Richard Ingrams’s Week: Stop and think before pressing the 'send' button

Saturday 18 April 2009 00:00 BST

It is reported that the all-powerful Google is taking steps to help people who press the "send" button on an email and then instantly regret it. As things stand, there's nothing at all they can do.

Google's answer, apparently, will be to install a new mechanism that delays the despatch of the email for five seconds. But critics of the system point out that five seconds gives you no time at all before the panic feelings kick in.

One of the great mysteries of modern life is why so many intelligent and important people use emails to send compromising messages to their friends and enemies when they must be well aware that hackers can get access to them.

Only last month I wrote about Tony Blair's defence adviser Desmond Bowen who, prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, sent an email to intelligence chief Sir John Scarlett instructing him to cut out all the qualifications in his dossier about WMD and not to "hedge" his assertions with words such as "it is almost certain". Here was cast-iron proof of Blair's interference with the dossier – but only because Bowen had entrusted his thoughts to email.

Now the ill-fated Damian McBride has done the same sort of thing and no one can seriously believe that a five-second delaying mechanism would have stopped him in his tracks. The result: a major political scandal more damaging to Gordon Brown than anything that has so far happened since he became Prime Minister.

Why do they do it? One possible explanation is simply laziness, either that or a disinclination to talk to anybody either directly or on the phone. Or perhaps it was just in this instance that McBride had had too much to drink.

L Ron and the legend of Xenu

Students of Scientology, of whom I am one, will have been interested in a recent pronouncement by the cult's spokesman in Los Angeles Mr Tommy Davis. Mr Davis has spoken on an important issue of the Scientology creed which has hitherto been a subject of controversy.

It concerns the role in mankind's origins of an alien overlord known as Xenu. In the past, confusion has shrouded the story of Xenu partly because of the intervention of Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard who once issued a warning that anyone who was exposed to the Xenu story before completing the necessary steps in Scientology would be liable to fall victim to pneumonia and die.

As a result of this terrifying threat, even devoted followers such as Mr Tom Cruise have hitherto apparently been denied the existence of Xenu. I have yet to receive a copy of a new book on Scientology, edited by one James R Lewis and published by the prestigious Oxford University Press. So I do not know whether Mr Lewis sheds any light on the mystery of Xenu.

Reports of the book, however, suggest that its treatment of the Scientology cult is unusually sympathetic, one contributor saying that "the basic outline of L Ron Hubbard's life is not contested" when it is well known that L Ron's CV makes Lord Archer's look like a model of objective truth. Even more puzzling than the mystery of Xenu is how Oxford University Press came to publish such a book. At the risk of being struck down with pneumonia it surely can't be the case that there is a Scientology cell operating somewhere in Oxford (famously known as the home of lost causes)?

Too many people, too few reasonable ways of dealing with it

That most treasured of all our national treasures, Sir David Attenborough, left, has repeated his call for a reduction in the world's population. There are too many human beings, he says, and there are going to be even more of us. Something must be done.

But what, exactly? Sir David does not spell out his plan but might they include compulsory sterilisations, Chinese-style limitations on children, yet more abortions? Or would he, like the late John Aspinall, prefer us to turn a blind eye to the spread of plagues such as Aids on the grounds that they help to reduce the numbers in the Third World?

Sir David is not alone. The Duke of Edinburgh, no less, has voiced similar opinions in the past – the Duke, himself a father of four, being a good example of somebody who assumes that birth control will not be expected to apply to important people like himself. There was the same sort of campaign in the days of the Regency when Rev Thomas Malthus prophesied doom caused by an overexpanding population. He put the blame on the "lower orders" who produced too many children, and he recommended that they should be made to regulate their irresponsible sexual habits. Malthus's opinions were popular with politicians because he provided them with a good excuse for inactivity.

The Attenborough doctrine will likewise be welcomed in today's world. Thousands may be starving in Africa but what's to be done? It's all the fault of overpopulation, not forgetting the Pope and the Catholic Church who continue to fail to embrace the benefits of contraception and abortion clinics.

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