David Cameron ascended to power declaring that his Government would embrace the world of Facebook and online social networks and that he would not indulge in the headline-chasing gestures of his predecessors. It has not taken him long – barely more than two months, in fact – to tear up both aspirations.
No 10's intervention to get Facebook to remove web pages that have voiced support for the gunman Raoul Moat, and his own emphatic condemnation in the Commons of the views expressed, is a reversion to classic New Labour posturing. The Prime Minister's sentiments might be entirely valid. It is appalling to make a hero out of a violent criminal who set out to kill his ex-partner, her boyfriend and who fired on a random policeman.
But is it "unacceptable" to voice such opinions, as David Cameron puts it? Still more, should people be banned from saying them in public? To try and get a social network to remove a page for voicing views which one person, or indeed many people, might find offensive betrays a profound misunderstanding of the function these sites perform. They have grown – and Facebook has half-a-billion users worldwide – precisely because they are noticeboard on which anybody and everybody can post their views. Of course there are limits. Facebook has certain rules to keep out pornography, racism and incitement to violence. But the general rule on the internet is an non-interventionist one. The open exchange of information and views is its primary function. And freedom from censorship is a pragmatic necessity.
Closing down a page such as "RIP Raoul Moat You Legend", which has now attracted 30,000 to join, will not make such opinions go away. There will always be people who idolise criminals. To try to muzzle such voices, as No 10 appears to have attempted, is futile. They will simply move to another online social network. And what else does Mr Cameron intend to do to stamp out "unacceptable" opinions? Close pubs where people say things the state does not like?
Of course, Mr Cameron has no intention of going down this path. This is all about keeping sections of the media happy. But that does not make it any better that Mr Cameron and his staff are apparently spending their time and energy on such posturing. The paradox is that such behaviour makes our new Prime Minister look out of touch with the very society he says he is determined to reform.