David Aaronovitch, lately of the Indy, Observer and Guardian, gathered a fresh garland the other day. The Times columnist is now also Twitter Commentator of the Year (as selected by Editorial Intelligence). Many congratulations in under 140 characters – but pinch yourself before you tweet. What’s serious here, and what’s blathering hype?
Julian Glover, once chief leader writer of the Guardian, and a fellow pundit alongside Aaronovitch, said farewell to columnising last week. He’s going to write speeches for David Cameron, and the T-word was on his mind, too. For these are acrid, bitter, discontented times, Glover thought, and “digital forms of communication such as Twitter only exacerbate the unhealthy shift to expressing curt, rapid opinions … I fear comment, like a strangler-fig, is getting stronger than the politics on which it feeds. That is the way things have gone in America, and it is not a happy sight.”
Well, what does America think of that? Here’s the New York Times on the Republican party’s honed and highly resourced answer to Obama 2008. “The insta-Tweet has revolutionised rapid response operations that just two years ago relied heavily on cable television, emails and news conferences to spread the word of the opposition, which often took a day or two to gain momentum.” Now the rebuttal, the correction, the snarl comes back in a trice. Now “social media” knocks the stuffing out of society.
Out on the campaign trail, things are different, too. Here’s Jodi Enda, a veteran political reporter, summing up the pace of change for the American Journalism Review. “No longer do reporters slog elbow to elbow with presidential contenders vying for votes in Iowa and New Hampshire. No longer do they get to know the candidates in a way that voters do not – up close and personal, with their feet up, their guard down … No longer do they have the luxury of weeks, days or even hours … to dig deep and analyse before they write a story” – because they are so busy “thumping tweets, tapping out blogposts and shooting or appearing on video.”
Back to Glover’s last bow in the Guardian for a second. Today, in too many ways, “uncertainty comes over as weakness. Tribalism thrives. On these pages over the last few years I have sometimes expressed ideas in categorical terms about which I could never really be sure. The greater challenge for any writer is mounting a defence of compromise. It is, perversely, sometimes feeble to sound bold and bold to sound feeble.”
Now, there’s a clear theme to all these ponderings. All hail to Twitter and the rest: it’s great for starting revolutions, breaking news, keeping friends in touch, plugging your latest show or piece, keeping Simon Cowell busy. Pretty good, too, on the bon mot front. But a key weapon as Romney/Perry starts lashing back? A suitable replacement (in New York Times terms) for the brilliantly woven reportage and analysis that legendary correspondents like RW Apple used to provide? A medium that seeks to rate Aaronovitch tweets alongside Aaronovitch columns?
You’d think intelligent readers of any paper would feel a touch queasy as the curt, rapid comeback does strangler-fig duty. You’d expect Glover’s 10 years of thoughtful, often challenging Guardian writing to be treated with at least modest respect. Telling readers what they don’t want to hear – what’s complicated, not starkly simple – is just as much the job of a quality paper as stroking their prejudices. The most interesting – and depressing – thing about his departure, though, was the 200 and more pretty vicious comments that poured in, many of them deleted by an overworked moderator. “To be a script writer for a world class LIAR… what a noble ambition,” wrote one that made it onto the site.
It’s sad enough when newspapers treat their readers with contempt, drumming up parody policies, spreading bile by the mile. You can find many, many examples of that in a new book by another ex-Guardianleader writer, Malcolm Dean, which he’s called Democracy Under Attack: How the Media Distort Policy and Politics. But it’s still sadder, going on utterly tragic, to discover politicians leading the game in 140 characters, and readers – ordinary punters – instinctively choosing vituperation over communication.
Peter Preston from The Guardian (original link here)