Yours truly, angry mob
Bringing Nothing To The Party: Cleaning up the net, one satirical vigilante page at a time
Book extract As the second dot com boom hove into view, journalist and self-confessed "arrogant little shit" Paul Carr decided he wanted in. Armed with several years of insider knowledge, very little money and a new suit, he and a motley band of believers took a running jump into the internet. Nothing could go wrong. Well, not much.
Paul's entrepreneurial adventures, from cult satire publication The Friday Thing to London-centric Facebook-botherer Fridaycities with a lot of schmoozing/insulting of major dot com players along the way, are chronicled in his new book Bringing Nothing to the Party: True Confessions of a New Media Whore. In our first extract, Paul recalls his first brush with internet infamy - as The Reg reported back in 2002, notoriety came in the form of a Brass Eye-ish web quip that got a little out of hand...
If you turned on the TV towards the end of 2002 you could have been forgiven for thinking that Britain had gone absolutely horseshit mental. Every week, it seemed, another pretty young girl from a nice family, who was happy and popular and always did well at school, was being kidnapped or murdered by what the Sun newspaper cheerfully termed ‘evil paedo scum’. Naming and shaming was as popular a feature in the Murdoch press as Page Three girls and discounted holidays to Butlin’s.
Unfortunately, for every story of an actual sex offender being driven from their house by a baying mob there was one like that of Dr Yvette Cloete, a doctor at the Royal Gwent Hospital in Newport, South Wales, who returned home from work to ﬁnd that a group of ‘concerned parents’ had daubed the word ‘paedo’ on her front door in bright red paint.
Dr Cloete was a consultant paediatrician. Easy mistake.
If you’re an absolute fucking moron.
And so it was that one hung-over morning, after reading yet another story about vigilantes who had threatened to stone Maxine Carr, the girlfriend of Soham killer Ian Huntley, to death during her high-proﬁle trial for perverting the course of justice, I decided to set up a website parodying this collective national madness.
The result of two or three hours of hung-over labour was thinkofthechildren.co.uk, a spoof campaign site which claimed to offer a handy online guide for crazy vigilantes of all stripes to coordinate their crazy vigilante efforts. The front page of the site read as follows:
Who are we?
We are concerned parents, many of whom have children of our own and who want the law changed to protect them. Every day in Britain happy, popular children who do well at school are being murdered by evil paedophile scum. Well enough’s enough! It’s time the law got tough on child murderers.
What do we want?
We want the law changed to make it illegal to murder children and bury them in woodland. We want it to be made illegal for adults to work with children. We want an end to the ridiculous process of ‘criminal trials’ for suspected child killers.
When do we want it?
There then followed some essential advice on starting your own mob:
Once you’ve gathered a sizeable mob, you’ll need to equip them with placards or banners. Placards – which are easily fashioned by ﬁxing a large piece of card to a stick – should contain snappy slogans which are easy to chant. Good slogans include: ‘die scum!’, ‘peedos out!’, ‘hang child killers!’ and ‘kiddie ﬁddler shitbag!’. Bad slogans include: ‘You’re the product of a complex series of social and psychological factors!’ and ‘I haven’t really thought this through!’
Jonathan Swift it most certainly wasn’t – but I hoped it might make a few people smile in recognition. Things started slowly – a hundred visits or so in the first hour, mainly from friends and their friends. By dinner time, it had had a thousand visits. By the next day, ten thousand.
And then things really started to get interesting. Several high-proﬁle sites linked to thinkofthechildren.co.uk, including the very inﬂuential B3ta.com.
Suddenly I had 100,000 visitors.
Half a million.
Half a million people reading my stupid jokes!
It even got linked on to the Daily Mail discussion forums, where readers responded with a mixture of outrage and disapproval. The Daily Mail! My parents would be so proud.
All of a sudden, thinkofthechildren.co.uk dropped off the Internet. One minute it was there. Next minute I clicked refresh and it was gone, in its place an error message: ‘Page not found’.
Irritated, I dialled the number of my web-hosting company, Host Europe. I assumed there had been some other kind of technical error. I tried to be friendly with the person who answered the phone. It doesn’t do to get upset about these things.
‘Hello there, I hope you can help me. My site seems to have gone down.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry, sir, can I take the address?’
‘Yep, it’s thinkofthechildren.co.uk. That’s T-H-I-N...’
But before I could ﬁnish – ‘Can you hold, please? I need to put you through to my manager.’
This didn’t sound good. This didn’t sound good at all.
Suddenly another voice – a man with the same tone of voice as those little Nazis in ludicrous hats and luminous jackets who stand at railway ticket barriers waiting to ﬁne you £20 because you’ve gone one station too far with your ticket.
‘Hello, Mr Carr?’ said the little Nazi, ‘I’m afraid there’s a serious problem with your hosting. At ten o’clock this morning we received a call from the Metropolitan Police’s Obscene Publications and Computer Crime Unit asking us to shut down your web server. Apparently one of your sites was offering advice on setting up a vigilante mob...'
He said the words ‘setting up a vigilante mob’ in the same way as an arresting officer might say, ‘Yes, Sarge, apparently he was just “cuddling the sheep” ’.
The Obscene Publications and Computer Crime Unit, he explained, had phoned Host Europe and asked for my site – my spoof site – to be shut down, without any kind of warrant, and Host Europe had complied without even bothering to tell me. This was bizarre. And I wasn’t going to stand for it. I knew my rights! (I had no idea what my rights were.)
