Lord McAlpine has done more to safeguard the future of the internet as a place for responsible public debate than anyone in history.
Alistair McAlpine, Baron McAlpine of West Green, doesn’t look like a man who could rescue the internet from suffocation by libellers, abusers and assorted other bestial nuisances.
Not to be rude, but he barely looks able or interested enough to switch on a computer at all.
But that, following the untrue allegations made about him by Left-wing journalists and politicians who were desperate to see “Tory” and “paedophile” in the same headline, is the role he is now playing by ferociously pursuing everyone who mentioned his name on Twitter in connection with child abuse.
Until last week, conventional opinion about the internet held that “you can’t get them all”: if a fact, whether under super-injunction or not, was spreading like wildfire around social media, then the law was powerless to stop it.
The internet, and social media in particular, was thrillingly powerful. It could subvert the justice system; with mass civil disobedience, the Twitterati imagined themselves as the new community charge rebels, engaged on a romantic crusade to defy the Establishment.
But all that has changed. Lord McAlpine, improperly accused of a heinous and reputation-destroying crime, has defied both the received wisdom about social media and Mark Twain’s oft-quoted dictum that “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes”.
Due prominence is a convention developed by the media to mitigate against the reality that corrections rarely reach as many people as the original story. The internet was thought to have made this problem exponentially worse. That is no longer true.
We are now entering a new era, one in which not just irresponsible far-Left journalists like George Monbiot are forced to issue grovelling apologies. (We note with abject dismay that the Guardian has refused to cover George’s legal fees. We are equally distressed to see the ridiculous and attention-seeking Sally Bercow on Lord McAlpine’s hit list.)
Now, even the most gnat-like and insignificant pseudonymous irritator should consider his position carefully before hitting Send. As Melanie Philips puts it in today’s Daily Mail, this may be “a watershed moment in which the mob rule that until now has been allowed to rampage unchecked on the internet may finally be brought to heel”.
What Lord McAlpine is doing here isn’t merely his prerogative, as a man grievously wronged. It may also hold the key to the future of discourse in the public square.
As the media pay ever-more attention to the squabbles and silliness of social media, those hysterical and unaccountable tweeters who have held dominion over us for so long are at last getting their just desserts.
McAlpine is demonstrating why a take-no-prisoners approach is so effective. Massive and brutal retaliation is the only thing the grubby, spineless, spiteful hordes will understand. We say bravo.
Never again will a libeller be able to claim they didn’t know lying about a public figure on Twitter was risky. It’s a pity it took an innocent man getting fingered to bring it about, but there you go.
Social media put the tools of publishing into the hands of every citizen. It gave them power, but, until last week, no responsibility.
Now, users will now have to ask themselves, before issuing every tweet, blog post and status update, whether they would be prepared to defend their claims in court.
What a remarkable transformation from just a week ago. It should give us hope that the public, if it cannot be trusted to behave responsibly on its own, will now be forced to by public opinion and by the law.