Democracy in cyberspace … or mob rule ?

Internet debate can be coarse
— says Boris Johnson —

cross hairs

but it really does hold journalists and politicians to account. 


But enough of me.  Let’s talk about you.  Or rather, let’s talk about the small minority of you who not only read but respond to these columns — sitting up late in America, rising early in Hong Kong.  I mean the great caffeine-powered, keyboard-hammering community of online thinkers who contribute with such richness to the cyberspace jabberama. 

There used to be a time when filing these comment-page pieces was a lonely sort of business.  It was like putting your money into a chocolate bar dispenser on a station platform, or practising your tennis serve.  Nothing came back.  It was fire and forget, hit and run, drive-by opinionising.  OK, so if you said something particularly outrageous, a handful of letters would eventually turn up, depending on the mails.  If you really put your foot in it and did something that no reader could forgive – such as confusing a yellow labrador with a golden retriever – a few people might be moved to ring the Telegraph switchboard.

But when any of us write something these days, it is like tiptoeing to a cage with a hunk of meat, and nervously prodding it through the bars.  Sometimes  the blogosphere will seem happy with the offering and the beast will briefly growl approval;  and sometimes there is such a yowling and clamouring that we feel like Clarice Starling as she sets off down the corridor of mental patients in search of Hannibal the Cannibal. 

The other day, for instance, I wrote an utterly blameless piece of mainstream conservatism, advocating more trade with India.  I then made the mistake of looking at the [Telegraph-]reader response.  One analyst, whose nom de guerre was something like ‘sod-all-this’, said the problem was UK membership of the ‘EUSSR’;  which may or may not have a grain of truth.  But other correspondents simply lashed out at free trade and globalisation and capitalism generally, with one man concluding with the words, “borus is a p—-.”  I think he was called ‘pheasantplucker’, which is presumably some sort of spoonerism.


Now there will be many readers who agree wholeheartedly with pheasantplucker and, in any case, borus can take this sort of thing in his stride.  But what about my colleague Toby Harnden, who hasn’t been at this game for quite as long as I have?  Yesterday he had an excellent piece in the Sunday Telegraph, analysing the Sarah Palin business, and her reaction to the Tucson shootings.  The gist of his argument was that Palin had seemed paranoid and defensive, and that Obama had spoken rather well. 

Poor old Toby came in for a fair pasting from the Right-wing bloggerati of America.  One contributor to the debate was called ‘Hostile Logic’, and he decorated his entries with a red blood-spatter motif.  “You are living proof that s— can grow legs and walk,” he said at one point;  and as I read this stuff, I did start to wonder about the violence of the language on the blogs, and the effect it is having on politics and journalism.  Shielded by anonymity, bolstered by the online support of others whose views may be even more gamey than their own, readers are now able to fire back at journalists with a speed and ferocity that has never been possible before — and there are signs that they can be quite intimidating.


I talked to the editor of a powerful national paper, who told me that he was personally against the 50p tax rate, and he personally understood that it didn’t raise much revenue.  But he didn’t dare say so in the paper, he went on, because his readers were 100 per cent in favour of punishing the very rich, and he was in no mood to take the readers on.  I wondered whether he was really right in his diagnosis, and whether the occasionally vituperative online comments truly reflect what sensible people are thinking.

In the past few days there have been plenty of people wondering whether the blogosphere, with its seething irascibility, is actually coarsening political discourse.  Could all this aggressive language actually encourage aggressive behaviour — or even violence?  There are some people who wonder whether we need to tame the blogs, to sandpaper them, moderate them — perhaps even to censor them.  And as soon as you put it like that you can see what twaddle it is.  What we are seeing on our websites, for all its exuberant roughness, is a uniquely healthy and democratic process. 

I don’t believe we can draw any clear link between website rantings – even illustrated with crosshairs – and the Tucson shootings;  and I don’t believe we should be doing anything to suppress or even to pasteurise the vast internet symposium.  In the last couple of years UK politicians have been held to account as never before.  By getting hold of computerised expenses claims, this paper was able to reveal, in excruciating detail, how politicians were treating public money;  and for the poor MPs it was both unexpected and terrifying.  It was like being Ceausescu or [former president] Ben Ali of Tunisia and staring over the balcony to see what the people really thought. 

