Laurie Penny Describes Photo Intrusion Threat From Blogger

Laurie Penny‘s new book Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution (Bloomsbury) includes an account of an unpleasant encounter at a conference, where she says she was approached by “a bored-looking man in an overstuffed Marks and Spencer’s suit, one of the jaundiced breed of lifelong political wonks who begin to look middle-aged at around twenty-two”:

The wonk tells me that a gossip site has pictures of me, and unless I’m nice to him, unless I ‘handle the situation’, he’s going to use them. Pictures of me at college with my boobs out, kissing another girl… I’d better watch out, because there are a lot of people who think I ought to be taken down a peg.

…The man who sent this message is the sort of scum that rises to the surface of the cybersphere…. He is the blogger the government fears, the one with dirt on everyone…

Much has been written over the past couple of years – particularly in Britain – about how trolling has made social media an intimidatory and unpleasant environment for individuals – particularly women – who want to add their voice to matters of public interest. Often the “troll” is simply a bully acting out a fantasy of empowerment through abuse and hurtful comments, although “trolling” can also be deployed as a rational – albeit dishonourable – strategy to suppress particular perspectives and information.

The threat to engage in personal intrusion for no legitimate reason is a similar phenomenon where twisted and debased human instincts work in tandem with a corrupt ideological motivation: the person with the “dirt” feels empowered, in control, and superior; but he or she is also wants to discredit and silence certain voices. Social media trolling is something new, but the threat of intrusion to humiliate and discredit is an old malaise in British media that has carried over onto the internet.

In particular, I’m reminded of Peter Jukes’ experience, as described in his own new book Beyond Contempt: The Inside Story of the Phone Hacking Trial. Shortly before the book was published, Peter was approached by the Daily Mail and  by “Media Guido” of the Guido Fawkes blog with the suggestion he had lied about having a mortgage in order to get crowdfunding through “false pretenses”. The Mail journalist told him that “he’d been handed an anonymised email with personal financial details and a separate piece of paper with my email address and mobile phone number.”

Peter dealt with the non-story easily enough (“I explained to him calmly that there was no mortgage on my property because I had sold it two weeks previously. I could easily prove I had quite a sizeable mortgage until then”), and he observed (links added):

My minor brush with press “investigation” has made me more attuned to the acute and systematic intrusions into personal privacy by News of the World. The threat to me was minor and nothing was published. But thousands of people were targeted by [Glenn] Mulcaire’s hacking, and hundreds of relationships, friendships, marriages, badly damaged by the cruel publication of private secrets. As Nick Davies pointed out in Hack Attack, this has nothing to do with a free press or exposing public interest scandals. It’s a display of power and bullying designed to intimidate.

The threat of intrusion can certainly be found within the domain of the inadequate “basement troll”, in stalking mode; but it’s also the method and practice of, as Laurie Penny puts it, “the sort of scum that rises to the surface of the cybersphere”. Anyone who stands up to it – or t he politicians who collude with it – risks being foully smeared or “investigated”.

And to return to the subject of private photographs of Penny, someone who apparently has some is Harry Cole (whom I previously wrote about here), also of the Guido Fawkes blog. As he wrote on Twitter in 2012:

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