There will be those, in the wake of the PCC's breezy rejection of 25,000 complaints about Jan Moir's despicable article about Stephen Gately, who think this is some kind of triumph for free speech, and a crushing defeat for the evil Twitter Mob. But that's missing the point entirely.
I don't think most of the thousands who complained about the pitifully nasty column did so in order to clamp down on the freedom of expression so enjoyed by Her Majesty's Press in this country. They didn't do so deliberately, and they didn't do so accidentally, not realising what they were doing, either. I think they were just exercising their own freedom of expression - to say they felt this article had offended them, and that it was patently horrible. Which it was.
We do have self-regulation of the press in this country, and it's right that people may use that route to challenge articles in the press they feel have broken the rules. We can argue about how many teeth the PCC really has, and whether it really wants to use them; and we can speculate, though we'll never really know, that it appears to be a cargo-cult construction that whirrs through the motions in order to produce a verisimilitude of regulation, while simultaneously never giving anything much more than a stinging slap on the wrist to the very worst transgressors. We could point out that it's powerless to punish, even when an offender has stepped right over the line, pulled down its pants and waved its hairy bum in the regulators' faces.
No matter. The PCC exists, and it's not an attack on the freedom of expression for people to choose to use that route to voice their displeasure over what's been written in the press. You could even argue - and call me naive if you want to - that that's precisely what it was established to do in the first place. (Or at the very least, to look like it was established to do. You could say, looking at this article by Malcolm Coles for example, that the PCC appears in this instance to have made a rather bizarre decision, but we can argue about that too.) If you feel that thousands of people complaining to the PCC was an attack on free speech, then by all means call for the dismantling of the PCC itself. Self-regulation is, after all, self-censorship, of a kind. To hell with anyone who has a complaint about what's been in the papers! Free speech trumps everything!
Or... maybe it's a bit more complicated than that. Perhaps there are occasions when free speech doesn't beat everything else. Perhaps there are times when the press - or ordinary citizens who happen not to work for the press - shouldn't say everything they want to say. We can argue about that too. But let's not pretend, as some will, that the Jan Moir affair was an attack on free speech, and that the PCC have bravely defended it. Because that's certainly not what it was.
As a fully paid-up member of the Twitter Mob, I am of course a bloodthirsty idiot who has a pitchfork and flaming torch kept in a steel box by the side of my computer - I simply break the glass in the event of being mildly offended by something. I am just a numbskull, unable to think for myself, an electronic sheep who needs to be whipped up into a frenzy of outrage by those meddlesome troublemongers Fry, Linehan et al. I am but a mere pawn in their empire-building game, taking power away from the responsible journalists who look after it so well and handing it over to the sans-culottes of the so-called Twitterati, who will only break it or something, and who can't really be trusted. And look, they will say, for all the huffing and puffing of people on Twitter, they failed in what they set out to do. It's good for getting people worked up, they will tell you, but not for getting things done.
Or you could look at it another way. You could say that until something as instant as Twitter arrived, it was hard to register the retching disgust at reading something as unpleasant as Moir's vile dribbling, and that it happened to be an efficient medium to express and channel this legitimate anger and frustration with the mainstream media. The protest failed to get Moir the sack, and failed to get the PCC to accept that a transgression had taken place, because this was never going to happen, but maybe that wasn't the point. Was it pointless to protest against the Iraq War, if it then took place? Is there no point in protesting about anything, if you aren't listened to the first time? Protest and dissent isn't a matter of getting your message across and then, because you're right, achieving all your goals and getting home before teatime. Protesting about things is quite often a matter of frustration, of meeting resistance, of those who have the power pulling up the drawbridge and hoping you'll go away. The Twitter anger over Jan Moir wasn't trying to break down the door. It was just politely knocking to let those inside know there was someone outside. These things take time.
The history of these things is already being written. Some will say this result just goes to prove that there's no value in Twitter, or in people other than the clever journalists being allowed to think about things, because the rest of us are silly billies who should just stick our thumbs in our mouths and let the big boys tell us what to think and how to think it. They're wrong. The anger over the Moir column was righteous, and right. Reading it even now still makes me angry. It was right to be angry about it. It's important to let people who have a million readers know that they need to be careful about what they say, because they may well upset a lot of people if they get it wrong, and that doesn't in any way clamp down on freedom of speech.
There are more voices out there now. Time was when it was a one-way conversation between our masters in the Fourth Estate and the rest of us; they shouted and we had to listen. Now, we can shout back, if we like. More voices means more freedom of expression, and more freedom of speech. If the press choose to have self-regulation - and they do - then they should be prepared for the public to call them out when they get things horribly wrong. Perhaps this ruling just shows how irrelevant and pointless the PCC really is. Perhaps it shows that it was never going to give the answers that people wanted. Perhaps the PCC may listen to the consultation with the public it recently opened up, or it may simply shake its head and say, No, we don't want your input, but thanks all the same. In which case, it's not regulation at all, merely a pretence of regulation.
And have we really changed anything, those of us who complained, who tweeted, who wrote annoying blog posts about the Jan Moir saga? Perhaps changing anything wasn't the point. Perhaps by protesting, by announcing we were there at all, that was an achievement in itself. You can be sure that many journalists will simply turn away as if nothing happened; they will write valedictory columns about Moir and doing down the protesters, as Stephen Glover already did some time ago - at a time, incidentally, when the Daily Mail officially said it couldn't comment on the matter because it was waiting for the PCC adjudication.
But I think they would be wrong to do so. This was just a first skirmish. I've said before the tide was coming in - and got roundly slapped round the chops by a crusty old newspaper columnist, in a badly written and poorly researched piece that didn't do him any favours, for doing so, which if anything confirmed my suspicions. I think that kind of recalcitrance indicates something beyond mere contempt for us, the great unwashed, daring to speak out for ourselves on the issues we want to talk about rather than leaving it to our beloved journalists to do it for us, important and vital though real quality journalism is. I think it indicates fear that the tide really is coming in.
This, then, was just the beginning. It may be business as usual, for now, but things are changing. We are on the horizon. Not a mob. Just people, who don't want to be quiet any more.