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Is the Internet Heralding a New Puritan Age

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The posthumous allegations against Jimmy Savile have had a snowball effect. Children's charities report a massive increase in reporting of historic abuse and a scandal that the previous government thought it had put to bed in 2000 with the 1000 page Waterhouse Report into abuse in North Wales children's homes, is to be revisited. David Cameron's decision to re-examine a judge-led inquiry is unprecedented, and undeniably due to pressure that has been exerted through the internet. Dissatisfied with what they perceived as Waterhouse's whitewashing of some of their most serious allegations - in particular those against an unnamed prominent Tory politician - the victims spoke out and a wave of speculation followed on the net.

The speculative naming of names on Twitter and elsewhere is both ugly in that it has all the characteristics of a seventeenth century witch hunt, and productive, in that it has forced a government into the unusual position of agreeing to look again at allegations which it may conceivably turn out were glossed over at the time of the original inquiry. Given that judge-led inquiries have historically been convened precisely in order to obscure certain uncomfortable facts while giving the impression of doing the opposite, it raises an interesting precedent. It also begs a profound question: is the internet robbing governments of their power to orchestrate cover-ups? And if that is the case, surely it will have an even more profound effect on their future behaviour?

Meanwhile, Max Clifford has been on record recently as saying that his phone has been ringing off the hook with desperate calls from celebrities of the 1960s and 70s fearful that their drug and booze fuelled dressing room antics will now become the subject of police investigations and public castigation. In other words, acts done in relative secret decades ago, now risk being hurled across the world on Twitter. There is every chance, they fear, that once the lurid details of one orgy hits the wires, a tsunami will follow and glittering reputations will be reduced to dust.

The panic among ageing celebrities leaves no doubt that public morality has fundamentally shifted. Between the 60s and 80s the rock and roll lifestyle - sex drugs and more sex - was the dream. Now, evidently, it isn't. We have entered a new, more puritanical age in which sexual excess is frowned upon along with abuse of alcohol, drugs and tobacco. Impulses that were unfettered in the post-war decades are being squashed back down again. We are partly blinded to the change because it has different justifications from previous moral backlashes. The rise of non-conformist Christianity in the 1820s (a decade before the Victorian era), was largely responsible for banishing the decadence of the Regency era and replacing it with the sort of prudery that led to the apocryphal covering of table legs that too closely resembled feminine curves. In 2012, we have largely jettisoned concerns for spiritual health, but have replaced them with equally powerful concerns for physical and psychological well-being.

Anyone with any degree of public profile now understands that any slip or lapse can be photographed or recorded on a cell phone and broadcast to the world within seconds. Graduates applying for jobs all know that anything they have posted on social networks may count against them in competition with other candidates. We are waking up to the fact that we have lost our ability to act secretly to such an extent that we find ourselves every bit as tightly constrained as those long-mocked Victorians. It is not the fear of God seeing all, but even more terrifying, the fear of the wider world seeing all.

Ironically, perhaps, the internet's power to make governments and politicians behave better, is placing a similar pressure on the rest of society to do likewise. Discourtesy in the electronic realm is generally frowned upon. Slowly, rules of engagement have evolved on Facebook and Twitter which generally require people who wish to remain popular and accepted by their peers to speak with informal courtesy and often with exaggerated warmth. The backstop positions of self-containment and respectful distance which were adequate in the past, are no longer so. The modern virtues involve active and emotionally functional discourse. It is no longer enough to be polite, we have to be seen to be positively nice.

All of this begs the question of how far the new morality will extend? How much will our everyday behaviour and speech be forced to change? There's no telling of course, but we're definitely on the upswing of the pendulum. At the moment it feels like a good thing - a healthy reaction to the gross excesses of the recent past - but the measure of our collective wisdom will surely be in knowing when to stop.