In My Opinion: Andrew Collier: Time for media outlets to protect their own journalists from online abuse

SEVERAL years ago, I interviewed Gene Robinson, the Bishop of New Hampshire and famously the first openly gay Anglican primate, whose ordination had divided his church, worldwide. I’d worked to get it for months, aware that landing this feature would be a scoop, and The Scotsman eagerly agreed to take it.

The Bishop’s story made for a thoughtful, moving feature which was full of gentleness and Christian compassion. I was pleased with the way it went, proud to be able to represent his position from a fair but sympathetic viewpoint, and delighted with the show it got in the paper.

What I hadn’t expected, and which shocked me, was the sheer viciousness of some of the attacks on me for writing the piece. Comments quickly appeared, mainly on American evangelical Christian websites, accusing me of being a failed, hopeless, debauched, faggot-loving hack playing out his own vile liberal agenda.

It was truly nasty stuff, and much the worst personal abuse I’ve taken in nearly 40 years in journalism, a good bit of it on doorsteps in some of the most deprived housing schemes the West of Scotland can offer.

It was a stark wake-up call on two levels. Firstly, as to how nasty people in a church can be to each other, and, secondly, on the power of the internet as a tool to malign and attempt to destroy people and their hard-won reputations.

If anything, online attacks on journalists have got much, much worse since then, and in some cases the media themselves are complicit. Take, for instance, the comments which now appear almost as a matter of course under articles written by professional journalists on their employers’ web sites.

Readers are invited to comment on the substance and comment of what they’ve read, so provoking a wider discourse on the subject in question. Of course, this can be an extremely good thing.

One of the best things about the internet is that it opens up the broadest possible debate, provoking informed comment and stimulating intelligent discussion which goes beyond the original article. In other words, it can truly be freedom of the Press in its most constructive and invigorating form.

The key words here are ‘informed’ and ‘intelligent’. The problem is that far too many comments are left by the mad, bad and sad.

Remarks by the merely obsessed are annoying but normally pretty harmless. It’s the deliberately destructive ones – the ones which lie, crow, misrepresent and attack the author of the original piece personally and without reason – which debase the whole notion of discussion of journalism in the public realm.

I’ve seen writers libelled and accused of unspeakable things in comments under their own articles.

Media organisations are meant to moderate this stuff before it gets posted, but many don’t seem to bother, or set their sensitivity levels far too low. This isn’t just dangerous, in that they potentially leave themselves open to a defamation claim, but also shows disrespect to the journalist who wrote the original piece. It threatens, even, to devalue their own brand.

I can’t see how the writers themselves, whose work and reputations are publicly trashed in this way, can be other than appalled – I know I was when it happened to me – but it’s hard for them to do much about it. They generally can’t take action (if they’re on staff, the media outlet they work for holds the copyright in what they write) and in any case most postings are anonymous.

Taking it further means lodging a complaint with their employer – something which is always going to look rather egotistical and pompous and, in any case, is always a difficult thing to do. In my experience, when abused in this way, most journalists just retreat further into their natural cynicism. It’s just another way in which our professional reputations are degraded and devalued.

Of course, there are times when criticism of our noble trade is thoroughly deserved – I refer you to my honourable friend, Lord Justice Leveson, on that one. Also, Lord McAlpine’s recent swift and robust defence of his reputation against false attacks on him in social media should remind us that the internet is not outside the laws which will still aggressively protect a person’s reputation should the need arise.

Alas, the lessons of the last few weeks and months do not seem to have percolated through to the moderators of media websites, who continue to allow far too much unwarranted, mendacious, vitriolic and spiteful nonsense to be placed in the public sphere.

Journalism is a rough old game, and we don’t expect to be treated like choirboys. If we’re wrong, foolish or vengeful ourselves, then we expect and deserve to ‘take it on the chin’.

But we don’t deserve to be whipping boys for obsessives either. We do our best. We hurt. We bleed. And those who post our work on their websites need to remember that we’re human too.

Andrew Collier is freelance writer and creative director of Written Words. He is a former political editor of The Scottish Sun.