Another weekend and another needless, tragic suicide, the fourth associated with the ITV show Love Island.
The death of TV presenter and former Strictly champion Caroline Flack highlights, yet again, the terrible price of fame. Although I met her a few times, I didn’t know Caroline, but I understand she was a kind, funny and generous person, summed-up beautifully on BBC Five Live by her friend and Love Island stand-in Laura Whitmore.
Much blame has been laid at the door of the British tabloid press for driving Caroline over the edge, especially in the wake of her arrest for domestic violence. It’s certainly true that the tabloid press can be ruthless in their pursuit of a celebrity story and I am not going to defend a press pack that chases down its quarry with the bloodthirsty enthusiasm of a slavering hound on the trail of a terrified fox.
Regulation of the press in a mature democracy is tricky. We need to protect people from defamation and harassment but, on the other hand, we value and cherish press freedom. And while I am not in any way defending the excesses of the red tops, they can at least be held to account, taken to court and – as happened with the News of the World – become so toxic in the eyes of the public that they have no choice other than to close.
While negative coverage in the mainstream media can be hurtful and damaging it is – at least according to the celebrities I know – as nothing compared with social media pile-ons. Newspaper articles, even in our online world, soon become yesterday’s news and being the subject of a few pieces in The Sun or The Mirror is not the same as having thousands upon thousands of strangers filling your Twitter timeline with viciousness, hatred and cruelty day after day after day.
So how does Twitter get away with publishing such content?
Critically, it is because they insist on being treated, in law, as a tech platform rather than a publisher. The difference is important. If I wrote on this site that you were a thieving crook with a penchant for underage sex you could sue and would be likely to win. As editor I, together with our lawyers, have to ensure that what we publish conforms to certain standards which are enshrined in law. It’s the same with printed newspapers and magazines and there are similar rules in place for broadcasters.
If, on the other hand, an anonymous troll wrote exactly the same thing on Twitter, the social media giant is under no obligation to act. This is absurd: if OutNewsGlobal.com is responsible for ensuring that what you read on our website conforms to the laws of libel, defamation and harassment, then what you read on twitter.com must surely be subject to the same strictures.
These social media giants may claim that there is simply too much traffic for them to monitor all their content but if you and I can spot an abusive Twitter pile-on then so can they. And have you seen how quickly Facebook can remove a nipple pic? (Answer: very quickly, even in the case of breastfeeding). If you can censor a nipple you can censor a lie.
While they’re at it, it might be an idea to put in place some rudimentary account verification procedures to help cut down anonymous troll accounts. I accept that this can be difficult yet PayPal, eBay and Amazon manage it, so why can’t Twitter?