"The trolling was coming from *inside* the house..." Why the British media is obsessed with online anonymity

... when what it really needs is a mirror.

Katie Price, a long-time proponent of being as far from anonymous as its humanly possible to be, launched a petition this week calling for a law that would require people to provide verified ID to open a social media account and for anyone under-18 to have their account linked to a parent’s ID. Using the extremely tabloid-friendly name ‘Track A Troll’, Price’s petition has over 158,000 signatures at the time of writing.

The impulse behind Price’s campaign is understandable. She has been working for some time to make ‘Harvey’s Law’ a reality. Named after her son, who has often been the target of online abuse, she proposes that it would make it illegal to troll or abuse others online. The latest petition is an extension of that effort. She explains on the petition page:

My son Harvey is disabled. He is also the kind and gentle son of a person regularly in the public eye. The Online Harms Bill doesn’t go far enough in making online abuse a specific criminal offence and doing what ‘Harvey’s Law’ intended. To make the law work needs the removal of anonymity to ensure that users cannot cause harm by using online platforms to abuse others.

Where an offence has taken place they ought to be easily identified and reported to the police and punished. We have experienced the worst kind of abuse towards my disabled son and want to make sure that no one can hide behind their crime.

It makes sense that Price wants to unmask those who have targeted her disabled son and that, after years on front pages, she believes that everyone should have to stand behind what they say. But the blanket removal of anonymity online would not solve the issue of online abuse and it would put a wide range of people at risk — from political activists whose employers could harass them to young LGBT+ people whose ability to talk online would suddenly be linked to their parents.

That the tabloids, the wider British media, and politicians are rowing in behind Price’s proposal isn’t surprising. Social media is the traditional press’ greatest frenemy; while it has brought them traffic and an endless source of stories to mine, it has sucked up most of the advertising revenue and gets the attention that newspapers and television could once take for granted. Day after day, social media and ‘trolls’ are the enemies within for newspapers — the perfect scapegoat for almost any problem.

But the most notorious examples of abuse towards Harvey Price came from the established media, not from Twitter or Facebook, perpetrated by people with huge platforms. It was Heat magazine that, in 2007, published a sticker of Harvey when he was five-years-old bearing the caption, “Harvey wants to eat me”. Three years later, Frankie Boyle said the following in an episode of his Channel 4 series, Tramadol Nights:

Apparently Jordan and Peter Andre [Katie Price’s ex-husband] are fighting each other over custody of Harvey. Well eventually one of them will have to lose and have to keep him.

I have a theory about the reason Jordan married a cage fighter — she needed a man strong enough to stop Harvey from fucking her.

Harvey Price was 8-years-old at the time that routine was broadcast. Ofcom received 500 complaints about the show, including from Price herself. Defending itself in a submission to the regulator, Channel 4 claimed:

Harvey Price is already well known in the media and in the week prior to transmission there were already over 500,000 links to web content about Harvey via the search engine Google, and a further 250,000 web images featuring the child, most involving staged or mediated events in his mother’s career… eght months prior to transmission [of Tramadol Nights], Katie Price’s new husband, the cage-fighter Alex Reid, made a series of public jokes about Harvey resembling the fictional character, ‘The Incredible Hulk’.

Still, Ofcom ruled that the programme was in breach of the Broadcasting Code:

Ofcom accepted that Katie Price, Alex Reid and Peter Andre have consciously exposed their and their children’s lives to the media. Celebrities who do this must bear the consequences and can expect to be targets of humour and criticism. Harvey Price, however, is only known in the media because of his mother, rather than through his own choice.

In Ofcom’s view, the fact that a public figure chooses to expose some aspects of his or her child’s life in the media does not provide broadcasters with unlimited licence to broadcast comedy that targets humour at such a child’s expense. This position applies even more firmly in a case in which the child is as young as eight years old, and has a number of disabilities which are specifically focussed on as the target of that intended humour...

in this case, Frankie Boyle’s comments appeared to derive humour by demeaning the physical and mental disabilities of a known eight year-old child. As a result, Ofcom considered that, even taking into account contextual factors such as the nature of the series as a whole, its scheduling, publicity and the clear pretransmission warning, these comments went beyond what would have been expected by the majority of viewers of a late night comedy show broadcast on Channel 4.

Therefore, in view of the particular circumstances of this case, Ofcom concluded that on balance, the context of this programme was not sufficient to justify the broadcast of this material. In broadcasting these comments, Channel 4 did not apply generally accepted standards so as to provide adequate protection for members of the public from this offensive material.

Should Frankie Boyle have faced criminal sanction for his comments as Price’s proposals suggest he might? Obviously not, but the prominence and platform that his words had far outstripped that of any social media troll. Boyle’s jokes were paid for, promoted and defended by a national broadcaster.

Boyle is at least a comedian. Newspaper columnists like Rod Liddle, Jan Moir, Sarah Vine, Jeremy Clarkson, and Allison Pearson to choose just a few of the most awful are not able to reach for that defence. Yet all of them have repeatedly used their columns to target individuals. Bullying with a byline is one of the most lucrative gigs in the British media.

