Ian Hislop spent much of last night’s Have I Got News for You looking like un lapin apeuré caught in the headlights. Kirsty Young, the thinking Jock’s crumpet, kept both hands on the wheel. The man behind the wheel behind the headlights was one Lord Justice Leveson, chief pongo at the eponymous inquiry into, inter alia, the culture, practices, and ethics of the British press. The fear is that the headlights will turn into ray-guns, and before too long Hislop not to mention other upstanding members of the Great British Press will go up in flames, to be left standing, like smouldering stumps after a bush fire, the charcoaled reminders of a once free press.
In the medical blogging, posting and tweeting world, it is not so much headlights going on as lights going out that has dominated the last few weeks. Two big established bloggers, Dr Grumble and Dr Rant, have pulled their past posts in their entirety. A new born-again NICE Dr Rant emerged, and told us all to ‘pack it in’ – only to allow, until a short while ago (they too have now been pulled) 128 comments, many of which were neither new (they raked over old rows), nor very nice. The Jobbing Doctor and Doctor Zorro have pulled either complete posts, or parts of posts; and DNUK, the doctors only forum has pulled (and banned) all posts that bear on a certain doctor. A few days ago, Dr Rita Pal closed open access to her twitter account; in the last few hours, Dr Una Coales has followed suit.
Many in the mainstream media fear that Levenson will provoke a French style clamp down on the the press – the good as well as the shockingly bad. We might find, for example, that we become subject to French style image protection – in essence, no publication with out the subject’s permission. That’s as may be. But what worries Dr No as much as the loss of legitimate photo-journalism by heavy-handed regulation is an invidious, and perhaps all the more sinister for it, self-censorship.
Many in France knew of Le Lapin Chaud’s – Dominique Strauss-Kahn, until recently the IMF’s chief Lothario, with designs on the French Presidency – Gallic ways with the fairer sex. Indeed, a book published five years ago claimed he wasn’t just a hot rabbit, he was on fire. But the French media largely ignored it. Some might say so what: what he does in private is his own business. Others might say as hopeful Presidential candidate, he put himself in line to be the country’s moral ambassador.
Closer to home, the paparazzi press took over much of Fleet Street. Dr No believes we have two distinct and separate presses: one that is vital, the other baseless and corrupt; and each is a stranger to the other. There must have been many in the know who shuddered at the low depths the Street of Shame had come to. But the British media largely ignored it: They censored themselves.
And in our microcosm of medical blogging, posting and tweeting, much the same is going on. Questionable things are going on: but British medical bloggers are largely ignoring them. Perhaps they are being pragmatic; or perhaps, like the French and British media, they simply lack moral fibre when push comes to shove, and have censored themselves.
Debate – and that includes vigorous challenge – is the lifeblood of reasonable government: kill it, and you kill reasonable government.