Labour reaps with Munroe Bergdorf what it sowed with Toby Young

Do we really want to play this game? Trawling our social media histories can’t end well for anybody.

There’s a storyline in the TV show ‘The Thick Of It” in which the main characters are subject to an independent inquiry on the subject of ‘leaking’. Leaking had become one of those practices that everyone did, everyone knew was going on and just got on with it. Whether it was a genuine scandal, or just the way the government worked, everybody knew that it wouldn’t look good with a full media glare shining on it, despite the fact that this was exactly how the media got their stories.

So when one of the parties (the party of government at the time) announces an inquiry in order to gain some political leverage, the whole thing looks like it’s going to collapse. Ollie, a special adviser almost crumbles at the news. “An inquiry into all of leaking – all of leaking! We are so…! We are so screwed.”

To which Alastair Campb…sorry, Malcolm Tucker replies, “He’s done it. That chinless horse-fiddler. Our f***lustrious PM has opened Pandora’s f***ing Box and curled a massive steamer right into it.”

Which is to say, well done mate. We’re all going down now. And if I am, I’ll be dragging you down with me.

Both parties are constantly trying to one-up each other, looking for any tiny crack in the armour to ram a sword into and prise power. But they both know there are some roads that they can never start down, because they know the whole house of cards will come tumbling down and take them all out.

It’s starting to feel like the modern day version of this is what the Spectator have started calling ‘The Digital Inquisition’. And Labour and the Left generally must be starting to regret opening this particular Pandora’s box and curling a…well, you get the gist.

Only recently, the journalist and director of the New Schools Network, Toby Young stepped down from a new advisory position that he taken up in the Office for Students following an unprecedented campaign against him that was based on a trawl of his social media history. It turned out that he had said some unpleasant and shocking things in the past, and this was brought into the full media spotlight for all to pick over.

He was jumped on – Angela Rayner, Jess Phillips, Owen Jones, all took chunks out of him and the government for this apparently unwise appointment. I saw plenty of it from my own friends and connections on social media. Petitions, campaigns and reposting of his old tweets were paraded around for all to sign, join and despise.

Now, I’m not (here, anyway) taking a position on this. You’re welcome to make your own mind up on whether Mr Young was an appropriate choice for this post. My point here is that this tactic is not something that will only hit one side of the political divide. This has been proven in the last week, as Labour found themselves caught in their own net.

The transgender model and campaigner Munroe Bergdorf had been appointed to the Labour party’s LGBT advisory board, but stepped down after a similar campaign showed some highly unpleasant comments that she had made in the past on social media.

I’ll be completely honest, in my opinion this person is a deeply unpleasant individual with some shocking, awful opinions. I’ve heard her speak where she can give as much context as she like to her views, and I find her to be ill-informed and spiteful. She is, as far as I’m concerned, an idiot.

What I don’t like, and will defend her as much as I will defend anyone on this point, is the stripping of context around something that someone has said and presenting it as the whole truth. This is something I will come back to in a future piece, but for now let’s just say that whenever you see a small quote, especially when used to attack or smear someone, ALWAYS look for the context around it. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve read something, thought “well there’s no amount of context that could give that any credence”, only to click the link and find it more understandable. So please, when you read anything about what Munroe has said, read it in its full context. And do yourself a favour and do the same for Toby Young, Jeremy Corbyn or anyone else you’ve taken a dislike to.

I really don’t want to play this game where any appointment is followed by a trawl of their history. We will have to get to the point where we’re going to have to see our past selves in the context in which they were said, and give each other a break. Can any of us really admit that we’d be happy for anyone to trawl back into our archives before we’d had a chance to do so ourselves?

It doesn’t help that everything we have ever said on social media is presented (if you search for it now) in the modern UI (user interface) – that is, whatever Twitter or Facebook looks like now. Imagine we could see a post from 2010 in the UI that 2010 Facebook had. It would already put it into its context effectively. Old photographs and videos are black and white – it gives them context immediately. If we could put them all into full HD colour, we’d subconsciously be applying our modern biases and culture to an age that didn’t have them.

