The internet is supposed to be the great engine of democratic expression. It has broken the old stranglehold of the Press and enables everyone to have a say. Anybody with a view, and the ability to put it into words, can become a blogger, or post comments in response to an article or blog.
Newspaper columnists no longer sit on their thrones declaiming eternal verities with no more to fear than a letter written in green ink which can be easily tossed into the wastepaper basket. Now they can be instantly praised or held to account for errors of fact or defective arguments. The "commenters" at the end of an article may not take issue with the journalist who wrote it. Sometimes interesting discussions and debates open up between them which have little reference to the original column.
It is good that columnists should be examined, and responses are sometimes enlightening. There is, however, a downside to free-for-all debate. Some commenters resort easily to crude abuse, either against the columnist or a fellow commenter, without disclosing their identity. Under the cloak of anonymity, and in the certain knowledge that there can be no comeback, a few are eager to deliver insults and put the boot in. Extreme comments are supposed to be removed by newspaper websites, but a lot of colourful stuff remains.
Admittedly no one has to read this stuff. But why do newspapers publish it? Surely it is a civilised principle that if you are going to attack a writer or other commenter you should avoid extreme abuse and, perhaps more important still, write under your own name.
It seems cowardly to bludgeon someone while remaining anonymous – and also ineffective. I am more likely to take seriously a criticism that comes from a person who has had the good manners to identify himself or herself than from someone writing under the alias of "Jake123".
Parts of newspaper websites have become alternative reality playgrounds where people throw rocks at one another from behind bushes. They can be coarse and intolerant places. Newspapers have allowed what should be a civilised forum for debate to turn on occasion into unedifying rough houses. Sometimes things can turn seriously nasty, as when commenters made threats against the Daily Mail's Jan Moir after she had written what they deemed a homophobic article.
Editors seem increasingly to want their columnists to make a stir, and are liable to judge the success of an article by the number of postings it receives. In fact it is easy to create a rumpus. A brilliantly argued and informative political column might attract few comments, and be no worse for that.
You can't outlaw abuse, but I believe that a basic requirement of having a posting accepted – as it would be of having a letter published in a newspaper – should be to supply a real name.
A BBC apology that goes over the top
The BBC has made an unusual apology for "ill-judged" comments made by John Humphrys, the combative Today programme presenter, during the "Climategate" scandal last year. During preliminary remarks before an interview on 4 December, Humphrys suggested that researchers at the University of East Anglia had "distorted the debate about global warning to make the threat seem even more serious than they believed it to be".
Stephen Mitchell, the BBC's head of news programmes, has now written to the university, conceding that Humphry's "misconceived assertion" that facts had been distorted was "incorrect". Mr Mitchell added: "I apologise wholeheartedly on behalf of the Today programme". He suggested that Humphrys was regretful for what was "an isolated but significant lapse". Such an extreme apology from the BBC is very rare. Was it was necessary? Though there have been three enquiries into the affair that have seemingly exonerated the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit, no one disputes that in 1999 Professor Phil Jones sent an email in which he referred to a "trick" to "hide" a decline in global temperatures. If subsequent enquiries have found little or nothing untoward in these remarks, Humphrys's suggestion of distortion does not seem unreasonable in view of what were then the known facts.
I doubt the Today programme would ever grovel to a politician in such terms. Does its exceptional apology confirm that climate change is the new religion demanding absolute respect?
Is Richard Desmond in a vendetta against ITV?
Rupert Murdoch has been accused in the past of using his newspapers to promote his other commercial interests, particularly BSkyB. Is Richard Desmond, who has recently bought channel Five, doing something similar? Last week, Five's chief rival, ITV, announced improved interim results. The Desmond-owned Daily Express led its story with news of a 2p fall in ITV's share price. It ended with the downbeat statement that "analysts said that there needed to be more details" about ITV's plans to charge for high definition channels on Sky.
The Desmond-owned Daily Star gave a more even-handed report of ITV's figures. However, it periodically lashes ITV. On 30 July, for example, it ran a prominent piece on page three criticising ITV for "hiring a gang of Z-list no-marks" for its next celebrity jungle extravaganza.
Mere coincidence? God knows, ITV and its new chief executive, Adam Crozier, merit some criticism, which makes it difficult to prove that disobliging remarks in the Daily Express and Daily Star are motivated by self-interest. But if it continues on this scale there will be little room for doubt.