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.