And now, at last, the journalists are getting something like the same treatment;  and of course, as a politician who loves writing, I must tremble before the wrath of pheasantplucker, but I also rejoice at the change that has taken place.  A broadcast has been turned into a dialogue.  When we write our pieces, thousands of eyes are scanning them for errors of fact and taste — and now our critics cannot only harrumph and curse us.  They can tell the world – in seconds – where they think we have gone wrong.  We are not just writing columns, we are writing wiki-columns, and if we sometimes get beaten up, we also have the satisfaction of gaining the odd grunt of agreement. 

Politicians are being held to account by journalists;  journalists are being held to account by their readers — and it cannot be long, the internet being what it is, before the wind of popular scrutiny blows through all the bourgeois professions.  What are we going to do about the lawyers?

Boris writes for The Daily Telegraph on Mondays.

19 thoughts on “Democracy in cyberspace … or mob rule ?”

  1. I suppose we’ll harangue the journalists, and criticise the politicians, but lawyers…the first thing we do? We’ll kill all the lawyers.

    And I suppose Wm Shakespeare got it in the neck from the public a few times, too. Especially the lawyers.

    But if a few prissy journalists and politicos can’t take the odd kick, and can dish it out but can’t take it themselves, maybe they should take their little pamby-namby souls elsewhere. If you can’t stand the heat….

  2. It is easy to hate politicians and lawyers. Politicians are clearly all con-men (driven by egos?) and lawyers are all thieves (driven by money?). But what is it that drives journalists? I used to think it was the search for the truth that drives journalists to deceive, harass or pose as constituents in order to record two-faced politicians spilling the beans. But the Telegraph’s recent episode, where their vested interest caused them to withhold certain parts of Vinces revelations, shows that it’s not about the truth after all. If journalists stuck to the task of uncovering truth, then I think they would be spared.

    ps don’t forget bankers!

  3. Ron, have you ever noticed how many politicians have previous careers in journalism and the law? One skill transfers lucratively from each of these professions to the others – a mastery of persuasive mendacity.

    At least double-glazing keeps one warm and dry.

  4. Q. How do you stop a lawyer from drowning?

    A. Take your foot off his head.

    Another superb column from Boris and I have to say that I’ve never heard of the editor of this blog having any trouble with him at all: evidence.

  5. Other detractors include Rodney Chambers, the Tory leader of Medway Council in Kent, who described Johnson’s hopes for a Thames Estuary airport plan as “pie in the sky”.

    “It has already been rejected by the government and the aviation industry – with nine out of 10 air carriers saying they oppose the scheme,” said Chambers.

    “Yet, despite this, the mayor seems intent on carrying on regardless, wasting public money to try and get support for his project.”

    Of course Johnson, swinging around like a weather-cock, often wastes public money, eg on the vanity project red bus.

  6. Oh folks, the other day Dame Helen Mirren just declared that: Britain is now an angry and cruel nation. British people are nasty and cruel on the internet and generally everybody seems to be very angry! I don’t have time for England anymore. I’m quite happy and settled in California, thank you very much!

    I’m not surprised. Since the internet became popular, English people became less and less stiff upper lipped ( at least on the internet ) and more opinionated ( at least on the internet ) and that is maybe because they think it’s safe to voice their opinions on the internet anonymously. Whereas in the past, they were told that it was a bad behaviour to voice your opinions in public (?)

    In the past, if they received bad service in shops, restaurants, hotels, they would just keep quiet, bottle it up to show that they are dignified people (?)

    And this is a big mistake, for human nature and animal nature are not like that at all. If a man is bullied, he will want to hit back. If a dog is bullied, it will bite back.

    About the exporting English surplus onions to big onion-loving countries like India, Pakistan… I can’t understand why some people thought it was a joke. The EU can’t ban English farmers from selling their onions to those countries. The EU can’t ban Britain from trading with China, can they? As you can see for yourself.

  7. All of this has become the subject of political chatter owing to the lethal assault on Rep. Giffords and others in Tucson.

    I suggest, however, that the event is unrelated to the declining quality of political debate.  (I suspect the accused in that case will be found unfit to plead.)

    One might ask oneself why the vehemence of tax-payers — those that fund the activities of the state as against those that merely demand them — has risen to such a pitch.  To this I propose the following answer :  the socialist body politic — and it must be apparent to all but the most stupid that every one of to-day’s ‘democratic’ governments is socialist, however soi-disant — cannot be dissuaded from a course leading inevitably to economic self-destruction by reasoned argument ;  cannot, for example, be persuaded to follow real science in the matter of the anthropogenic-global-warming fraud ;  cannot be dragged from the trough of political self-interest even by widespread exposure.

