Trolling away…

Is this sort of behaviour from Nadine Dorries (MP for Mid-Bedfordshire) an example of trolling?

What about this tweet from Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan?

I ask because in Ye Olde Days ‘to troll’ meant to post provocative content, often repeatedly, to fish for reactions. What Dorries and Hannan are doing above matches my understanding of “troll” in the early days of messageboards and chat-rooms. Neither example fits into what I understand to be the “new” definition, which could be leading us into trouble.

I appreciate language moves on and develops on-line and off, which is why we say “apps” and “ghost town” rather than “programmes” and “Google +”. But how has troll been adapted and adopted so much that it appears to have become the go-to buzzword for any kind of negative behaviour? Or for that matter any kind of perceived bad behaviour? I don’t remember the day when the definition flipped from ‘mild irritant’ to ‘anybody swearing on the Internet’, and I don’t believe it’s particularly helpful for debate to have the new definition continue unchecked.

As with David Cameron’s attempt to tackle on-line porn with a belief that everything from a thirty-second wanking video to a full three-hour HD clusterfruitcake is the same thing (and therefore MUST BE BANNED *pitchfork*), I fear some people are confusing and conflating all manner of different Internet character traits into one big blob of negativity for the sake of advancing a cause they don’t fully understand. Indeed there’s a danger that those shouting “TROLL” are guilty of trolling themselves, refusing to countenance debate and blocking anybody who questions their logic. It’s a very difficult task to balance defiance with diligence and often those who refuse to enter conversations can be those who shout loudest about fairness, freedom of expression, and the right to free speech.

Let’s be honest about the level of debate on-line, particularly Twitter. It’s not great. This is not quite how the Greeks would have imagined democratic discourse. People get very angry behind keyboards for all manner of reasons – they think the laptop screen is a defense shield, they think the keyboard gives them special powers, they think the Internet is a “leveller”, making celebs, MPs and the like fair game for talking to like anybody else. It’s another “fine line” argument; to what extent to we allow people to swear, insult and flail about and what is the acceptable cut-off point between acceptable responses and unacceptable content?

Calling David Cameron a “cock”, a “cunt”, and a “ham-faced wanker” each and every time he posts a tweet has swiftly become a national hobby. It’s rude and crude and all the rest of it, but it’s generally harmless. It’s not trolling to automatically reach for the f-word, in my opinion, even if it’s right to call it rather childish and unproductive. If you want to discuss the rights and wrongs of D-Cam there are other places to do so on-line, and often with the space to fully express your opinions. The race to be first in an Internet argument has created an unfortunate situation whereby detailed responses are becoming increasingly rare, reducing many discussions into “bad verses good”, “yes verses no”, “right verses wrong” slanging matches. It’s little wonder that the insult “troll” has become just as easy to reach for as “wanker” in places such as Twitter where every letter counts.

But shutting down a conversation/debate/argument with “Whatever, you’re just a troll, bye” is insolence and childishness. The conflation and confusion in the changing definition of “troll” means that it’s all too easy for those idiots who threaten sexual abuse to innocent women to become associated with harmless people who just want an proper debate. It’s much harder to access politicians and celebrities if they use ‘troll’ to mean anybody who dares question their opinion. The Internet would not last long as a place to share ideas and opinions if the high-ups conclude that anyone who tries to debate is piss-taker or potential abuser.

It can mean the act of willingly taking the mickey for fun, just being silly, or poking the hornet’s nest. This is why we have to be careful about using it to justify policing the net.

What Caroline Criado-Perez has gone through just because she lobbied the Bank of England to accept Jane Austen on a banknote is the worst example of abuse. To be threatened with rape because of her campaign is basement level idiocy, grotesque and gruesome. Nobody should have to suffer such an onslaught of knuckle-dragging cuckoo-bananas lunacy. I have no doubt that many of her critics are idiots and trouble-makers without a genuine point to make if they had 1,000 days to think of one. Idiots of the highest order are acting like keyboard warriors, sending bomb threats to journalists for a cheap laugh, much in the same child-like manner that people make prank calls to the police. It’s not a “cheap laugh” at all for the people who have to suffer the constant flow of sludge into their inboxes.

All this said this is where my default position kicks in. I have always felt uneasy whenever I hear about added regulations against free speech. There’s a very serious argument to be had about the future policing of the Internet, whether or not it ends up led by a highly committed group of female rights campaigners with Parliamentary support. I cherish the freedom of speech and right to reply which the Internet allows, just as I cherish the need to fight back against abusive behaviour. This debate may redefine the Internet in the UK forever, which is why I hope we can agree on what exactly “trolling” is before everybody gets the Internet they wished for…

Bundle into Leveson

MPs of a certain type like to whip up problems which don’t exist, don’t they?

