Some random Godslot
In 1936 the American papers were full of scandal about the Royal Family and the British people knew nothing of the storm about to break. This week, when the American muck-raker Kitty Kelley publishes her book on the Royal Family, the British press will probably be just as silent. It won't matter at all. The foreign press — and foreign bookshops — are available down any phone line.
The power of the Internet to dissolve national frontiers changes every year. Today when people discuss it they imagine decentralised gossip: they are still thinking of an Internet where every man is his own publisher. It is true that stuff is still around. Conspiracy theories spout like mushrooms after rain. My favourite is that Queen Elizabeth had a bastard child by Winston Churchill to console her after her father died (the proof lay in the new-born's resemblance to his father).
But gossip is last year's thing. This year the Net is the haunt of big business. If you want news there, you can read all the main wire services; more than 2000 newspapers; Time and Der Spiegel, and even CNN have glossy and informative web sites. This is reliable information, collected and collated by professionals. If you would prefer unreliable information collected by professionals, that's available too. People magazine (which had been going to serialise the Kelley book) is online every week, and so is Rupert Murdoch's New York tabloid, the New York Post. It is difficult to imagine either will pause to consider whether what they publish on Kitty Kelley might offend British sensibilities.
This is an entirely different phenomenon to the shadowy gossip and conspiracy theories with which the net abounds. Reading these large newspapers online you are getting exactly the same information as you can find in their print editions, and subject to the same checks. It may be that what Kitty Kelley says about the royal family is untrue. But I can be reasonably certain that if the Washington Post says she reveals that Prince Charles as a three-inch furry tail, then it's really in her book.
Not all the barriers have come down. Amazon.com, the largest mail-order bookshop on the net, will not sell Kitty Kelley's book to customers in England, at the publisher's request. Have it posted to your cottage in the Dordogne instead. Amazon's main rival, Barnes and Noble online, seems to have accepted my order, but says it cannot be filled for three weeks.
This is an entirely different matter to the furtive typing or scanning in of extracts form the book, or the faxing of copies to friends, as happened with Spycatcher, or in France to the recent unauthorised biography of President Mitterrand. These are large businesses working legitimately in a global marketplace to circumvent any idea of national sovereignty in an information age. Part of the difficulty for the government is that there is no injunction out against the book. Though there no publishers or distributors willing to risk selling it in this country, it remains perfectly legal for me to buy it or import it. But the rest of the difficulty is that no conceivable legal ban could be enforced, without shutting all the Internet connections down from this country.
This might not matter if the Internet were still the minority pastime of unhealthy nerds. But it is not. The number of journalists I know with email addresses is beginning to surpass the number without. At least a quarter of a million people in this country have access to the World Wide Web, at a conservative estimate, and it really isn't hard to use. When scandal is only a mouse click away, there are no traps or poisons made that can keep it out of the country.
I don't know yet what Kitty Kelley's book alleges. But I'll bet that within six months her most outrageous stories will be so widely known that there won't be a pub in the country where you can mention her name without provoking the same kind of knowing snickers as you now get from the word "gerbil".