As the nefarious ways of some tabloids are unmasked at the Leveson Inquiry, more Britons are sceptical that democratic freedoms are protected by aggressive intrusion. There is a new consciousness of the torment of victims – ordinary folk and celebs, who are humans too. Arguments that the latter are fair game just because they sometimes court publicity increasingly sound specious.
So, now that we are thinking about the damaging effects of rabid journalism on individuals, maybe we could go on to the effect rabid "trollers" – to use the slang term for those who place inflammatory messages online – are having on journalists, particularly columnists who are female and/or black or Asian.
Laurie Penny bravely wrote about the sickening responses she gets, and others have since raised their voices against the molesters – among them the novelist Linda Grant, who gets anti-Semitic invective thrown in too. They will have been savaged for their impertinence. Last week on the Operation Black Vote website, I was described as "the most racially abused woman in the country". Why do they do it? Because they want to force us to retreat into silence for ever. I'm not afraid of real argument: I have even had tea with a BNP member and I go to various towns to meet readers (at their invitation) and sometimes the arguments get rough. It's all good, exciting stuff. Unlike cyber-thugs, nobody hides behind anonymity or resorts to malice.
Shockingly, this week female journalists were advised to stay away from Cairo's Tahrir Square because some have been sexually assaulted. Sexist and racist trollers are trying to do the same on the web. Their message: get off the pages or we will make you wish you'd never been born. Female politicians, broadcasters and artists are increasingly picked on viciously, too. A man has just been arrested for messages he was sending to Tory MP Louise Mensch.
I have spoken at five schools recently about a career in journalism. Every time, the same anxieties surfaced: who wants a job which brings out so much internet malevolence? We who are stalked, assailed, threatened and degraded are told it is the result of putting ourselves out there. That's like saying rape victims asked for it by walking in a park, or that a black chap at a football match must accept racial insults.
The "freedom" justification is as bogus. Heroic liberationists of the Arab Spring are fighting political oppression; our trolling nasties are simply venting hate. It took us centuries to excise offensive language and ensure civilised discourse between citizens. Verbal barbarism is back and with a vengeance. By now the snarlers and snappers will be frothing and emitting in my direction. I can feel the spume on my skin. Like other women who are targeted, I won't just put up and shut up. The web is a wondrous thing but with feral beasts now taking over, it is becoming unsafe – and not just for some of us.Reuse content