Professor Mary Beard chose to fight back against an internet site called Don’t Start Me Off, run by someone called Richard White.  She wrote: "My appearance on Question Time prompted a web post that has in the last few days discussed my pubic hair (do I brush the floor with it), whether I need rogering...”  The New Statesman’s Laurie Penny reports an internet comment: “There's nothing wrong with [Penny] a couple of hours of cunt kicking, garrotting and burying in a shallow grave wouldn't sort out."

Beard wrote: “The misogyny here is truly gobsmacking [and] more than a few steps into sadism.” Penny called DSMO “a racist, misogynist hate-site.”  They’re right, of course, but misogyny is only a part of this story.

To understand why, let’s start with a much better established site mentioned by Penny – the political website Guido Fawkes, run  by Paul Staines, who seems to be much the same mixture of school bully and right wing saloon bar bore as Richard White.

Penny quotes comments about her on Staines’s site.  "Perhaps Sharia might be a good thing after all, if Ms Penny was not allowed out without a member of her Family and we did not have to look at her face, also we could stone her to death...” "Call me old fashioned bt this young lady shouid [sic] be whipped through the streets of London before being made to suck Ken Livingstones cock as people throw shit at the pair of them." She asked for these to be taken down and the men who run the site told her to get a sense of humour.

Comments on Mr Staines’s site tend to be posted under assumed names. There’s Sid the Sexist (whose last post read “I bet the dogs were female Labour MPs”).  There’ s Lady Yvette Cooper and her Balls (geddit?). So far, so misogynistic. But there’s also “BBC Head of Correctional Thinking, closet homosexual and cokehead” (one of Mr Staines’s pet hates, naturally, is the BBC.) There’s “Arse fuck for freedom” and there’s “Arse bandit of old England.” And there’s Lord Mandelbum of Fondleboys (implying a serious accusation for which there is no shred of evidence).  So far, so homophobic, but that’s only a part of it too.

The objects of Mr Staines’s vicious, charmless, crude cronies are not just women and gays, but anyone who says something of which he disapproves, and who looks in a position of weakness and unable to fight back. That’s why he’s devoted so much space recently to Chris Huhne and Denis MacShane. Both are disgraced, both face the chance of incarceration, neither is in a position to defend himself.  And whatever you think of either man, it’s hard to forgive someone who, hearing that the closed police investigation into MacShane is now to be reopened, together with MacShane’s chance of going to prison, writes: ““Is it too early to open the champagne on a Monday morning?”

What do Mary Beard, Laurie Penny, Peter Mandelson, Chris Huhne and Denis MacShane have in common?  Only two are women, only one is gay, only two are disgraced politicians. But all are identified with opinions of which Mr Staines disapproves. They are being told: you express these opinions at your peril.

And that is the real problem with the new internet thuggery.  The internet should be opening up the range of opinions that can be expressed, and internet freedom is a precious thing. Instead, it is closing them down, by abusing and threatening those who express views of which important bloggers disapprove.  Laurie Penny writes:

“(The internet) gives readers and audience-members a right to reply to those writers and politicians who, in the pre-digital age, enjoyed the freedom to expostulate and make pronouncements without having to listen to their readers or listeners beyond the odd angry letter in the paper.... There’s a world of difference, however, between the right to reply and the right to abuse, threaten and silence.”

The Murdoch press tried to use the same method to undermine press freedom, in the name of press freedom.  And as I write, the news breaks that Mr Staines, who claims to be a champion of internet freedom, is to write a column for the Sun.  He and his new employer should get on famously.