And the headline isn’t sarcastic. I know lots of people out there are pissing themselves over his series of abject, grovelling apologies for having libelled Lord McAlpine on Twitter. But I’m not one of them. I genuinely sincerely feel poor George’s pain.
Yes, all right, this might sound unduly magnanimous. Well, damn it, it is quite magnanimous: this is the man who once wrote of me “debating Delingpole is like shooting rats in a bucket.” But if George Monbiot is going to go down I want to it to be over something where he deserves to go down. Let it be over the issue of wind farms, or sustainability, or climate change or the free market, or any of the other myriad areas about which he is totally and utterly wrong. But let it not be over a mistake that any one of us Twitter users could have made in a foolish or unguarded moment. Where Monbiot has ended up so – but for the grace of God – have we all.
The big problem with Twitter is that it’s there in your every waking moment. It’s there when you get out of bed, right or wrong side; it’s there before and after you mid-morning coffee fix; it’s there during the post-lunch lull and during your mid-afternoon torpor; it’s there for your first drink of the evening; and your second; and your third. It’s there if you’re E’d up or coked up or you’ve had a fat blunt. It’s there when you’re watching TV, when you’ve moved house, when your wife’s been having an affair, when you’ve just had rough sex with a tramp in Soho Square, when you’ve narrowly escaped death on a beach in an Australia from a great white shark….
Whatever your mood, whatever your state of mind, there’s a 140 character space just gagging to have your throbbing thoughts inserted in it. Sometimes those thoughts are witty; sometimes they’re topical; sometimes they’re deathly bland (memo to certain minor stand-ups: if you’re a comedian the idea is to be funny, not just keep Tweeting all your gig dates); sometimes they’re regrettable. George Monbiot’s Tweets about Lord McAlpine would definitely fit into the “regrettable” category.
But we’ve all been there. Well I certainly have. I remember once, while on holiday on the Welsh borders retweeting some unflattering joke about a ghastly lefty politician.
I retweeted it as one tends to retweet so many things on Twitter: casually, almost unthinkingly, then forgetting about it. But Twitter doesn’t forget about stuff. It etches it in stone. Even if you try to delete your Tweet, it’s still recoverable by those who wish use it against you. People you may have libelled, say. People like the team of investigators now being employed by Lord McAlpine to track down every one of the Twitterers who repeated that terrible allegation and who are now facing the horror of legal action.
This isn’t to play down the awfulness of what has happened to Lord McAlpine. Paedophilia, as we know, is the ne plus ultra of crimes. It wasn’t always this way. Previous cultures have taken a very different view of sex between adults and what we would now consider underage children: Henry VII’s mother was just 13 when she gave birth to him. But in an age where paedophilia is right up there with genocide, for Lord McAlpine to be tarred in this way is the cruellest stigma imaginable. He deserves every bit of abject apologising he gets; no one should begrudge him the payouts he is receiving from the BBC and – presumably – Philip Schofield’s breakfast TV programme.
But does that mean that George Monbiot and Sally Bercow and all the other people who tweeted idiotically on the subject deserve to be cast into outer darkness? I don’t think so. At least not for what they’ve ever done on Twitter. Sure they must bear a certain degree of responsibility but I think the humiliation of the apologies they’ll have to deliver – and the gnawing fear they must have been experiencing over these last few days – are more than enough punishment for what they did. But by far the worst culprit in this case, to my mind, is not the tweeters but Twitter itself. The medium creates the message.
Which is to say that Twitter occupies the uneasy, contested territory between stream-of-consciousness and published material. You can’t be done for thought crime (well, you can, actually thanks to the new “hate crime” laws introduced under Tony Blair) but you can be done for libel. And the difficulty with Twitter, it being so new a medium, governed by so little legal precident, is that no one who uses it quite knows where they stand.
The classic example of this is Paul Chambers, the man who tweeted “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!” For this “crime” he was fined £385, ordered to pay £600 and lost his job. Only on his third appeal was his conviction finally quashed.
But most of us would surely agree this absurd case should never have gone to court in the first place. Chambers only had a handful of followers (though even if he’d had five million followers like Stephen Fry, I’d still argue the same), not one of whom, had they even read the tweet, would have assumed it was anything other than a joke. Not even the off-duty manager at the airport who reported it to the police considered it a credible threat. (Kind of makes you wonder why he did so then. But maybe that’s symptomatic of a culture where compliance, arse-covering and terror of litigation have replaced intelligent discretion, generosity of spirit and commonsense.) Yet in the eyes of the law this was a serious offence.
This is what makes Twitter so potentially dangerous for those who use it. It feels simultaneously real and unreal. Not for a moment, I suspect, would Sally Bercow or George Monbiot have committed to print the things they said about Lord McAlpine on Twitter because they would have been alive to the libel potential. They said it on Twitter though, not merely, I would suggest, in the reprehensibly cynical belief that they could get away with it, but also in the forgivably naive mindset that what happens on Twitter doesn’t really count in the way stuff you say and do in the real world counts.
I have an idea what Monbiot and Bercow have been going through these last few days and it isn’t nice. I got a taste of it myself that time when I retweeted that joke on holiday in Wales. At breakfast, it had seemed funny. Damn it, it was funny. But it was also – if treated in the same literalistic, po-faced way that Paul Chambers’s tweet was treated – potentially libellous. I’ll never forget the lurch in the pit of my stomach as, later that day, I glanced at my Twitter feed and realised that my tweet had been retweeted by one of my trolling enemies and that potentially it could get me into an awful lot of trouble. I was striding across Lord Hereford’s Knob at the time and what should have been a lovely holiday walk suddenly felt like one of the most terrible moments of my life. “But I didn’t mean it! It was only a joke!” I pleaded with the gods. In my case they listened. In Monbiot’s they didn’t. Poor George.