I sometimes think that when I die there should be two graves dug: the first would be the usual kind of size, say 2 feet by 7, but the other would be much, much larger. The gravestone should read: ME AND MY BIG MOUTH.
I suspect most of you will have heard of the shitstorm that howled about the head of Jan Moir, a journalist who wrote a beastly article in the Daily Mail about the death of Stephen Gately the day before his funeral. I don’t propose to stop and pick over the carcass of that epically ill-judged piece of gutter journalism. Its malice, stupidity, incoherent illogicality and crass insensitivity have been superbly anatomised by many others and besides, too much time has passed, a whole 24 hours at the time of writing and for the online world, which is still a child, a year is a decade and a day a whole month.
If I were to express sympathy for Jan Moir here some of you might think I had gone soft in the head. And yet I do feel sorry for her. There are those, there will always be those, who believe that she knew exactly what she was doing and that she is relishing her notoriety, that the sight of her name topping the Twitter trend lists will give her nothing but frissons of pleasure. I do not believe this. Yes, I expect that she will, in time, revisit her disaster. I dare say she will write the inevitable Vulnerable Frightened Piece in which she tells the world just how tyrannised, terrorised and victimised she felt; piling on the image of the concerned mum (if she is one) who was just trying to ask questions; the honest (and perhaps naive, yes, she’ll admit to that) journalist who sowed a doubt and reaped a whirlwind. Such articles always end with Serious Questions, in this case concerning the Future of Democracy Itself if it is to be left in the hands of the firebrands, hysterics and (Dark Hints) possibly sinister forces that patrol and control the internet. It will all be silly, distressing, disingenuous and ignorant, but then she is a tabloid columnist and that is her job. The reason I feel sorry for her is not that she is a journalist, or that she writes for the Daily Mail, I am quite sure she can do without my pompous, patronising sympathy. I feel sorry for her because I know just what it is like to make a monumental ass of oneself and how hard it is to find the road back. I know all too well what it is like to be inebriated, as Disraeli put it, by the exuberance of my own verbosity.
Only a week and a half ago I was asked to appear on Channel 4 news to comment on the Conservative Party and their decision to ally themselves in the European Parliament with the Polish Law and Justice Party, a nationalist grouping whose members have made statements of the most unpleasantly homophobic and antisemitic nature. I usually decline such invitations, and how I wish I had done so on this occasion. I think I accepted for the achingly dumb reason that I happened to be in the Holborn area all that day and the ITN news studios were just round the corner, so it seemed like an easy gig. The more probable explanation is that, as my father and squadrons of school teachers correctly reminded me throughout my childhood and youth, “Stephen just doesn’t think.” Anyway. Words tumbled from my lips during that interview that were as idiotic, ignorant and offensive as you could imagine. It had all been proceeding along perfectly acceptable lines until I said something like “let’s not forget which side of the border Auschwitz was on.”
I mean, what was I thinking? Well, as I say, I wasn’t. The words just formed themselves in a line in my head, as words will, and marched out of the mouth. I offer no excuse. I seemed to imply that the Polish people had been responsible for the most infamous of all the death factories of the Third Reich. I didn’t even really at the time notice the import of what I had said, so gave myself no opportunity instantly to retract the statement. It was a rubbishy, cheap and offensive remark that I have been regretting ever since.
But it gets worse. Once the interview had been transmitted I started to receive the odd invitation to talk on Polish radio, explain myself to Polish journalists and make apologies to the Polish people in general. Perfect, you might think. An opportunity to make amends. But some mad pixie of pride in my head had got me rather riled by this time. It wasn’t helped by the fact that some of the letters I received were of such a bombastic and dictatorial nature that any spark of apology was extinguished before it was born. So I just ignored the whole incident and pretended to myself that I had been misunderstood, mischievously misunderstood, you might even say; that it was obvious to the meanest intelligence that I had never meant to suggest that Poland was complicit in the Holocaust and therefore it would make so sense for me to apologise — it would only perpetuate the culture of offence and apology that is so tedious a feature of our world. Or so I muttered. Really I was so guilty and angry with myself that I directed the anger outwards, as people will.