In 2009, Jan Moir wrote a column that became the most-complained about article in the history of the Press Complaints Commission (the regulator which was replaced in 2014 by the equally toothless Independent Press Standards Organisation)1. On October 10 2009, the pop star Stephen Gately died of natural causes aged 33. A coroner ruled on October 13 that it was the result of a congenital heart defect, but despite that verdict, Jan Moir had a theory.

In her piece, published on 16 October 2009, she claimed:

Healthy and fit 33-year-old men do not just climb into their pyjamas and go to sleep on the sofa, never to wake up again. Whatever the cause of death is, it is not, by any yardstick, a natural one.

She went on to insinuate that drugs and a “dangerous lifestyle” were to blame for Gately’s death, with the ‘not a natural one’ phrase a clear dog whistle about the singer’s sexuality.

The dog whistle became a klaxon later in the piece when Moir wrote:

Gay activists are always calling for tolerance and understanding about same-sex relationships, arguing that they are just the same as heterosexual marriages. Not everyone, they say, is like George Michael.

Of course, in many cases, this may be true. Yet the recent death of Kevin McGee, the former husband of Little Britain star Matt Lucas, and now the dubious events of Gately's last night raise troubling questions about what happened.

Moir blamed the response to her column on a “heavily orchestrated internet campaign” — that damn social media again — and claimed it was “mischievous in the extreme to suggest that [her] article [had] homophobic and bigoted undertones.” That ignored The Guardian writing that her words had been “hateful idiocy”, The Times’ verdict that the article was “vile” or The Telegraph declaring that “Moir’s reputation is in tatters…”

Jan Moir’s ‘good’ reputation turned out not be that professionally necessary. The Gately article remains online without any acknowledgement of the hurt and anger it generated. Jan Moir remains a Daily Mail columnist. Her latest piece was published 5 days ago and another will be along shortly.

The third example of the tabloid troll pipeline I’m going to cover today is even more recent: Tom Newton-Dunn and the far-right frontpage. I wrote about this one back when this newsletter was young, in June 2020:

Tom Newton-Dunn put a far-right conspiracy theory on the front page of The Sun. His story, sourced largely from far-right websites, alleged that former British intelligence officers had uncovered a ‘hard-left extremist network’ at the heart of the Labour party. It was the GIF of Charlie from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia standing wild-eyed in front of his ‘string theory’ board. 

The map, which Newton-Dunn directed his readers towards, was built from a range of extreme rightwing sources, including the antisemitic conspiracist site Millennium Report, and defunct neo-Nazi group Aryan Unity. The spider’s web of the conspiracy pulled in leftwing journalists, the IRA, Hamas, the Farc in Colombia, uh… members of the British Medical Association, anti-war groups, and dead philosophers including Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish.  

On the same day that Newton-Dunn’s conspiracy theory story hit the front page, it was removed from The Sun’s website. It has not been referred to since, and Newton-Dunn, after some brief social media sparring has totally ducked all criticism, simply refusing to engage with it or answer for his use of far-right, antisemitic sources in an election where he and others spent a substantial amount of time raising the undoubted issue of antisemitism within the Labour Party.  

Publishing theories sourced from neo-Nazis has not had any effect on Tom Newton-Dunn. He’s still invited on to TV shows to opine on politics, still gets to present What The Papers Say on Radio 4, and has been rewarded for his work on The Sun with the elevation to a daily show on TimesRadio, which is designed to attack Radio 4 head-on. He’s a fixture of the British media, his father was an MEP for decades, and he’s got lots of pals at different papers who think he’s a well-spoken charmer. All of that means he’s allowed to get away with a crypto-fascist scoop. 

Nothing has changed since last summer. Tom Newton-Dunn is all over Times Radio, treated as a respectable expert on politics rather than the man who laundered ludicrous and extremely dangerous far-right theories onto a national newspaper front page.

That Newton-Dunn could fling fascist talking points into the middle of an election campaign might explain why other sites feel emboldened to go fishing on 4Chan for their ideas. Just yesterday, clusterfuck cowsite UnHerd published a story insinuating that a woman pictured being arrested by police at the Clapham Common vigil for Sarah Everard is, in fact, “a crisis actor”:

Just as Newton-Dunn put those he falsely claimed were part of an ‘extremist’ network at risk, the UnHerd piece could very well put Stevenson in the sights of some very dangerous people.

My final example of ‘trolling coming from inside the house’ — for today, at least — is Julie Burchill, who has spent decades tossing around abuse in print but finally came unstuck when her campaign of attacks on Ash Sarkar ended in a large legal bill and the requirement to publish an extensive apology.

Julie Burchill did all her bullying under her own name and with The Spectator, Daily Telegraph and UnHerd behind her. She didn’t need anonymity to be abusive. Nor, in fact, did people on Facebook or those sculling around in The Times website comments section, where everyone posting is a paid subscriber.

I understand why Katie Price wants ‘something to be done’ and why the media are exploiting that desire. But when I saw a BBC reporter tweeting that they were going to be “looking into the troll ecosystem”, I immediately knew the reporting would focus on minnows and ignore the sharks and whales swimming through the tabloids and broadsheets alike every single day.

After all, when you’re rude from an anonymous Twitter account that’s ‘abuse’, but when you do it from beneath a byline, it’s satire, analysis, fair comment and potentially award-winning, right?

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25,000 complaints were received by the PCC on the first day.