How can you be attacked by an encyclopaedia? Until last week I would have thought the idea as absurd as being savaged by a tree frog. Now I know better. Wikipedia bites. Fortunately it can only do so in the electronic dreamland of the internet. But as we all increasingly discover, that world is growing fast alongside the real one: millions spend much of their lives within it, and for many people it is almost as solid as reality.
I signed up some years ago as a Wikipedia ‘editor’, thinking that, as I knew a little about some subjects, I could help to straighten out the online encyclopaedia a bit. Heaven knows, it needs some help. Its worst failing, much like BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, is to portray subjects that are racked with unresolved controversy as if they were settled.
But I soon found out why nobody else had managed to put this right. Almost every significant article is guarded by powerful forces that appear from nowhere if you dare to make changes. Unless you have unlimited time, and a squadron of determined helpers, they will simply remove any alterations you make, and put things back the way they were.
In the end, I did not care enough to fight these battles. And I made it hard for myself by being open about who I am. Most Wikipedia ‘editors’ use pseudonyms. I do not. I have always thought that anonymity, or pseudonymity, ensures that the internet is often spiteful and nasty. But the internet is also quite left-wing, so being the Hated Peter Hitchens makes anything I do a target.
Wikipedia’s rules, full of acronyms and jargon, are like four-dimensional algebra and often feel like the private language of a cult. I have the strictly limited computer skills of my newspaper generation — just enough to research, write and file copy. Wikipedia demands a familiarity with those worrying symbols at the edge of the keyboard, which in my experience should only be used if you actually want to delete everything you have written or turn it irrevocably into inch-high letters in lurid purple.
So for some years I have stuck almost entirely to correcting errors of fact in the entry about me. These were small matters where I, probably alone in the universe, knew the truth. But then came the terrible allegations of child sex abuse against the late Bishop George Bell, in which the Church of England and many others threw justice out of the window. Bishop Bell’s defenders know a lot about law, liturgy, politics, history, misericords, crocketed finials and rubrics, but not about computers. Among them, I was the nearest thing we had to an electronic wizard. The task of trying to keep Wikipedia fair fell to me.
This is the complicated bit. You can look up the George Bell affair somewhere else (I suggest, not Wikipedia), but the case against him made heavy (and mistaken) use of the police. It was of course a civil case, of a complainant against the church, and always has been. But the C of E, which for reasons of its own decided to trash the reputation of one of its greatest figures, persuaded the police to declare they would have arrested the bishop if he had not been dead since 1958. This was ridiculous in itself. Why say you would have done an impossible thing? Secondly, it wasn’t true and was wrong in law. But I know that the involvement of the police persuaded far too many people of Bishop Bell’s utterly unproven guilt.
For two years I tried to change the Wikipedia entry to remove this damaging stuff about the police and arrests. I argued, I pleaded, I waited. A rude pseudonymous person responded by calling me a ‘loudmouth’ and sneered at Bishop Bell’s defenders as a ‘fan club’ which he ignorantly judged was ‘right-wing’ and came from the ‘establishment’. These things were not just bad-mannered and untrue. They revealed my opponent as partial and obstructive. He was also unresponsive. When I tried to argue for alterations, he ignored my case and deleted my changes. Nothing happened to him. Thinking justice must be on my side, I precipitated a small crisis in the hope of bringing about a helpful intervention from the ‘Wikipedia community’. I added to the item, which continued to say absurdly that the police had not been called. I pointed out that of course they hadn’t — you might as well say the fire brigade, or Tesco, had not been called. This is, by the way, true and — in my view — obviously satirical. I appealed for help and was instantly kicked in the teeth, as if I had put in a good word for the Ku Klux Klan.
Some Wikicrat, armed with enormous powers, parachuted down from the Wikisphere and, having apparently examined the whole two-year quarrel for all of 90 seconds, pulled out bell, book and candle and banned me from further editing or from explaining my position. If this had been reality, instead of the internet, it would have been terrifying. I immediately became an unperson, unable to defend myself and told that any attempt to do so would make my position worse. Appealing for due process (I cited the Bill of Rights) was itself a further crime. I was told I must humbly confess before anyone would listen to me. No Englishman of my generation would consider such a surrender, so I am out of Wikipedia for ever. While it lasted, and while I was inside it, it was a tiny, infuriating nightmare of totalitarianism. One day soon, I suspect this particular dream is all too likely to come true in the solid world. As it happens, it has already come true for Bishop Bell, presumed guilty and cast into a pit of shame from which he cannot speak for himself. That is why I and others still fight for justice for him.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.