Monday, 2 November 2009

The decline and fall of the commentariat

Lezard: So you don't like something you don't understand? Fascinating.

Anyone - even the verbose literary critics of the most troubled newspapers that prop up one of the country's most antiquated professions - can see how inane "Twitter" is. Eurgh! I am unable to even utter the foul beast's name without spraying my page with bilious condemnation. Twit. Ter. Twitter twits, twats, and twunts. Too many "T"s make a tit. Stupid, terrible, tragic, pathetic Twitter. See the theme? I do. I'm a literary critic. Alliteration. The basest of rhetorical devices, esteemed only by the most inconsequential poets, banal linguistic noise whose only function is to trip up prose and stifle comment. Authorial madness. The essence of hate. Twitter.

Heavens! That it has come to this. Plato, Aristotle, Homer and Ovid never tweeted. Keats may have admired the nightingale's tune but he never imitated it's nonsensical warblings. It's the accessability I abhor; every two-bit pyjama wearing basement writer can write, publish, and bore the world with their incessant blogging, tweeting, tumbling and posterous-ing, while literature lays dying in the gutter. With this accessability you may wonder why I haven't signed up myself, just to see what it's like before writing an excrutiating 500 words of high-browed pretension on the subject. Why? Why haven't I? Why do I refuse to dip my toe into the torrent of background noise, egotistical rantings, pointless ravings, and probably psychologically damaging profanity pouring forth from the denizens of the web?

Because I'm a WRITE-OR, that's why! Why should I deign to read what I imagine is a slew of ill-informed nonsense and egomaniacal ejaculations when I myself write all that needs to be read? Common people may not write and expect to be read. That is the privilege of the few, to bestow upon the many. This is true insight. Just because everyone wrote exactly the same thing 12 months ago doesn't make it any less brilliant.

And with that, adieu, twats!

Cohen: Beware the bleating of the marginalised journalist.

People have always whined. God knows I do an awful lot, but that's alright because I'm paid to. In the good old days, a large tract separated the amateur whiner from the whinee. The outraged housewife from Tunbridge Wells was forced to pen a formal letter of complaint, and by the very process of writing, consider her objection to whatever triviality it was that ignited her wrath. Then she would sit and wait as her scribbled missive winged its way to its target, then wait some more for a dismissive response. This is how moaning should be: a futile excercise in being ignored.

But now spontaneous groups of angry individuals coagulate with alarming ferocity on the interwebs, enabled by Facebook and Twitter. Mass protests flare up from nowhere as offense spreads at the speed of light through angry networks of geeks taken aback by a bigoted article in the Daily Mail, or a light-hearted quip with racial undertones aired on a BBC show nobody watches. Jan Moir's sneering heterosexist slurry of hate attracted 22,000 complaints after it went viral on Twitter. But does nobody see the hypocrisy in campaigning for free speech while simultaneously criticising an article you don't approve of?

Of course, freedom of speech includes the freedom to disagree with what others say. So in the case of Jan Moir it's ok. But is it ok when people are disagreeing with something like Andrew Neil's supposed racist biscuit remark? No, of course not, because I don't think Neil meant it in a racist way. Andrew's script, and the offending hobknob joke, was written by a lady with a black husband so it can't be racist. Therefore, to express an opinion contrary to my own, that a seemingly questionable remark is questionable, even though, actually, it probably isn't (by my own measure anyway), is surely an affront to free speech.

Ok, wait. I'm losing track of what I was trying to say. Freedom of speech=good, obviously...but criticising journalists is, that's not right, er...ah yes, use Twitter to criticise, that's ok, but don't do it when the thing you're criticising isn't objectionable by my standards, mobs, yes, don't join mobs. Right. So, clearly, Twitter is a great medium through which to express shock or disapproval, but if a large body of other Twitterers also express that same disapproval, it's a mob and you mustn't join in. Mobs are bad, m'kay?

What it boils down to is that I, as a columnist, am uncomfortable in the face of large scale criticism. Jan Moir wrote some repugnant drivel, sure, but what if it was me? The whole point of columnists is to write opinionated, agenda-driven unverifiable polemic. That's freedom of speech! But when the tide turns, and all the little internet people rise up against us in baying mobs to point and laugh and condemn what we say, it's just not on.

For centuries, polemicists have enjoyed the right to offend and misrepresent with impunity. The age of the angry non-professional writer empowered by social media to spread word of inaccuracy and rally others to their cause threatens to bring that to an inglorious end. What will we be left with? A vacuum of opinion. Well, not a vacuum exactly, because all the Twitterers will have their own opinions. We'll be left with an imbalance between the superiority of highly-paid writers to make readers agree, and the previously silent majority who read and disagree, but don't get paid to twitter their thoughts. So, yeah, the many shrill voices will swamp the few. Surely that's not free speech? Does that make sense? Have I made any sense whatsoever? I think it probably does, and the likelihood is that I have. Crikey, that's a long paragraph. Nobody is going to tweet this. Ack. Well, at least it's better than that tiresome Lezard chap. I'm Orwell, and he's Byron. No-one likes Byron anymore. My head's hurting a bit now, so it's time to sum up with a concise and highly quotable last line.

Give me a minute.


Got it.

This assault on the exclusive and God-given right of journalists to free speech must end.

Also see: Jon Henley - Twitter is a danger to free speech, yada yada yada for 2,000 words


  1. "...before writing an excrutiating 500 words of high-browed pretension on the subject." Love it!!! :-)

  2. Oh. I just read the Jon Henley article. Why did I do that? Why?

  3. You read it. Now you can't unread it. Bad luck.

  4. I've tried to un-read so many things that offend me but alas, I just can't do it.