Fry’s ‘twitch-hunt’ of Moir sets press freedom back

Stephen Fry and Twitter

In Stephen Fry’s hands, Twitter has become an authoritarian tool to police thought crimes

BY Brendan O'Neill LAST UPDATED AT 18:11 ON Tue 20 Oct 2009

So Stephen Fry, Britain's most famous Twitterer, now "feels sorry" for Jan Moir.

Having triggered the mass Twitter uprising against Moir over her Daily Mail column on Stephen Gately, Fry says he now sympathises with her, understanding what it is like to "make a monumental ass of oneself" and to "yearn for a rewind button".

And well he might feel contrite, or at least a little red-faced, over his role in the Moir Affair.

Because his actions, his Twitter-based call to arms, his spearheading of perhaps Britain's first-ever 'twitch hunt', has revealed the dark side of the Twitter phenomenon and how a social network can quite easily turn into a virtual lynch mob.

Moir is a ‘vile bitch’, said one blogger; she’s an ‘evil witch’, said another

Fry's initial expression of disgust for Moir's column, in which she argued that there was "nothing natural" about Gately's death, had an instant snowball effect.

The commentariat visited their wordy fury on Moir. Twitterers and bloggers and discussion-thread stalkers expressed outrage with the Mail, coaxing Marks & Spencer and others to pull their ads from its website.

And in their thousands - 22,000 to be precise - they complained to the Press Complaints Commission, imploring it to censure the Mail.

The more the anti-Moir sentiment spread through the blogosphere and the Twittersphere, the shriller and more intolerant it became. Moir is a "vile bitch", said one blogger; she's an "evil witch", said another.

She is a "vile and disgusting piece of filth", said a contributor to one of the many Facebook pages set up to denounce her, and "it should be lawful for the public to lynch scum like her".

The denouement to this unedifying spectacle of self-righteous outrage came with a complaint to the police. The Lesbian and Gay Foundation grassed up Moir, claiming her column insulted not just Gately but the gay community "as a whole".

The end result of this twitch-hunt could well be an even bossier PCC

So her words weren't just wrong or prejudiced - they were potentially criminal. I thought it was only authoritarian, Orwellian regimes that treated thoughts and speech as crimes?

The end result of this twitch-hunt could well be an even bossier PCC, more police interest in particularly opinionated op-eds, and a more cautious, punches-pulling media.

The whole debacle was driven by a herd mentality. Twitterers slavishly followed instructions from on high - from Fry and other Dear Leaders of the People's Republic of Twitter - and even circulated readymade, pre-written complaints to the PCC. The desire to complain, to join the in-club of fashionable Moir-maligners, came before any careful thought about the content or the consequences of such a twitch-hunt.

There were double standards, too. When the Daily Mail last year encouraged its readers to complain to Ofcom about Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand's bad behaviour on BBC Radio 2, liberal commentators denounced it for being censorious. This is the "dawn of the dumb", said the Guardian's Charlie Brooker of the Mail's "full-blown moral crusade".

Yet this time round, liberal commentators led the censorious charge. Indeed, Brooker called on his readers to complain to the PCC about Moir's "hateful idiocy".  

It's not only Moir who would like to press a "rewind button". Those of us who value rationality, open debate and freedom of the press - even for the Daily Mail - would also like to turn back the clock, to a time before Twitter was used as a tool of pompous outrage. · 

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