Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Online comments - who are they good for?

On Sunday, I went to a Guardian Masterclass* for aspiring freelance journalists. It was a fantastic day run by industry professionals who were unbelievably positive and keen to share their knowledge. There was none of that "well, print journalism's a sick, dying horse these days, so if I were you lot, I'd stick to basket-weaving or whatever it is mere peasants do to make a living". I can’t fault the event at all, but there was one little thing that bugged me: a Q & A session with Guardian journalist Marina Hyde was derailed by at least four questions on the issue of online comments, and how writers deal with them. One question on it would have been fine, but four? I just don’t think they’re important enough to warrant half an hour of discussion. (A whole blog post's worth of discussion, yes, but no-one's paying for this. Yet.)

  *well, I say that. In order to be in London for 9.30am, I got to the station at half-7. Whereupon I was told "there's a broken-down train at Gatwick, so nothing's going further than there". Four hours, four trains, a brief car journey and seemingly all the stations in Sussex later, I got to Victoria. By some brilliant stroke of luck, I made it to the Royal College of Medicine - where the event was being held - at the first coffee break, so I didn't have to sneak into an auditorium and make a spectacle of myself.

Anyway, Marina Hyde’s perspective on below-the-line comments was fairly straightforward, and ran something along the lines of: “I don’t care, and I don’t have time to read them anyway… I think they should be there, because if I’m pissing on people’s opinions above the line, then they should be able to piss on mine in the comments” (I’m paraphrasing, but she definitely said “pissing”. You can ask her). She mentioned that some columnists don’t think readers should be able to comment at all, and as an aspiring writer, I can absolutely see why.

In theory, the comments section is a safe space for debating the issue being written about above the line, which is well and good and dandy. In practice, however, it seems to be flypaper for headcases. And I don’t mean the genuinely mentally ill, I mean the people whose opinions are a bit… Daily Mail on steroids. “This country’s gone to the dogs” and “back in my day” and the like. People write because they want to connect with readers, plant ideas, raise a smile, provoke discussion, and so to be a writer who is against online comments can be a bit of a contradiction. The trouble is, in the Venn diagram of “people who have the time and inclination to write comments on newspaper articles” and “people whose opinions are well-informed and logically sound”, there isn’t an awful lot of overlap.

There is a tiny voice in my head – and it’s one I’m working on drowning out – that keeps saying, “Is it absolutely necessary that we can publish our every opinion for all to see?” Yes, I’m aware of how that sounds – it’s a bit anti-free speechy, and a bit rich coming from a blogger. But if you look at Twitter, and the amount of abuse aimed at high-profile writers, then you might see what I’m getting at. It’s a related issue – from the safety of a keyboard, people feel they can say anything, and the notion of having to answer for your actions is forgotten. How else do you explain the bomb threats, rape threats and disgusting language directed at Grace Dent, Hadley Freeman, Mary Beard, India Knight, to name just a few? From a distance, it’s easy to say, “well, the people saying this stuff are clearly arseholes, and too childish to bother getting stressed about”, but if you’re facing it day in, day out, while simply trying to do your job, I should imagine it gets pretty fucking old.

I suppose there are measures in place – comments are moderated, offensive language doesn’t usually get through. But that’s only a small part of the problem; it would be lovely if before you could publish a comment on an online article, you had to answer the question: “will your comment improve anything for anyone today?" 

Unfortunately, there will always be ill-informed idiots, and the internet's just another platform for them. I'm still not sure online comments are a complete necessity, but maybe I'm missing something. I'd say I just won't read them, but everyone likes to feel morally superior once in a while, so I doubt I'll be giving up my Mail Online habit any time soon. Which is sad, really.

Monday, 11 November 2013

On the Brandwagon

...come on, what else was this post going to be called?

Just another excuse for me to ogle Paxman's beard.

