Having heard Toby Young defending Julie Burchill yesterday, I have to say that I agree with him that she has the right to say what she wants. I also think it raises some interesting questions about the way Twitter influences the national debate.

First of all, it’s only fair to point out that Julie Burchill’s attention-grabbing post is a masterpiece of wind-up. Even setting her views aside there’s the lobster and champagne lifestyle – presumably calculated to jar with the later passages about poverty – and the many ways she uses sycophantic praise of Suzanne Moore as a thinly-veiled homage to herself.

The substantive point she makes about transsexuals is worse than just an attack on a tiny, vulnerable minority designed to evoke all the most loaded and offensive cultural tropes. It’s also just not clear what she is trying to say. Is she saying transsexuals cannot be offended by what women say because women are themselves victims of men? I’m not sure.

My view is that if she wants write this kind of stuff then she’s entitled to. It’s not actually inciting hatred. Equally, if the Observer wants to remove something that’s going to be offensive to their reader that’s up to them. At least until a minister tells them to take it down – then perhaps there is an obligation to keep it up to make a point.

Interesting though how one-sided the Twitter debate in the UK seems to be. I would guess that a clear majority of the country would either be amused by the article or at least not find it offensive. Yet it’s exactly the kind of thing that UK Twitter hates, and as well as apparently driving Suzanne Moore to delete her account, it was the ructions on Twitter that got the article pulled.

Twitter is a political monoculture in the UK, and airing a prejudice is the thing that sets it on fire.  I’m pretty certain that this isn’t the case in the US, with all sides using it to harass each other, no doubt in equally unpleasant ways.

Either way, it’s worth noting that complaints to the PCC against Jan Moir for her hate-filled article were never upheld, nor was the article judged to break the law. A decade ago that article would probably have gone by relatively unremarked.

When Conservatives were perceived to be attacking the NHS (even though funding has remained at exactly pre-Tory levels, as promised in the manifesto) everyone suddenly had a “Twibbon” in support of it. On Twitter we’re all bien pensant lefties.

Journalists may be an unrepresentative elite, who, as evidenced by this episode, all know each other and are likely to have certain vested interests. But they do at least have to serve a genuinely diverse audience. Twitter excludes the majority by its very nature. To participate you have to be the kind of person who is interested in sharing 140 letter updates on your thoughts. It would be difficult – and criminally negligent – for, say, a forklift truck driver to participate in the latest Twitter storm while at work. Yet it’s easy for  metropolitan office workers to tweet.

The public nature of updates and its status as the de facto platform for politics mean Twitter is rapidly becoming the national town square, but it’s only notionally open to everyone.

It’s a strange topic to broach, because I almost always completely agree with the what the Twitter mob espouses, but you have to acknowledge that it’s not democratic for any group to have a disproportionate impact on the way opinions are formed and disseminated.

 

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