Opinions are like ****holes. Everyone's got one. I first heard this coarse piece of homespun philosophy many years ago from a hardened news editor who cursed the proliferation of columnists and commentators in the pages of his newspaper.
What would he make of today's media landscape, where opinions multiply, then feed on themselves, and finally break out like a contagion? Sometimes, it's hard to work out what is regarded as newsworthy. Is it what someone does? Or is it what someone thinks of what someone else does? Let's take, for instance, the story du jour, and the apotheosis of silly season “news”: Jeremy Paxman grows a beard. Heaven help us! Not a beard! Whatever next? Eddie Mair has a haircut! John Humphrys buys a new pair of trousers!
Think about it for a minute. A news presenter decided, over the course of his summer holiday, to have a tonsorial rethink. He then appears on screen in his new unshaven state. Cue a gushing tidal wave of opinion, coming at us from every corner of the media universe. It's not as if Paxman's work has suffered, and the beard, reminding him of summer days of languorous inattention to serious matters, has transformed him into relaxed, carefree soul. No, he seems to be every bit as irascible, forensic and fearsome as ever.
Of course, no one believes this to be an event of any import, and it certainly makes for a welcome diversion from the tragic situation in Egypt. Yet if anyone seeks the apotheosis of our 140-character culture, an example of how, in these infantilised times, the trivial can seem important, and how social media can, without discrimination or mediation, spread opinion like a forest fire, the summer of Paxman's Beard is definitely it.
For someone who's the other side of three-score-years-and ten, John Cleese hasn't learned very much. Like, for instance, how not to sound like a grumpy old man, or even a silly old fool. He seems at ease with his cultivated persona: Disgusted of Santa Barbara.
He's been in town, promoting Planes, the new Disney film in which he is the voice of a veteran British aeroplane called Bulldog, and he chose this opportunity to sound off about the failings of 21st Century culture. “The world we live in today has deteriorated a great deal,” said Fawlty...sorry, Cleese, “and a lot of it can be put down to social media.”
Cleese speaks like a man who knows there's a party going on somewhere, but he hasn't been invited, and he tries to make like he doesn't care. That's at odds, however, with his Twitter profile, which reveals that he has 2.7 million followers, and has been responsible for 768 tweets. He said he does “Twitter”, largely on the advice of Stephen Fry, who told him that it's an effective medium for self-promotion.
Not only that, it means he can bypass the British newspapers, which according to Cleese, are populated, with a few exceptions, by “the most appalling, depraved, disgusting, amoral creatures you could find anywhere outside of prison”. And then, just to show he's not lost his comic timing, he adds: “And of course many of them are going to be inside a prison soon.” Morning, Major!
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