I didn't really want to come in on this one. Enough's been said about it - either by writers going "oh, he's so trivial and stupid" but then proceeding to write 1000 words about him anyway, or by other writers going "yeah, you know what? I almost agree". Everyone else has already been far wiser and more eloquent about it than I have, I'm aware, but still. It's been nagging at me over the last week or so. Because the more I read about our current government - the more I hear about disadvantaged, sick, underprivileged people in the UK today having support taken from them - the more I think Brand has a bloody good point.

I don't agree with everything he said/wrote - his New Statesman essay did go on a bit - because for one, I think if you can vote, you should. People have fought bitterly for universal suffrage, so it seems a bit ungrateful to waste it. And what's more, I'm already looking forward to the next general election - I'll be bounding down to the polling station just so I can do my tiny little bit to ensure we don't have to suffer the Conservatives for a moment longer than absolutely necessary. It was telling that following the Newsnight interview with Russell Brand, Jeremy Paxman came out and said that he understood Brand's unwillingness to vote. And then called the Lib Dems' tuition fees U-turn "the biggest lie in recent political history". Mind you, as long as he's sporting a bit of a beard, Jeremy Paxman can say and do what he likes as far as I'm concerned...

Where was I? Oh yes. In short, voting is good. For now.

It's easy to knock Russell. In the past, he has been a bit of a knob, and he's admitted this. It's also easy to be seduced by him - not literally, though I should imagine that's quite easy too; as an automatic fan of anyone who can do skilful things with words, I do love the way he talks. He can go from silly and facetious to angry and impassioned in the blink of an eye, and is clearly in a torrid love affair with a very good thesaurus. But the fact that he raised the issue of "revolution" - or at least ripping up the current political rulebook and starting again - isn't relevant. The real issue is that someone said it, and it was someone "famous". Because it's what's being said everywhere else: what if we could just rip it up and start again? What if we could simply demand more?

I can't tell you the number of times I've sat with friends in the pub, or at someone's kitchen table, and we've all agreed that the people in power are not the ones with the smartest ideas. Or, to put it another way, the intelligent people who would make a decent job of doing the nation's admin wouldn't touch it with a barge-pole. You have to be a bit odd to want to be in politics.

Brand has managed to plant an idea in the heads of people who might not be that politically engaged, and that idea is simple: what if we didn't have to put up with this? What if we could say "enough's enough of this bullshit"? There's not going to be a revolution; of course there isn't. We're British, our upper lips are stiff, we're not about to kick off and party like it's 1789.

But if I have to read one more article about people on job seekers' allowance getting tricked into being sanctioned (quite a way down in that piece, sorry!), or hear one more story about someone too sick to work getting their benefits stopped or reduced to the point where they cannot afford to live, or read one more piece about some ludicrous thing Michael Gove* has dreamt up, then I'm going to lose my mind. And I know I'm not the only one.

*I Googled "Michael Gove sexting" to remind myself of the full story and find a link. You cannot imagine how uneasy that made me.

 So what do we do? I don't know. I do know that anyone who's ever brought about real, necessary change was called insane when they started, and a hero when they finished. I also know that the 10-point "Initial Statement" released by the Occupy London group in October 2011 makes an awful lot of sense, and that the Occupy movement was something that Brand praised in his interview. I do know that as long as people go on saying "ah well, nothing's ever going to change", nothing will change. Funnily enough.

I don't really know where I'm going with this, and given the haphazard way I'm typing here, I'm sure that's obvious. I think the reason so many columnists and commentators jumped on this "Russell Brand wants a revolution" thing is because it hit a nerve. It hit the nerve that feels, deep down, so many things are wrong right now. Corporations not paying billions of pounds' worth of tax, for a start. A generation of well-educated young people looking out on a job market that can best be described as "hideous". The most disadvantaged people in our society being demonised by the media (stop believing the Daily Mail, Mum!). The cold realisation that the people who are currently doing the nation's admin are doing it mainly for themselves. Christ, that's bleak.

How about some music? That usually helps.

These guys are really good.

And the wonderfully sinister-sounding new one from these guys.