I take this opportunity to apologise now. I said a stupid, thoughtless and fatuous thing. It detracted from and devalued my argument, such as it was, and it outraged and offended a large group of people for no very good reason. I am sorry in all directions, and all the more sorry because it is no one’s fault but my own, which always makes it so much worse. And sorry because I didn’t have the wit, style, grace or guts to apologise at the first opportunity. I don’t know if Jan Moir feels the same, but I am pretty sure that in her heart of hearts she will have at the very least yearned for a rewind button. How many times in her mind since must she have rephrased, reworded and rejigged that sorry and squalid little article? Some of you will think I am a simpleton to imagine any such thing and that she is much more canny, crafty and conniving than that. Conspiracy theorists can be the faithful guardians of our democracy, but like many fierce dogs they can often mistrust and savage the postman, the doctor or the innocent bystander as well as the real malefactor. But this a blog and therefore about meeeee.
Political Stir Fry
There is a whole suite of reasons that disqualify me from being any kind of politician. Firstly, I don’t want to be one. I would rather suck turds for a living. Secondly I can’t make my mind up on Big Issues. On Wednesday I might believe x but come Friday I will be convinced of y. By the weekend someone will have persuaded me that the only possible answer is z. Thirdly, and most importantly, as the Polish incident demonstrated, I cannot keep my mouth shut. If a joke or a neat phrase or an apparently convincing rhetorical trope or apt simile occur to me they will emerge from my mouth without passing Think. Political opponents will have every opportunity to shake their heads and murmur about judgement, reliability and loose canons. I would spend my time writing craven letters of apology and writhing with guilt, shame and self-disgust. Which, let’s face it, is no way to run a whelk-stall.
But maybe the age of politics as we knew and loved it is over. Maybe the two twitterstorms of last week point to a new kind of democracy. L’Affaire Moir followed hard on the heels of a quite horrific attempt to muzzle the press by the lawyers Carter-Ruck. In the name of sub judice this notorious law firm slapped a ‘superinjunction’ on The Guardian newspaper forbidding them to mention the name of an MP or the question he had tabled in Parliament on the Trafigura toxic waste dumping scandal. Six hours of TwitterIndignation later, during which time every censored detail was made freely available for all to see, and the injunction was, force majeure, lifted. The internet had hobbled it fatally and it was led limping back to its stall, to the jeers and cheers of the public. Ian Hislop, editor of the Private Eye heaved a huge sigh of relief – the Eye had decided to publish and Hislop is under a personal restraining order which would have led to his facing the real likelihood of imprisonment for contempt of court, breaching the terms of a judgement and all manner of nutty malfeasances.
What both cases point to, some would argue, is a shift in the very focus of democracy. In the good old days there were Three Estates that held dominion over us. The Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the Commons. As the Press rose and cast off the shackles of censorship it became routinely referred to, after a remark made by Edmund Burke in the late eighteenth century, as the Fourth Estate. Here is how Oscar Wilde saw things a hundred and twenty years ago:-
In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralizing. Somebody — was it Burke? — called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism.
The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1891
I would urge you click the link above and read the rest of that magnificent essay, especially the continuation of Wilde’s thoughts about the press.
The Fifth Estate?
Well, then. All in the same week the Fourth Estate has been rescued by Twitter and shamed by Twitter. Has the twinternet now become the Fifth Estate? And if so is it safe in the hands of people like you and me? Especially me.
Without, I hope, too much self-pity, I do seem to have made myself a target. Journalists who don’t understand what Twitter really is (the overwhelming majority) will use my name as a kind of shorthand for the service. The fact that I have been on it for a whole year (ie a decade, see second paragraph above) and have in that time accumulated a fairly large number of followers allows them lazily to go straight to my “Twitter feed” (as they insist on calling it) and either crediting me with being a kind of a Citizen Smith of the Twitting Popular Front, or blaming me for hypocritically claiming to strike blows for press freedom with one hand while trying to censor journalism with the other.
