A long hot British summer – as infrequent as these may be – is quite capable of bringing out the best (and worst) in some people. It is a chance to soak up the rays at the beach or in the local park. It is a chance, after months of cold winds and incessant rain, to enjoy sitting outside in the garden. On the other hand, some plants wilt, the grass turns brown, the tree leaves turn to crisps and, just as predictably, one or more criminally-minded arsonists will deliberately start fires, regardless of the risk to wildlife, property, livestock and, above all, fellow human beings.
Some of these morons are innately cruel, while there are others who are believed by psychiatrists to get a form of sexual thrill from watching the world around them go up in smoke and flames (generally from a safe distance, of course). No doubt, if a fire-fighter or an innocent person or animal in the fire’s compass is killed or seriously injured, the conscience of the perpetrator won’t be much troubled.
However, there is an equally serious form of fire starting that seems to be much less open to social condemnation, regardless of the devastation and human misery that it can cause: I believe I’ve even coined a phrase for it: ‘reputation arson’.
Today, the effects are much worse due to social media platforms – and some elements of the traditional media – which are being misused to inflict far greater, lasting injury on victims. The most obscene, vile lies can be invented and passed on to an audience of thousands, or even millions, at the click of a mouse. Disgusting conspiracy theories can be propagated as ‘fact’, without a shred of truth or evidence, putting lives at risk. Yet, popular services such as Twitter and Facebook seem unable – or unwilling – to tackle the phenomenon of the ‘reputation arsonists’. And unlike the traditional poison pen letter, the most blatant lies can remain visible online forever.
In many cases, members of these unholy alliances have never met the intended victim. In the case of celebrities or people in public life, they may have seen them on television or read about them online or in the press, but their personal knowledge of the individual and of his or her family is likely to be zero. Yet the 'reputation arsonists' are more than happy to throw around terms of abuse such as ‘nonce’, ‘paedo’, ‘pervert’, ‘rapist’ and worse. Their only aim is to cause hurt, personal injury and the maximum reputational damage.
Everyone knows that libel proceedings are a game for only the very wealthy. Yet, why should only the super-rich and famous be able to defend their reputations from vile, unscrupulous liars, greedy fraudsters, sexual fantasists and twisted, obsessive slanderers? Surely everyone, no matter how ‘ordinary’, is entitled to enjoy his or her good name and reputation, unless proven otherwise in a court of law?
So here is an idea: perhaps we’d benefit from the equivalent of the Small Claims Court to deal with defamers: the burden of proof would be on those publishing or promoting these allegations to prove to a civil standard that what they have published is fact or fair comment.
I’m sure the prospect of having to stand up in public and explain to a judge on what basis they have published such vile accusations would concentrate their (usually limited) minds wonderfully. “And what evidence do you have that this could be true?” the judge might enquire.
Repeating some libellous drivel they’ve picked up from some online forum or twitter exchange or lies they've read on some anonymous conspiracy-loon website really won’t convince a civil court that there is a scintilla of truth in the smears they have been peddling. Like most untutored bullies, they will doubtless crack under the slightest pressure to prove that what they have written is actually true (pay attention the vile troll, who’s never met me, but who posted the charming assertion: ‘What the fuck? He’s fucking guilty!’ shortly after a unanimous jury had acquitted me in a matter of minutes at the conclusion of my farcical trial in 2014).
Damages could be capped at a maximum of £10,000 (as in the existing Small Claims Court). This would be sufficient in most cases to discourage social media trolls & reputation destroyers from posting any old vile rubbish they can think up. It would be vital to keep any legal costs to a minimum, so the multitude of non-celebrities who are targeted can seek justice.
The message needs to go out that online targeting of innocent individuals and the spreading of malicious allegations and lies is never a ‘victimless’ crime. Social media mobbing and twisted ‘reputation arsonists’ wreck human lives and I know from first-hand experience can even lead to suicide. Whole families, including young children, can have their lives devastated by these vicious libel peddlers.
We often hear politicians and campaigners talking in the national media about cleaning up the internet, cracking down on bullies and generally making it a safer place. If we really are serious, then notorious libellers and persistent ‘reputation arsonists’ need to be made accountable for their crimes. Let’s make them think twice before they light the next fire under an innocent victim.