Yesterday I had a small moan about the grumptious quality of twitter, which seems to have turned into a holding pen for people who don’t feel they quite fulfilled their ambitions as a bully at school and so are taking on those they’ve never met with hashtags. This was partly because Twitter, which I love as a fantastic resource for debate, humour and information, seems to be going through a rather brittle patch at the moment. I’ve changed my mind, written columns, and laughed until my cheeks hurt because of things I’ve found on Twitter. It’s fabulous. When I’m in a foul mood, I often read back through my favourites and end up giggling helplessly. Where else would you find this sort of thing?
I also tweeted it to flush out particularly bilious types who I wouldn’t listen to if they came up to me ranting and swearing in the street. So thank you to those who responded to that call. The mute button is a wonderful thing.
I’m not personally particularly bothered by the stream of fury from people annoyed I don’t write pieces that endlessly comply with their worldview. I’m from a noisy family whose mealtimes generally involve everyone teasing one another relentlessly, and am married to someone who I often disagree with and who isn’t involved in politics at all (though he did recognise Philip Hammond’s voice on the Today programme the other day which is a Bad Sign), so I’m surrounded by plenty of sensible people who often tell me I’m wrong and whose opinions are rather more worth heeding than some character too cowardly to put their real name or their photo on Twitter who sends hundreds of tweets every day, all laced with bitterness.
But I do think this is important. Those in a political tribe are the least able to judge what is “balanced” or what valid questions are. That is why the stream of angry tweets every time one of us writes an article about any political party or politician don’t make any difference to the journalists reading them, other than to foster a sense that Twitter is just becoming unbelievably tedious. The partiality of those complaining that we’re prioritising something they they consider tittle-tattle is so easy to spot. Often they seem only to have read pieces that they know will make them angry, rather than the ones that paint their opponents in an unfavourable light too. Write a piece about Jeremy Corbyn not singing the national anthem and you’ll receive hundreds of messages asking how you dare do such a thing. Write a piece about the Tory changes to tax credits, or disability benefit cuts, or countering Isil, and it’s as though they were never published. The mob is busy elsewhere.
Often, too, they forget that journalists do not exist to ask nice questions or make politicians feel comfortable. Most people like to be liked, but an overwhelming yearning to be liked is not a good thing for a journalist as it stops you from writing uncomfortable things about politicians that they need to hear, such as that their policies are flawed, or indeed that they are flawed.
Our press is rowdy, stuffed with humans and therefore imperfect but also full of people who genuinely believe in the power of the pen. Of course there are some twits — though I personally avoid pontificating about them openly because I’m only 29 and am therefore too young and stoopid to start criticising other people when I’m still learning to do my job. But what motivated me to become a journalist was the sense that writing can change things, even if your piece is only one grain of sand among the many that make that difference. When I was an undergraduate, I was lucky enough to work with Jill Insley at the Observer, who gave me the chance to write a piece about the financial hardship cancer sufferers were facing.
If you have cancer, the last thing you want to think about is money problems. But recent research by Macmillan Cancer…www.theguardian.com
She put it on the front page of her section, which for a little workie like me was thrilling enough. But one of the points the people I spoke to made was that cancer is expensive because, at that time, people had to pay for outpatient prescriptions. A few years later those charges were removed for cancer patients. In no way did my piece trigger that change, but it was a tiny grain of sand in the huge dune of pieces that were written that led to greater awareness of the plight of people with serious illnesses. The pen is mighty indeed.
Similarly political parties are full of people who care about our country and changing it for the better. They have that same motivation to be a small or big player in a movement that improves lives: they just express that motivation in different ways to journalists.
But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I took instructions or heeded shouting from any of those politicos on what I should write or think. Whether members, MPs or advisers. They are too heavily invested in the subject of the piece to be able to see clearly, in the same way as I would not be able to tell you what a ‘balanced’ piece about anyone I love would look like.
A lot of what you don’t see is the phone calls I and other hacks take from spads complaining that our coverage wasn’t ‘helpful’. We’re mostly polite, though sometimes people shout and argue at length, but we have to resist that seed of doubt those advisers are trying to sow in our minds that we shouldn’t really say that sort of thing again. Personally I think it is much more valuable to praise a politician when he or she has genuinely done something right than because I am afraid of their adviser or because they will give me something in return. For one thing, they know the praise is merited rather than ‘bought’ as a favour, so it means more to them.
I’d rather stick to writing what I genuinely think than trying to please either the politicians or their admirers. I’m so lucky to work for a publication that has always, without fail, allowed me to do that.
Anyway, I suspect that in the same way as shouting at journalists on twitter doesn’t have the desired effect, neither will this post. In which case, here’s a lovely example of how brill political Twitter can be.
P.S. I’ve illustrated this piece with a picture of a cat — my cat — because cats are awesome, but also because hacks — or at least the sort of hack I’d like to be once I’ve worked out how to do this job properly — should be like cats: fundamentally disloyal.