Remember when Nadine Dorries, the poster girl for Conservative MPs who don’t get out much, claimed that some of her colleagues were suicidal at the height of the expenses scandal? We didn’t get much evidence of this claim, though it underlined the reputation of some backbenchers for being ‘outliers’ of a wider unease about members of the press daring to shine lights into the Westminster village.

From Dorries to Gove, a leap of some imagination which might be hard to stomach before breakfast. The cerebral Michael Gove is the Education Secretary who talks and acts like it’s still the back to basics era 1990s Conservative Government of whom he’s a part, wanting to strengthen the national curriculum so as to introduce poetry by rote, time tables by the hour and Latin lessons from an early age. Now I’m in favour of re-introducing foreign languages in schools – it was a daft idea by Labour to scrap compulsory lessons – it’s just everything else about Gove that makes me feel uneasy. It’s conservatism with a big C and slight sneer, and when he’s not making teachers reach for the anonymous blogs, he’s making Lord Leveson reach for the coffee.

Gove and Leveson didn’t quite hit it off, to put it mildly. Just as Dorries tried to suggest that revealing the truth about expenses was somehow a bad thing because MPs were feeling their collars, Gove has tried to imply that Leveson is putting freedom of speech under trail. The Daily Mail which broke the story has followed it up with more soundbites from Tory MPs, including the self-styled libertarian Douglas Carswell. The result of all this is to add, in a drip-drip style of hints, allegations and suggestions, that the Leveson recommendations will be placed on a high shelf or within tall grass. This might not surprise more cynical readers, and “questioning David Cameron’s sincerity” isn’t exactly difficult.

I’m reminded of Tony Blair’s attitude towards Lords Reform, taking his friend Roy Jenkins’ Lords Reform and throwing it into quicksand. Cameron may well be doing the same with the press inquiry, sending out people like Gove to hint about his true intentions. As much as Leveson has been illuminating, MPs tend not to like bright lights shone amongst the darkest shadows.

Gove might think that the consequences to freedom of speech are ‘chilling’, but that’s only because he’s looking at the issue from the wrong way round. The lack of respect in this field encouraged the press to run feral and politicians to hide behind locked doors. Gove shouldn’t be criticising the process by which improvements are made to the machine; if sausages look grim whilst being made, look away until they turn up on a plate at breakfast, Mr Gove!

I’m not so fresh faced and naive to think that all will be well after Leveson. The relationship between the press, politicians and police will always be intertwined as much as before. But most people observing Leveson has seen green shoots of improvement throughout the processes, and would be knocked back further away from taking politicians seriously (and that’s not exactly registering high on any marker of late) if the end result of this is business as usual.  The press went far beyond what was expected in the pursuit of stories, and far beyond what was expected in their relationship with elected officials. If Leveson changes this attitude amongst those estates that are – and are not – answerable to voters, Mr Gove need to celebrate rather than snipe.

Remember, Gove, that freedom of speech was under threat by Labour’s constant attacks on civil liberties, and it was the formation of the Coalition which was supposed to safeguard personal freedoms. If Leveson was just a smokescreen, I fear Cameron didn’t really want you to blow so hard that we could see through the fog.  

Mayoral stage show

It may have passed you by – or like most sane individuals you’ve decided to spend more constructive time contemplating how paint dries on different surfaces – but this May the good burghers of London are choosing their next Mayor.

One aspect of the contest which has turned the event into a Grade A Disaster is the attraction of all the candidates towards farce. There’s an argument in a lift or a Lord mouthing off on Twitter or the like, and all in the glare of camera lenses and very few actual voters.

That British National Party nominee, Carlos Cortiglia, represents a party that has been in long-term decline. In the aftermath of Nick Griffin’s disastrous appearance on BBC Question Time, the party has seen a collapse in its membership numbers and willing candidates to stand in elections. At the 2010 General Election, Griffin himself finished third in the Barking constituency, with no other candidate coming even close to matching that result. As a consequence of the perceived lack of direction within the BNP, this year’s festival of democracy across the UK, incorporating local elections in Scotland, Wales, hundreds of councils in England and inaugural mayoral elections in Liverpool and Salford, the total number of candidates standing under that party’s label is reportedly down by 80%.