If you want to do this, then fine, but it’s going to take us all down. I promise you, though, it isn’t a fight worth having, and it’s up to all of us to take responsibility as individuals to start giving people a break. This starts with your enemies. Because I can assure you, if you don’t apply the same rules to those on your side as you do to your enemies, you will be open to justifiable attack.

And you can’t say you weren’t warned.

Be careful using superlatives – they won’t work when you really need them

Do you really need to reach for the strongest word you can think of?

Several years ago, we attended the wedding of some friends of ours. A lovely couple, celebrating the happiest day of their lives. It was a wonderful occasion.

The groom is, shall we say, a very positive chap. Excitable and effusive, he radiates warmth and positivity. He also uses superlatives a lot. In everyday life, this is charming and fun, but when making a speech on your wedding day, can lead you into some problems.

All the usual bases were covered during this speech. Thanks were proffered to both sides of the family, all who had helped, his ushers, the bridesmaids – you know the drill. In the thanks came the superlatives, and why wouldn’t they? He was delighted and having a wonderful time.

The in-laws were ‘amazing’, the people who did the flowers and the food ‘incredible’, the ushers ‘absolutely wonderful’, the bridesmaids ‘astonishingly gorgeous’, all said with gusto and depth of feeling. He definitely meant what he was saying.

But then he turned to his bride, his new wife, the absolute pinnacle of the whole thing. And there were no words left. How could she be ‘amazing’? She’d only be as good as her parents. How about ‘incredible’? Nope, already blown that one on the food. ‘Gorgeous’? What, only as attractive as the bridesmaids? He was reduced to mere noises and hand gestures as he grasped and groped around for words that were not forthcoming.

Now of course, in this instance, having used up all of his superlatives meant he came across as properly speechless in a charming, Hugh Grant-like way. We could all clearly see the love he had for his new wife, and frankly, words like ‘amazing’ and ‘incredible’ would feel lacking in this situation anyway. All who have gazed at their bride and had to say something about them in front of all those you know and love will have felt this feeling. No words seem to do the job adequately.

On the flip side, though, the use of negative superlatives can have a damaging effect, particularly when said by public figures or uttered in public life. The range of events that people are expected to comment on is broad, and yet there seems to be a consistent thread of going for the most extreme word for everything.

Using a word like ‘disgusted’, however relevant to the situation, blunts it to some degree. If you’re ‘disgusted’ by hearing of the crimes of a serious criminal like a murderer or a rapist, that seems pretty appropriate. Who could argue with that? But if the Foreign Secretary blurts out some silly notion about bridges or cake, is the word ‘disgusted’ really what we should be reaching for? Using it here leaves it a less effective weapon when you next want to use it.

Let’s take some recent examples, gleaned from a brief trawl through Twitter, searching on some key terms.

John Major has called for a second vote on the EU/UK deal. I would disagree with that, but it’s a fair enough, perfectly defensible position to take. One tweet reads “John Major advocates ignoring a democratic vote – DISGUSTING”. Really? Is it not just disagreeable? Or disappointing? Another called him “an absolute disgrace”. Wow. What are you going to do when a real disgrace happens, like a serious crime or a government scandal? Use the same word?

The word ‘appalling’ is pretty strong. One might be ‘appalled’ by the expenses scandal, or perhaps the UK-Saudi Arabia arms deals. These seem fairly reasonable uses for it. But customer service? Poor website design? These are just two things that some prominent people are ‘appalled’ about.

Perhaps Twitter is not the best place to be searching for reasonable people (I avoid it as much as possible), but many people spend a lot of time there and this debasing of our language in order to prove you’re the most outraged or the most angry about something has a wider effect.

Modern politicians feel the need to react to everything with the strongest possible terms, and very often, on Twitter. It means that when there is a genuinely horrid event or an opponent does something actually ‘shocking’, these words will not have the meaning they once did. And for what? So they can virtue signal away, free of the possible repercussions of not ‘condemning something in the strongest possible terms?’ Oh, grow up.

One story that I have been following for a while and has really, shall we say, got my goat, is the reaction of the Church of England to accusations made about a long dead Bishop, George Bell. I shan’t go into the detail of the whole affair here, but suffice to say I have, on occasion, been stirred to serious anger. But in one response of the Bishop Bell Group to the Archbishop of Canterbury, these men and women (fiercely fighting for the reputation of a man much revered and currently being destroyed) use words that seem mild in comparison to some examples I have given. And yet, the words have weight and force behind them.

