Monthly Archives: January 2013

Dangerous Opinions Part 2

Well, having thought I’d done away with the topic of newsgroups needing to distance themselves from the disturbing opinions of their columnists, I was then astonished to find that Julie Burchill had reared her ugly head, and allowed me to re-enter the discussion.

I won’t quote her, link to her or say anything of her article except that it was riddled with privilege and hate speech. If she had been talking about women, she would have brought out the b- and q- words, and if she had been talking about black people, she would have laced her lobster-and-champagne fuelled tirade with the n-word, and probably a picture of a golliwog.

Except, because she was talking about transsexuals, a group not yet defended by the Observer/Guardian’s usually liberal house style, nobody is allowed to be offended by it. In fact, it is one of those ‘freedom of speech’ issues.

Freedom of speech is a troublesome beast. It is not absolute, for a start. It is limited by libel laws, so that you can’t just go around making things up about people. It is limited by obscenity laws, so that we don’t have to endure endless smut. It is also limited by the sort of laws which keep Abu Hamza et al quiet.

Admittedly, Julie Burchill hasn’t gone so far as to suggest cis people (as she so hates to be called), bomb trans people. Still, her defenders, and the supposed defenders of free speech, have overlooked something quite significant.

This arbitrary right to freedom of speech, which I hold dear, is not the bottom line. It is recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, not as a single entity, but as one of a pair. If anyone decides they are to exercise their right to freedom of expression, they must also be prepared to do so with responsibility.

Julie Burchill did not act with responsibility. She, clearly bored of being out of the headlines, scrawled a barely coherent column before possibly deliberately strewing it with top-level hate terms. Voila, the piece was withdrawn, the Guardian’s offices were descended upon by angry transgender people and their allies, and some more columnists decided to cash in by defending Burchill’s freedom of speech.

Simon Kelner’s defence of Burchill was indefensible in itself. He claimed in i that the genuine and unsurprising offence taken by the transgender community ‘has serious implications for free speech in 21st-century Britain’ and goes on to lament ‘What kind of country is this?’

I think that Kelner’s piece says more for the state of 21st-century journalism than it does for the state of 21st-century Britain. Free speech is a lovely little freebie when you make your money writing whatever you want week after week. If nobody is allowed to be upset when you call them (and I said I wouldn’t quote Burchill, but the hideousness of her backwards language is staggering) a ‘shim’ or ‘bedwetters in bad wigs’, then quite frankly I don’t want to live here any more.

Freedom of speech is all very well and good, but Julie Burchill’s quite considerable wealth means that this little trifle isn’t going to trouble her a jot. The real freedom at stake here is the freedom for transwomen, and transmen (yes, Julie, those exist) to walk in the street without being abused.

Until that day, freedom of speech comes with responsibilities.

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Dangerous Opinions

With the internet, blogging and microblogging allowing more and more people to have their say on a global scale, journalism has never been so broad. Citizen journalism has brought down entire regimes, as it allowed ordinary people to bypass state media, and report on the situation they saw in front of them.

As good news as this is for oppressed citizens, what does this actually mean for those of us living in a state where the media is, almost controversially, not controlled by the government?

When I blog, I try to keep my opinions out of it. This isn’t always possible because I’m human, and tend to write about something I noticed in the past week. I certainly didn’t notice because I was indifferent to it.

However, when I voice an opinion, it’s fine, because you, my reader, are happy in the knowledge that this blog has come from a flat in rural Lancashire, and not a prestigious newsgroup.

Now, I am very aware that I am having a job application considered (or otherwise) by the particular media group that has irked me in the past few weeks. Not because of their news, which as ever, is insightful, up-to-the-minute and I’ll stop because I’m grovelling. The concern here is whether or not large, well-respected media groups should be employing bloggers.

Opinion columns are not a new idea. However, they tend to be written in a lighthearted fashion which puts the reader in no doubt that they can be free to agree or disagree as they wish, for the author knows no more on the subject than they do. Better still, it could be an anecdote about the writer’s pet chickens, and absolutely nothing that might influence the world at large.

However, there is one particular newsgroup, called the Telegraph Media Group (you may have heard of it), which has a rather large cohort of bloggers. These bloggers write on such lofty topics as politics, education and world news. Set in the ordinary Telegraph website, there is very little to indicate that this is, in fact, pure speculation on the part of the author, and absolutely not something the reader should invest too heavily in.

The word “blog” hides in the corner of the page where a reader might miss it. Rather like the word “advertisement” on those irritating mock articles.

For a reputable newsreader to be giving a platform to anyone’s opinion, then dressing it up as they do their rather more factual pieces, is reckless. It is not the action expected of an industry which, in the wake of Leveson, is attempting to make itself seem responsible.

Regardless of what these pieces say, the fact that they are not properly distinguished as opinion means that the “idiot in a hurry” might actually take some of these idle scratchings as genuine journalism.

I understand why it is done. Writing about your own opinions is incredibly easy, which means you can pay any old figure, journalist or not, to write them. There’s no need for boring fact-checking or worrying someone might sue. Also, the more absurd the opinion held by the writer the better, because the readers will be compelled to argue about it in the comments.