That doesn’t mean the fight against the far-right has been defeated. A clump of micro-parties and grouplets have sprung up across England and Scotland as a result of the BNP’s terminal decline. From Britannia in Glasgow to the British Freedom Party in Liverpool, there are still fights to be had against the ignorance and idiocy of racial prejudice. The BNP are bust, their message is not. Such groups as the English Defence League and their touring circus of tracksuited clowns through the provincial high streets of the country, continues to attract support amongst the on-line hoards of anti-everything types.

Granting these micro-parties credibility is a stretch of anybody’s character. The BNP has not been defeated solely by protesters and campaigners: they’ve done it to themselves, too, infighting over scraps and breadcrumbs amongst themselves like so many children left alone to their own devices. Griffin was not brought down solely by Unite Against Fascism or Hope Not Hate; the slow puncture of his career has been that way out for years.

This week we got the latest twist in the London Mayoral election – an orchestrated no-platform exercise led by the struggling Ken Livingstone. As the tweets below indicate, there has been almost universal support of the no-platform decision:

I am not so full of congratulation and praise. There is something about “no-platform” which irks and annoys. Not that I’d agree with the BNP about anything usually – I’d argue against Griffin that grass is green and water is wet if I had to – it’s just the first word that comes to mind is the same one they’ve used; ‘childish’. Are we really still convinced that the BNP is such a credible threat that we have to empty chair them at every possibility? Does this not allow the remaining rump of that party to claim ‘victimhood’ and campaign on that basis?

The words “democracy” and “freedom of speech” are not merely scrawled terms on flashcards, they are precious concepts we need to fight for and cherish. Nothing good comes from making the case for a ‘better’ or ‘more valuable’ democracy on either side of the political spectrum. Jeremy Corbyn congratulates Ken Livingstone for refusing to share a platform with the BNP as though it is a triumph for democracy: if we discount the fact that this suggests the BNP have much credibility left in the first place, it still comes across as though Corbyn and Livingstone are proud of treating their idea of democracy as being purer than any other.

“We are more democratic than you,” is not a debating point, it’s masturbation.

There’s something about the way in which the BNP is treated that suggests people have not realised that the party has little selling power left. There are other threats on the far-right which are in danger of being allowed to flourish: the EDL marches and rise of the numerous grouplets show that there’s still battles to be fought across the country. All the BNP’s remaining living members can do now is point at the other candidates and ask “Who are those who threaten democracy if we are the only ones willing to have a debate?”

As the current Coalition is proving, having any kind of relationship with political rivals is difficult. There will always be awkward compromises and falling out. The “no platform” attitude amongst the Mayoral candidates shows that there remains an attitude against this political reality, one which takes the debate to rivals rather than hiding away through a misunderstood form of ‘pride’. The democratic thing to do – indeed, the mature thing to have done – is to have allowed Carlos Cortiglia to hang himself by his own words. We all know that the BNP and the micro-parties which its destruction has created have about as much credibility as Mark Lawrenson’s Premier League predictions every week, so why risk handing them publicity by having a strop in the name of ‘democracy’?

Londoners have a choice of seven candidates, all of whom can appear on television, radio or through leaflets at any given hour of the day. There is no greater or lesser chance of Cortiglia making his message heard by ‘no platforming’ a single debate. If the other candidates believe in their own policies for the next four years, they should be willing to take that debate to the airwaves regardless of who they might be close to in a studio or near to in a lift (even if that threatens to get Boris and Ken in a tizz again).

Let’s not celebrate an unwillingness to debate with political enemies as a success for democracy. In the wider context, it makes those who stay on the stage appear more credible than those running for the door.

Everything to fear

Back in 2008, Labour’s Jacqui Smith explained why it was ‘vital’ to monitor email, internet and other communication use. That plan was eventually dumped, though its ghost has been hanging around Westminster and GCHQ for some time. Somebody called ‘Chris Huhne’ (where he now?) slammed the plans as being “incompatible” with living in a free country. Back in 2009, Jo Swinson   rightly criticised plans to snoop on social media users.

But what now for these Liberal Democrat MPs, and others, who are not in Opposition any more, as time has moved on and plans to create databases of everything typed, texted and crammed into 140 characters is drawn up by Coalition partners? To what extent has the dynamic changed between the instinctive liberal belief in civil liberties and the responsibilities inherent in being the junior partner in a Government? One hopes the dynamic has not changed at all: all Liberal Democrat MPs, regardless of proximity to the Cabinet table, must reject these proposals outright.