‘Profound dismay’ may be a term further down on the ladder of superlative than ‘absolute disgust’ or ‘utter disgrace’, and yet when it is said by these highly literate individuals speaking as a collective, it strikes at the heart with frightening power, rendering those other words frail and meek. This letter was sent after previous correspondence that described the position taken by the office of the Archbishop as ‘unfortunate’, ‘disappointing’ and ‘unbecoming’.

Have no doubt, these words were said by a group of people who would doubtless, at times, have been brimming with a seething righteous anger. The group would not have formed without such a strength of feeling. But they have applied calm and reserve to their public utterances, which has meant that when the struggle has reached its high point, they can wield words with power and might.

Exercising some restraint with our language would be a highly desirable step towards civility, in my view. Applying some context, reacting slowly, having some perspective – all things that would need to be in place. But we all must take individual responsibility. It’ll never happen if we constantly try to out-react each other.

Let’s take a step back, and reset.

Taking the time to think – In praise of not reacting instantly

How long does it really take to get to a fully formed view? Probably longer than composing a tweet…

I was struck when watching an interview with Ian Hislop  (mainstay of BBC panel show Have I Got News For You and, more to the point, editor of satirical magazine Private Eye), by a response he gave to a question put to him.

He was asked “In this age of 24 hour news, how are you able to run a self-described ‘current affairs’ magazine which publishes every fortnight?”

His answer was swift and enlightening.

“Well the great thing about publishing every fortnight is that you have time to think. The problem with rolling 24 hour news is that you just go bleh bleh bleh. So the news comes out unformulated and the comment comes out equally quickly. So quite often, you see a story and think ‘well that’s obviously not true’, and then people comment on it and you think ‘well why have you commented on that, it’s not true?’ and we’re going to find out it’s not true in about an hour anyway. There’s just a huge amount of space filling. With a fortnightly, by the time you come out there’s a chance to say something interesting.”

Clearly, the term ‘current affairs’ has evolved as the word ‘current’ more and more means ‘what happened in the last 3 hours’. There won’t be any getting away from it – as reaction is available instantly, with social media (particularly Twitter) allowing a story to travel around the world with the click of a button, reaction will be given instantly.

Perhaps, then, it is down to each of us to consider what our reaction actually is. While we can add our voice to the conversation instantly, is it worth tempering that voice with a little reserve, even scepticism? An initial dipping of the toe before a fuller, more measured response later? It’s something I certainly need to consider – blameless I am not.

The panic that takes hold of most journalists or commentators if a story breaks and they’re not close it is not a new thing. But whilst in the past that would have meant they didn’t have the scoop for the following day’s release, now it means they are instantly a million miles away from it, with no way to get to the centre as it breaks all day long, while their colleagues or rivals dominate. This induces a habit of pushing everything, however ill-formed or unconsidered into the public domain as quickly as possible.

24 hour news is not necessarily a bad thing. The ability to know about things straight away is a remarkable technological feat, and one which doesn’t need to be reversed. But I would suggest that the culture needs to mellow. A thing has happened – ok, fine. Let’s talk about it, but do we need to have a fully formed opinion on it immediately as well? Can’t we wait a week for that? Why are we inviting commentators into the studio to give their ‘immediate reaction’? Why are we reading out viewer emails? Can’t the reporters and the journalists just report what they know so far without the reach for ‘what the people think about it as well’?

I read an old post on this site that spoke about the Gibraltar crisis. Remember that? Course you don’t, but I bet you reacted strongly when it happened. I only left it a couple of days myself.

I may come back to this at some point, because I’m sure there will be some example that will illustrate the point better than this general observation.

But in the meantime, perhaps we can all just step back for a moment whenever we are invited to give our view on an event that is 5 minutes old. Have we considered all the angles? Am I sure this is even true? Does it even matter? What will happen if I wait? These simple questions have recently turned would could have been a blind rage into not even bothering to react for me. And boy, does that make a difference.