Columnists ought to provoke responses. It is their job to ruffle, infuriate, anger and to induce laughter, tears and approval – among other things. They should not set out to cause offence, but if that is a by-product of expressing a challenging or unpopular view then so be it.
An opinion piece last week elicited particular outrage. The column focused on the work of the blogger, Zoe Sugg, 24, who has forged a career sharing tips about beauty products, life and the world to a sizeable online audience.
Regrettably, Zoe – or Zoella, which is her web persona – has not previously come to my attention. I would struggle to know whether what she has to say is commendable or egregiously obnoxious. But I am now keenly aware that she inspires an impressive level of fandom.
Our columnist’s view that Zoe is a less than ideal role model for teenage girls divided opinion. On The Independent’s website 340 readers expressed agreement with the view. More than a thousand disagreed. Our columnist experienced a hefty Twitter-storm and our complaints mechanism took a moderate pounding.
Zoe has a considerable public profile. She has two and a half million followers on Twitter and has been feted by various media outlets. Just because she is youthful and some distance from embodying evil does not mean she is beyond critique.
But should journalists mind their Ps and Qs a bit more? After all, it is usually the terms in which a view is expressed as much as the opinion itself which prompts an angry response.
The puritan in me thinks that might be rather nice. But let’s be realistic: we live in a world in which everyone is competing for attention and in which, online especially, there is an imperative to encourage engagement. An interesting view expressed dully will not captivate. An interesting idea set out boldly and colourfully can be explosive.
In the end, I would defend the right to express more or less any view, provided the writer genuinely holds it and it is not based on a manifestly inaccurate premise or some sort of depravity.
Equally, columnists have to accept that the consequence of a provocative piece may be a Twitter-storm. At times, the abuse, even threats, our writers receive are revolting. Yet if you are going to dish it out, you may have to soak up a lot of what you get in return, even when it is delivered with interest.
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Readers’ views, not ours
When it comes to readers’ views, there is naturally more opportunity for engagement online than there is via the edited forum of the letters page in print.
On The Independent’s website we do not pre-moderate reader comments. Sometimes there are compelling reasons not to allow posts on a story – for instance because an ongoing court case must not be prejudiced. But otherwise comments are removed only if they contain prohibited words or if, once other users have brought them to our moderators’ attention, they are judged to infringe our community rules.
Some of the opinions aired in the comments might be relatively tiresome. But just as with our columnists, I would defend the right to express honest views.
Yet it remains a mystery why it is sometimes assumed that because we permit provocative user comments, we are somehow endorsing them. Often that could not be further from the truth. Just as our own writers represent a spread of opinion, so do our readers: they do not need to chime with The Independent’s editorial line.
Will Gore is Deputy Managing Editor of The Independent, i, Independent on Sunday and the Evening Standard