On 31st August 2021 Ben John appeared at Leicester Crown Court to be sentenced for downloading 67,788 documents from Nazi, neo-Nazi and similar white supremacist, antisemitic websites. The documents included information about bomb-making materials and techniques. John had previously been referred to the UK’s counter-terrorism Prevent scheme because he had come to the notice of the police and university authorities at De Montfort University where he was a criminology undergraduate. The police described him as a white supremacist with Nazi sympathies and he was charged with ‘possessing a record of information likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’ under Section 58 of the Terrorism Act.
In court, after considering reports, the judge in the case, Timothy Spencer, a senior resident judge and QC, opted for a two-year custodial sentence, suspended for two years, but it was his remarks to John in court that propelled the case into the newspapers and that should alarm criminologists. Spencer’s characterisation of the 21-year old’s behaviour as ‘an act of teenage folly’ is one thing, but his instruction that John should read more widely and that the judge provided a list of his preferred works of Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen was another . In passing down his sentence, Spencer instructed that John should be returned to court every four months where he himself would test his understanding of these great authors, remarking: “have you read Dickens? Austen? Start with Pride and Prejudice and Dickens’s A Tale Of Two Cities. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Think about Hardy. Think about Trollope.” (BBC 2021; Richardson 2022)
As the unusual features of the sentence and the judge’s remarks became a news story I was alerted to it by a criminologist endorsing the sentence and the judge’s remarks on social media. For them the sentence was ‘excellent’ because reading such books and being encouraged to ‘really read’ them was far more likely to rehabilitate John than a period of custody. Others appeared to agree that a judge declining to impose an immediate custodial sentence and opting for a particularly ‘creative’ alternative was to be welcomed. I was aghast. The issue of racism had evaporated.
Before becoming a criminologist, as a youth justice practitioner I wrote hundreds of pre-sentence reports for teenagers. I know how difficult it can be, ethically and practically (Evans 2016). On some few occasions in the Crown Court I may have contributed to a surprise non-custodial sentence. Even now, still, as a criminologist that leans toward abolitionism, a small part of me wants to pay tribute to the author of the pre-sentence report if their work contributed to this non-custodial outcome. However, the judge’s remarks suggested a huge can of worms around which the criminological community remained relatively and characteristically silent. As I pointed out in my letter to a national newspaper (Earle 2021) the case clearly raised the issue of white privilege. In courts. In the judiciary. And, by implication, for criminology. It couldn’t be more obvious could it, I thought. A white judge, the white canon of English literature, a white defendant, an issue of white terrorism. Imagine if it had been otherwise and a young Muslim, perhaps named Rafiq Khan, was found to have downloaded thousands of inflammatory documents from ISIS-type and Al Qaeda-related websites. Imagine that this young man had already come to the notice of the police. What books and cultural icons might have sprung into the judges highly trained legal mind as potentially suitable remedies? None, probably. A long custodial sentence and possibly some liberal hand-wringing about a tragic waste of life is the best ‘Rafiq’ could hope for.
In 2008 this imaginary scenario, only worse, came very close to happening. A Muslim student, Rizwaan Sabir, who was reading for a Master’s degree in International Relations at the University of Nottingham and an Algerian member of staff, Hicham Yezza, were both arrested and detained on suspicion of terrorism. They were held in custody for seven days in solitary confinement and were eventually released without charge. After a long campaign, supported by no lesser academic figure than Noam Chomsky, the truth emerged. Sabir had downloaded a copy of the Al-Qaeda Training Manual from a US Government website, a publication that was freely available to purchase from Amazon, Waterstones, or WH Smiths and could be loaned via the local library. The police had manipulated the evidence about the 140-page manual in that they misinterpreted the nature of the document to a key witness, Dr Rod Thornton, who was Nottingham University’s in-house academic expert on terrorism and insurgency. In his formal police interview, Thornton was misled by the police into saying that Sabir’s possession of the document was irrelevant to his studies and research. This is because the police told him that Sabir possessed a 5,000-page bomb-making manual known as the Encyclopaedia of Afghan Jihad. Thornton’s statement, acquired through manipulation, was then used by senior officers running the investigation to justify Yezza and Sabir’s arrest (Townsend 2012). After a sustained campaign in support of ‘The Nottingham Two’, and legal proceedings brought by Sabir in 2011, the police were eventually forced to pay £20,000 in compensation to Sabir for his ordeal, apologise for his detention outside his home on suspicion of terrorism, and correct a series of intelligence logs that wrongly claimed he was a convicted terrorist. Characteristically, their internal investigations concluded that no officer was guilty of misconduct and no apology was offered for the way the men had been treated. Sabir went on to complete his studies and a PhD on counter-terrorism, and is now a lecturer in criminology.