Labour have little wiggle room with this. The party who came up with the plans in the first place have an embarrassing record on civil liberties and freedom of speech, regarding these as optional extras. Under Blair and Brown, Labour were amongst the most authoritarian government this country has ever seen – ID Cards, DNA database, locking up children without charge and driving tanks onto the tarmac of Heathrow airport in the name of ‘counter terrorism’. Successive Home Secretaries attempted to outdo each other in their ‘tough stance’ on civil liberties, out-Torying each other as they went. John Reid relished becoming more of a Conservative Home Secretary than any of his predecessors, concluding that the ‘not fit for purpose’ Home Office should be beefed up, toughened out. Labour were enemies of civil liberties, making the decision by Theresa May to scrap controversial stop and search laws  and control orders within months of coming into power all the more remarkable – when the Conservatives are in charge relaxing civil liberty laws, you should be worried about the extent to which you were extreme.

This snooping law proposal is obscene, a return to the dark Labour days, and must be resisted. The ‘internet community’ showed how dangerous SOPA laws would be for intellectual properties;  it must now do the same for freedom of expression. “Nothing to hide, nothing to fear” is an obscene parody of the danger inherent in these plans. GCHQ is unaccountable, unreachable, yet Ministers feel it right to allow the tentacles of that agency to reach out of your phones, laptops and tablet devices like so many scenes from 1980s horror movies: licking your ears, sewing up your mouths, stealing the words from your fingers as you type. This is not “safeguarding freedom”,  this is theft of your thoughts, your ideas, your opinions. There can be nothing more idiotic than this concept of ‘safeguarding’ by way of making freedom less certain, less secure. Remember the lie “if we change our way of life, the terrorists win?”.  This would be the terrorists “winning”.

The words of George Orwell are so often invoked in cases like that so as to lessen the impact. Make no mistake about the lessons from history, especially those written not solely as fiction but as a warning.

I am liberal by instinct (you wouldn’t want to choose being liberal, it’s like consciously choosing to be gay or an Aston Villa supporter).  My suspicion about Governments of all colours comes from their actions – as their words are often blocked by FOI requests and firewalls. Labour were rightly beaten by good sense and reason as they continued their assault on freedom of speech, but the Hydra in Westminster tends to have skin which is coloured red and blue: one hopes, beyond all hope, that there’s no orange. Liberal Democrat MPs must ensure these proposals are voted down and out at every opportunity. Not just on the broad brush “freedom of expression” motion but from each and every angle – legitimacy, cost, reason, sense, achievement. How can this forever morphing ‘war on terror’ have shaped itself into an attack on the millions of innocent British people using email, chat rooms, message boards, Twitter? What justification can there be  to ‘root out’ the bad guys by having everyone clicked ‘suspicious’ like so many Minesweeper boxes flagged for uncertainty?

This has not been a good few weeks for the Coalition, so anything which manages to knock down the reputation yet further must be a hum-dinger of a plan. This stinks to the highest heavens from the lowest sewers of the Big Brother tendencies within the Home Office. We’ve been here too many times recently, the shadow of ‘terrorism’ seeping into proposals like so much bonfire smoke in the eyes. We cannot allow this plan to happen – it’s disproportionate, it’s alien to British values and it’s just plain old damned wrong. Real time monitoring of conversations – just read that phrase out loud! – is not the act of a Government that respects its people. It’s the act of a Government out of control. We are a better people than that. Resistance must start now.

news of the screws

When the on-line world exploded into hurried and manic hysteria over footballers and their unruly bedroom hopping, easily banded about words and phrases bounced around social media sites in a frenzy of keyboard tapping. “Freedom of speech,” said some. “Right to know!”.

Tabloid journalism has not always been so salacious or controversial. The British press changed, for good and for ever, around 1968 with Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the News of the World and, one year later, The Sun. The rest, as they say, is pretty much history. The more these red-tops and others like it became more sensational, scandalous, gossip-driven, an increased desire to read more stories like it grew amongst the general public. “Freedom of speech,” came back the reply whenever shocking content blared out from the newsagents shelves – photos of Princess Diana at the gym? Right to know. Readers like this sort of thing. We want to know. And, deep down, we all probably did.

After all, said the blokes down the Cricketers Arms, the tabloids are decent enough for the footie and some tits on Page 3, tomorrow’s chip-paper doesn’t have any lasting harm on those in the public eye. “Right to know!” cry us all when politicians are hauled up for their shortcomings, or one television celebrity is found cheating on another. One industry fuels another, and at massive profits for all sides, the chase for more and more headlines for increasing readers and advertising money is an insatiable rush. Drugs provide lesser hits than the journalists need for one more story above his colleagues and rivals.

