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Prudish about politics?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 09:22 UK time, Monday, 12 April 2010

Last night, I returned home after 48 hours without an internet connection, or any British news source - and so without news of events on the election campaign. It's been a terrible hardship, as you might imagine. As I was leaving on Friday, though, the storm over a Labour candidate's foul-mouthed utterances on Twitter was gathering pace.

You probably know how that ended. For me it had two obvious lessons: one of them should have been obvious to Stuart MacLennan; the other perhaps was not.

The first is that anything you say on social media is broadcast to the world. That may not matter if you're an obscure student who is not standing for office or seeking a job, but can come back to haunt you later. The second - and this may sound prudish to some - is that many people still don't find acceptable foul or abusive language in a public place such as Twitter, even when used among friends.

Malcolm TuckerOne of the things I liked about Twitter when it first came along was that it was more polite than many other online spaces. For one thing, it makes a lot less sense to use the service anonymously or pseudonymously: nobody is really going to follow your updates if they don't know who you are, and that seemed to mean that most people were less inclined to spray around insults, invective and general unpleasantness. There was robust debate, certainly, but none of the aggression you see where people hiding behind a nom de guerre feel free to dish it out with no fear of redress.

But that began to change a few months back - suddenly, all sorts of users seemed to find it completely acceptable to eff and blind in that public space. A few weeks back, after I'd made some mildly sarcastic (but not foul-mouthed) remark about a West London team's exit from the Champions League, I got a message containing an insult that was made up of the word "Welsh" followed by a curt Middle-English word.

It wasn't accurate - "you're only half-Welsh", my wife remarked - but it was very distasteful. My instant reaction was to block the enraged Tweeter, much as I block the spammers now infecting the service with adverts for pornography and drugs.

Which bring us back to Stuart MacLennan - where did he get the idea that it was acceptable to turn the air blue on Twitter? Perhaps he'd been reading too many political blogs - or, rather, the comments posted there. For someone like me who is relatively new to the political blogosphere, it comes as quite a shock to plunge into a world where it's regarded as normal to use every obscenity imaginable to attack those politicians and fellow-readers that you don't happen to agree with. Now it seems that spirit risks arriving in the UK-political conversations on Twitter.

Mind you, some see the microblogging service rather differently. Toby Young in the Telegraph says its most attractive characteristic is "its out-of-school quality, the fact that people are less guarded about what they tweet than what they say in public. That's what makes it such an intimate medium. It's more like someone whispering to you in a pub than bellowing something [across] a crowded room."

Sorry, Toby. The intimate medium was Facebook, not Twitter, and now neither of them is the place to say anything you'd rather the world didn't hear. If politicians want to whisper or bellow obscenities, they'll find it safer to do it in the pub - or in the pseudonymous privacy of the blogosphere.


  • Comment number 1.

    Well **** me with a wet **** - what did McLennan expect, swearing online? To be honest, I didn't find his swearing an issue - I found his insulting references to women and 'chavs' far more problematic. All in all, I think people should be careful with their online language but I also think the freedom of web-based conversation should serve to make people less prudish over time.

  • Comment number 2.

    I'd say it was as much about the 'coffin-dodger' term as the swearing.

  • Comment number 3.

    Quite amusing and ironic really to hear outrage about bad language and bad behaviour from an employee of the BBC, an organisation that has probably done more to debase the currency of our language and dumb down the population than any other. Caledonian Comment

  • Comment number 4.

    Sorry, slightly OT, but to return to a theme of a recent blog entry about the political parties sending emails and whether it's compliant with the Data Protection Act, there's an interesting story in The Times today. Don't know whether it's true, but if it is, then that is pretty strong prima facie evidence that Labour may have been playing fast and loose with the DPA. Perhaps you could investigate and let us know, Rory?

  • Comment number 5.

    A bit rich for the Daily Politics to have your feature on the internet election at a time when North Briish politics is off-limits in the BBC blogosphere.

    Brian Taylor on Friday issued a promise to keep a thread open, broken on Sunday on the ironically named The Twitter election thread.

    Coupled with draconian new moderation policies which render anything the teeniest bit off-topic removed, this is an affront to democracy when even the Nick Robinson threads are being left open.

  • Comment number 6.

    I never put anything in a blog, tweet, etc., that I wouldn't be prepared to read out in a court appearance attended by my (grand)parents, my children, a group of nuns and HM The Queen.

    Sad to report, however, that some of the foulest-mouthed in society would be (to me, perversely) proud to do just that in respect of their vile outpourings.

  • Comment number 7.

    I don't consider myself in the least prudish but always deplore foul language in the media - on tv, radio, in newsprint and on internet forums and networking sites. It's totally unnecessary.

    The worst thing in this particular case, however, is that this fellow didn't see anything wrong in posting such ridiculously juvenile, insulting remarks on a public networking site, yet at the same time imagined he would make a trusted political representative. The selection process must be very sketchily done these days is all I can think.

    Yes he should most certaqinly have been sacked, but if it was up to me he'd have been out of the door in deep disgrace far sooner.

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    The worst aspect of the Stuart MacLennan furoré was completely overlooked by the NuLabour appratchiks in the media, and that is that many bigwigs in the Labour Party, including many holding office, already knew what MacLennan was up to, being as they were followers of his tweets.

    One of these followers was none other than Jim Murphy, Secretary of State for Scotland.

    So why aren't the BBC asking more questions, about who knew what and when, and why they didn't take action sooner.

    Or is it the case that mainstream media doesn't take action until the people's commentariat take the abuser to task.

    I think the whole affair indicates how modern journalism is being eclipsed by citizen reportage.

    No wonder the snoozepapers of the world are in such sharp decline -- their reporters just aren't up to the job any longer.

  • Comment number 10.

    There is a gulf between how young people talk to each other, and how older people talk to each other. It was ever so. When young people say that politicians aren't talking their language, there's some truth in it.

    I found the whole affair with Stuart McLennan quite laughable. He was sacked for having a sense of humour and using colloquialisms. But the parties are all so paranoid about one tweet or Facebook comment being picked up by the national press and used against a party, that the electorate is only every presented with bland, sanitised and party-approved comments.

  • Comment number 11.

    At least with Stuart MacLennan you would have known exactly who you were voting for. All the other candidates are puppets to their party. Also, foul language does not at all offend me (I'm 20 so relatively young) but then again, nothing really does. I'm not one of these people who 'gets offended' then writes in to complain about it, and I think the vast majority of people are the same. Look at all the groups on Facebook that are racist, sexist, ageist etc, and look at the number of fans they have. I think as long as people are joking then most people just let it slide.

  • Comment number 12.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?


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