I’m worried. It’s been quite an eventful few days for the media, with much talk of changing rules, the exercise of reader power, and democratisation of opinion. If you’re reading this, it’s safe to assume you’ll be aware of the Trafigura case, the uproar over Jan Moir’s Daily Mail article on Stephen Gately’s death and the conversations around both.
Let’s just take a step back from the specifics of whether we agree or disagree with the individuals or organisations in each case and try and think about some general principles. I’m trying to, and it’s why I’m getting worried.
Back in June, I posted in the aftermath of the NightJack case in which a blogger lost a legal battle to remain anonymous. In the post, I wrote: “You can’t base a principle on whether or not you agree with something – a principle has to apply across the board. You can’t agree with one person’s ‘right’ to run an anonymous blog criticising something you are critical of while simultaneously disagreeing with another person’s ‘right’ to hide behind anonymity in order to push views you don’t agree with.” After the NightJack ruling, the [desperately tries to avoid using ‘blogosphere’] online community was up in arms about this loss of anonymity, yet last week that same community was celebrating using the fluid structure of online and social media to unmask a company that tried to stay anonymous.
Now, I know there is a big difference between the two cases. To reduce it to a simple equation, in one case a whistleblower was exposed and others perhaps warned off blowing the whistle, while in the other it was the attempt to silence the whistle that was wrecked. And yet I can’t quite get comfortable about whether there is a solid underlying principle, other than that it’s OK to unmask a nasty oil company behaving badly, but not someone who is criticising something we may also be critical of. I would genuinely welcome some guidance here.
Attack of the 50ft bloggers
In fact the Trafigura case, it transpires, may not have been as much of a harbinger of a new era as some, including me, at first speculated. As the dust settles, quite a few commentators are asking if it really was Twitter wot won it. Nyder O’Leary posts in a punchy fashion on his realreview.ie blog, pointing out that “By far the most important part of the whole affair was a pretty old standard – if you can’t publish, get an MP to ask about it under Parliamentary Privilege and then report on that.” The question that began to be asked increasingly frequently after Trafigura was “How long before an individual is maliciously targetted in this way?”
Which leads us to Jan Moir’s now notorious article. I’m not going to link to it because it’s had more than enough publicity already, and it’s easy enough to find without my help. Personally, I found it pretty distasteful, this is my blog, so I don’t feel any responsibility to give space to something that’s badly informed and offensive. We’ve got Question Time for that.
I disagree too with FleetStreetBlue’s In Defence of Jan Moir and the Daily Mail post (I’m hoping my comment gets approved) which, while making some good points, essentially seems to be ignoring the fact that expressing an opinion means the writer should be prepared to have opinion expressed about their views. But FSB does touch on something with the sentence “The Twitterati vigilantes have got their tails up.” Because there is much self-congratulation being expressed over the fact that a vigorous online and social media campaign has got the advertising pulled from Moir’s column.
A small step to commercial censorship
I’m not against boycott campaigns in principle, and I’ve often advocated and participated in campaigns to apply commercial pressure to influence policy, but I get worried when the tactic is used in this way. It doesn’t seem so very different to the US networks cancelling Barry Levinson’s excellent series Homicide: Life on the Streets a few years back because it was deemed too political.
The more I think about all this, the more the phrase “mob rule” crops up. For all that increased access to the means of producing media, the online shrinking of the world and greater response and participation are good things – and facts which cannot now be made unfacts – there is plenty of cause for worry about just where all this will lead. John Mair has raised the issue in a well-timed piece on The rise of smart or not-so-smart mobs, concluding with the vital question “Is this healthy for democracy and media accountability or not?”.
As things stand, I think I am right to be worried.