    It is frustration — a belief that civilized debate in a normal tone of voice will no longer bring about policy crafted in the interest of countries and their peoples — that has led to the ‘vitriolic rhetoric’.


  8. -What do you call a hundred lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? ( Pericles )
    Answer: pebbledashing?

    -How do stop a lawyer from drowning? Take your foot off his head. ( Philipa )

    Helen Mirren’s right- the English have become very angry indeed.

    Now, why have the English, from being a world famous laidback, easy going, kind, tolerant race, turned into angry people?

    It’s because they look at the state of their country: the never ending recession, high unemployment, uncontrolled immigration from outside EU, unstoppable immigration from Eastern Bloc, social benefits and council housing for all new comers, MPs don’t care for anything or anybody except their expense claims, their country’s identity is disappearing fast, Little England is no more, to make room for a new multicultural society, victims but not thugs are bullied by police and authorities, locked up criminals and terrorists are treated and looked after better than old pensioners, twisted and bent human rights to suit the criminals, terrorists and lawless gypsies coming from around the world, BBC top dogs paying themselves and celebrities sky high salaries with licence payers’ money, silly BBC TV licence will remain in place forever even until year 3000 when human beings might be travelling to Mars, not Spain, on holidays, prices of petrol are getting out of control …

    Those are the many reasons that make them unhappy and angry. And when people are unhappy and angry, they might become cruel. When a man is unhappy, he has to say something. And because the English were taught that voicing your opinions in public is bad manner, so they won’t do that, instead they just let their anger explode on the internet.

    ( Analysed by Professor Green, Human Psychology Science dept., East Angular Univercity )

  9. What do you call a hundred lawyers at the bottom of the ocean ?

    A good start.

    (Not original :  it’s a line spoken by Danny de Vito’s character — a lawyer — in a film called War of the Roses.)


  10. I note that the Baroness chairing the Conservative party, who takes such an interest in what is discussed at my dinner table, is a lawyer!

    Couldn’t we get a Tory instead?

  11. I suppose there have always been chaps who wrote green-ink letters to the press. Nowadays we have the instant gratification of seeing them published. Other contributors here are knowledgeable and witty and, after all, nothing would be worse for any journalist than being ignored.

  12. I feel that blogs are a good way to hear others views on subjects. The problem is there are many writers out there who do not get the recognition they deserve.

    Most writers like to work on their own time and write about what they want not what they are told to write about. It becomes tremendously annoying if what you write is edited due to the political view of the people you are writing for. The blogosphere allows people to say what they really want to at their own pace not being forced into deadlines.

    It is up to the reader whether they want to take notice of what is written on a blog. Everyone has something they disagree with others on. I do not believe that bloggers should be censored. After all we have freedom of speech in this country why stop people from using it.

    The only problem is as a blogger it is hard to be taken seriously. I tried myself for ages and even though i was getting the good rankings etc i felt dismayed as i thought no one was taking notice of what i was saying. It is easy for broadsheets and tabloids to get their articles read as they are already well established.

    The problem is that they have spent a lot of money doing this. Many bloggers write for nothing and this should be recognised. Many journalists concuct spin stories and such like and are getting paid fabulously for it. Where as many bloggers pick out real issues and spend days hunting down facts to support their case all for nothing.

  13. Janina,the professional hacks who are most abusive and dismissive of bloggers – step forward Andrew Marr – are also the most sanctimonious and boring. Ever heard of a blogger instructing his lawyers (them again!) to issue a super-injunction?

  14. @Ed Gibb

    Journalists are really just protecting their interests – getting paid. Lets face it most of them are not even worth reading now, all they do is echo the bias that their readers expect.

    They do not even report the news anymore they have to twist it to keep their jobs. The media have the power to make a normal person a hero or a figure of hate. It matters not to them what the person really is, it is the story and the how well it sells that counts.

  15. @Ed Gibb

    Just read the article it truly shows that the only way you are able to get your own views across is by working for yourself.

    However, i did not think it went as far as that, a career grinding to a halt just for admiring Maggie!

  16. Janina, you don’t have to be at the BBC to find your career squashed because of Tory views. Ask Lord Young, Howard Flight, et alia.

    Off to fill my car with tax again…

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