Everybody complains about Twitter, but nobody does anything about it

Apologies to Mark Twain* for bowdlerising his quote, but it has happened again – somebody has made something up on the internet, without a thought for fact-checking or journalistic integrity. What’s worse is they then used the unregulated media of Twitter and Facebook to spread these lies. Worse still, this latest fabrication sullies the name of that fair and balanced journalistic institution, Fox News. Laugh? I nearly tweeted.

Padraig Belton, in the Irish Independent, told us yesterday that the world is not always as it seems. To support this skeptical world-view, he cites the infamous “Brian Cowen hangover” interview and this picture that did the rounds last week:

Photoshopped screengrab of Fox News Toolooz
Fox News. It's bad, but not this bad

Belton says:

In both cases, social media and citizen-journalism – not long prior heralded engines of a new democratic dispensation – were manipulated in political hatchet jobs.

Political hatchet jobs? I can see how the Cowen interview may have been politically motivated, but what’s the political motivation for “Fox News is rubbish”? Even if you could answer that, who cares? It’s not meant to be journalism. It’s meant to be a joke.

To illustrate the dangers of photo manipulation, he could have used North Korea’s nine-foot soldier, or Iran’s cloning-tool wars.  But he wanted to illustrate the threat of Twitter, so chose a joke.

That joke took a report of a multiple murder and tried to get a laugh at the expense of a cable channel renowned for screaming hyperbole and screw-ups. For example, the original, undoctored image was taken from a Fox News broadcast in which they mistakenly used a picture of Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live to illustrate an item on Sarah Palin. Here’s the video (if you can trust it):

Belton then trots out a litany of other supposed deceptions, some of them nothing to do with Twitter or Facebook – such as the Sunday Times using an illustration of John ‘Soap’ MacTavish, a character from the Call of Duty game, in a graphic of a failed hostage raid – and some of them actually unearthed by social media themselves, such as ITV’s mistaken use of video game footage in a documentary about IRA links to Gaddafi:

Jokes aren’t journalism

It is Belton’s mixing and mashing of media and platforms – very 21st century for such an avowedly traditional journalist – as he takes in broadcasters, papers, Twitter, Facebook , Wikipedia, and Youtube, that makes his point so hard to pin down.

The Fox News image is a joke. The Guardian’s Cowen tape and ITV’s IRA documentary were inadvertent foul-ups. The 50-cent commenters of China and Wikipedia editors of Capitol Hill are engaged in politics less filthy than the past (remember ‘ratfucking‘?). The  RTE-bashing over the Sean Gallagher debate continues the Indo’s delusion that a false tweet lost him the presidential election rather than his floundering inability to decisively rebut its fabricated content on the night.

So what is Belton’s point? If it were simply “do not believe everything you read online”, well, duh. However, he concludes:

Quality journalism, employing social media like Dorian’s portrait to preserve the likeness of vitality, is too quick to abandon its fact-checking traditions.

That sounds depressingly like a newspaperman putting his own trade on a pedestal of probity (despite every print journalist you ever met knowing someone who has massaged a quote, fudged a statistic, or concealed one of their screw-ups). Belton is in good company – John Fleming had a go at Twitter a couple of weeks ago on Hugh Linehan’s Irish Times blog, John Waters has borne the internet curmudgeon’s cross for the Irish Daily Mail (they don’t put his columns online, funnily enough), and Eamon Delaney maintains, terrifyingly, that we should regulate what has become a “cacophony of noise, but at the lowest common denominator”. Conor Brady and Alan Crosbie have both supported calls for State support of the press, which would just bring regulation by another route.

Time for some whataboutery

Donald Segretti faked a letter to discredit one of Nixon’s political rivals. Newspapers followed it up, yet nobody denounced the postal service as a network used by liars. The Sunday Times agreed to print the “grotesquely … fake” Hitler diaries, yet the writing and serialisation of memoirs remains inexplicably legal. If a newsroom takes an anonymous call that contains libellous information, we do not blame the telephone network. If a lobby journalist misinterprets a hand-written note from one minister to another, we do not call for the regulation of paper and pencil.

If a journalist prints or broadcasts material from social media networks, or wikipedia, or a message board, or email, and never bothers to check whether it is true, it is not a failure of the internet, it is a failure by the journalist.  

