Media Witch Hunt Season

Earlier this week, before the Media Witch Hunt fuss, I had written this on my Facebook page:

“Treading on eggshells here, but I’m growing increasingly uneasy about the post-Savile paedophile witch hunt. Yes, I am sure there are vile and powerful individuals who have managed to avoid detection, and they must be found, exposed and properly punished. But we seem to be edging into a world of Guilt By Accusation. Almost every allegation now is being treated as ex cathedra unquestionable truth. BBC presenters ask why abusers’ names should not be published , as they are “all over the Internet”, without any thought that, just perhaps, they are not in fact all guilty. The grim and squalid truth of these situations is that, in addition to horrible truth and tragic victims, there can be mischief, fantasy, greed and even mass hysteria adding dangerous and false dimensions. True victims and true justice deserve careful, measured and painstaking investigation, not a witch hunt. Perhaps it’s time to re-stage The Crucible in the West End?”

The next day, Philip Schofield “ambushed” David Cameron on TV with a list of “top Tories” plucked off the Internet where the Twitterati had been claiming they were paedophiles. Cameron’s response, and his warning about the danger of a witch hunt, were a powerful echo of what I had written.

For those of us working in issues and crisis management, the paedophile frenzy of the past week or two has been a stark reminder of the way things have changed. Quite simply, you cannot rely on the law any more to protect the reputations of the innocent. Yes, of course, someone who defames you online is just as much legally liable as the journalist who does so in print. But there is often much less you can do about it.

One well-known gutter blogger who regularly publishes wild and defamatory stories on his blog truly relishes his position. “Come and get me!” is his message,pointing out that he has next to no assets, next to no income. ”So, are you going to waste your time and money pursuing me for damages?”

But even if you can swat a defamatory blog here, or trash a libelous Tweet there, it may do you very little good. The story, if it’s juicy enough, will be off and running, across Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the blogosphere. You can’t pull it back. Pandora’s box is open. The evil is out.

Yes, of course, there are things you can do. But it’s much harder now, and most people simply don’t know where to begin. For businesses, the message is quite straightforward: make sure you have a strategy. If you are hit by an online reputation firestorm, that isn’t the moment to begin thinking about what to do. For private individuals, it’s much harder. Most people won’t have personal crisis management plans in place. Their lawyer may not have the answers they need. And yet, it’s private individuals who are perhaps most at risk from this brave new world of online character assassination. And that’s probably why Chelgate’s crisis management work for private individuals has jumped from just one or two cases a year to become a significant part of our business. That’s good for our bottom line. But it’s not good or fair or just. The innocent deserve protection, and even the guilty have the right to be judged by a court of law, rather than by a swivel-eyed mob of on-line fanatics carrying burning torches.

Terence Fane-Saunders