I applaud Michael Gove’s commitment to the protection of free speech and, like him, I worry about the impact and ultimate consequence the Leveson enquiry will have on the media. Freedom of expression is the foundation upon which a true democratic society exists. Lives were lost in order that we and future generations can enjoy both.
However, I also acknowledge that in many respects, things cannot continue as they are, particularly in respect to social media and the internet. Technology has far outstripped our ability to make robust laws fast enough to deal with the rapidly progressing internet world in which we live.
In Parliament this week I spoke in the Defamation Bill debate and to the measures introduced in clause 5 in relation to internet trolling and the impact it has, not on the lives of public figures like myself, although that is bad enough, but on the lives of people like the very caring mother, Nicola Brookes, who having made a kindly comment on the internet to a young celebrity who was being abused by internet ‘trolls’ became the victim of horrendous abuse herself.
Or the father, Mark MacBryde, whose daughter lost her life on a rail road track who had to witness the online memorial dedicated to her defiled and abused by Sean Duffy, who was later jailed for his depraved and appalling comments.
High profile cases such as this may lead readers to believe that convicting people who abuse others on the internet is a simple process. It really is not. For an individual who is not in the public eye, it is difficult to get the police to take a request for help seriously. I would, at this point, like to commend Bedfordshire Police who, I believe now understand and are on the ball with trolling and internet abuse.
If the police do become involved, organisations such as Facebook and Twitter are slow and un-cooperative when dealing with a police request for information and months may pass before the identity of an abusive troll is revealed.
For many people, teachers, health workers, those in the charitable sector and many other walks of life, reputation is everything and whereas I would fight to the death to protect the principle of free speech, on the internet a lie can be posted, reproduced and spread, destroying the lifetime career and livelihood of an individual in minutes.
Free speech does not mean that people should be able to access a medium such as Twitter or Facebook or any online web site and have no regard for the reputation of another without being held accountable for what they post. Reputation is as worthy of protection from abuse as is free speech from gradual suppression.
The Defamation Bill, which received a consensus from the whole House, will provide web site operators with a defence against libel, provided they follow a procedure to put complainants in touch with a troll or author of defamatory material posted on a web site. This defence for web site hosts is optional, but in law, as the defence is available, if website operators chose not to avail themselves of it, they would be very vulnerable and libel to prosecution for the information they allowed to be hosted.
This will make a world of difference to a teenage girl driven to the point of taking her own life by abusive comments on Facebook regarding her looks. Or to the teacher who due to reprimanding a pupil is driven to a nervous breakdown by sustained online abuse.
During the debate, I spoke about how I had folded at the point of making two prosecutions for online abuse against myself. One was with a man who wanted to see me locked in a burning car and watch my burning flesh melt from my bones and the other was a car bomb threat from a student at Oxford.
I took the decision that I didn’t want to ruin two lives with a lifetime criminal record for their own moment of anonymous madness. That because I was in the public eye, it came with the turf.
I have since realised that I took the wrong decision not to prosecute. I had a responsibility to those who find it harder to defend themselves and the more successful prosecutions which take place, the greater the deterrent.
Zac Goldsmith, someone I hugely respect and admire, took me to task over this during the debate. I think it’s fair to say he was slightly cross with me for allowing both people to get away ‘scot free’. I disagreed with him at the time but now realise he was right.
I hope the new Bill will encourage everyone to hold online abusers to account and that everyone who is a user of the internet will avail themselves of the complaint process once it is produced in the knowledge that the greater the use of the provision, the more user friendly the internet will become for all that use it and that the cornerstone of our democracy, freedom of speech, will remain safe from erosion.