Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?

headlines Our newspapers in Britain have been carrying lurid headlines about newspapers. It seems there is nothing the press likes better than writing about itself. The sensational headlines are all about telephone tapping and the vicious intrusion into people’s personal lives that seems to have been the hallmark of the (now defunct) News of The World newspaper. The victims of this telephone snooping include the parents of a murdered girl. The snooping press is rightly now regarded as heartless and cruel.
But newspapers are themselves on the way out – as perhaps those that are currently covering this story realise. If you sit, as I do most days, on the London Tube, you will see very few people reading newspapers. Just a few years ago that was what most people were doing. But now, it is extremely rare to see anyone deep in the Daily Telegraph or the Times or the Daily Mirror. Mostly, people are listening to their iPods. Some are reading books, some Kindles. Some are staring into space. But almost no one is reading a newspaper, not even the free paper Metro which can be collected at Tube stations.
We mostly get our news from television, the radio, or the Internet – and, increasingly, all these overlap. News is instantaneous – we can watch as buildings burn, or as politicians squirm in embarrassment over some newly-discovered scandal, or as a film star denounces a former spouse in an angry outburst, or a mob attacks an embassy. With growing rapidity, the Internet itself creates news: the mob uses mobile phones to upload images and send a powerful message to the world; a marriage can be ripped to tatters by photographs displayed across millions of screens; a politician’s momentary hesitation becomes an international talking-point leading to resignation in disgrace. Just a few years ago the mob would have been a localised event unnoticed by the wider world until its strength grew irresistible, the marriage scandal would have been confined to the gossip column of a newspaper, and the politician’s slip would have passed unnoticed.
It’s fashionable to assume that the trend is basically good – that, in general, publicity is an excellent thing, shedding light and air into corners that would previously have been dark, allowing scandals to be detected, political events to be properly scrutinised and democracy to flourish. But I’m unconvinced.
The Internet arrived just at a time in history when media standards were at an all-time low. Snooping, telephone tapping, and intrusive activity such as rummaging through people’s dustbins to look for correspondence or bank statements, were regarded by some newshounds as entirely acceptable in the pursuit of a good story. The tabloid press relished anything vulgar and crude, and specialised in soft pornography, daily publishing pictures of girls in sexually provocative poses – the “page 3 girls”. TV standards were slithering to new lows in terms of violent and sexually explicit images. And there was a vast and growing pornography industry. Along comes the Internet and all this expands on a massive scale.
How do we – how can we – set and maintain standards in the massive free-for-all that is the reality of modern communications? Can we actually prevent someone from taking a furtive photograph of something private and then sending it to the world? Any public person – politician, TV presenter, member of a prominent family – can be made to look absurd, or worse. Children have discovered that it is extremely easy to take a picture on a mobile phone – for example of a teacher who is angry – and post it on the Web to cause humiliation and anguish. Angry ex-spouses can be vile to one another with revelations, claims and counter-claims of bad behaviour. Gossip can hurtle across the globe in moments, transforming lives and wrecking friendships.
The only real preventative is personal moral beliefs and behaviour. This is obvious not only at the level of the international news media, but also at the smaller-scale level of Facebook and Twitter involving groups of friends. Here we enter the world of cyber-bullying and nastiness that seems to affect every school and youth group. A recent conference for parents looked at these issues and I was struck by the practical impossibility of maintaining standards at the purely technical level. A mobile phone or laptop can put a child in contact with every sort of website. Being linked in to a social networking site makes a child feel important and needed. How do you know who a child is contacting? How do you keep a check on what he or she is reading – or writing? ‑ on a Facebook page? One parent said sadly, “The only thing worse than discovering that your child has been a victim of cyber-bullying is discovering that your child is one of the bullies”. A teenager who might once have whispered something cruel or spiteful, or scribbled it on a note passed in class, can now write it on Facebook for a vast number of people to see.
The best – and, in the end, the only – way of managing the new world of communication is personal decent behaviour. Basic moral values are what stand between us and the abuse of the Internet. The old wisdom about what we should think about before we speak or write ‑ “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?” ‑ remains a good basic place from which to start. Decency, truth, kindness, respect for others, obedience to parents and to family rules of behaviour – these are the basics on which the new Internet generation has to be raised. We can and must try to impose rules and laws at the higher level to protect privacy, prevent snooping, and eliminate at least the grossest forms of pornography – but we will fail unless we act at the ordinary personal and family level first.
As a journalist, I know all about the ghastliness of the press. We have all long enjoyed gossiping about the dreadfulness of our profession. But the Internet allows that dreadfulness to be an indulgence in which millions can now also engage. That is not a pleasant note on which to end – but it’s a reality and we need to grapple with it. Joanna Bogle writes from London.


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