Last night, the Guardian reported that News of the World journalists hacked into – and deleted messages from – the mobile phone of missing girl Milly Dowler . Condemnation has been, by and large, across the spectrum. To hack into the mobile phones of politicians, singers, footballers – that was something, one level of questionable behaviour, morally dubious, stupid behaviour for which resignations must follow. We all tutted and shook our heads.

This new revelation goes beyond “morally dubious”. If as true as reported, the acts of those involved are nigh-on depraved (and potentially perverting the course of justice). Milly Dowler’s parents took the removal of voicemail messages as a sign, however small, that their daughter was still alive. It is beyond all reasonable considerations for most sane, rounded individuals that anybody could consider the deleting of messages to be justified in the search of a story.

We are, let us admit and concede, all hungry for scandal, shock, something new in the ongoing storylines of life. When I blogged about the celebrity injunctions earlier this year, search terms “injunction footballer” and “footballer named on Have I Got News For You” landed people here in the desperate search for the identity of the man involved. Despite the outrage over paparazzi behaviour, the death of Diana, hounding of her children, sales for Royal Wedding special editions soared. The “public interest” excuse feeds the tabloids, and the tabloids feed us.

The Milly Dowler revelations reach far beyond anything connected with a journo’s desire for an exclusive. This may be the product of the twisted relationship between public and press, but that cannot be used as even fleeting justification. Plain wrong, from top to bottom, now would be a very good time for somebody with Government (Mssrs Hunt, Cameron, Cable, we look to you) to ensure News International are blocked from gaining any more ground on the UK’s media market. This episode was bleak enough; the stench of distaste should not permeate any further.

Lifestyles of the Censored and Redacted

Some of you may recall the time Jack Straw found himself embroiled in an unusual tabloid newspaper scandal. He had taken his son – William Straw – to a police station to ‘shop him in’ for selling cannabis. A court ruling blocked newspapers in England and Wales from reporting the story. The press in Scotland could report the story without any problem, though this meant national broadcasters could not review the Scottish papers for fear of breaking the law. With the Internet very different to how it is today, such a story limped on, impeded by the strength of the legal system blocking an industry’s ability to print the news.

Fast-forward to today, and the Straw incident seems to much innocent and forgiving. We now live in the age of the “super injunction” whilst the so-called “hyper injunction” is already in use in some jurisdictions. The two well known early examples involve John Terry, and the Guardian newspapers remarkable Trafigura story. In both cases, media outlets were initially unable to report what had been blocked, or why it had been blocked, or who was involved on either side of the case. The Guardian’s front page at the time resembled a Kafka post-it note. “Somebody rang, can’t say who, or why, or their number, or for whom they’d called.”

The details from the legal document are worth summarising here –

Trafigura’s lawyers, Carter-Ruck, produced an extraordinary legal document, whereby they persuaded a judge to not just suppress a confidential and potentially embarrassing document, but also to deny anyone even mentioning the existence of the court proceedings and court order.

This week, Conservative MP and author Louise Bagshawe found herself brought into the latest injunction farce, during recording of the BBC programme Have I Got News For You. During the “odd one out” round (featuring Person A, Person B, Person C, and Person D), Bagshawe mentioned a footballer “whose name definitely does not rhyme with….” and the sound was cut. (Memories of the “Are you a friend of Peter Mandleson” episodes, of course).

In these very contemporary cases, the injunctions have only just managed to hold. Bloggers and tweeters have navigated themselves around the blocks like speed-skaters. It took only a number of Google searches to find the name of Trafigura (though remember that the legal block had initially forbid even Hansard from printing related questions, wrapping ties around freedoms within and beyond Parliament). The current injunction relating to “a family-man footballer whose name rhymes with such-and-such” is all the more bewildering because the person with whom he shaked up can have her name and face and womanly bits flashed all over the tabloids (Imogen Thomas, and no, I hadn’t heard of her either) whilst the footballer has the ”freedom” to live in anonymity.

Keyboard warriors have been tip-toeing around the legal injunctions in an act of defiance ever since they were first used. Identifying the footballer (well, footballers) is not difficult at all, just as identifying Trafigura was child’s play. This does not mean the courts are powerless against the First Twitter Corps. To coin a phrase, there’s many things we don’t know we don’t know.

The mood music is not melodic. The press is losing its fight against institutions and companies who can afford not to care. We tend to question the “might of the press” and rightly criticise the tabloid media’s moral high-ground and grandstanding. It’s easy to mock the morals of the redtops – chain up the pedos and look at this cheeky up-skirt pap shot. How far away from the press do we stand in the fight between privacy and press freedom? Can any celebrity – usually men – demand and expect privacy on their own terms?

