This publication's policy of not printing readers' comments under articles has long been a source of mystification, to say nothing of annoyance and disgust. According to one prominent nationalist blogger, 'Kenneth Roy is a f**king bladder' (the asterisks are his), the starting point for this proposition being my non-compliance with the principles of free speech online.
Sticking with the anatomical metaphor, there are three reasons for the perverse decision to deny the world authority on the editor's bladder an opportunity to explode his spleen at the end of these columns.
The first is personal. I have never quite got my head, never mind my f**king bladder, round the idea that this magazine is subject to the conventions of online publishing. It started almost quarter of a century ago as a print journal with a subscription list of 800. In 2008 it migrated to the internet, which still feels like an alien environment, even or especially when I'm told that the last weekly edition before the holidays attracted more than 30,000 'visitors' (who used to be called 'readers'). I knew where I was with 800. I could pretty well name them.
The second reason follows naturally. In 1995, if you didn't like something you'd read in the Scottish Review, your right of reply necessitated the fairly laborious process of dipping your pen in green ink before applying it to a pristine sheet of Basildon Bond. Then you had the bother of a trip to the post office. It was a process that encouraged a degree of mature reflection and maybe, occasionally, second thoughts.
No time for second thoughts now; no need for so much as a stamp. The speed and informality of email is dangerously seductive, that send facility too often a self-destruct button, and there is less privacy still in the many conduits of social media, where toxins circulate freely. The self-delusion that these poisons leave no trace has recently wrecked the reputation and career of one minister in the Scottish government, who insists that she will never stop apologising for her folly, and contributed peripherally to the downfall of a second.
In this anarchic new world, the online media should be exercising an exemplary restraint in the material they pass for publication in their online comment boxes, which are often more widely read than the articles themselves. The newspapers should be employing – and claim that they do employ – moderators of all that unsolicited guff from some of the angriest people on the planet.
In which case, what happened to moderation in the case of the six-year-old girl murdered on Bute? In the absence of an immediate arrest, the newspapers felt entitled to speculate. What they were not entitled to do was point the finger, or resort to personal innuendo, when there was not the slightest evidence of guilt. As it happened, this was done for them – by their readers.
One newspaper recklessly allowed the name of an individual to be published in a comment box. The person's identity was lightly disguised by the use of asterisks – those damned asterisks again – but was obvious to anyone familiar with the case. Such was the public interest, which bordered on hysteria at the time, this uncensored post from an anonymous source would have been read by several thousand people on Bute and many thousands more beyond the island.
There appears to be no protection in criminal law for the targets of this form of online malice, even when it occurs in the middle of a murder investigation. The only recourse open to the victim is a civil action for defamation, which few people apart from the rich are prepared to contemplate.
Note what happened next. As soon as an arrest was made, the newspapers covered their backs – though not their tracks – by pulling all the comments and closing the comment boxes. By then the damage had been done. The concurrent outburst of the repellent Katie Hopkins, making gratuitous claims about the local community, allowed the media to condemn her intervention, while hypocritically overlooking their own culpability as agents of gossip.
A youth who has been charged with the child's murder and rape, and who enjoys a presumption of innocence, cannot legally be named because he is under the age of 18. Someone who allegedly did name him on a social media site, after the case had become judicially active, faces prosecution for contempt of court. Before an arrest, though, we have learned from the Rothesay experience that, without the risk of sanctions, more or less anything goes – not only in the online versions of the tabloid press but on social media as a whole. There is a loophole here. A way should be found to close it without impeding the right of reporters to do their job.
I said at the start that there were three reasons for our no-comments policy. The last is a natural disinclination to give ill-written rants the dignity of a space. Despite 12 years of compulsory schooling, the Scots have a serious problem with basic literacy. No doubt a trawl of social media sites and comment boxes south of the border would reveal that the English are just as incapable of spelling, punctuating and expressing themselves coherently. But it is the Scots who parade their pretensions to a superior, even 'world-class', education system, even when the hollowness of the pretensions is exposed hourly by the products of that system.
Now we have something more sinister than illiteracy. Rothesay has introduced a dark new dimension to the age of the instant comment: it may have legitimised a media-sponsored lynch mob. Next time, it may not be enough to name and shame without a scintilla of proof. How long before the accusers, emboldened by their guest appearance in some comment box, deem it necessary to descend on their suspect of choice and make their atavistic feelings known?