Lord Justice Leveson in Australia, fear of ‘mob rule’ on the internet — and a case of wobbly telepathy?

Barbarians on the net? A blogger, even a putative 'troll,' could easily be a civilised, cerebral girl like this one'La leggitrice' -- Photograph by MIL22

Barbarians on the net? A blogger, even a putative ‘troll,’ could easily be a civilised, cerebral girl like this one
‘La leggitrice’ — Photograph by MIL22

Zounds. The original header for this entry, first published a day and a half ago, was:

‘Congratulations, #Leveson LJ, for leaving the blogosphere and online publishing alone — and for declining to succumb to neurotic fear of the “mob”‘

We linked to an announcement of Lord Justice Leveson’s speaking engagement in Sydney, at a symposium held there today. And … guess what we have just found on Google? A BBC News report, still warm from the oven, with this fragment from his speech: ‘Laws are needed to prevent “mob rule” on the internet and “trial by Twitter”, Lord Justice Justice Leveson has said … .’ This is the first record we at post-Gutenberg have ever heard or seen of him mentioning ‘mob’ in the same sentence as ‘internet’, even though we would hardly be surprised if he did so in some exchange in his Inquiry. Might telepathy explain this astonishing development — or (but, no, surely not) did an aide to Leveson LJ draw his attention to re-tweets about this post by the two most constructive blogs on the Inquiry, Hacked Off and INFORRM (the International Forum for Responsible Media)? 

If it was indeed a telepathic connection, it was a bit spotty, because, according to the BBC bulletin, the judge is every bit as worried as the rest of the Establishment about the lawlessness of the net. What we said in our post (below) is still perfectly accurate. He deserves high praise for not warping the evolution of the internet as a radically democratic medium with poorly conceived and premature rules for online publishing. He could have used his Inquiry to do the wrong thing and copy King Canute commanding the sea to roll back — as so many newspaper proprietors and obtuse columnists had hoped he would. 

He did not.

We should note, here, that post-Gutenberg is as keen as anyone else on the arrival of the day on which we finally have a wise and far-sighted set of rules for online life — not least because we care passionately about protecting artists’ and writers’ right to eat, through reasonable copyright enforcement. (See ‘Might audience jealousy of artists explain why copyright is being officially destroyed on the internet?‘)

As for our apparent anticipation of the Inquiry leader’s interest in the topic of ‘mob rule,’ we hope that he reads all the way to the end of this post. 

Quel wheeze. 

Many journalists are worried about the impact of the Leveson report. […] What I’m worried about is about how Leveson will empower the people who lurk below the line […] How will Leveson empower these people? […] The scum below the line will mobilise and use the regulatory system to complain online, and en masse. Plenty of people already dedicate their time to making the lives of journalists a misery …

Columnist ranting in The Telegraph about reader comments on newspaper websites

Like certain unwitting colonisers from the Northern Hemisphere in the late 1700s, the eponymous judge leading the Leveson Inquiry into press behaviour and standards has gone to Australia. Never mind if he is a willing transportee serving the aims of H. M.’s government, whereas so many English who travelled the same route two centuries earlier were not. In the hostile unease in today’s Establishment that Lord Justice Leveson went to pains to pacify in his report published last Thursday, there are echoes from the past — from Establishment debates and anxieties that inspired the founding of the penal colony Down Under.

Judging by what we at post-Gutenberg have been able to read of the Leveson report, so far — in a true annus horribilis leaving us scarcely any time for blogging — his execution of the judiciary’s task of restoring calm and order to society has been thorough and careful.

But especially commendable is this: he did not let the hysteria of the ruling class — especially the segment of it that the press represents — force him into any unwise, premature attempt to draft rules for the blogosphere, or indeed any online publishing competing with old print media.

Lord Justice Leveson appears to understand perfectly that it is too soon to check or discipline a medium so new that it still has slippery fragments of afterbirth clinging to it, and will not be mature enough to be teachable for a while. ‘If we wish to compress something,‘ — for instance, constrain online publishing — ‘we must first let it fully expand,‘ was the advice we ourselves relayed from a sage of long ago, in answering the Inquiry’s request for public comment and suggestions.

The traditional press, railing at the Leveson report, sounds like online publishing’s envious, vengeful sibling, demanding that a parent impose equal punishment on all offspring regardless of culpability. Why must newspapers face new controls and rules, with or without statutory underpinning, when the Inquiry made no such recommendations for, eg., bloggers? Under the headline, ‘Leveson angers press over internet control,’ The Financial Times recorded this fury:

Lord Justice Leveson has angered UK newspaper bosses …

In an editorial on Friday, The Sun, Rupert Murdoch’s flagship tabloid, wrote “an over-regulated press in parallel with an unregulated internet spells chaos and will be the nail in the coffin for the newspaper industry”.

Yet again, newspaper reporting on the Inquiry has been wickedly selective. Leveson LJ notes in his findings that ‘the work of very many bloggers and websites … should rightly and fairly be characterised as valuable and professional’ — but scarcely anyone in old print media was brave enough to record that statement.

Only Private Eye and a few blogs like this one have been drawing attention to such omissions and distortions over the eighteen months of the Inquiry. How has the traditional press been getting away with this crime against honest journalism?

Irrational fear of ‘the mob’ is the answer we suggest. In the past, this sanctioned rank injustice actually codified in law. Robert Hughes’ references, in his magisterial history, The Fatal Shore, include the habit in Georgian England of referring to the masses beneath the elite as ‘the mobbish class of persons’. You could easily substitute ‘bloggers’ or ‘the internet’ for ‘mob’ where he notes,

The ‘mob,’ as the urban proletariat was called, had become an object of terror and contempt, but little was known about it. It was seen as a malign fluid, a sort of magma that would burst through any crack in law and custom, … easily inflamed…

and especially, here:

The ‘mob’ was Georgian society’s id — the sump of forbidden thoughts and proscribed actions …

The irrational terror meant that no one in any position of responsibility went to the trouble of doing any research into the factual basis for the elite’s misconceptions of the proletariat. The actual rise in crime that followed the population explosion that in turn followed the Industrial Revolution was vastly exaggerated, and used to justify ever more unjust laws that especially victimised the poor:

One could be hanged for burning a house or hut, a standing rick of corn, or an insignificant pile of straw; for poaching a rabbit, for breaking down ‘the head or mound’ of a fishpond, or even cutting down an ornamental shrub; or for appearing on a high-road with a sooty face.

What made all this particularly dire was that there was, increasingly, no competing authority to keep the judiciary in check. Eighteenth-century England, Hughes observes, witnessed

the growth of the Rule of Law … into a supreme ideology, a form of religion which, it has since been argued, began to replace the waning moral power of the Church of England.

That is even truer today, in an officially secular society in which the upper crust is free to speak of religion with spitting contempt. We should be all the more grateful to Lord Justice Leveson for his resistance to Establishment pressure to recommend legal controls and disciplinary action for the expression of thoughts and ideas, and dissemination of facts, on the internet.

Perhaps, in his time in the Antipodes, he can congratulate himself on his moderation as he is reminded, simply by being there — haunted in his dreams, perhaps, by the clanking chains of convicts — of the excesses of his predecessors in judicial robes:

The belief in a swelling wave of crime was one of the great social facts of Georgian England. It shaped the laws, and the colonisation of Australia was the partial result.