Like a lot of people, I expect, I found myself following the attacks in Mumbai last week by means of the BBC's News website – which, from quite early on in the events, added a live update element to its coverage. And in one respect this was an almost Platonic conjunction of message and means.
A confusing on-going story, in which something of real significance might happen at any moment, could be covered literally minute by minute, aggregating many different sources of information into one chronological sequence. It felt appropriately urgent – like one of those ticker-tape services you see in old Hollywood movies, rattling out the latest events almost before they've finished happening. And whereas in the old days only professional journalists (or plutocrats) would have had access to the news ticker, it was now available to anybody with an internet connection.
More to the point, though, was another kind of democratisation. Because whereas in the old days only professional journalists (weathered men with Press Cards tucked into their hat bands) would have been able to contribute to that news feed, now it appeared that anybody with a Twitter subscription could have a crack. Twitter, if you're not familiar with it, is a form of micro-blogging, which allows users to send very short updates on what they're doing to anyone interested to receive them and last week several "Tweets" – as the Twitter postings are called – started appearing in the BBC's coverage. This was, it seemed, the apotheosis of citizen journalism, with Mumbai bystanders shoulder to shoulder with BBC staff in bringing the latest news to a world audience. And my first reaction was that this was a worrying development.
It wasn't easy, once I'd started thinking about it, to pin down exactly why. Twitter is hardly the most reassuring verb to encounter in serious news coverage, it's true, but the vocabulary alone needn't mean anything. Intelligence services rightly take "chatter" very seriously, after all. And since a journalist on the ground would almost certainly include comments and descriptions by local eyewitnesses in any report, was there really any substantive difference between that perfectly respectable practice and pulling in such comments directly from another source? Given that several "Tweets" instructively contradicted the official line on what was happening you might argue that this enlistment of an army of virtual stringers improved the BBC's coverage.
But that argument wouldn't take account of the subtle alteration of trust that takes place when you read coverage that cuts and pastes random "Tweets" alongside more conventional forms of BBC journalism. And the crucial difference surely lies in the different motives of journalists and Tweeters. "Twitter puts you in control and is a modern antidote to information overload", claims an introductory video on the Twitter website. The truth is exactly the opposite. It's yet another contribution to information overload, employed by people who believe that their mid-morning beverage choice should be shared with the world. Twitterers are hair-trigger communicators, and presumably absolutely itching to get something of substance into their despatches. Whereas a journalist has a reasonably strong incentive not to broadcast misleading or dubious information, because such an eventuality would come with a professional cost, a Twitterer owes no duty except to their own impressions and their own state of mind. They'll pass on rumour as readily as fact, and there's absolutely no way of telling which is which.
The cynical news consumer might say that just the same thing is true of some professional journalists – but at least in that case you know precisely who to blame. If the BBC doesn't want the cynicism to grow, it should be a bit more careful about blurring the boundary between twittering and serious reporting.
Give words a rest if you'd like to shock
I very much approve of the BBC's declared ambition to cut back on the amount of swearing on television. Things have got very bad recently, with maledictions and expletives scattered all over the place. And as a result a terrible inflationary effect has followed.
It used to be the case that you could cause absolute mayhem with a simple "B". Questions would be asked in the House and a gratifying consternation whipped up in British homes. An "F" would induce apoplectic seizures, the reflex vandalisation of television sets and choral threats of horsewhipping. A "C" was all but unthinkable, its use, along with Civil Defence broadcasts, a sure sign that apocalypse had arrived. Now the BBC actually has a formal reference procedure for "C" and it's nearly impossible to shock the audience to its boots. If the obscenities are given a rest for a while they might actually recover some of their attractive vigour.
The mouse is not broke, so why on earth are people trying to fix it?
I'd like to second my colleague Philip Hensher's birthday toast to the computer mouse in yesterday's paper – but I think he should be fretting more about its continued survival.
It's been disturbing to see predictions of its imminent demise in several articles reporting on the 40th anniversary. Should it ever be replaced by touch screens, as various pundits confidently predict, it would be a classic example of innovatory regression – the process by which an advance in technology makes things less convenient to use.
Obviously there are applications where touch screens are useful – on big public screens where you have to poke buttons as big as something you'd find on a Fisher-Price toy. It wouldn't be practical to link a mouse to an iPhone either, however much you might long for one when trying to navigate internet sites on that tiny screen.
But at home, on my desk, there will always be a nest for the mouse. When combined with a cursor it has a much finer point than my finger, it never leaves Marmitey smears on the screen and it doesn't obscure – with the hand doing the pointing – the very thing that one is trying to point at.
It's lasted 40 years because it works ... so please fix something else instead.
Tories welcome on the civil rights bandwagon
There are several Conservative Members of Parliament who have an honourable record of defending civil liberties in the abstract.
But I suspect there are quite a lot of others whose outraged defence of them is a relatively recent acquisition. Indeed, the suspicion arises that the fury of some MPs over the arrest of Damian Green (pictured) has more to do with the defence of a particular privilege than of a general principle. It's all very well the police coming down heavy on ordinary people, the thinking may go, but members of the Parliamentary club are supposed to get an exemption from that kind of thing. It's possible I'm being unfair, but more than once this weekend I found myself thinking that we should now update that old taunt by the right against the left: a conservative is just a liberal who hasn't been bugged yet.