We feed and fear the beast, the core problem in this entire issue. Investigative journalism still brings in the stories for the quality presses and tabloids alike – the “he is shagging her” breadcrumbs may make the headlines for being under injunctions, chances are the real scandals will never be uncovered. Beyond the locked doors and along the corridors sings the silent truths hidden and locked away. Our press may not always be moral, but they are free; injunctions of the strength, breadth and depth as we see today are compromising that freedom. Lawyers over-riding Parliament is one thing (and is sometimes greeted with pleasure and applause). But journalists?

It is very dangerous for the might of a lawyers hand to flatten both Parliament and the Press. It is not uncomfortable ground to inhabit – the whistle blowers and freedom-fighters and investigators at the heart of truth as much as Parliamentarians. This is much more than “[][][][][][][][][][] and [][][][][][][][][] have conducted a private affair.” At the core of this is covering up as much light as corporations can afford (and that’s a lit, enough to exhaust Professor Brian Cox of all his superlatives and metaphor). Choosing sides in arguments is not always easy. It’s difficult when the only right and moral choice includes tabloid journalists and Members of Parliament. Enemies closer and all that…

Complexity of Freedom

Historical author and my former Media Studies comrade Faye Booth sent me a hum-dinger of a question the other day. What differences could I find between the recent spate of Facebook groups created to applaud murderer Raoul Moat, and the Jan Moir article questioning the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gatley.

At first glance, the question seemed particularly easy to answer. Rough draft paragraphs were drawn up, Blogger booted up, and my typing fingers prepared to drift and dance across the keyboard. That is until the question and its consequential matters of interest drifted into my mind as I contemplated the issues from all sides. At the very core of the question is the concept of “freedom of speech”, which stumped me with its paradoxical characteristics. “Freedom of speech” is tangible and concrete, certain and abstract. To my slight personal horror, I could not speak up for the Raoul Moat “Legend” groups without doing the same for Jan Moir.

Moir wrote, in an article published in the Daily Mail one day before Gatley’s funeral, a piece littered with innuendo and inaccuracies. Her piece implied that his natural death was nothing of the sort, suggesting that his “lifestyle” (with trademark Daily Mail inverted commas) was responsible for him dying. “Otherwise” healthy young men, she wrote, doubtlessly enjoying using the word “otherwise”, do not walk up stairs to bed without coming back downstairs again.

The piece caused a furore on-line and eventually across the country. Record numbers of people wrote to the Press Complaints Commission, which ultimately vindicated Moir. Her opinions were almost universally panned; it was an article which jeered and sneered, presuming the coroner’s report and insulting the fans of a man who had not yet been buried. Although the Daily Mail allowed comments on the piece, the tone was generally negative. At the time of the PCC response, I blogged an article criticising the manner in which newspapers are governed.

During the search for gunman Raoul Moat, the social networking sites Twitter and Facebook filled with comments and opinions. Some were sarcastic and ironic, cheering the man who was successfully evading the Northumberland Constabulary after killing one man and seriously injuring his former girlfriend and a police officer. Inevitably, comments on-line were not always in the best of taste. His letter-writing and success at evading the police hunt created a number of jokes, with internet memes created placing Moat in a Halo-style game and a 1980s style text-based computer programme. .

Facebook users did their bit by creating the now infamous group “RIP Moat – You Legend”. Whether entirely serious or not, the group nevertheless attracted comments from people who either genuinely expressed condolences or wanted to attack the police. Comments such as “Fuck da police, gd on ya Moaty” and “No police ever gonna gun u down” were amongst the earliest postings. Former MP George Galloway on BBC Question Time suggested these comments were indicative of a constituency of white, working class Britons who had no respect of authorities. I agree to an extent; the “Legend” groups and others like it show there is a large gap between the commentariat’s assumption of ‘respect’ and reality in the country.

Faye’s question asked me to explain how the Moir article stood against the concept of ‘freedom of speech’ while the Moat groups were acceptable using the ‘freedom’ defence. Nobody on any side of the political spectrum stands on a platform promising restrictions on ‘freedom of speech’. It is one of the most important, vital elements of our democracy. Moir, a journalist of some repute, has every right to publish an opinion piece just as anyone can create a provocative or controversial Facebook group. But why did Moir’s article cause so much negative comment while the Legend group was defended as ‘right’ in a democracy?

