'Publish and don't give a damn' is new media motto
Just because you can make sensational claims without evidence doesn't mean that you should, says Eilis O'Hanlon
The proliferation of conspiracy theories is one of the defining features of our paranoid, cynical new age.
9/11 was an inside job. The school shooting at Sandy Hook didn't happen. Flight MH370 really landed at a secret US army base.
The way in which they shoot up after each fresh newsworthy event increasingly looks like the manifestation of a collective mental disturbance, one largely fuelled by the internet, which enables a huge expansion of free speech (good), but which does, however, open up the tools of mass communication to those whose relationship with reality is tenuous at best and non-existent at worst (bad).
What's interesting about the latest spew of stories alleging that former British Prime Minister Ted Heath, who conveniently died in 2005, was a predatory paedophile who abused children for decades under a cover of secrecy provided by friends in high places, is that it's not merely dotcom scandal mongers fuelling the fire.
This time it's respectable broadsheets and major news broadcasters as well, who clearly feel that they can't ignore any more what's being said on the internet, even if what's being said on the internet is 99pc hogwash. If ever there was an indication of how the centre of gravity in media is shifting from the centre to the fringe, there it is.
Such claims about Heath and other members of the establishment have also been circulating online for years, often from the same sources claiming the world is run by shapeshifting lizards. There's nothing more intoxicating than believing oneself to have hidden knowledge that the mainstream media doesn't want the "sheeple" to know.
Basically, social media thinks the mainstream media doesn't publish certain stories because it doesn't have sufficient courage or journalistic integrity. In fact, the real reason is because most of the stories are bonkers and would be so ruinously defamatory as to cost any newspaper foolish enough to publish them a great deal of money, because it's much easier to pursue legal action against established media outlets than internet forums and social media accounts which pop up overnight like mushrooms.
Despite this, the mainstream media still feels wounded by allegations of editorial cowardice, and itches to defend itself by showing that it too can take on the new kids on the online block. Seeing a chance to practise the new rules on a target who is much too dead to sue for defamation, they have opted to test the water by diving head first into the journalistic effluent.
This in turn confirms to the champions of social media that they were right all along, and they respond with more unfounded sensationalism, thereby increasing the pressure on mainstream media to respond in kind, and so the whole sordid cycle continues.
That the mainstream media is unable to keep up with the internet is hardly in doubt. Whether it's struggling to keep up with truth or fiction is the real question. If what is being said about Ted Heath is true, then of course it shouldn't be concealed; but it feels right now as if many newspapers don't much care if these alleged events actually happened, but have embraced the twisted logic of social media which asserts that being able to say something is good in itself even if it isn't true.
Many of the details of Ted Heath's supposed crimes don't add up. The claim that charges were dropped against a brothel keeper after she threatened to out the former Tory leader as a user of rent boys has been denied by everyone involved in the case, from the madam herself to her barrister at the time to the trial judge.
The only one claiming it happened is an anonymous ex-police source whose claims cannot be tested because no one knows who he is. On this basis alone, though, six separate police forces in the UK are now pursuing investigations against Heath after putting out invitations to anyone wishing to make claims of abuse to come forward.
By giving so much prominence to unsubstantiated internet gossip about Heath having murdered victims from children's homes in Jersey and dumped their bodies overboard from his yacht, the media risk giving credence to rumours about other individuals, not all of them dead, circulated by the same sources.
Everyone by now has seen the infamous list of VIPs alleged to have attended child abuse parties in London. The improbable list includes pop singers, TV stars, politicians, and senior police officers, among others. Many will look at the stories about Ted Heath and wonder: Well, if they're being given prominence, why shouldn't those other stories be true as well?
Why shouldn't it be true that Jimmy Savile and the Yorkshire Ripper were in cahoots, together with other alleged Freemasons, to ritualistically murder women, as has also been claimed online? Why shouldn't senior members of the royal family have buried victims of their wild orgies on Crown Estates land? Once you give credibility to one piece of the crazy jigsaw, why not just throw in the rest as well?
That's how social media works. It doesn't differentiate between plausible and implausible, verifiable and fantastical. Everything is treated equally as content. Attaching it to a famous name simply gives a story an added frisson.
To reiterate, this is not about Ted Health. If he was guilty of child abuse, then his reputation deserves no posthumous protection. But there's a huge difference between the proper investigation of alleged crimes, and encouraging lurid rumours about a man who can't defend himself because he's dead.
It seems that we're all running around like proverbial headless chickens in a panic suddenly because social media always seems to get there first.
But we shouldn't even try to keep up if the online rumour merchants doing all the running on this issue are disgracing themselves by gleefully treating serious charges of child abuse as if they were a game of Celebrity Guess Who?
Most paedophiles are not members of some purportedly monolithic dark establishment. They're inadequate losers who are surely delighted to see so much attention being given to deceased VIPs because it makes it much more likely that they'll get away with their own grubby crimes.