LETTER from THE EDITOR

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The Independent Online
Child pornography; anti-Semitism; satanist rantings; criminal conspiracies; libellous commercial rumours; neo-Nazi assignations; and an arrogant, nerdish new language of abuse... these are among some of the delights of the Internet as reported in The Independent and other papers in recent days. Hardly a week passes without new nasties reported in some dank corner of cyberspace. So many people will have been rather cheered to think that, however briefly, big chunks of it crashed in the US and Europe this week. Thus, as Charles Arthur, our science editor, nicely put it, "the information superhighway turned into the information bridleway".

Yet it's clear that the Internet is here to stay, an ever-burgeoning realm of the electrical and digital civilisation we belong to. It defeats censorship and spreads liberal, consumer culture as well as the bad stuff. To be against it is like being against printed books in the later 1500s. But, although it is true that the printing press quite quickly spread political and religious dissent (think of Tyndale's Bible), it is perhaps a melancholy reflection on our civilisation that, with print, it was the Bible whose message spread and with the Internet it has been the Spice Girls'.

Oh yes, and good newspapers, too: though Internet missionaries keep telling me that "we will bury you". I don't believe that. One of this paper's founders, Matthew Symonds, used to fantasise about an alternative world where everyone used only computer screens and laptops. Into that world, Matthew speculated, an inventor would come with a daring new product which could be folded up, carried, didn't require cables or batteries - and yet which told you what you needed to know about the world. The inventor of the newspaper, he reckoned, would be an instant global hero.

Robin Cook's announcement on his commitment to an ethical foreign policy, which he discussed in yesterday's paper with Rupert Cornwell and Steve Crawshaw, has been described, even by admirers, as a rod for his own back and a risky move. Old Etonian mandarins are said to be sniggering behind their hands. One FCO man, I'm told, even described the policy as "bollocks" in a draft letter that was mistakenly sent for signing to Mr Cook himself. Luckily, the Foreign Secretary was dryly amused at the slip, taking the view that some staff are still debilitated by the political equivalent of shellshock following Labour's victory.

They should think a little harder about the history of their own institution: the great Foreign Secretaries of the past, including Palmerston and Bevin, would have considered it a foul insult to be told that their department didn't have a firm ethical dimension. Similarly, what would we think of any domestic department that didn't base its policies on human rights? So what's the problem? Well, "China" and "Indonesia" for two. But acknowledging the dilemmas of the real world shouldn't stop any self-respecting government trying to set a general pro-rights, pro-democracy course: and the weeks after we handed back our last big colonial possession are a good time to start.

Meanwhile, the main peacekeeping job for Downing Street may yet be between Mr Cook himself and his long-term admirer, Gordon Brown. They are the two biggest departmental beasts in the New Jungle and yet, as they prowl, their eyes rarely meet. I am sorry to report some no doubt unwarranted suspicions in government that Gordon's late-arranged speech on monetary union was scheduled in order to knock the Foreign Secretary and his ethics off the news bulletins. Tsk, tsk.

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