Flesh-and-blood sources feed bullshit and PR bumf to journalists in person and on paper every day, but they have developed tools for sniffing it out. Newspapers should be extending the use of these tools online and developing new ones when they fail, rather than indulging in this incessant hand-wringing over media their correspondents barely understand and rarely use. Complaining about the climate isn’t going to change it.

“A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar”

– this one is really by Mark Twain. *The one in the headline is by his friend, Charles Dudley Warner. I knew that, but wrote it anyway.

Can somebody explain public discourse to John Waters?

In an Ireland so unfamiliar to me that an artist can be interviewed by police for caricaturing a sitting Taoiseach, I suppose I should feel comfort that John Waters is still a humourless contrarian:

“The only amusing thing here is Casby’s deluded belief that he has something to say … His works are crude, unfunny, vindictive, without intrinsic content and wholly lacking in artistic merit.”

Waters seems to be sincerely arguing that because he finds no meaning or merit in what Conor Casby has to say, nor how the artist chooses to express it, that any outrage at his subsequent treatment is misplaced. He could overlook the supposed hurt to Cowen’s family, the disrespect to the office of the Taoiseach and, his most po-faced objection of all, “the breach of security at a national institution”, if Louis Le Brocquy hung a 6’x 4′ of the chief defecating, perhaps?

Casby was not subjected to the deliberate, cynical fear of Garda interview for being a shit artist, for having a shit sense of humour, or for breaching the Pentagonesque security of the National Gallery. He was intimidated, as were employees of Today FM, and I have no doubt, those of RTÉ, for no other reason than he made the Taoiseach look like a tit.

Suggesting that the “affair of the Casby paintings” represents a threat to democracy, Waters opines:

“Intrinsically devoid of intellectual content, they nevertheless cumulatively contribute to a climate in which public discourse is cheapened and debased, rendering it less likely that people of intelligence and sensitivity will participate. What kind of society do we expect such a culture to conceive?”

Well, with Waters guarding the door, admitting only those of intelligence and sensitivity, democracy should have no cause for concern. Is he kidding?

The pliant director general of the nation’s biggest broadcaster is two phone calls from the head of government and not only pulled a story concerning the head of government  in its entirety but orchestrated an apology.

Policemen threatened warrants if journalists did not reveal contact details for a guy who drew a picture.

They actually sent a file to the Director for Public Prosecutions. Democracy should have nothing to fear.

“His response is typical of a public discourse almost fatally degraded by internet auto-eroticism and an obsession with what is called ‘comedy’.”

There is no comedy in the paintings. I don’t think they’re very funny. I don’t even think they’re very good.

The comedy stems from the over-zealous reaction of Government flunkies and the spinelessness of the RTÉ top brass, from red-faced gardaí combing the country for a painter of “dirty” pictures and from the burning shame that any Goverment press officer should be enduring as a one-night story enters its second week. That is funny.

That most of the objections to Casby’s treatment are online adds sauce to Waters’s delusion:

“The internet has reduced public debate to the level of a drunken argument, in which no holds are barred, in which deeply unpleasant people get to voice their ignorant opinions in the ugliest terms, in the name of ‘free speech’.”

In case Waters has forgotten, free speech is only of use if it allows people to say or express things you are vehemently opposed to. It is designed to be ugly.

In what totalitarian nightmare do we justify the censorship of popular debate at any level? Should cultural and political debate be limited to those readers who worship the august organ of John Waters? I think that is what he wants. He decries the demise of public discourse yet thinks anyone who laughs at a Taoiseach on a toilet should just shut up and listen to him and only him – discourse by monologue.

“This episode … continues to be misused by a media increasingly debased in its desire to pursue popular opinion to the gutter and below”

Another Irish artist, on the subject of lying in the gutter (or below) suggested that some of us are looking at the stars.

“All art is quite useless,” Wilde said. Let us hope, in Casby’s case that he was wrong. Let us hope this abuse of State power, inadvertent or not, is remembered at the polls – it may even dethrone Cowen. If nothing else, let us hope that it marks the week when John Waters’s relevance, if ever he had any, evaporated in a cloud of sanctimonious snobbery.