A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Free speech and the twitterati

Neil Pickford ponders more matters of moment

I’ve been brooding a lot recently – in fact I could have applied for a job as a Gordon Brown lookalike, so intense was this brooding.

Well, there’s only so much time you want to spend with your model railway when the Flying Scotsman keeping derailing at the same irregular bit of track and you’re not allowed to pick up even the lightest hammer to level it.  So I’ve been on the internet, following all aspects of the great Lord McAlpine false accusation story with great interest (I was getting very bored as well). And I was delighted when I learned of the panic invading the lives of those who repeated a libel against the man via the medium of Twitter.

Now I have to admit that I have an instinctive dislike of Twitter.  If I was out for a meal with someone who was in the habit of twitting their lives in frequent bursts of no more than 140 characters then they would probably find their last entry for that evening would be along the lines of: “Whoops, ‘Sad face’. Someone is about to grab my ………. ”

When I read about the first couple who decided to celebrate their wedding by each twitting: “Just got married to gorgeous Mr/Mrs Self-Absorbed Twit” while standing at the altar I was outraged. Even more so when I discovered the vicar had also been twitting: “Have just married Mr and Mrs Self-Absorbed Twit.”

I know the church has to reach out to the modern world but that struck me as going approximately 25 steps far too far.

So reading that various ‘celebrities’ such as the fatuous Sally Bercow or the not particularly amusing Alan Davies may actually be sued for breaking a very serious law of libel that the printed media has had to live with for centuries has given me a decided thrill. Their practice of twitting using their thumbs not their brains may have finally brought electronic communications in line with the old-fashioned printed media – and that’s not a bad thing.

You see, up until now, twittering has been regarded as just a sort of electronic form of chattering –something light hearted for here and now. However, that’s no longer true. Thanks to the modern cult of celebrity these gossiping individuals can actually boast more readers than the Hull Daily Mail, so if they accuse someone, without evidence, of performing a criminal act then they are making this allegation known to more people than the local newspaper would.

It’s also not as if this is just casual chiff-chaff that vanishes as soon as it’s uttered – the electronic record continues to exist and can be easily copied and passed on to thousands of other people.  But while unsubstantiated allegations of criminality would cost the HDM a considerable and very painful pile of money in damages Twits have got away with it – until now.

So, although I am, in general principle, totally in favour of free speech I also find that this grates with the fact that, for nearly 40 years I have worked within the restraints of the laws of libel, and I don’t see why venomous airheads or ‘trolls’ shouldn’t have to either, just because their medium is electronic rather than print (and digitally broadcast radio and TV are electronic these days as well, and newspapers are available on-line aren’t they, so where’s the dividing line?)

Not very libertarian of me I know but, as I mentioned above, I’ve been brooding a lot recently. And why have I been brooding?

Partly because in my own little corner of the virtual world: I have gathered all my 200+ defamation-free articles, and I haven’t got a single follower – not even my own mother.

Yes, alright, I admit it. I’m jealous too.


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