Internet debate can be coarse
— says Boris Johnson —
but it really does hold journalists and politicians to account.
But enough of me. Let’s talk about you. Or rather, let’s talk about the small minority of you who not only read but respond to these columns — sitting up late in America, rising early in Hong Kong. I mean the great caffeine-powered, keyboard-hammering community of online thinkers who contribute with such richness to the cyberspace jabberama.
There used to be a time when filing these comment-page pieces was a lonely sort of business. It was like putting your money into a chocolate bar dispenser on a station platform, or practising your tennis serve. Nothing came back. It was fire and forget, hit and run, drive-by opinionising. OK, so if you said something particularly outrageous, a handful of letters would eventually turn up, depending on the mails. If you really put your foot in it and did something that no reader could forgive – such as confusing a yellow labrador with a golden retriever – a few people might be moved to ring the Telegraph switchboard.
But when any of us write something these days, it is like tiptoeing to a cage with a hunk of meat, and nervously prodding it through the bars. Sometimes the blogosphere will seem happy with the offering and the beast will briefly growl approval; and sometimes there is such a yowling and clamouring that we feel like Clarice Starling as she sets off down the corridor of mental patients in search of Hannibal the Cannibal.
The other day, for instance, I wrote an utterly blameless piece of mainstream conservatism, advocating more trade with India. I then made the mistake of looking at the [Telegraph-]reader response. One analyst, whose nom de guerre was something like ‘sod-all-this’, said the problem was UK membership of the ‘EUSSR’; which may or may not have a grain of truth. But other correspondents simply lashed out at free trade and globalisation and capitalism generally, with one man concluding with the words, “borus is a p----.” I think he was called ‘pheasantplucker’, which is presumably some sort of spoonerism.
Now there will be many readers who agree wholeheartedly with pheasantplucker and, in any case, borus can take this sort of thing in his stride. But what about my colleague Toby Harnden, who hasn't been at this game for quite as long as I have? Yesterday he had an excellent piece in the Sunday Telegraph, analysing the Sarah Palin business, and her reaction to the Tucson shootings. The gist of his argument was that Palin had seemed paranoid and defensive, and that Obama had spoken rather well.
Poor old Toby came in for a fair pasting from the Right-wing bloggerati of America. One contributor to the debate was called ‘Hostile Logic’, and he decorated his entries with a red blood-spatter motif. “You are living proof that s--- can grow legs and walk,” he said at one point; and as I read this stuff, I did start to wonder about the violence of the language on the blogs, and the effect it is having on politics and journalism. Shielded by anonymity, bolstered by the online support of others whose views may be even more gamey than their own, readers are now able to fire back at journalists with a speed and ferocity that has never been possible before — and there are signs that they can be quite intimidating.
I talked to the editor of a powerful national paper, who told me that he was personally against the 50p tax rate, and he personally understood that it didn't raise much revenue. But he didn't dare say so in the paper, he went on, because his readers were 100 per cent in favour of punishing the very rich, and he was in no mood to take the readers on. I wondered whether he was really right in his diagnosis, and whether the occasionally vituperative online comments truly reflect what sensible people are thinking.
In the past few days there have been plenty of people wondering whether the blogosphere, with its seething irascibility, is actually coarsening political discourse. Could all this aggressive language actually encourage aggressive behaviour — or even violence? There are some people who wonder whether we need to tame the blogs, to sandpaper them, moderate them — perhaps even to censor them. And as soon as you put it like that you can see what twaddle it is. What we are seeing on our websites, for all its exuberant roughness, is a uniquely healthy and democratic process.
I don't believe we can draw any clear link between website rantings – even illustrated with crosshairs – and the Tucson shootings; and I don't believe we should be doing anything to suppress or even to pasteurise the vast internet symposium. In the last couple of years UK politicians have been held to account as never before. By getting hold of computerised expenses claims, this paper was able to reveal, in excruciating detail, how politicians were treating public money; and for the poor MPs it was both unexpected and terrifying. It was like being Ceausescu or [former president] Ben Ali of Tunisia and staring over the balcony to see what the people really thought.
And now, at last, the journalists are getting something like the same treatment; and of course, as a politician who loves writing, I must tremble before the wrath of pheasantplucker, but I also rejoice at the change that has taken place. A broadcast has been turned into a dialogue. When we write our pieces, thousands of eyes are scanning them for errors of fact and taste — and now our critics cannot only harrumph and curse us. They can tell the world – in seconds – where they think we have gone wrong. We are not just writing columns, we are writing wiki-columns, and if we sometimes get beaten up, we also have the satisfaction of gaining the odd grunt of agreement.
Politicians are being held to account by journalists; journalists are being held to account by their readers — and it cannot be long, the internet being what it is, before the wind of popular scrutiny blows through all the bourgeois professions. What are we going to do about the lawyers?
Boris writes for The Daily Telegraph on Mondays.