Our medieval hangover continues and Britain’s leading scandal of the day naturally features two lords. The first is Lord Alistair McAlpine: a former advisor to the Thatcher government, whom a recent investigation by the BBC’s Newsnight had wrongly implicated in a child abuse scandal at a Wrexham care home. McAlpine was not identified in the original Newsnight story due to Britain’s libel laws – even though they potentially licensed his naming – but he was increasingly associated with the story on Twitter. The elderly and infirm aristocrat was consequently reviled as a paedophile by hundreds of Twitter contestants. It took almost a week before the Guardian newspaper resolved to investigate the story, whereupon it promptly fell apart. Newsnight’s only witness had mistaken the lord for somebody else.
Enter our second lord, or at least shudder as his shadow falls across the stage. Lord Justice Brian Leveson is currently writing a report on the freedom of the press in this country. We generally find this acceptable because the word “Lord” sounds pleasantly quaint and wholesome. In any other country, the prospect of somebody who is unelected making decisions about the extent of the public’s liberty would be regarded as somewhat more sinister.
For our MPs, the McAlpine debacle clinches the point that we are suffering from too much freedom. The internet is out of control, Twitter is grossly irresponsible, and the state needs to intervene to regulate everything, with the fine, subtle mind of Lord Leveson ironing out the details. Newspaper editors have themselves capitulated, offering their own collective self-censorship as a more liberal alternative to statutory regulation. It has come to something when the deputy PM Nick Clegg has to explicitly reassure us that any regulation of the media will not be conducted by politicians, but he otherwise condemns the treatment of McAlpine as “trial by Twitter.” The Tory MP Conor Burns has been vociferous in rattling his sabre:
Lord McAlpine’s reputation was in tatters last week because people were able to post things with complete impunity on the internet. We are going to have to bring Facebook and Twitter under the same laws as libels committed by newspapers or television channels.
Just imagine, however, that there had been no libel laws to begin with. Newsnight would have openly accused McAlpine of paedophilia. Within hours, the lord’s side would have issued a furious and detailed rebuttal. Twitter would have remained undecided. Newsnight itself would have been forced to defend its story and clarify its evidence. Suspicious journalists would have begun to question the credibility of Newsnight’s only witness, the agenda of the journalist who had researched and presented the investigation, and the fact that the same allegations had been repudiated in the past. McAlpine would have been reading his apology over breakfast the next morning.
Instead, McAlpine or his earthly representatives remained bizarrely silent, whilst a bubble of speculation and innuendo about the lord’s past was allowed to inflate on Twitter. In retrospect, it looks almost like a trap. McAlpine’s name was trending whilst mainstream journalists were restrained by the fear of being abandoned by their own newspapers. I would not usually give the Guardian journalist George Monbiot the time of day, but at least he had the cojones to name McAlpine (if purely out of mischief) and nudge this name into the light. After six days, the situation had become as preposterous as it was agonising. The Guardian finally popped the bubble and named McAlpine. Now you could not find a microscopic creature who is still maintaining that McAlpine is a paedophile.
And Conor Burns claims that we should “bring Facebook and Twitter under the same laws as libels committed by newspapers and television channels.” I would suggest that he means the opposite.
The ultimate trouble has been too little freedom of speech, not too much. And one of the ugliest aspects of the McAlpine disaster has been the tendency amongst our legislators to dismiss the average Twitter user as a yob – an irresponsible and loutish gossipmonger – when the Twitter bubble was predominantly inflated by the “serious” mainstream media, who were themselves frustrated by McAlpine’s prospective recourse to legal protection. In other words, the emerging free press was destabilised by the old regulated press. Lord Leveson should not print out that report quite yet.