Friday, November 09, 2012

Thank God there was no Twitter when the last baseless rumours were around

Just over twenty years ago a prominent figure in British life was the victim of an unexplained act of violence. In the absence of an explanation a story quickly spread among people who apparently had some inside knowledge of the incident because they worked in what was then called "the media". 

I heard more than one version of this story which involved a reference to sexual abuse and children. That's probably what helped the story spread so quickly. I was assured that it would be just days before this story was "all over the papers".

I'm still waiting. A subsequent court case proved the rumours groundless.  Probably not before the prominent figure and his family had got to hear about them. He must look back on it now and thank God there was no Twitter at the time. 

On Twitter people who really ought to know better, and are often familiar with the laws regarding defamation, publish things they would never dream of publishing in a newspaper or on a TV programme. This is on the grounds that the story is "out there" and in the awareness/hope that they will somehow bully the victim of the rumours into coming out to defend themselves.

They pretend that they're doing it to campaign for the victims and to respond to the public's concern. They're not. They're doing it out of personal ambition and malice. Mostly the latter.


  1. Hmm. Back when this story happened, I was at university. Without Twitter, without even so much as a Friends Reunited, and without knowing at that time anyone who worked in the media, I heard the same story, and - indeed - the story that this was somehow all linked to the victim's sudden change of mind about standing as a Tory candidate.

    Likewise, I had been told, definitively, that Jimmy Savile was given keys to the morgue of those hospitals for which he raised money long, long before I'd even seen an AOL CD.

    I think it's easy to somehow think that because rumours spread on Twitter, they only exist because of Twitter. As a nation, we've always been terrible gossips, and those stories - the presenter who has been using heroin for twenty years but can afford the good stuff so it's not a problem; the Olympian and the newsreader; they had to delay the rescue to move the spouse from the bar-room floor back to the bedroom - never struggled to become "facts" before the net.

  2. The difference is the speed and breadth of spread of rumour and gossip with the new technology. Also rumours did tend to start from people close to the action and be subject to a certain amount of credibility testing during the retelling. Now any one can sow the seeds of a rumour which is all around the world in minutes without an eyebrow being raised

  3. It's a difficult one. Yes, utterly unfounded rumours can clearly spread like wildfire, but I do feel that certain things are inconvenient facts for some - the default position being (rightly) that of Occam's razor. But sometimes, apparently utterly ludicrous, scriptwriter-couldn't-make-it-up events did actually happen.

    The answer? It depends, I'spose...

  4. The rumours that thrive are the ones that bolster our prejudices and agenda-driven hunches. And so soon after having it confirmed that of course Jimmy Savile was a bad lot, then a rumour that a Tory toff was an amoral bastard who literally shafted the vulnerable seemed to vindicate the kneejerk presuppositions of so many people who don't like this government.

    Oh, well. One out of two ain't bad.

  5. "On Twitter people who really ought to know better, and are often familiar with the laws regarding defamation, publish things they would never dream of publishing in a newspaper or on a TV programme."

    Rory Cellan Jones asks himself before every tweet "Would I say this on Five Live?" Seems so eminently sensible that I'm having it written into the fabric of our (publishing) company's guidance on social media.