What interests me about the John case is that the judge’s ‘affective proximity’ to John, his whiteness, triggered Spencer’s liberal reflexes and paternalistic sentiments, resulting in the extraordinary remarks made in court about the intrinsic virtues of studying a narrow range of iconic English literature (Tickell 2022). And the way some criminologists appeared to identify with this feature of the case above any others. Despite the lethal attacks of white supremacists in the UK, Norway, the USA and New Zealand, and evidence of the rising frequency of racist attacks in the UK and the increasing traction of fascist ideology across Europe, the judge did not fear the man in front of him, did not sense the threats in his actions or the huge reservoirs of racial animosity that sustained him – he felt sorry for him and found him pitiable – he identified with him. As I stated in my letter, if the characteristics of white privilege are sometimes hard to pin down, here was a case where they were self-evident.
Equally problematic was the judge’s identification of a ‘solution’ that mobilised the myth-image of the benign effect of an enlightened (i.e. white) cultural education, and the apparent alignment of some criminologist’s with, and sympathy for, it. His sentence and accompanying remarks are not a ‘creative’ or ‘inventive’ feature to be embraced by criminologists, they are a clear expression of white power. They are profoundly and dangerously reactionary (Mondon and Winter 2020; Buck-Morss 2003). The ideas expressed in the remarks are central to the white liberal imagination and the notion of cultural superiority that propelled 19th century colonialism (Morrison 1993). Racism, and its corollary of race, promotes humanity as divisibly hierarchical with white people and white cultures at the apex. This historic crisis in the narration of what it means to be human recurs again and again within criminal justice systems. Casually reproducing the exclusionary violence of race in the phrases and sentiments expressed by the judge is an appalling act of white privilege in which John was only the most obvious beneficiary. It should have no place in the 21st century, no place in criminology and no place in court (Phillips et al 2022 – forthcoming).
BBC (2021) Ben John: Right-wing extremist gets suspended jail sentence – BBC News [accessed 19/09/21)
Buck-Morss, S (2003) Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left, London. Verso.
Earle (2021) A racist, a judge and a clear case of white privilege | Letters | The Guardian
Evans, J. (2016) ‘Artful Dodgers: The role of unreliable narrators in the production of authorised histories and assessments of young people in conflict with the law’, Deviant Behavior Vol 38:9
Mondon, A and Winter, A. (2020) Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream, London. Verso.
Morrison, T. (1993) Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the literary imagination, New York. Vintage
Phillips, C., Parmar, A. and Earle, R. (2022) ‘Seeing is Believing: How the layering of race is obscured by ‘white epistemologies’ in the criminal justice field’, Journal of Criminal Justice Education (forthcoming)
Richardson, A. (2022) Angelique Richardson | Reading Sentences · LRB 4 October 2021
Tickell, A. (2022) English Literature, Racism and Rehabilitation – OpenLearn – Open University
Townsend, M. (2012) Police ‘made up’ evidence against Muslim student | Police | The Guardian [accessed 25/11/21)
About the author
Rod Earle works at The Open University where he is a senior lecturer in youth justice in the School of Health Wellbeing and Social Care. He helped to form the BSC Race Matters Network and is a founder member of British Convict Criminology.
[The author acknowledges with thanks the helpful comments and support of the Race Matters Network Co-Chair, Dr Monish Bhatia, Dr Rizwaan Sabir of Liverpool John Moores University in the preparation of this Blog].