Belfast Telegraph

Why the BBC is right to defend employees from the sewer of bile and hatred they call the internet

We all know what is and is not acceptable in the 'real' world, so why is it a different story online, asks Gail Walker

You are a s***. You are a w*****. What you need is a good kicking. Your type should be done away with. We know where you work. You've got it coming to you. Here comes the rape train for you...

If you received messages like the above through the post you would have every right to go the police and demand something be done. So, why not if you receive them across the internet? Why do so many people think cyberspace is a moral and legal Wild West where anything goes, where normal, decent standards of behaviour don't apply, where "freedom of speech" is all-too-easily conflated with freedom to abuse and bully.

Rather than a space of disinterested civilised Socratic debate, the internet - normally - is a sewer of hatred, abuse, name-calling, trolling and threats.

And yet, like the old American West itself, there seems to be a kind of romanticism at play when it comes to challenging such behaviour. But this is the final frontier, they proclaim, where we're living free before society comes along to spoil the fun.

How else do you explain the storm about BBC online guidelines "threatening" to track down those who make objectionable or abusive posts, and, if they may have broken applicable laws, informing their employers, schools, internet provider and law enforcement agencies?

Cue predictable guff about the "draconian", "dictatorial" and "censorial" Big Brother Corporation, about political correctness gone mad (actually, I'd be the first to have a pop at the BBC over that, but in this case that's not the point at all).

But, query the critics, who is to say what is "objectionable"? It's all, er, subjective. Then again, come to that, who is to say what is "objectionable" in "real" life? The short answer is that we are all fairly aware of what is.

We look at dozens of forms of communication every day and decide what crosses the line of hate speech, defamation and decency. If we are scared or aggrieved enough we can turn to the law. We can complain to those who are - wittingly or unwittingly - aiding the alleged wrong and look for redress: the post office, advertising standards, the media.

In some cases we may have to turn to the police, the CPS and, eventually, the courts to define what is and isn't acceptable.

Which, in real time, may involve letting someone's employers or school know what they have been up to. And showing them up to the wider public.

Every other form of communication in our society is policed and conscribed - for thoroughly good and decent reasons. We do not have the freedom to verbally abuse public service staff, for example, or to shout "fire" in a crowded space, or to publish official and military secrets, or to use insulting epithets at racial minorities.

So, why not the internet? Why does a wi-fi hub and a username give people the unchecked right to spill bile, hatred, misogyny, untruths and threats right, left and centre?

The BBC has not only a moral duty, but a legal duty, to protect its staff, celebrity or no.

There is a world of difference between someone posting that historian "Mary Beard is not a very good presenter" and saying she is a "filthy old sl**".

Why should political editor Laura Kuenssberg have to read that she is a "stupid cow" as well as the seemingly obligatory "sl**"? Or that posters would like to kill her. That is not the freedom of expression for which many have died. That is trolling and abuse.

While we may not agree over each and every hypothetical situation, the vast majority of us know what is legitimate argument, legitimate expression of political and cultural views - and what steps over the line.

It may be a rough rule of thumb of what is acceptable, but surely not being ashamed of what one has written online if our identity was known to the wider public - our family, friends, acquaintances, employers and employees - is a good place to start.

And that is the problem with the internet. It is a place of secrecy, aliases and false identities. It is a breeding ground of vileness - be it of expression or opinion.

Yet it is astonishing how many people openly post the most toxic abuse of others. Sometimes, when I see a particularly hate-ridden and abusive post, I'll click on their details and discover, say, "Steve, wife and kids my world, youth worker". It never ceases to amaze me how many people here, working across a raft of jobs - with their full identities online - take time out from their work to feverishly tap out sectarian abuse, or misogynistic bile, or savage a woman's appearance.

Indeed, most of the extreme posts have little to do with the surface issues, but more with providing some sort of psycho-sexual release for the scribes.

The arrival of the internet brought with it the allure of absolute freedom, yet that dream has turned into a nightmarish reality of hatred, abuse and bullying. In the early days, much like the hippies and free love, everything was to be free and unchecked... until we saw the kind of injustices that spawned.

File sharing? All fine and dandy until we realised that it was just a fancy word for piracy and ripping off artists.

We don't allow child abuse websites to trade freely. We are looking at ways to curb sites that give platforms to terrorism and extremism. It has been established that the internet is subject to the laws of libel - as witnessed by the Lord McAlpine case.

Vast, sprawling and with many dark corners it may be, but the internet should not be above the law. It is, effectively, no different than a book, a newspaper, a radio show or TV broadcast. In other words, it has to be governed by specific laws and social norms.

You can be terrorised and traumatised by words and threats - whether they are written in green ink on a sheet of paper or pixels.

The BBC is right to protect its employees.

Belfast Telegraph

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