John Kampfner: Abbott's law - you must not overreact to Twitter

Too often Twitter militates against the development of an argument beyond the soundbite

Share

Calm down dears, as David Cameron might have said. The row yesterday over Diane Abbott's remarks about "white people" shines a light on not just British attitudes to race, but also on our ability to absorb and deal with controversy in the era of instant communication. The wisdom – or lack of it – shown by the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, aka "leftwing" or "firebrand", has already been discussed enough. The only tuppenceworth I will add on that score is that she seems stuck in a time warp of 1980s clichés and lazy assumptions. If she had said what she had said in the pub, or more likely at a north London dinner party table, her interlocutors might have agreed with her, challenged her or castigated her. Then they would have poured themselves a glass of chardonnay and moved on.

What is more discomforting was the hysteria that surrounded Abbott's tweet. Twitter is used for differing reasons. I relish looking at it several times a day to find out what is being said and written. I find it useful to see what free expression events are taking place and what organisations in the US, Europe, Asia and beyond are discussing. It's a fabulous tip-off service or, to use the journo-jargon, news aggregator.

I use it to draw attention to a piece I've written, or broadcast that I've done, or sometimes to comment on an issue of the moment. I'm not interested in droning on about walks on Hampstead Heath, how my beloved Chelsea are doing (not very well) or getting into manufactured spats with people. But many people are – and they are followed by more people than I am – so good luck to them.

My journalistic training came from the Reuters news agency, where we were schooled in reducing everything into a maximum of 30 words – who, what, where, when, why and, most importantly, so what? I remember fondly an exercise in which we had to summarise War And Peace to that length. Concision has great merits (one needs only to scroll down a long, turgid email to separate out those who can marshal arguments quickly and those who cannot), but what concision struggles to do is to provide context.

To strip it back to the first principles, freedom of expression is trumped by other considerations only where the context demands it. To use that time-honoured example: when anyone shouts "Fire!" in a crowded theatre. It is not because they shout "Fire!", no matter how crass that might be, but the fact that a crowded theatre could lead to a stampede. As the human rights and free speech campaigner Aryeh Neier points out, Americans base free expression on context. On the issue of race, is an offensive remark likely to incite hatred or violence? The Europeans (and increasingly the British) take a more literal view where the words themselves constitute the transgression.Remember the Robin Hood airport case? Two years ago today, a trainee accountant, Paul Chambers, sent a tweet to his 600 followers, joking about the closure of his local airport in Doncaster because of bad weather. "Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week... otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!" The following May, he was convicted under the Communications Act 2003 of sending a menacing electronic communication. He lost his appeal.

His case attracted wide public attention, with a number of celebrities rallying to his cause, and thousands of people re-tweeting his tweet in solidarity. None of them fell foul of the law. Again, context should have been the key. Was this man really planning a terrorist act or encouraging one? A cursory investigation by the security services would have found that out.

Twitter is fun, fast and furious. It manages to be a marketing tool and a democratiser at the same time, with public figures chatting away with the public whenever they are minded, or provoked, to do so. The hullabaloo around the opening of an account by Rupert Murdoch this week and the opening of a later-to-be-discovered fake account in the name of his wife, Wendi Deng, testifies to the febrile nature of it all.

Too often, Twitter militates against the development of an argument beyond the soundbite. It creates the need for a reaction, demanding the shrill in order to be noticed, only to cut down the offender on a whim. Politicians took some time to adapt to the advent of 24-hour television news in the UK more than a decade ago. First they under-estimated its value; then they over-reacted to its power. They now have a slightly (only slightly) more balanced approach to it.

The same should surely apply to social media. Some people may enjoy getting into a tizzy hundreds of times a day. We are in danger of losing the tremendous advantage that this technology brings in our rush to instant judgement. For politicians such as Ed Miliband to react so portentously to an off-the-cuff remark suggests, yet again, that reflection loses out in modern media land. And it has taken me more than 140 characters to say so.

John Kampfner is the chief executive of Index on Censorship

twitter@johnkampfner; www.jkampfner.net

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The traditional Boxing Day hunt in Lacock  

For foxes' sake: Don't let the bloody tradition of the Boxing Day hunt return

Mimi Bekhechi
 

Letter from the Deputy Editor: i’s Review of the Year

Andrew Webster
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all