(SEE AUGUST 3 UPDATE TO THIS COLUMN WHICH IS BELOW THE ORIGINAL PIECE)
ONE of the biggest challenges of our age is cyber bullying – the trend where people go onto the internet and anonymously attack other named individuals.
This, we all now know, is rife everywhere on almost every website that allows comments from the public.
And yet, as soon as the anonymous comments are tackled, these unnamed writers bleat about their right to free speech and claim they are being censored.
We are sadly moving into an age where everybody demands and expects the right of free speech, but equally shirks the responsibility that goes with it.
You may, of course, dismiss my comments in this column as nonsense but at least you know who I am and you know my remarks are genuine, even if you fundamentally disagree. When I write something, I have to ensure I can defend it if I am ever called to account for it.
How many of the anonymous defenders of free speech can say the same?
Now, in writing this, I am aware I may be accused of gross hypocrisy for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, many anonymous comments appear on the web forum hosted by the Bucks Free Press.
But in a democracy in the digital age, newspapers are expected to open up comment threads for readers to have their say. Many of the debates have been very productive.
However, in hosting these forums, we cannot actively moderate the comments because otherwise it would effectively be impossible to run spontaneous comments 24/7. We have to rely on the good sense of the public, and we respond to any complaints we receive.
Secondly, I allow space in the Bucks Free Press print edition for an anonymous columnist called ‘Ivor, Man of Mystery’, who has become renowned for his forthright views. I would, however defend this because we know who Ivor is (and he isn’t me), he is a genuine local person with strong views and he is accountable for all his print edition comments through me.
Where he differs from the other faceless contributors, is that they would never wish to be accountable, or never wish to have anyone including me know their identity.
They hide behind their computer screens and pump out views that they would never have the guts to publicly express. It has become a disease in which reasonable normal people become mad obsessed ‘trolls’ and think it is their democratic right to be viciously rude to anyone they want. But, hey, they mustn’t be named because it would breach their human rights and data protections laws, etc, etc.
This isn’t confined just to the internet, though. I have received several letters from a person from Hazlemere, commenting on the way we produce our stories. This person handwrites the letters and posts them to me, complete with cuttings from the paper.
For example, he or she wrote: “In your headline (enclosed), you have used the word ‘got’ As you must know it is very poor English and it is entirely superfluous. Get a grip.”
Hardly the world’s rudest comment, and the person gives a name and address, although no phone number. He/she also writes quite regularly to me.
But on the two occasions, I’ve tried to respond, my letters have been returned because the address is incorrect. I even registered a letter last week and it was returned to me.
I am aware this particular writer has sent letters to at least one other prominent person.
Simple question: why?
Why would anyone go to that trouble and give false details? I’ve had ruder letters of complaint and I always like to respond because there are no hard feelings if someone has a genuine gripe against us.
It’s actually worrying that someone can waste so much time and energy writing to a local newspaper editor in this manner.
Perhaps, however, there’s been an epic muddle and the name and address are somehow genuine. If so, I would challenge the individual to contact me properly, and I will run his/her reasonable robust comments next week along with an apology for my misunderstanding.
Otherwise, please stop wasting my time and yours.
Column update (August 3, 2012):
MANY thanks to the posters who have commented in such large numbers under this particular column. Some of you have asked me to respond, so I shall do so here.
I half expected this kind of feedback. You may recall in my original comments I acknowledged I could well be accused of gross hypocrisy, particularly over the question of our anonymous blogger Ivor.
However, I stand by everything I originally said. As one national paper columnist remarked this week, the internet has given a megaphone to everyone to air their views to the entire world – without the responsibility normally attached to democratic free speech.
That doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate the views aired on forums we host. Many of the comments are excellent and I understand why some feel people feel they need to be anonymous. But some of you also accept you have gone over the top at times.
Ivor inhabits the blog area of our site which is home to many other contributors. We like to encourage people to blog and would be happy to have most of you sign up to this. I know who Ivor is and know he is extremely conscientious and diligent. Some readers don’t like him but they don’t actually have to read him. People gravitate to his columns and it would be a genuine dis-service if we removed him from our site because some found his views offensive. Incidentally, he writes a different type of column in the print version and has received plaudits for it.
I do have some sympathy with Demoness the Second when she says: “I have just remarked on the fact that Steve appears to be defending people's rights to be as offensive as they like about certain sections of the community and then says that no one can challenge what is said because that is cyber bullying .”
It’s a fine line we tread and she (or he for all I know) is right to flag this up. We do host forums allowing readers to have their say and these do allow you to retain anonymity. Our bloggers, including Ivor, can also be highly controversial. So how can we complain then if people say things we don’t like?
But Demoness, we do allow ourselves and our bloggers to be openly criticised time and again. I’ve been called all sorts of names on this site and I would defend your right to be rude about me, even though I’m named and you’re not.
However... there is a clear line of abuse that shouldn’t be crossed. I bet all of you who post on here know exactly where that line is. But if you don’t. our terms and conditions of site use are actually quite useful in defining this.
My brief summation would be as follows: there’s no problem with honestly criticising someone or something; but there is an issue when it descends to vicious name-calling, open abuse and defamation. It baffles me at times when, following reader complaints, I have to take off an outrageous comment... only then to be accused of censorship by the anonymous person who posted the offensive remark.
Just for the record, the Bucks Free Press does not moderate its comments on the forums we host. Instead, we react to reader complaints – and we then base our decisions on our T&Cs.
I’m happy to debate all of this with you, but as I’ve always said, you surely would not expect me to reply to each and every post on our website. I wouldn’t have time for the day job.
Any of you can call me directly. I’ve made this offer time and again and I’m surprised how few people bother, but then get upset when I don’t wade into these debates. You can also email me as well with specific direct questions, and if you want, you can post my answers back onto the thread, providing there's nothing said in confidence.
The most interesting post came from sai-diva who said he/she would be happy to debate this in the pub but wanted to remain anonymous. Demoness says she will go as well, and I’ve now spoken to Wayneo who wants to be there.
So here’s the deal: anyone who wants to meet in the pub for this friendly debate should email me directly at email@example.com and I will arrange the time and the place (you may have to bear with me for a couple of weeks though before I respond). Your identities will be kept confidential from the world in general, although I’m not sure the pub will like it much if you turn up wearing masks or balaclavas.
Oh, and sai-diva, as you suggested it – it’s only manners if you buy the first round.