Is it an internet thing? Whenever censorship of the ‘net is suggested, the on-line community flares up in protest. Any hint of a Facebook group being ordered closed gets the instant reaction of outrage and horror. If the “Legend” groups began as articles in a magazine, would the support have been any less vocal? Had the groups been called something else – just “The Raoul Moat Group” ? – would the media and politicians gone into such overdrive?

Moir’s article was almost universally derided, and in my opinion rightly so. However in the context of the Moat groups, the derision seems somehow different. Is hindsight reminding us that the Voltaire principle of ‘freedom of speech’ doesn’t always fit when really scrutinised? Is the difference merely content – Moir insulted homosexuals while the Moat groups are almost too preposterous to be taken seriously?

Walking around these past few days considering the question has resulted in no clear conclusions. I wanted to continue sticking up two fingers against Moir, only now to stand up for the Moat groups as an example of acceptable opinion giving forces me to do the same for Moir. She was wrong, and admitted as much in a guarded apology. The Moat groups are in bad-taste, I have no doubt about that. I just cannot feel comfortable agreeing with the suggestion that the Moat groups have to be taken down when we live in a country where expression of opinions is a birth-right.

As an open-minded soul on the centre-left of politics, I stand against prejudice and censorship. So where does that put me on this question? Faye…I don’t know.

Your Freedoms, our opportunity…

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg today launched “Your Freedom”, to help collate ideas for the Coalition’s “Great Repeal Bill”.

Clear proof that this Government is serious about undoing the tangle of authoritarian, civil-liberty hating agenda from the previous Labour administration, this goes another step to disprove the hysterics surrounding the new Government: the Conservative Party are talking with a liberal accent, and long may it continue.

Some of my suggestions, with appropriate links where I could find them (hey, Government websites are not very good STILL, so much for new politics etc).

Freedom to take photographs

There are two popular links to this proposal – by “manwood” and “eafo

It is almost too surreal for words to consider that the police can confiscate a camera – or even arrest the photographer – as a potential ‘terrorist threat’ Even train spotters have been dragged under this paranoid legislation, as though operatives are busying themselves at the end of Platform 4 admiring a Class 150/2 en route to Blackburn. The freedom to take photographs of public spaces is too fundamental to trap under so-called anti-terrorist law. It’s a measure of Labour’s evil streak that they considered it sensible in the first place.

Freedom to live without suspicion

With reference to this from “nothing2hide”

RIPA [Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act] is another watchword for absurd paranoia under Labour, legislation gone feral. You may remember councils checking up on parents during the school run, or people being clocked putting cardboard into glass-can recycle bins, that sort of thing. RIPA is a snooper’s charter, totally at odds with the right to exist without fear of unnecessary surveillance. Its repeal is required as urgently as possible to return some sense of liberty to our daily lives. There are other ways to monitor potential threats without the legislation being misused by bored Town Hall clerks.

Freedom to learn without prayer

From “lousiealmond” comes a popular proposal to free schools from collective prayers and assemblies.

This is not an agenda against Nativity Plays. It simply asks that non-faith schools, especially primary schools, are freed from the necessity to ask children as young as 4 to say “amen” to opinions they may not understand or believe. Parents are able to decide how much religion their children learn at home; they are allowed to opt-out of certain lessons (such as sex education). They should be confident about schools not giving children too much religious teachings if this is against their wishes.

Freedom to smoke cannabis

As seen – perhaps inevitably – by plenty of submissions, with some taken at random being from “pillarofsoc“, and “mikeoldroyd

This is an oldie, but a goodie. By decriminalising and regulating the sale of cannabis, the Government would have a substantial income stream while being able to ensure the quantity and strength of that on sale. It would decrease the “Morrisions car park” branches of NHS Direct to barely a trickle, improve the ability of the police to focus on serious crime prevention, including harder drugs and money laundering. Cannabis has been found to have serious medical consequences, but its use has not fallen by a substantial degree; Government regulation would be the “compromise” between full banning and total legalisation.

Freedom to respect, and be respected by, the police

With reference to suggestions by “getcartnernow” and “sladen”

The powers to stop and search are an important part of police work and crime prevention. Under Labour, and their tag-team Home Secretaries, “Section 44” stop and searches enabled the police to ask anyone, without prejudice, many questions without the need to have a given excuse. Black, Asian, and younger people were targeted like the proverbial pot of jam. “Section 44” is now a watchword for authoritarianism. It cannot be defended if this country wants to be considered an open, liberal society. The paranoid amongst Labour supporters say “If our way of life changes, the terrorists have won”. Clearly they did not look at the legislative history of their own party…

Freedom to enjoy legal highs

As recommended by your good Doktor

We know, now as fact, that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was pretty much ignored by Alan Johnson during the ‘drone controversy. Wanting a quick headline on the back of tabloid hysteria, legal highs such as methedrone were banned. Websites selling the substance reported their highest ever takings; they vanished from the web within hours of the ban taking place. Drone was found to be directly responsible for one death – regrettable as one death is, it is nothing compared to the deaths linked to excessive drinking, smoking, or even deaths on the road. The Advisory Council must now return to this issue, allowing users who already “self regulate” and “self police” far more than people realise to use their drug of choice free from State control unless it is proven utterly unsafe to do so.