Unfortunately, the only response I could muster to communicate how little I was going to stand for it was a sort of gaspy yelping noise.
I took a deep breath and tried again. ‘But this is ridiculous. It’s a joke—’
‘It may be a joke to you, sir,’ said the Nazi, ‘but I assure you that we and the police take these complaints very seriously. You’ll need to speak to the ofﬁcer in charge at the Met...’
My next call, to the Obscene Publications Unit, confirmed my lack of faith in humanity.
‘Yes, Mr Carr, we did ask Host Europe to shut down your site... No, sir, we didn’t have to get a court order. We received a complaint and, after investigating, we recommended that they take down the site.’
At this point I lost my temper.
‘You recommended it? That’s all it takes to censor something? Jesus, Fahrenheit 451 would have been a much shorter book if the ﬁremen just bloody recommended that books be burnt.’
For a moment I had forgotten that the person I was shouting at probably had the power to send me to jail if I got too lippy. He also didn’t get the reference. But my point stood: ‘On exactly what basis did you “recommend” deleting it?’
‘That it could be interpreted as inciting violence.’
Yes, officer, I wanted to say, you’re absolutely right, it could be interpreted that way. If the interpreter was the type of baying, inbred, placard-waving, tabloid-reading fucking moron that the site was parodying in the first place.
I was too angry to think straight. I couldn’t believe how easily it had been for the police to get the site taken down, just because some idiot Daily Mail reader couldn’t recognise a joke, compared to how difficult it would be to get a book pulped or a film banned in similar circumstances. I didn’t care how unfunny thinkofthechildren was any more – I just wanted it put back up. Right. This. Minute.
‘I’m sorry, sir, I can’t actually make that decision. Host Europe were the ones who decided to take down the site. You’ll have to ask them if they’re prepared to reactivate it.’
I called my Nazi friend at Host Europe again, ready for a fight.
‘So what do I have to do to get my server back up and running?’ I asked Martin Bormann.
‘You’ll have to take down the thinkofthechildren site and give us an assurance that you won’t put it back up.’
‘And if I agree to that, you’ll reconnect me?’
‘Okay, I agree – but you’ll need to reconnect it first so I can delete the mob stuff.’
‘Er... All right then. But you’re agreeing to take the mob stuff down?’
Like hell I was. Why the hell should the Internet be at the mercy of a humourless policeman and a dickhead hosting company having an informal chat?
Of course, being a fame-hungry media dickhead (see the rest of my book for further embarrassing details), what I also realised was that something being banned – whether it be a film, an album or a book – gave an absolutely guaranteed fast track to popularity. Surely by the same logic, defying a ban would be my passport to the satire hall of fame. This was going to be great!
The moment the server was reconnected, I put the site back online exactly as it was. Well, except for a small link at the bottom entitled ‘An Open Letter to Host Europe and the Obscene Publications Unit’.
And then I sat back and waited for the shit storm.
I didn’t have to wait long.
The first call came from The Register. Apparently some of the journalists were fans of thinkofthechildren and they wanted to write a piece about my ‘fuck you’ to the police. Then the Guardian called, and someone from the Observer. Then Spiked Online (formerly Living Marxism) asked me if I’d like to write something about my brave stand for freedom of speech. Even the Christian Science Monitor wrote a piece about me and my bravery. If you’ve got the Christian Scientists on your side, you know you’re doing something right. Unless you’re a surgeon.
This word ‘brave’ was starting to scare the hell out of me, though. I wasn’t brave. Brave people go to jail and spend the rest of their days breaking rocks with sledgehammers. I was an attention-seeker in a strop. But I’d done my research and the law was pretty clear – the police could only shut down websites with a proper warrant, and with the press watching it would be a huge PR mistake for Host Europe to close me down again. I was sitting pretty.
And then my friend Sam called with some news.
‘Ha, mate! The Evening Standard! What a bunch of wankers, eh?’
‘Why – what’s going on?’
‘Shit, you haven’t seen it? You’re on page seven of the paper and on the front page of the online version. You need to go online RIGHT NOW.’
I went to the Standard website and scanned for a mention of thinkofthechildren. ‘I can’t see anything... there’s just this big thing about Maxine Ca—
...you have got to be fucking kidding me...’
But he wasn’t. There on the front page of the Evening Standard site (and apparently on page seven of hundreds of thousands of newspapers ﬂooding the capital) was the headline:‘“Soham Mob” security fears as website urges violence at murder case court.’
The story, by reporter Danielle Gusmaroli, began:
Police today threw a security cordon around Peterborough Crown Court amid fears that an angry mob might try to attack Soham murder suspect Ian Huntley. The discovery of an inflammatory website encouraging protesters to use ‘bricks, rocks and bottles’ prompted police to draft in 120 officers to guard the court’...
‘Congratulations, mate. You’re finally famous.’
‘Yeah, as a vigilante, Sam. I’m famous as a fictional vigilante. I’m like the Lone Ranger for idiot chavs.’
‘The Unsecured Loan Ranger.’
‘You’re not helping.’
‘The Purple Loans Ranger.’
‘Oh come on, you know what Oscar Wilde said about being talked about.’
‘Why am I spending two years in Reading jail when I’ve done nothing wrong?’
‘That’s fucking showbiz, man! No business like it. Good luck!’