Last week was not a happy one for the media. It was a week in which the voice of the mob tended to drown out the voice of reason. First there was Jan Moir, and then there was Nick Griffin.
Jan Moir happens to be a fellow columnist of mine on the Daily Mail. I know her only slightly. My impression is that she is very far indeed from being the bigoted homophobe she has been made out to be. Nevertheless, her column on the death of the homosexual pop star Stephen Gately evidently offended a lot of people. In a second column last Friday she apologised to the pop singer's friends and family for the timing of her piece.
At one time or another most columnists write articles whose tone or timing they may subsequently regret. I certainly have. In the pre-internet age there was little comeback. Disgruntled readers could pen angry letters, which are easy for a newspaper to play down or ignore. There have been rare occasions when people have demonstrated against a newspaper for taking a point of view or following a certain editorial line. Until now, though, they have had been unable to strike back with such force.
The internet in general and Twitter in particular have changed all that. The Jan Moir case shows that a group of people who feel they have been maligned can quickly organise themselves to put pressure on a newspaper or an individual columnist for expressing a point of view it dislikes. Bloggers even caused Marks & Spencer to withdraw an advertisement alongside Jan Moir's article on Mail Online. In the past, people who felt they had been abused would have had no such means of redress. Now they have real power.
Many may feel that this is a good thing. New technologies are forcing newspapers to give an account of themselves, and enabling readers to answer back. The cause of democracy is being advanced. The people have to be listened to. Journalism is no longer a one-way process.
If only these things were true. To judge by what happened last week, they aren't. What we saw was not a reasoned response to an ill-judged article that went too far. I am not speaking about the 25,000 complaints to the Press Complaints Commission, which obviously I have not seen, but of the 1,600-plus comments made on Mail Online, as well as other blogs. Jan Moir was almost literally mugged by a howling mob. I do not say that the mob did not have a case: mobs often do. The concern is that the language that was used in the online campaign against Ms Moir was abusive, rude and beyond the scope of reason. Many blogs were far more offensive, and much more crude, than anything she had written.
My point is that there was a reasoned case to be made against her piece but almost no one chose to make it amid all the online name-calling and frenetic twittering. Even that self-styled intellectual Stephen Fry made an abusive comment about her rather than her article, describing her as "a repulsive nobody", though she happens to be a winner of a British press award, and is by any objective criteria a much better writer than Mr Fry will ever be.
The theme of many of the blogs was that she should resign, and give up journalism. The underlying current was that she should not be allowed to write what she had written. You would think she had called for the mass extermination of homosexuals. Freedom of expression was being threatened not by evil lawyers from Carter-Ruck bearing super-injunctions to undermine a free press, or weak-minded judges aiding and abetting them, but by a mob in full cry bubbling over with spite and invective.
Surely the important principle at stake is the right to self-expression. Last week I wrote about the established rights of Parliamentary privilege being challenged by the courts. (The Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge has since apparently sided with Parliament.) The Jan Moir case would seem to show the internet, which is supposed by many to enhance pluralism and democracy, being used by some outraged members of a lobby to challenge the traditional right of free speech. Let Jan Moir have her say, however much you may disagree with what she says.
The case of Nick Griffin is different in many respects but there are some parallels. Instead of a calm and forensic examination of his nasty and dangerous views, BBC1's Question Time was turned into a bear pit in which Mr Griffin played the role of the bear being torn to pieces by dogs. Outside there was an angry mob which didn't want to let him into the studio, and plainly held no store by the concept of free speech. Inside there was a mostly hostile audience which had evidently made up its mind in advance. The panellists were well-armed with scurrilous remarks he had allegedly made, and intent on revealing him as the extremist he undoubtedly is.
On the whole, they failed. Though he could occasionally not help revealing flashes of his true self, he was cast in these circumstances in the role of victim. I suggested last week that because of the BNP's recent showing in elections, the BBC had no option but to invite him on to Question Time. Now I think it was the wrong programme. Rather than being prodded and pricked by self-interested politicians each with a political agenda, he should have been exposed to relentless and well-informed questioning by a professional interviewer such as John Humphrys or Nick Robinson.
In short, there was a lot of sound and fury but virtually no illumination, and Mr Griffin was largely spared. Incidentally, a word should be said in defence of newspapers, most of which in the days preceding the programme produced thorough accounts of what the BNP leader has said and done. At one point in the programme, the Justice Secretary Jack Straw declared that viewers should go to YouTube to learn about the BNP and Nick Griffin. Actually, they would have done much better to turn to the newspapers, which have offered that measured and reasoned analysis whose absence I have been bemoaning.
Jan Moir's article may not have been very reasoned but much of the reaction was far more unreasonable, sometimes to the point of hysteria. You certainly will not encounter much reason in a bear pit. A couple of times last week the carapace covering our great democracy cracked open, and I did not much like what I saw beneath.