I have been distracted by other very good ideas – repeal the extreme pornography laws, allow voting across a weekend, set up an English parliament. Now all I hope for – all we all hope, perhaps – is that the Coalition are able to take these suggestions through the House of Commons before 2015. This is our best opportunity for many years to influence the tone of Government. Labour liked to tuck us all up and tell us ghost stories.

May the Coalition bring some light into the room…

Toothless PCC "protects" homophobia

Yesterday’s Daily Mail included an article from Jan Moir entitled “Why there was nothing ‘natural’ about Stephen Gately’s death”. The inverted commas are not my doing; they were in the article.

Included in the piece was the quite bizarre and rather offensive observation;

Whatever the cause of death is, it is not, by any yardstick, a natural one”

Moir then continued to pour scorn and homophobic derision on the late Gately on the eve of his funeral. Clearly this article was the result of a tight deadline and undiluted ignorant prejudice. Her article questioned how a 33-year old man could possibly die of “natural causes”, suggesting that the death was “sleazy”.

Like so many people – the latest figure is around 1,000 – I contacted the Press Complaints Commission to lodge my concern at the article’s content. That Moir shows signs of homophobia was not my primary concern; the PCC “Code of Conduct” was breached (particularly Clauses 5 i), 12, i) and ii), and 3 i)) and like so many people I felt it necessary to draw the PCC’s attention to these breaches.

What occurred, and has been picked up by various bloggers and magazines in the 24-hour period since, is the clearest sign of the toothless-tiger that is the Press Complaints Commission.

The PCC sent an email to anyone who forwarded their complaints that, in most cases, “third parties” cannot complain about specific articles concerning individual people. Pink News magazine says;

However, the body’s remit does not include offensiveness and it is likely that action can be taken only if Gately’s family complain.

If anything comes from this complaint it may not even be published; the PCC is not required to publish its findings.

I am no Boyzone fan, and the only time I have ever listened to Gately’s “New Beginnings” single is when an orchestrated version was used at a Liberal Democrat Conference in Southport. My problem with the article, and the problems felt by so many, is how the article was merely an unchecked and unbalanced prejudiced rant. There was no concept or requirement to stick within the rules of the PCC Code of Conduct. Stephen Fry said, via his Twitter feed, “I gather a repulsive nobody writing in a paper no one of any decency would be seen dead with has written something loathsome and inhumane.”

If the PCC cannot push the Daily Mail into publishing an apology or fining Ms Moir, then its Code of Conduct is meaningless. The voluntary scheme it operates has no function in an age where social media and blogging sites can whip up far more support far quicker for situations like this. Press freedom is absolutely paramount in any developed Western democracy, and is not under threat from a tribe of Tweeting liberals. However the Daily Mail and Jan Moir got their freedom of speech completely upside-down yesterday, while probably knowing nevertheless that the PCC could do nothing to stop them from keeping the article on-line.

Homophobic attitudes are not “in the past”. Like so many prejudices they cannot be completely wiped off the face of the planet for prejudice and value judgements are part of human nature. On the football terraces and in the clubs and at the water-coolers people will make statements that could attract the fabled ‘politically correct brigade’ and as a proud democrat I do not want to wander around the country slapping injunctions on anyone who thinks that a situation is “a bit gay” on the grounds of gender-hate. Jan Moir is an extreme example, however, a woman whose article did more than just question the details of Gately’s death. In implying that somehow being gay was the cause – with more than a hint of Chris Morris’ ‘good AIDS/bad AIDS’ – she was allowed a national platform to print an article of innuendo and offense at the worst possible time.

There is a thick line of decency under which is prejudice, over which is freedom of speech. The PCC are lying on the line unable to comment on anything which falls beneath it. To tighten up the rules governing press content in the spirit of OFCOM and ASA rules is surely a pressing priority to maintain the right to live however one chooses in this day and age. The Daily Mail should publish an apology for Moir’s article immediately.