Which is where the practise stops becoming reckless and starts being dangerous.

In a random smattering of Telegraph blogs, I uncovered the following thoughts. One labelled Polly Toynbee ‘unreadable’, and ‘the dreary tunnel-visioned propagandist’, claiming the woman had ‘filthy tribal hands’. Another, predictably Oxbridge educated, wrote a scathing piece on Oxbridge rejects, portraying them as ‘self-flagellating’, ‘bitter’ and ‘overcompensating’. A third claimed Chelsea FC should end up ‘in the dock’ after Mark Clattenburg was found innocent, a curiously absurd statement. By that logic, Anton Ferdinand should too- John Terry was found innocent by the justice system. Stephen Lawrence’s mum might also have faced trial once it was “proved” that her son’s evil killers weren’t racist at all.

The only beacon of hope was Brendan O’Neill’s shaming of his fellow opinion-mongers, though even that was titled contentiously and deliberately: ‘The ritualistic humiliation of Lance Armstrong is far more repulsive than anything Armstrong himself did’

The worst thing, however, is the effect this has on the readers. They wind them up with this stuff endlessly, and eventually they snap. They end up being dragged into discussions where the only argument is ‘my opinion is better than your opinion’- which of course, was the main body of the original article too.

The article that broke the camel’s back for me was one that claimed that genuine academics were being gagged for fear of being called ‘transphobic’- that is to say, they were publishing theories which went against transgender experiences, and calling foul when transgender people got upset.

The academic in question had written a book a few years ago (how topical) which consistently referred to male-to-female transsexuals as men. The author of the blog lamented the “political orthodoxy” which claimed that, for some reason, these women shouldn’t be referred to as men.

The commenters went into overdrive. One shrieked about how the NHS were ‘indulging people’s fantasies of changing sex’ and labelled ‘transphobia’ and the already-established ‘homophobia’ as pseudo-psychology. Another referred to transsexuals as eunuchs.

If ‘reputable’ news sources such as the Telegraph wish to keep their reputations, they need to look carefully at the platform they provide, and to whom. The Independent and the Guardian are also guilty of the same thing, except I haven’t applied for a job with them, so it’s not really making such a bold statement.

The final piece I discovered allowed for the dehumanisation of an entire section of society, turning what could have been an insightful piece on the ethics of providing children with hormone treatment into a witch-hunt. I just hope the Telegraph stop before a hate crime is committed, or somebody commits suicide.

There are real lives behind these pieces. I’m sure Polly Toynbee is old enough to take care of herself, and she does polarise opinion- but does she deserve to be so personally targeted? And do transgender people, or transgender children in particular, need to be offered as a target for the loud minority of commenters to pour their vitriol over?

Think it through, Telegraph. Distance yourself.

How I lost a Twitter follower

I lost a Twitter follower this week. I know, because it hit me hard. I’ve been teetering on the edge of fifty (which I know is nothing) for a while now, and now it feels like I’ll never get there. Still, I made an amateur mistake, and I’m glad I realised before things got any worse.

As I mention in my profile, I go through phases. My cricket phase temporarily sated by England’s test series victory in India, I needed something to get wound up about, and fell back on my old love, football.

I can be mildly ridiculous regarding football. I once stayed up until three o’clock in the morning explaining the entire game to someone who’d never really come across it. They ended up going to a match with me, and loved it. If you’re reading, I fancy going again in March if you’re up for it, though I’m not a member any more.

I have been known to sit rigid in the pub when my team is playing, not really moving, drinking or calming down from my state of elevated panic until I’m quite sure the final whistle has gone. Even if it’s 3-1 at 90 minutes, I tend to assume we will lose.

Football is something I care about. I find it difficult not to. Even my team’s rather convincing four-goal-difference win at the weekend was marred by a) the fact they had to come back from behind, b) the horrendous off-the-field politics and c) the fact my heart was breaking every time I caught the lyrics to a chant because I wished I was there.

It wasn’t my own team’s exploits, however, that cost me my follower.

There is a certain figure, in football, who I cannot stand. I think he is smug, dishonest, racist, plays for the wrong team and is downright evil. So I may have wrote the following:

“See [player] pulled out the [trademark illegal goalscoring technique] today. #cheat”

Okay, I did write it. It was true, he did cheat, but I shouldn’t have said it. Because I’m not a football fan. I’m trying to become a sports journalist, and it’s not appropriate.

The person who dropped me based on that tweet, I probably wouldn’t like them in real life. Anyone who is so petty as to unfollow me on the basis of the fact I don’t like one of their players is not worth my time. There are plenty of people who don’t like certain players from my team, and if I unfollowed all of them I probably wouldn’t have an awful lot of tweets to read.

Still, I shouldn’t care about who this person was- they’re just a number to me. Networking, even on a platform so flimsy as Twitter, is a vital part of a whole selection of careers these days. I can’t afford to voice opinions on something as contentious as football. I’ll just stick to the rightful ownership of Gaza or something- it’s likely to get me in less trouble.

I have decided to keep my love of a certain team secret. Yes, go back a few posts and you’ll find out, but that’s not the point. The point is, from now on, my allegiance will only be made known to those I see in the flesh.