Friday, 13 July 2018

Reputation Arsonists and Court Redress

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.

As we watch television images of the wildfires consuming thousands of acres of Saddleworth Moor, police are investigating whether arson may have been involved. It is difficult for most of us to imagine the thought processes of the ignorant, reckless few who feel compelled to start these fires.

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.

Ask the general public their views and I’d be prepared to bet that 99.99% of those polled would condemn these twisted fire starters as coming from the bottom rung of civilised society and that they are deserving of exemplary punishment when (or if) apprehended. In fact, the criminal offence of arson is considered so serious that the maximum penalty is life imprisonment. I’m reliably informed that convicted arsonists are regarded within the prison system as being so dangerous that certain open prisons refuse to accept them owing to the potential risk they pose to life and property.

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’.

The ‘reputation arsonist’ sets out, often with malicious glee, to destroy the good name – and life – of his or her chosen victim (or victims). In the past this could be achieved only by spreading vicious, untrue gossip in the local neighbourhood. Occasionally, anonymous poison pen letters would have been written and distributed, but the reach was limited. Despite this, terrible damage could still be wrought.

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.

These devious, malicious ‘reputation arsonists’ light a fake fire under an innocent person and subsequently smear that target by claiming, “There’s no smoke without fire.” In common with the reckless arsonist who sets fires with matches or lighters, these amoral, cruel individuals who target others with their filthy lies and distortions seem to get some kind of perverted thrill out of the destruction of their targets. They revel in watching that person’s life’s work and reputation burn to ashes in public, egged on by a ragbag of nasty cheerleaders, who race to join the online assault.

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.

Very few of these twisted characters are ever brought to justice. They rely on the fact that most of their victims will not take civil action for defamation owing to the prohibitive cost of seeking redress in the High Court, which can easily run to hundreds of thousands of pounds.

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.

And if judgement is given against the defamer and an appropriate award made by a judge, then let the High Court bailiffs loose with warrants to execute. The prospect of having a pair of burly, unsmiling court officers turning up on the doorstep with a hefty bill and the legal power to seize goods, and even property, might serve as a genuine deterrent to any twisted ‘reputation arsonist’ who is tempted to spread smears and lies.

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.

1 comment:

  1. This is so needed. As well as the actual fire lighters, there are all those who secretly delight in keeping that fire burning. And sadly it is not all ignorant trolls either. Some are not interested in the truth, some even see the truth as counter productive to their jobs or their own purposes. But truth is immutable and has only one version. Something perhaps police and judges need to remember instead of endlessly excusing inconsistencies of accusers on the grounds that their alleged sexual abuse is to blame for their presentation. Everyone should always remember that truth is something which forever fights to be heard, almost as a force of its own. You can bury it deep but those who care will always dig it up. And many of us do and have. These fire lighters may raise a temporary thrilling glow for themselves, but it can only ever be that. One day the fire of their own lighting will devour them too, because they can never get away from the fact that they lit it, or that they allowed to keep on burning.