Stephen Glover: Giving in to online gagging campaigns is a dangerous move

Monday 22 March 2010 01:00
The Wiltshire town of Wootton Bassett
The Wiltshire town of Wootton Bassett

Eight days ago a cavalcade of motorbikes trundled through the Wiltshire town of Wootton Bassett in aid of charity. They were raising money for Afghan Heroes, which helps service personnel in Afghanistan and bereaved families in Britain.

Most of us would take off our hats to the bikers and Afghan Heroes. But it should still be permissible to wonder whether clogging up a small market town with 15,000 bikers on a Sunday afternoon is necessarily the best way to go about raising money. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. Shall we just agree that it is an interesting debating point?

Chris Hughes, an experienced war reporter on the Daily Mirror, wrote a blog on the newspaper's website expressing some scepticism. While praising the bikers for raising nearly £100,000 for Afghan Heroes, he mentioned "petrol-guzzling and fume-spewing steeds" and wondered whether "someone – just for a change – could set a trend by doing something they hate doing to raise money for good causes".

A not wholly unreasonable point, I would have thought, but it brought down the wrath of the bikers on Mr Hughes. More than 5,000 Facebook members called for a boycott of the Mirror, and there were apparent death threats aimed at the reporter. After a few hours the newspaper removed the blog from its website, and apologised. It made Mr Hughes do so too.

This was a pusillanimous decision by the Mirror, and one that could have damaging ramifications for the rest of the press. I can understand, of course, that the paper was spooked by the apparent death threats, and no doubt it was also unnerved by the thought that it might lose some readers. But by giving in to the mob, it will have encouraged other groups to believe that they too can force a newspaper to retract opinions which they do not like.

A few months ago the Daily Mail journalist Jan Moir engendered an even bigger wave of protest when she wrote a column about the death of the Boyzone singer Stephen Gately which some people deemed homophobic. In addition to thousands of unexceptionable complaints to the Press Complaints Commission, there were abusive blogs directed against Ms Moir, as well as some unpleasant threats. The Mail was clearly shaken, and published a piece by Janet Street-Porter criticising the columnist, but it did not remove her article from its website.

Who will be next? People are getting the message that the internet in general, and social networking groups in particular, are enabling them to take on a newspaper and, at any rate in the case of the Mirror, make it recant. The web, we are told, is a great engine of democracy, and in some ways it is. But when a group of individuals gangs up to threaten a newspaper or a journalist whose views it does not like, the web is being used as a weapon of terror.

For hundreds of years newspapers have been organs of opinion. They stimulate, provoke or infuriate their readers. Now, in the age of the web, newspapers find they are addressing not only, and perhaps not most importantly, their own readers, but groups of people who hold opposing views, and are very occasionally prepared to threaten violence. The lynch mob that terrorised Jan Moir was not made up of Mail readers, and I would guess that most of the bikers who attacked the Mirror do not read that paper. They managed nonetheless to shut it up.

The sheer force of such protests is bound to make an impression, and any death threat is alarming. All the same, newspapers should be robust. For one thing, the power of protesters who momentarily come together to make a point should not be exaggerated. The bikers who complained about Chris Hughes's blog do not, in fact, constitute a cohesive group with a single aim. They are individuals with flickering attention spans, many of whom have probably already forgotten why they got so worked up in the first place.

And if one or two people should deliver death threats or try to terrorise journalists in other ways, newspapers must do whatever they can with the help of the police to track them down and identify them. I realise that this is an extremely difficult process, but it is not always impossible. Social networking sites such as Facebook claim that they will not carry personal attacks, and they must be shown to be as good as their word.

My prediction is that within the next few months another group of outraged individuals who do not care for free speech will come together over some issue, and attempt to scare off a journalist or newspaper. I hope that, when they do, the response they encounter is a lot more steely than that of the Daily Mirror.

Have the Tory grassroots lost touch with the Telegraph?

The Tory MP Nadine Dorries is one of those people against whom I have an inexplicable and doubtless unjustified prejudice. Yet even I was surprised by The Daily Telegraph's splash last Thursday.

Below a double-deck headline streaming across the front page, the paper alleged that she had encouraged a close male friend to stand against the former television presenter Esther Rantzen in Luton South.

If true, this did not seem the worse thing an MP has ever done. In fact, although Ms Rantzen was plainly worked up, there was little, if any, evidence that Ms Dorries has been trying to do her down. The following day, the Telegraph ran a huge inside story alleging that Ms Dorries has designated a one-bedroom Cotswold lodge as her main residence.

Why so much energy directed against an obscure Conservative MP? The Tory grassroots website conservativehome has various theories. Its editor, Tim Montgomerie, mentions that Ms Dorries made the mistake of writing a blog attacking the Barclay brothers, owners of the Telegraph. Can this really be the reason?

Many postings on conservativehome suggest that Tory grassroots are at odds with the paper once known as the Daily Torygraph. Apart from the deputy editor, Ben Brogan and (up to a point) Boris Johnson, it is difficult to think of a loyal Tory on the paper. The columnist Mary Riddell is in love with Gordon Brown, and the political staff incline to Labour.

Meanwhile last Friday the Telegraph Media Group announced surprisingly good financial results for the 53 weeks to 3 January 2010. Though advertising revenues suffered a decline of 7.7 per cent, circulation revenue was resilient, and costs were squeezed, so that the company reported an operating profit of £41.4m, compared with an operating profit of £32m the previous year. Pretty good for a recession.

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