SARAH VINE: Molly Russell's hero dad and fighting these online cowboys

SARAH VINE: Molly Russell’s hero dad and why we have to fight these venal online cowboys

Schoolgirl Molly Russell would have been about 19 had she not taken her own life in 2017. The same age as my own daughter: just starting out on life’s great adventure, at college or in her first job, maybe heading off to university after a year’s travelling or working abroad.

First serious relationship, first time away from home, excited and anxious in equal measure. Traipsing around Ikea buying duvet covers and fake pot plants, living off beans on toast, drinking too much at the student bingo night, getting a stupid tattoo.

Instead, she will forever be a 14-year-old in school uniform, a child with an uncertain smile whose life was cut tragically short. The heart breaks for her, for all she might have been, and also, of course, for her family.

But there is rage too. Rage and frustration at the injustice of a world that allows children like Molly – gentle, vulnerable young souls – to be exposed to things far beyond their years and emotional understanding.

SARAH VINE: Schoolgirl Molly Russell would have been about 19 had she not taken her own life in 2017

The story of Molly is a modern-day version of the Pied Piper of Hamelin: a social media world that leads youngsters on a not-so-merry dance into the abyss, that steals them from their parents and friends and those who love them, that isolates them and casts them adrift in a churning sea of algorithms, dashed against the jagged rocks of depression and hopelessness.

That’s why Ian Russell, Molly’s father, is such a hero. For five long years he has relived the agony of his daughter’s anguish, word by word, tweet by tweet, post by post. Thanks to him the relentless, venal ruthlessness of social media giants has been forensically exposed, their flimsy, arrogant veneer of moral rectitude shattered.

The full extent of how these sites fuelled Molly’s feelings of hopelessness, the difference it made between her being a normal, confused 14-year-old teenager with normal doubts and worries, and someone who felt they had nothing to live for, is now crystal clear.

The coroner was unequivocal: Molly ‘died from an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content’. The impact of that acknowledgment is huge.

But Mr Russell is not just his daughter’s champion. He is also every parent’s champion. He speaks for all of us whose children have grown up in the smartphone age, who have wrestled with the social media Hydra, who have experienced the ways in which the uncensored world of the internet and the greed of Silicon Valley destroys – or at the very least cuts short – childhoods.

It’s not just suicide forums and self-harm: it’s online bullying, pile-ons, sexual grooming, criminally dangerous online challenges (one thinks of 12-year-old Archie Battersbee) and, of course, hardcore porn, only ever a few clicks away.

Every day, as parents, we run this digital gauntlet, trying to shield our children as best we can. Trying, and inevitably failing. Because how can we? How can we fight the might of the internet?

Parents are told, usually by those whose children grew up long before this digital age: ‘Just keep them offline.’ Maybe that was possible ten years ago, when we still had one foot in the analogue world. But now everything happens through a smartphone. You can’t even park your car without one, and everything, from GP appointments to tax returns, must be done digitally.

I hate it. It’s a horrendous tyranny. I would much rather live in the pre-digital world I grew up in, where people actually spoke to one another instead of communicating via keypads. But we are where we are.

And asking parents to keep their children off the internet is like asking them to limit the time they breathe. It’s how they learn (so much schoolwork is now online), socialise and access entertainment. And that’s not their fault – it’s ours.

That is why we have a duty to protect them. That is why the Prince of Wales was correct when he said, in response to the coroner’s verdict, that online safety should be ‘a prerequisite, not an afterthought’.

The Online Safety Bill, which has been knocking around Parliament for years, has to now be a priority for Government. Liz Truss has already shown herself not afraid to make tough, controversial choices.

No ifs, no buts. We need legislation to safeguard future generations from paying the price for corporate negligence. Legislation that will finally bring these online cowboys into line and ensure that, as Prince William put it, ‘No parent should ever have to endure what Ian Russell and his family have been through.’

It’s not just homeowners who face pain from rising interest rates. 

A friend of mine who works for a London estate agent tells me rents are rocketing. 

A place that normally might have fetched £380 a week went for £420 the other day. 

I suppose it makes sense that buy-to-let landlords would be pricing rate increases into the market, but it doesn’t seem very fair on ‘generation rent’ who, having struggled to get on the housing ladder, now face being priced out completely.

Love Cher, but not the trashy Balmain 

I simply can’t understand why so many celebrities – from Brooklyn Beckham and Nicola Peltz to Kim Kardashian – are so obsessed with Balmain.

Pierre Balmain, of course, was a giant of French couture who dressed the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Sophia Loren. 

I have a treasured vintage Balmain coat, which I found in a second-hand shop years ago, and it elevates any outfit with its exquisite cut.

Love Cher, obviously; but she’s not exactly known for her classy outfits

But the current Balmain seems to consist of oversized, over-priced trainers and trashy, skin-tight creations that are virtually indistinguishable from the cheap, mass-produced stuff you can buy on any high street.

Proof of the pudding: Cher was the star attraction at last week’s Paris runway show. 

Love Cher, obviously; but she’s not exactly known for her classy outfits.

The BBC has made a big mistake removing Steve Wright from his Radio 2 slot. 

He was an absolute giant – funny, clever, endlessly self-deprecating and the reason so many listeners tuned in. 

I’m sure his replacement, Scott Mills, is a perfectly nice man, but there’s a lot to be said for that old adage: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Sussex ordeal cut short 

Whoever takes over from the Duke and Duchess’s PR firm (they have just ditched Sunshine Sachs, the New York-based outfit that has been advising the Duchess since her days as an actress on legal drama Suits) is going to have their work cut out. 

Especially if recent revelations about how the Duchess treats her employees are anything to go by.

She also has an interesting interview technique, by all accounts. A couple of years ago I heard a story about a woman who applied to work for her at Kensington Palace. 

She was ushered into the (then) Royal presence, who allegedly glanced up, took one look, said simply, ‘You can leave’, and went back to her paperwork. That was the end of the interview.

In the circumstances, a lucky escape, I suspect.

Since I wrote about my air fryer last week, loads of you have been emailing to ask which brand I have. 

Weirdly, it’s nothing fancy, and never seems to appear in any of the ‘top-ten air fryer’ lists (probably because it’s a fairly basic model). 

But it works brilliantly. It’s a Tower. And no, this is not a sponsored post.

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