Pete Pheasant: It's time to curb the libellous tweets – or lawyers will get fat
THE end of another chapter in Britain's manufacturing industry evoked memories of a love affair that spanned three decades of my life.
As the last typewriter to be made in this country was taken off the factory floor at Brother's plant in Wales, I remembered the pure physical struggle of getting text ready for publication in the days before print-format software and spell-checkers.
Santa Claus had whetted my appetite for typewriters with a contraption that featured a painted-on keyboard and a large wheel. You located each letter by turning the wheel, then printed it by hitting the space bar.
Years later, as an aspiring young writer in the 1970s, I bought my first proper typewriter, a portable Imperial that cost fourteen quid – about two weeks' wages. It looked like a blue plastic briefcase and housed a marvel of engineering that would one day put me alongside the likes of DH Lawrence.
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But writing something that other people might want to read and finding a publisher was only part of the struggle.
Cartridge paper had to be bought and it wasn't cheap. There were no buy-one-get-one-free offers on half a rain forest at your local supermarket. The two-fingered typist also needed Tippex strips, on to which mistakes were retyped to obliterate them. Then there were ribbons to fit and carbon paper to slip between sheets of paper if a copy was needed.
The stationery section at Woolworth's became my Mecca and even now such places produce a little flutter in the stomach.
I soon learned that Sons And Lovers Part 2 would have to wait. Instead, I joined a local newspaper and learned an art akin to dragon-taming as I pounded the keys of a mighty Olivetti that sat on a thick felt pad deep in fag ash.
I also learned that writing for an audience brings a responsibility to be fair and accurate, not least to avoid the career-ending threat of a libel action.
It may seem churlish, then, for one who has been privileged to write for a living to seek to curb those who wish to express themselves through the medium of the internet, free of charge and with not a Tippex strip in sight.
But the case of Tory peer Lord McAlpine, wrongly accused of child abuse, underlines the need for a new look at how people's reputations are protected.
It's bonkers to have laws that restrict what the press and broadcasters can publish, while anyone with access to the internet can write what they like about anyone else, for a vast audience, who might well believe every word of it.
Speaker's wife Sally Bercow, for instance, a key figure in the Lord McAlpine affair, has 56,000 followers on Twitter. That's more than the readership of many newspapers.
I've no desire to see lawyers getting fat at the expense of people making throwaway comments on a website in the privacy of their own homes but, unless the tweeters and bloggers exercise more control, I fear libel lawsuits will become the next boom industry.
I leave you with an old saying that a friend passed on (by e-mail, of course). It hails from a different age but still seems appropriate:
Say it in anger
Say it in drink
But never, never
Say it in ink.