Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Freedom of speech and 'trolls'

The newspaper phone hacking scandal which led to the Leveson Inquiry has rumbled on recently as other newspapers, notably The Daily Mirror, have admitted to hacking phones too in the past. Meanwhile, there is still no sign of the government fulfilling its promise to the victims of phone hacking that it would ensure the recommendations of Leveson would be enacted. At present, the only organization which has the function of dealing with press complaints is the recently formed IPSO, with some controversial board members, which many critics have argued is no different from the old PCC, which did little to stop the excesses of press behaviour.


On the eve of the Conservative party conference last week, a minor government minister, Brookes Newmark was forced to resign following an indiscretion involving taking a selfie in his pyjamas with a bit too much showing (ahem) and sending it to a woman he had never met. The story broke in The Sunday Mirror and caused minor embarrassment to the party, but as it unravelled it became clear that the whole thing was a newspaper ‘sting’. It appears that a male reporter working for the Guido Fawkes blog had set up a fake twitter account as a female conservative party activist and sent flirtatious messages to a number of conservative MPs over a period of time. Her profile picture was of a random woman in a bikini, lifted from facebook.

Though we might find the story comical and have little sympathy for the minister, it does raise questions about the ethics of press behaviour. Though the paper claimed it was in the public interest to expose the minister as a hypocrite, quite clearly there was an element of entrapment involved, as well as stealing someone else’s picture for the Twitter account. 

Obviously, it is very easy for someone to set up a fake ID on twitter or indeed on other social media and to make a nuisance of themselves, particularly in terms of abusive messages (see previous post on Stan Collymore). Online trolling is probably familiar to most people. But what about people who want to argue a particular line which is not unlawful but might be seen to go against the dominant messages of the media?

The McCann family, whose daughter Madeleine disappeared in Portugal in 2007 have been the subject of much media speculation and have had a very high profile ever since. They have successfully sued newspapers for libel. Last week they announced that they were going to take action against people who had trolled them online - senders of abusive messages.  As in the case of many crimes, like the shooting of JFK or even 9/11, there are a number of forums online where people speculate about the evidence and conspiracy theories emerge. The McCann story is no exception and last week Sky News sent their crime reporter Martin Brunt to the home of a woman, Brenda Leyland, who had tweeted about the case over a long period of time under the name @sweepyface. She had questioned the McCann account of what had happened and repeated allegations about misuse of public donations to the appeal fund. Brunt 'doorstepped' her with a camera crew and Sky featured her on a number of bulletins, describing her as a troll. Mrs Leyland then became the object of a lot of hate on twitter, including photoshop images turning her into a monster. Following approaches from other media outlets, she left her home on Friday and was found dead in a hotel room on Sunday, having apparently committed suicide.

The case has led to a flurry of news articles and much discussion on twitter. Whilst some have suggested that she brought it on herself, others have questioned why Sky treated her as a troll at all. The McCanns do not have twitter accounts, so it suggested they couldn't be trolled as the messages were not sent to them. Though she deleted her twitter account after the visit from Sky, text versions of it saved by other users have been posted, which reveal that though she had persisted in questioning the McCanns account of events, she had not threatened them. This article from Spiked challenges the way in which online opinion is sometimes represented as trolling and argues that it is often those who are determined to 'expose' trolls who are really the online bullies. 

The case certainly raises questions about the boundaries of free speech and two articles from The Guardian show both sides here and here. However outraged we might feel either about the feelings of the McCanns or about the suicide of Brenda Leyland, online media means viewpoints we might disagree with are never far away.