THE BLOG

Vile Abuse Should Have No Place in Public Debate

05/08/2013 14:36 BST | Updated 01/10/2013 10:12 BST

A women journalist and feminist campaigner - Caroline Criado-Perez - has led a successful internet campaign to have Jane Austen appear on a £10 banknote in 2017 and has since been the target of hours of vile online abuse by some men. The abuse has included threats of rape and threats to kill her.

Her's was an entirely fair and legitimate campaign and reflects the power of the new social media to achieve greater equality in how we represent our society. The response of some men has been a disgrace and represents the very worst aspects of these new ways of communicating and holding public debate.

It was becoming clear that without this campaign the only women on our banknotes in the near future was likely to be the Queen. This after it had been decided to replace Elizabeth Fry with Winston Churchill on the £5 note. But if by a different accident of birth we had had a King for the last 50 years then there would have been even fewer women on banknotes.

I am a fan of Churchill but it's not as if he is in danger of disappearing from history. He must be one of the most high profile figures in the history of western civilization. The main point is that women have not been fairly represented on the banknotes and there was no good reason for this.

Who is portrayed on a £10 note is not about life and death or war or famine - it's a bank note at the end of the day but it is an entirely legitimate subject for public debate because who appears on the notes claims to say something about what and who we value as a society.

That women cannot get involved in public debate without being threatened and intimidated in this way is now the more important issue.

The contrast is a stark one - between someone having the courage to successfully campaign for a bit of social justice and others spouting messages of hatred. These men are an embarrassment to other men amongst many other things.

We allow them to spout their hatred in this nasty and hate-filled way too easily and it is obvious that any measures currently in place do not stop this happening.

Of course there are legitimate concerns over censorship and the freedom of speech and any moves to curtail that in any way have to be done with great care but this abuse should not be allowed to continue.

How many people - women in particular are going to be put off expressing their views online because of the tendency of a few nasty men hiding behind anonymity? Quite a few I suspect.

Anyone who goes on line and expresses a view should expect some criticism and that is fair enough but threats to rape and kill are not acceptable and people who do this should pay a price.

Half our population will have to consider the hazards of launching an entirely legitimate public campaign for fear of receiving nasty threatening messages - and this is a disgrace.

We should compare Twitter and other social networking sites with real public places. In a public space such as a street you can go about your business and say what you like to anyone you like - providing you don't threaten, harass or cause fear in other people - because they have a right to go about their public lives free from fear.

Freedom of expression in real public spaces does have limits and the same should apply to social media.

It is becoming clear that the new social media are going to play an increasingly important role in how we develop our ideas about society and our values and it has to be a safe place to do that for everyone.