Some time ago I responded to a piece on Labour List entitled You don’t have the right not to be offended by doing my level best to offend the author. I called him many things including, but not limited to, intimating that he was a slang term for the female genitalia. (Anyone who wants to see a better, more grown up response to this sort of thing should read this by Grace Fletcher-Hackwood).
Do I think these things of the author Jonathan Roberts? No. I don’t know him from Adam. I just found the piece he had written annoying and insulting to my intelligence, and given its topic and headline, I thought I’d have a bit of fun with it.
I was reminded of this incident when reading two posts over the last week.
The first was written by Rob Marchant and appeared on Labour Uncut.
Rob’s article is basically bloody daft. It starts by fighting one of the most obvious strawmen ever constructed, and ends by demeaning even this diminished point with a manic exception to his self-enforced rule.
The worst part is, I agree with Rob’s basic point – that people should be able and allowed to write what they want to on the internet.
Rob says “whilst one might not agree with much that blogger A or blogger B writes, their right to say it must be defended, because their ideas must sink or swim on their own, without interference from over-enthusiastic censors telling us all what to think.”
My question to Rob is: What’s stopping you?
Because this is where the straw man comes in. People already do say what they want to, up to and including some very odd writing about David Miliband and a stegosaurus (and no, I’m not linking and I advise you not to Google it either!). The point of the Internet is that everyone gets their say, including those who value collectivism and think Rob is being unhelpful.
The idea that the critics of Labour’s leadership, the soft left, Ed Miliband and Labour in general are being censored is – frankly – bizarre. On any given day, whatever position Labour are at in the polls, I can, if I choose to, read dozens of posts across the Internet and mainstream media criticising us from every possible perspective. These aren’t being censored.
So what does Rob mean?
Well the clue is in the opening line of his piece “During 2011 a number of people, often well-meaning, sometimes not so, have questioned the choice of some bloggers at Labour Uncut and elsewhere to analyse dispassionately, and sometimes brutally, not just the Tories and the Lib Dems, but the Labour party under Ed Miliband.”
Here’s the rub Rob: that questioning can’t and should be censored either. It is as valid an opinion as yours and deserves a hearing too. That’s how the freedom of the internet works. By complaining that people are complaining about what you have a right to voice, you yourself are seeking to censor people. Can you see why I think you’re being ridiculous? Or is any dissenting voice “group think” too?
I applaud Rob for his recognition that the control of medium, message and messenger that worked and then failed for Labour in the 90s and into the 10s is no longer a valid approach to communications. But he’s still far too focused on a power difference that is increasingly inconsequential between writer and commentator.
Rob as the piece’s writer does not have the right to control all responses to it. That’s up to the commentators and the editors of any site hosting the piece. If Rob wants to control the response to his writing, he should restrict it to his own excellent blog, where he has every right to censor what he chooses to. It would be a shame, because despite rarely agreeing with him, I believe Rob has a valid voice and a right to be heard by a wider audience, but if his delicate sensibilities continue to be so disturbed by those who disagree with him, perhaps it would be for the best.
But Rob’s article comes a dim and distant second to a post today that – in it’s original title – compared fellow Labour Party members to cancer.** And this from the same person who spent most of last week going ballistic about the comms consequences of a typo. Real expertise on display there.
Like Rob, Luke has every right to his opinion and to publish it where he can. Mark Ferguson, editor of Labour List had a right to change the title as it reflected poorly on the otherwise excellent site, but I hope that Luke will reproduce the article on his own blog with its original title for all to see. I certainly wouldn’t want to censor that. I think it deserves to be judged on it’s original “merit”.
The article itself is Luke’s usual over-the-top messianic nonsense. A micro-grain of a point (Labour shouldn’t boo any former leader) is so lost in the gushing of a teenage fanboy for his idol and the poison towards non-Blairlevers. (Blair is reported to have once said that the Labour Party will have finally grown up when it learned to love Peter Mandelson. Personally, I think the Labour Party will have finally grown up when we accept that Blair is neither the Messiah nor the Devil but an equally brilliant and flawed individual whose time in politics has passed.)
But my question is what is the point of this article? I don’t question its right to exist or to be published, but I don’t know what Luke’s aim was when he put fingers to keyboard. On his website, Luke says his job is to “help political and governmental organisations and politicians achieve their goals through online communications.” Christ. I hope for his sake he’s usually a bit more persuasive than this.
Today’s piece is readable only if you already agreed with it or are so put off by Blairites that you need a new hate figure to get your juices flowing. It’s almost unreadable for anyone who doesn’t completely agree or violently disagree. It won’t persuade a single person of Luke’s argument that more Blairites should be encouraged through Party positions. It will further enrage those already motivated against that happening. It’s a classic example of counter-productive communications. It will win Luke some plaudits among those who already agree with and admire him. Maybe that’s all he wants. Maybe he doesn’t really want to convince me of ways in which the Party could become more open to business and ways we could engage the business community. Which is a shame, as that’s something I am interested in. But I have no interest in working with anyone who treats fellow Party members in this way- and that includes those who boo Blair as much as Luke. Because they’re destructive. All of them.
Political communication is about expressing ideas in ways that are open, honest and approachable. Political criticism is vital to a healthy democracy, but will only work if your criticising something that actually exists (i.e. not censorship of criticism of Ed Miliband) or do so in a way people will actually hear (i.e. not accusing them of being a malignant force).
** Edit: One week after writing this blog, Luke defected to the Tories. Good. Bye.
Tags: Rob Marchant