And what am I after all? What right have I to wield this kind of influence? A question people have been asking about journalists for years, but which they have every right to ask about me too. I don’t know what business I have wielding influence either. This whole thing has just grown up around me and now I cannot help wondering if, despite my preference for turd-sucking over politics, I have found myself in a new Fifth Estate political assembly, willy-nilly hailed as some sort of tribune by friendly people on one side and being yelled at by unfriendly people on the other. I am not cut out for the hurly-burly of adversarial politics. I am not qualified to represent anyone nor, I cannot repeat often enough, do I wish to. So I should shut up. That seems to be the only sensible thing to do. I should shut the fuck up.
Twitter and Me
It all seems rather unfair, he wailed piteously. A pleasant twittery microblogging service that I joined in the spirit of curiosity and fun has emerged as a real force in the land and it is of course fascinating and pleasing to see this. I am, despite my prolix propensities and orotund enunciations, infantile. I like toys, I never plan ahead and I have little thought for consequences. I had no agenda with joining Twitter a year ago other than popping my toe in its water and seeing what the temperature was. It was not part of a clever commercial plan to “build my brand” (whatever the arse that means) nor to sell tickets, books and DVDs nor to ready myself for government, nor to disseminate a point of view nor to raise my profile in the media. I was travelling in Africa and other spots around the globe and I thought it would be an interesting way of sending little postcards to anyone who might be interested.
A tweet is a 140 word expression of what’s on one’s mind, what one is doing or dreaming of. No one, not Biz Stone and the other founders of the service, not you nor I and certainly not anyone in the mainstream or techno press, ever had the faintest idea what Twitter would become. We still do not know what it will become. Some of those who dismissed it as it rose in popularity will now be slinking embarrassedly to the sign-on page, while political ginger groups of all kinds, right left, religious secular, fanatical and mild, will be sitting around wondering how to harness its power. ‘Political consultants’ who had never heard of the service six months ago will be hiring themselves out as experts who can create a ‘powerful, influential and profitable Twitter brand’. And the moronic and gullible clients will line up for this new nostrum like prairie settlers queuing for snake oil and salvation.
“If a twazzock like Stephen Fry can wield such influence,” the mainstream parties and their think tanks will be saying, “just imagine what we can do if we get our Twitter strategy right.”
Well, I contend that I do not wield influence. I contend that Twitter users are not sheep but living, dreaming, thinking, hoping human beings with minds, opinions and aspirations of their own. Of the 860,000 or so who follow me the overwhelming majority are too self-respecting, independent-minded and free-thinking to have their opinions formed or minds made up for them in any sphere, least of all Twitter.
Is it now my turn to be disingenuous, you might be wondering? I do not think so. I don’t propose to put it to the test by urging my followers to sign a petition to bring back the death penalty or have Jan Moir sued or some other cause of which I do not approve, just in order to see whether I can bend them to my evil will, but I can guarantee that were I to do so I would get thousands of “Boo, Stephen, I thought better of you then that”, “Stephen have you run mad?”, “Stephen I think you should lie down in a darkened room for a while” types of tweet in response.
Incidentally, in the case of both the Trafigura scandal and the Daily Mail article, I was late on the scene. I was neither an opinion former nor a trend-setter. Both Trafigura and Jan Moir were high in the top ten Twitter trending lists by the time I tweeted my first tweets on the subject. Twitter being what it is you can check this out. All tweets and their time of posting are logged and every statistic recorded. Contrary to appearances I have another life and do not spend all my time monitoring screens and detecting every twitch on the filament of the web. So you see, my influence really is wildly overstated by journalists who could take the trouble to see that I am more often behind the curve than ahead of it, more often reactive than proactive. I will concede that sheer force of numbers can cause me to break sites and to swell the ranks of a trend, but Twitter and the causes espoused on it all get on perfectly well without me.
