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Online Trolls: Will They Force The New Doctor To Retreat To The Tardis?

20/07/2017 12:32 BST | Updated 20/07/2017 12:32 BST
Karwai Tang via Getty Images

Wimbledon's always a must watch, even if you're not a tennis fan. Checking out the Centre Court crowd is a sport in itself - although my husband disagrees.

Even if the wardrobes or the rallies are not your thing, an unprecedented interruption this year raised even the most botoxed brows. At 4.26pm precisely, mere seconds after Federer's eighth Wimbledon singles' victory, the BBC interrupted the match post mortem with news that actor Jodie Whittaker had been cast as the first female Doctor Who.

If such fuss seems extreme and you're unfamiliar with this Timelord's back story, Buzzfeedkindly explains. 'Doctor Who is a sassy Englishman who's been traveling through time for 50-something years.' Note, he is, or was, an English man; watched by 110 million of us, in 60 countries, worldwide. Social media responses to the news ranged from 'totally time for a change', to 'not cool. Welcome to 'the end'.'

Whittaker's likely to be aware that taking on the role will cause a range of online reactions. Let's hope these will focus on her performance, rather than stray into personal attack territory. As yet, she's not reported any real online nasties and I really hope she doesn't get turned over by the trolls. Yet despite her solid acting pedigree, I fear that the Daleks (mechanical baddies, catch phrase 'exterminate'), may end up being the least of her worries.

Sadly for many in the public sphere, online abuse is reaching a tipping point. The UK's leading public standards watchdog has just flagged up the racism, anti-semitism and death threats that many of the country's MP's faced at the last election. Conservative MP, Sheryll Murray, revealed how 'burn the witch', was one of the milder social media comments that came her way. Someone also urinated on her office door. Labour's Diane Abbott, elected in 1987, was the first black woman to have a seat in the House of Commons. She's been dealing with abuse off and online for over 30 years. A recent tweet treat? 'She smells badly of body odour, but then her sort always do' (and much worse).

Working alongside many public figures I see first hand how online personal attacks impact upon individuals, their families, children, friends and relatives. This relentless kind of brutality nearly cost cook and commentator, Jack Monroe her life. 'Online abuse has made me suicidal more than once. I have taken pills, I have stood on the train bridge. I am such a wreck from sustained hatred and vitriol'. No-one deserves racial or sexual taunts and/or threats promising physical harm. Ever. Even if gaining legitimate positive publicity is part of the public figure package.

I question though, whether a new law, if proposed by the UK standards watchdog, will make much difference. Legislation already exists for defamation, harassment and malicious communications. It just needs to be enforced far more often, with significant penalties that really do deter the offender.

If, as has been suggested, talented and well qualified people are being driven out of political and/or public life, or deterred from taking on roles that come with public exposure, then we really do have to take stock. Those who are in public office, who are liberal with their online criticism (naming no names), also need to think before they send a tweet tirade at 4am. If leaders and power brokers do not exercise self control, what kind of message does that send to the rest of us?

If you are a public figure, though, you are not fair game. You do not deserve 'everything and anything that comes your way'. All of us are potentially vulnerable, so the perpetrators of online abuse must be made to take responsibility for their actions. Confiscating their phone and a rap on the knuckles is not nearly enough of a deterrent.

Our new and, I hope, much admired female Doctor Who will soon be taking on all manner of inter galactic threats, be they the Refusians, the Cybermen or the Solonians (my particular favourite). I only hope that any online human hazards don't force her to retreat to the Tardis, shut that Police Public Call Box door, and stay there.