the world’s sexual elite”, with a website barred to under-18s. The organisation holds sex parties every month, on an invitation-only basis. Sayle says her role is as an organiser; she never gets “involved personally”.

The daughter of a diplomat, Sayle was brought up overseas and was privately educated at Downe House school in Berkshire, where she learnt to shoot clay pigeons.

She recently decided to refresh her skills. “A lot of my friends shoot and we are in the country a lot,” she says.

It seemed a good opportunity to make a joke and a point, for she does worry about levels of illegal immigration. Then, just days before leaving for Christmas in Australia, Sayle was phoned by the police. “I laughed,” she says. “I said it was ridiculous. The lady on the phone was lovely, she laughed too. But she said that when allegations of racism are made you have to come in.”

Inciting racial hatred is a crime under the Public Order Act 1986, and police are obliged to investigate any accusation in this area.

Sayle reported at once for questioning at a police station in Notting Hill, west London, taking a solicitor because she was wary of anything she said being taken out of context. Officers asked whether she was racist or stupid.

She left Britain unsure whether she would be prosecuted — but in Australia was relieved to learn that the Crown Prosecution Service was not pressing charges.

After her joke went public, Sayle received messages from all over the world. Most were supportive, she insists, but others were not. Lee Jasper, the race relations campaigner, tweeted: “Your comments were a joke, your politics are repugnant and give a green light to ignorant racists everywhere.”

Anonymous critics called her a “white Nazi whore”, and there have been death threats. In the face of this, many would wilt and offer some kind of apology. “But I’m not the sort who would crumple. I’m just very principled. Most of the supportive messages have said, well done you for standing your ground.”

She is happy to answer the charge of racism. “There is not one bit of racism in what I wrote. I’m not attacking any particular race. I’m only attacking illegal immigration.”

Indeed, Sayle says she is hurt by accusations of racism. Through her overseas background, she says, she has worked with people of all races and often taken their side in disputes, sometimes to her own cost. She says: “I lost my first job when I was 18 because I made the Filipino staff go on strike because I didn’t think they were paid enough,” she says. “Another time, in the Caribbean, I walked out on someone because I said she was treating staff like slaves. Everyone who knows me — and that’s who I care about — has laughed and said it [the claim of racism] is ridiculous.”

Friends have pointed out that if she had a more conventional job she would probably have lost it over this. “I’d have been out,” she acknowledges. “But I’m lucky enough to be running a business that is controversial, and this has no effect.” In fact, the website has had 90,000 hits in the past week — more than usual.

Still, there has been a toll. “It’s wasted hours of police time and I have to pay a solicitors’ bill for £1,950. And the abuse! I’m getting a bad name and death threats.”

There is one other thing at risk: her invitation to the royal wedding. “I’m not close friends with Kate Middleton,” Sayle insists. “I was involved with her for a few months, that’s all. If anything, I’m probably on the Not for Invitation list — especially after what’s happened recently.”

1137 words. First published 9 January 2011. © Times Newspapers Ltd.