Twitter and Governance
Perhaps the foregoing is the most fatuous and maddening aspect of the press’s (perfectly understandable) fear, fascination and dread of Twitter: the insulting notion that twitterers are wavy reeds that can be blown this way or that by the urgings of a few prominent ‘opinion formers’. It is hooey, it is insulting hooey and it is wicked hooey. The press dreads Twitter for all kinds of reasons. Celebrities (whose doings sell even broadsheet newspapers these days) can cut them out of the loop and speak direct to their fans which is of course most humiliating and undermining. But also perhaps the deadwood press loathes Twitter because it is like looking in a time mirror. Twitter is to the public arena what the press itself was two hundred and fifty years ago — a new and potent force in democracy, a thorn in side of the established order of things.
I don’t suppose there can be many in Britain who do not agree with the proposition that the Four Estates are decaying. The Estate that matters, or ought to matter, is the Commons. It is an old way of saying the common people, or as we would say now, the people. The Commons in Parliament Assembled have not now become the Commons in Twitter Assembled, any more than the presses that rolled in the eighteenth century calling for freedom and ridiculing the powerful and the corrupt of the age were the Commons in Pamphlets Assembled. But the twinternet shows that the focus is shifting. The Commons in Parliament Assembled have never been so distrusted and more importantly — for we humans rightly put more faith in our hearts than our heads — they have never been so disliked.
I am not a representative of the Commons in Twitter Assembled. I write this as an observer of a new and interesting trend, a trend that might conceivably play as important a role in the forging of a new polity as the development of the presses did in the eighteenth century. There is an energy abroad in the kingdom, one that yearns for a new openness in our rule making, our justice system and our administration. Do not imagine for a minute that I am saying Twitter is it. Its very name is the clue to its foundation and meaning. It is not, as I have pointed out before, called Ponder or Debate. It is called Twitter. But there again some of the most influential publications of the eighteenth century had titles like Tatler, Rambler, Idler and Spectator. Hardly suggestive of earnest political intent either. History has a habit of choosing the least prepossessing vessels to be agents of change.
Twitter may seem to some to be dominated by bien pensant, liberal spirits at the moment. Will I be so optimistic about it when these spirits are matched by forces of religiosity and nationalism that might not accord with my chattering-class, liberal elite preferences? When the political machines march in and start recruiting and acquiring millions of followers, giving them the power to close sites with DDOS slashdotting campaigns, what will I say then?
Well, all kinds of bleak scenarios are possible. But for the moment let me believe in democracy and the good sense and good intentions of the commons. We commons have long treasured our ancient liberties. They stretch back in time, marked by Magna Carta, Milton’s Areopagitica, 1688 and the Bill of Rights, Wilkes and Liberty, the Peterloo Massacre, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists, the Reform Bill, the Jarrow marches and innumerable other milestones that have led us to this point. The ancient liberties of the common people have found expression in plays, poems, ballads, essays, journalism, cinema, television and now they find a voice in Twitter and the internet. One medium has never replaced the other, but complemented and enhanced it. Let there not be war between Twitter and the press. Let them both be agents for freedom of speech and a better way of governing ourselves.
Meanwhile what of me? Hundreds of requests pour in every day asking me to use my strange, new-found ability to connect to a lot of people. It is as if I own a billboard on the busiest road in Britain. Some seem to think I have a duty to relay their message. Indeed they get quite shirty if I do not, as if I am a public service to which they have every right. Publishers want books mentioned, charities or individuals want good causes pointed to, individuals want their birthdays mentioned and their political campaigns supported: through it all I continue to try to use the service like a good twitterer, balancing public service announcements with the trivial core identity of Twitter. I blather about my day, my likes and my dislikes, I sometimes try to be amusing and I allow my incoherent thoughts to tumble out. I routinely press send without thinking and I often get myself into trouble. That is what Twitter is all about.
But maybe the very fact that I have so many followers now disqualifies me from stating the sort of opinions all others are free to – as if I were a member of the royal family. Lord, what a thought.
The best I can do is hope for a quiet week ahead…