Nov 232012

I have just spent a couple of days away from home, mostly away from Twitter and entirely away from blogging.  Though not entirely.

I’ve written this post whilst offline, on a Blackberry Playbook, using word-processing software provided by default. It’s an interesting experience, writing from one’s thoughts without being instantly connected to that wider intelligence which is the Internet – and its visual manifestation, the worldwide web.

I suddenly discover the only resources I have to hand, for the moment, and whilst I write, are my own very private thoughts and uncertainties.  I can check nothing, for the moment; I can only write what I am sure of.

And yet perhaps the situation I find myself in is not all that different from writing online.  Who can say that what we read and watch is ever as true as it might be?  If we cannot believe that a BBC current affairs programme of international renown is capable of usefully fact-checking its own content before it broadcasts, where and how can we ordinary people realistically check anything an honest desire to engage with democratic debate would – as a result – require us to do?

On considerable reflection, I find myself siding with Lord McAlpine’s instincts to sue those who besmirched his name.  But I do so with a desire to add the following caveats for the future.  For if the events that have surrounded his calvary are to impact positively on democracy, and if his case and this moment in our body politic are not to be seen historically as a turning-point where an unhappy and impositional establishment brutally re-establishes itself, we must do something more than acknowledge his right under current law to act as he does.

I was, you see, going to write a post about how it seemed to me that the McAlpine case, and the fury with which he was pursued in some sectors of social media, and even in what is now less accurately called mainstream media, was a case of referred anger more than a desire to do away with the reputation of a man very few people even knew existed.  This referred anger would relate to the last two years of Coalition government.  Unable – as the constituency in question was – to stem the government’s impositional instincts, this – that is to say, Twitter – has been a frustrated and figurative rattlesnake of a medium, thrashing evermore futilely away at an evermore desperate set of circumstances.

If my thesis is correct, the Lord McAlpine accusations were simply the unhappy blue touchpaper a hot and angry group of people alighted on in the absence of being able to get political satisfaction elsewhere.

Now I may be right or I may be wrong.  Either way, once Lord McAlpine has achieved his goals as per our existing laws, we need to ensure his legacy will not be that of an establishment grossly re-establishing itself but, rather, much more usefully and productively for our democracy, of a body politic and public discourse renewing itself.

And so I come to the point of this post.  The caveats I mentioned above in relation to the McAlpine case?

It’s true, as this post from the Economist indicates, that if we now live in a world where everyone can publish, we now live in a world where everyone can be sued.  But if this is the case, and legal matters are potentially to enter every sitting-room in the land, surely it would only be reasonable to expect the law itself to democratise itself – that is to say, make itself easier to be understood, complied with, used and exercised.

Whilst the real mainstream media – with its legal departments and journalistically-trained professionals – essentially interfaced with what was seen by many as the more oppressive forces in our society, as well as supposedly on our behalf, it did not seem to matter so much that the law was, for most people, an opaque and arcane matter.  But if we are all to publish now, as indeed Twitter, Facebook and blogging before them would have us do (for without the product, that is to say ourselves and our occurrences, social media would have zero business model to operate with), and if we do feel that Web 2.0 has more upsides than downsides, then we do really need to make it as easy to understand and use the law as it is to go to a supermarket and purchase a week’s worth of groceries.

If publishing is to become as easy as 140 characters and a “Send” button, or simply one retweet, and the implications of getting it wrong are to be criminal investigations by the Metropolitan police, then as a society we cannot, on the one hand, allow the honesty, sharing and the jobs and income social media generate – as well as a whole host of other upsides which such a technologically-linked world provides – to lead, on the other, to the complex and awful risks of prison sentences and prohibitive fines for its participants when forwarding on the equivalent of a simple English sentence.  We cannot allow it, that is, unless we change quite radically its framework.

And if there are malicious people out there looking to witch-hunt others, to act as lynch mobs, to pursue in industrial quantities the reputations of others, then maybe governments too – especially the current one (but not only the current one) – need to ask themselves if there’s anything they can do to make our society less unhappy, less bitter, less desirous of revenge and less violent in its discourses.

A final couple of requests, then, from and to those of us who still wish to act in good faith on behalf of a better democratic society:

  • Lawyers, as perhaps the final profession to open its doors to 21st century society, it is your turn to accept that a wider applicability and use of the law by ordinary people must lead to its democratisation: both in terms of its understandability and in terms of its accessibility.  We need to be able to comprehend it without having to go to law school and we need to be able to pay for it without taking out a loan.
  • Politicians, as perhaps the final profession to want to accede to the desire which 21st century society has to share almost everything with almost everybody, we need you to accept that the importance of conducting reasoned and properly devolved debate requires us to have a system of government and justice which allow for legal actions that do not generate the fear of bankruptcy in ordinary people looking to sustain their right to free expression.  Removing the scope of Legal Aid for so many elements of legal action, as here in England the current government has so recently decided to do, does not indicate any real wish to support democratic instincts in the civilisations we are building.  I would ask you, therefore, to rethink this approach to guaranteeing the realistic exercise and defence of of legitimate rights to free expression.
  • Social media wonks, as perhaps the final profession to care to operate through legislatures across the world, your impatience with the inability of virtually everyone else to properly understand the implications of your genial inventions and online constitutions leads you not to worry too much about the very real legal implications for your consumers of the design decisions which you take behind closed doors, every day of the week – and very much outside the scope of most parliaments and governments.  At the very least, then, I would ask of you to lobby far more firmly on behalf of transparent and less costly libel processes in those jurisdictions where you generate your not inconsiderable incomes.  And at the very most, as I have already suggested on these pages quite recently, you might wish to consider drastically redesigning your software for the needs of what – almost certainly – will become a far more libellous age.

Now whether the above reflections will help anyone out of the morass I perceive as encroaching very soon on the few civil liberties we thought we had here in England, I really cannot say.

But I do hope that someone or some institution will hear my pleas; that these pleas may be understandings which other democratic individuals might share and care to sustain; and that such persons or organisations will be sufficiently intelligent and foresighted enough to comprehend exactly what a vibrant and sustainable body politic really needs: not a long-term slide into an atmosphere of libel and reputational aggression but, rather, cogent debate, accessible public forums, proper and informed dialogue – and as little intervention by the heavy-handed laws and costs of yore as the 21st century can possibly engineer.