15 December 2022


The Times takes a stand.

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

The malicious comment, that staple of the aggressive social media user, finds itself under threat for once as The Times announces that in future all comments posted on its site will have to be signed with the real name of the person posting them. That isn’t fool proof. It will still be possible for subscribers to sign up under an alias but it is a move in what those of us who believe that people should take responsibility for what they say is the right direction.

As a country we have become addicted to anonymity. It has been here many years, of course, in the shape of the secret ballot, but gradually its tentacles have spread. Older readers will remember the days when a letter to The Times or an entry in Who’s Who gave a private address and nobody worried about it very much. Mr Justice Melford Stevenson, a High Court judge with a reputation for severity, famous for sentencing the Garden House rioters in Cambridge to unexpectedly heavy terms, gave his address at a house called ‘Truncheons’ and no one seemed bothered about it being a security risk. In fact it probably wasn’t. Judges didn’t get murdered then any more than they do today, possibly because of capital punishment but more probably because identifying who you were and where you lived was regarded as normal. After all, those who wish to assassinate somebody nowadays are seldom prevented by not being able to discover their address.

Since then the goalposts have moved. Sometimes this is for very sensible reasons. Whistle-blowers have a right to remain anonymous. Those involved in various criminal proceedings have a right to anonymity too. The EU right to privacy prevents the private life of public figures from being exposed. All these things have justifications but there is an underlying tide and that tide has for a long time been flowing in favour of concealment. That those making comments on social media normally do so anonymously is but the edge of the surge.

And the trend has had an effect on our self-confidence. Time was that, at election time, windows would be decorated with posters declaring loyalty to one candidate or another. There are fewer of them now and if you ask those with political loyalties why there is nothing in their windows they will often reply that they are nervous that it will be held against them or possibly that their windows will be broken. Is that really realistic? I live in a Labour area but I have never heard of anyone with a Tory poster getting a brick through their window. Yes, perhaps, a moustache and horns added to the picture of the candidate but that is hardly much of a threat. The truth seems to be that we have all become more nervous about saying who we are and what we stand for because that is the modern way of thinking.

Is it a good thing? Just ask yourself the question. Would you prefer to live in a country where people are open about where they live and what they believe in or would you prefer these things to be hidden under a generally accepted blanket of fear? What would the great figures of history have preferred? Napoleon? Richard the Lionheart? Gandhi? Christ? These are the sort of people who we profess to admire but one cannot imagine any of them making an anonymous post on the Internet. They would have stood up to be counted. Indeed they did so.

It is all one tide you see, a draining a self-confidence on one side and the increased use of anonymity on the other. So if you want to see a more self-confident Britain you must make your contributions. Put up your election posters. Be open about what you think. Trust your windows to the decency and restraint of the public and not to the hiding of your address. “Wake up and smell the coffee as the saying goes” and if the flow towards anonymity is checked at least in part by the stance taken by The Times then I say to them “well done, you have performed a public service.”

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