People generally notice that they’re taking part in a revolution. Barbarians-at-the-gates revolutions with Bolshevik oiks toppling Romanov nobs and their imperialist haemophiliac ways are self-evident thanks to the bodies in the streets and the widespread clampdown on interesting haberdashery. But we’re in the middle of a revolution now, a revolution most people aren’t even barely aware of.
Two skirmishes in this revolution have taken place in the last week. They’re not the first and won’t be the last, but they’re a classic demonstration of cluelessness from the Old Guard.
The first can be summarised in one word: Trafigura. You, like me, had probably not heard the name before this week. The first inkling I had of a percolating story was a tweet from Ben Goldacre suggesting that the Guardian had been gagged from reporting Parliament. The bare facts emerged pretty quickly: this tweet revealed all to me a short time later. What followed, and the story behind it, is well documented so I shan’t bother here. The salient point to make is: welcome to a different world. In this world, sufficient eyeballs routes around censorship. Maybe not immediately, but ultimately.
The second skirmish involves the Daily Mail and is ongoing. One of its columnists, Jan Moir, wrote a hateful story that appeared on Friday morning entitled Why there was nothing “natural” about Stephen Gately’s death. As with Trafigura an immediate twitstorm ensured that the bigotry was well publicised. Comments on a Daily Mail article are usually of the string-em-up, ship-em-back variety, but not on this one: the writer’s views were soundly condemned. The Daily Mail changed the story’s headline (but not its content) in an attempt to paper over the cracks, and the article’s author has issued a non-apology apology. But more importantly for the paper, companies have pulled their adverts from the story.
People power again, yes; big deal, nothing new. But it’s yet another demonstration of the crucial difference between the bolshies and the nobs. What Trafigura’s legal team Carter-Ruck and the Daily Mail’s journalists don’t get is that people – more people every day – now realise that power, real power, is bottom-up not top-down. That’s at the core of this revolution.
Jan Moir complains in her non-apology that there is “clearly a heavily orchestrated internet campaign” to accuse her of homophobia. Excuse me while I point and laugh at the deluded woman. The Daily Mail is itself massively guilty of orchestrating campaigns in a traditional top-down approach: it was the Daily Mail that hyped up the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross story, encouraging its readers to complain en masse to the relevant authorities about something they hadn’t themselves heard. That’s orchestration. Top-down.
Moir’s story about Gately offended individuals, who commented or tweeted or blogged to make their opinions known to others. Those others read the article themselves, made up their own minds, and communicated likewise. The network effect ensured that, pretty soon, word spread to connectors (to use Gladwell’s term from The Tipping Point) like Stephen Fry, Graham Linehan, Charlie Brooker and Derren Brown who have thousands of followers. Bottom-up. (I’m not using the word viral because that makes me think of marketing, and this is more fundamental.)
The same effect a few days earlier ensured everyone knew about Trafigura and its “super-injunction” gagging order on the media, even if they hadn’t read the Guardian and put two-and-two together. People also soon learned that Wikileaks held a copy of the Minton report, which says that Trafigura’s oil waste, dumped in west Africa, was potentially toxic. Meanwhile traditional media couldn’t even mention the report’s existence. Last night Trafigura caved again, since the ants had well and truly unstitched the bag to let out the potentially toxic pussy, and the Guardian became free to publish the report. Trafigura and Carter-Ruck bodged this up in as bodgy a way as it is possible to bodge, and questions are now being asked about how, on earth, could a judge issue such a super-injunction in the first place. And why do we have super-injunctions anyway?
Publicity about Moir’s article ensured the Press Complaints Commission web site was hammered out of existence for a time. But the PCC won’t do anything of consequence: it’s a toothless body, controlled by the newspapers themselves, that exists as a sop to politicans afraid to regulate an industry that knows all about their cupboard-based body parts. In any case its policy is to “normally accept complaints only from those who are directly affected by the matters about which they are complaining.” Which is handy.
The way to deal with the Daily Mail is, I hope by now, obvious: bottom-up. Continue to publicise its bigotry and hatred. Make its advertisers pull out.
The two incidents I’ve highlighted aren’t isolated cases. Earlier in the year a single tweet by Graham Linehan started off a “we love the NHS” campaign on Twitter to fight back against uninformed or deceitful comments from those on the side of private health insurers in the US healthcare debate. Many right-wingers in the UK proved they Just Didn’t Get It by claiming this was a Labour party campaign: nope. Bottom-up, not top-down.
Perhaps I’m being idealistic. Perhaps this is merely a Prague Spring of freedom before the tanks roll in. But I don’t think so. People may not be brandishing pitchforks but change is afoot and the world will be a very different place in ten years or so. At the moment we’re still clanking our way to the summit of the rollercoaster, and don’t have the faintest idea what’ll happen on the way down.