On April 7th this year the annual Oxford v Cambridge boat race was disrupted by the actions of Trenton Oldfield. Between the 2nd and 3rd mile markers, with the two vessels powering along, he stripped from his clothing to reveal a wetsuit beneath and swam out into the river. Placing himself directly in the path of the boats he narrowly missed colliding with the them, the oars or the rigging. According to Sir Matthew Pinsent, who was assistant umpire on the day, such a collision could easily have led to his death. Oldfield was pulled from the water onto a motor launch and arrested on the banks of the river by police. The race was later resumed and won by the Cambridge crew.
I didn’t watch the race on the day but was able to keep up to date with developments using Twitter. Many agreed that a s5 public order offence had been committed and that a charge would follow. However there were just as many who disagreed. One tweeter even found a local bye-law relevant to the Thames that also fitted the circumstances.
Oldfield, despite an education at one of Australia’s leading private schools and then the London School of Economics, claimed his actions were a protest about elitism. He claimed, despite being a leading member of his schools rowing squad, that it was his experiences during this time that lead him to challenge the inequalities of privileged education over the opposite.
Oldfield was eventually put before the courts for the common law offence of causing a public nuisance. He was found guilty at Isleworth Crown Court yesterday and sentencing has been deferred to the 19th October.
Causing a public nuisance is an either way offence. Summary convictions carry 6 months imprisonment and/or a fine. On indictment it carries imprisonment and/or a fine too but the maximum sentence isn’t defined. The narrative states that under common law there is no limit to the penalty that can be imposed. Judge Molyneux has indicated that all penalty options, including jail, will be considered.
The disruption caused and its effect was felt by those in the race, the spectators and a huge international television audience. The anger on Twitter was unmistakable. When we look back at similar type disruptions at sporting events the common theme is streakers.
Daniel Leer streaked during the Olympic torch relay. He was charged with indecent exposure. He indicated he would plead to s5 but not to indecent exposure.
Serial streaker Mark Roberts (who thinks it’s an art form) was charged with causing a public nuisance when he streaked down the 100 metres at the City of Manchester stadium in view of the Earl and Countess of Wessex in 2003. The CPS eventually offered no evidence as the stadium crowd had laughed at him and applauded.
In April this year Sam Gorman was put on the sex offenders register for 2 years after streaking at Villa Park.
It seems that in such cases the police and prosecution have to be seen to be taking some positive action. It is also clear that the reaction of the crowd/spectators is crucial in dictating which offence progresses. I don’t know what the reaction was at Villa Park but being placed on the sex offenders register seems pretty ridiculous when Roberts walked away with a fine and bind over for his Royal sprint.
Notwithstanding any disparity in offences laid in streaking cases, the Oldfield matter seems to be correct. The offence fits. A Judge commenting on the offence in general said;
I prefer to look to the reason of the thing and to say that a public nuisance is a nuisance which is so widespread in its range or so indiscriminate in its effect that it would not be reasonable to expect one person to take proceedings on his own responsibility to put a stop to it, but that it should be taken on the responsibility of the community at large
The offence fits the evidence and a jury at the Crown Court have found him guilty. I hope on the 19th October that a sensible sentence is imposed. I know nothing of his previous history but by itself this act of stupidity doesn’t warrant a custodial sentence.
I will await the result with interest but in the meantime, after last weeks events, it would be fair to say that if anyone was a “Pleb” this year; he was it!