On Twitter, Leveson, media standards… and Labour MP Ian Austin labelling Russell Brand “a disgusting, sleezy [sic], horrible creep”

by Stephen Tall on August 18, 2012

I love Twitter and I hate Twitter. At its best, it is a brilliant way of enjoying a shared moment with friends and friends-of-friends, whether glorying in the Olympics or bitching about X-Factor. At its worst, it is a bile-filled bearpit, where opinions are sprayed with scant regard for their accuracy in the race to be first or funniest or most outraged.

For fans of cognitive dissonance, it’s a wonderful window-on-the-world which explains much about how and why the media works as it does. Lord Justice Leveson would have learned much from observing a life-in-the-day-of Twitter.

He would, for example, see Twitter working itself up into fury over the scurrilous practices of the British press throughout his inquiry and the Hackgate scandal. And yet he would also see those same Twitterers who rightly (and righteously) call out journalists for their sloppy inaccuracies then cheerily repeating media stories which fit their own prejudices… without having a clue if those reports are myth, truth or somewhere inbetween.

And there in a nutshell you have the reason why the news media continues to undermine its own journalistic model — founded on reliability and credibility that people are willing to pay for — and instead sacrifices standards for sensationalism: because it’s what the public wants. Or at least it’s one half of what what the public wants. The other half is (here’s our old friend cognitive dissonance again) trusted and objective sources of news who can just give us the plain facts.

I’d be amazed if Leveson can find any way of squaring that circle.

Incidentally, what prompted this train of thought was the following exchange on Twitter this morning with Labour MP Ian Austin, a former political advisor to Gordon Brown:

I don’t hold a brief for Russell Brand, but it jarred with me that — on the basis of a Sun story, which Ian Austin must know there’s a fair chance has been at the very least embellished because that’s what the tabloids do — he was prepared to call someone I’m guessing he’s never met “a disgusting, sleezy [sic], horrible creep”. Ian Austin is, after all, a shadow government minister. I’d hope for a bit better than trolling.

Now I’m not one of those prudes who thinks MPs should never dare express a personal view colourfully — for instance, Lib Dem MP Greg Mulholland‘s brilliant tweet during the Olympics closing ceremony asking ‘Why is Jessie J dressed as a vajazzle?’ (which Political Scrapbook helpfully if bizarrely brought to the appreciative attention of a much wider audience).

But I’d like to think that before an MP mounts a personal attack on any public figure, whether it’s Russell Brand or the Pope, they’d do so on the basis of a bit more than tabloid newspaper reports. Especially when, as Ian Austin has recently discovered, basing your opinions on erroneous statements can force you into an embarrassing climbdown.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.