Speaking personally by Sheona Small

Sheona Small
Sheona Small

THERE’S no smoke without fire. Except that sometimes there is, especially on the unrestrained wild, wild west world of the internet.

And no blazing wildfire could ever spread as quickly as a lie told in 140 characters and pinged in a fraction of second across the twittersphere.

They can turn sensible people into prurient gossip-mongers or outraged Puritans, passing on innuendo and building layer upon layer of half-truths until there’s a mountain of misinformation so big that it’s just got to be true, right?

As the last week showed, the internet has a downside capable of whipping up a baying crowd pointing a guilty-without-trial finger of accusation with more mass hysteria than the Salem witch trials.

When the prime minister was ambushed on daytime television with a list of high-profile names allegedly involved in a supposed paedophile ring, the normally astute presenter Phillip Schofield made a big thing of the fact that he’d found these names on the internet in just a few minutes, as if the speed in which they’d been revealed by Google’s search engines was a factor in their veracity. (The credence Schofield gave the internet as a reliable source was also a bit surprising considering he himself, just a few years ago, had condemned the internet for promulgating completely false rumours linking him to a gay affair.)

In the wake of phone-tapping and the ongoing Leveson Inquiry, the Press has taken a battering. No one would deny that some of the participants at the wilder - and it has to be said, most popular - extremes had been involved in illegal activities but I’ve been in this business for 30 years and while I’ve met some hacks along the way who could keep a whole bar entertained with tales of high jinx from the good old bad old days, I’ve never worked for an editor willing to print a story that wasn’t backed up with hard, substantiated facts.

The paper you’re holding in your hands might once have been affectionately known as the “Leven Liar” but there have always been laws governing what can’t be published without proof, which means that even countless suspicions about monsters like Jimmy Savile are not always enough.

Schofield issued an “Oops, sorry” apology after it turned out some of the names on his list could be seen on camera. A newspaper doing the same thing would be hung out to dry by the courts.

Despite the warning that you shouldn’t always believe what you read in the paper, I’d still stake a bet that it’s more likely to be true. You might not like the way its written but that’s a different issue. When a story is condensed to 200 words or less and accompanied by a lurid headline, it loses some of its context and finer points but maybe you should be buying a different newspaper rather than shooting the messenger.

There’s something about the feeling of anonymity offered by the internet – a false cloak of invisibility – that encourages people to give vent to their views, true or not, or indeed rational.

But my fear isn’t just that ‘no-smoke-without-fire’ accusations on the internet are repeated until taken as gospel and make us see bogeymen where there are none. It is that, more dangerously, they provide an impenetrable smokescreen that can hide the guilty. Our country’s Press may not be perfect but, unlike the internet, it is still accountable and we should show a bit of caution - and question the motives of those holding the sticks – before it’s beaten to a compliant, toothless shadow of its former self without the resources to separate the wheat from the chaff, or even a bogeyman from a real-life monster.