On social media, power should still come with responsibility

News of the World - soon to be no more

I once sat in a council planning meeting where 30 people had turned up to oppose a new housing estate. They had all written identical letters to the planning committee, presumably operating as some sort of action group. The chairman of the planning committee told them only one of them could speak about the plans. His reasoning was that if they’d all written the same letter, then they all had the same points to make.

It felt quite remarkable and undemocratic at the time. In effect he was saying ‘protesting shouldn’t be easy.’ Or maybe he was saying ‘If you really cared about this, you’d have made more of an effort.’

I was reminded of this today as news of the closure of the News of the World was announced. From some on Twitter, there was a sense of jubilation, perhaps best summed up by this tweet from Lord Prescott:


I think this is the first time I have ever seen a politician celebrate the loss of 200 jobs. But then again, as I blogged earlier this week, Prezza will stop at nothing in his personal war against Rupert Murdoch, a war which he managed to put on hold during the years Murdoch backed New Labour. As an aside, Prezza told Jeff Randall on Sky News tonight that he’d told both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown he was uncomfortable with how close New Labour was to Murdoch.

This tells us one of two things: Either Prezza is suffering an acute case of 20:20 hindsight, or Blair and Brown didn’t feel the need to pay attention to a man who was, in theory, the deputy prime minister. I suspect a bit of both.

That all said, it is worth examining the impact the Twitter and Facebook campaign has had since the first revelations on Monday that it wasn’t just celebrities who are alleged to have been the targets of the News of the World hackers.

Within hours, the idea of contacting the firms which advertise in the News of the World asking them to pull their adverts had taken off. A website which allowed people to send pre-written emails to companies such as Cadbury and Butlins appeared. With one click, this site let you send pre-written tweets to the accounts of similar companies.

Without leaving your desk, without even having to eat into your lunch hour, it was possible to become part of a groundswell of opinion which had risen up because they wanted to do something. And that’s quite understandable, because what was being alleged was, and remains, horrible. And the allegations got worse.

The campaign clearly had an impact. Big firms started pulling their advertising. Others spoke of ‘reviewing their advertising’ which is an argument which roughly translates as ‘we’re saying something to look like we’re doing something.’

So, did that campaign lead to the closure of the News of the World? Well, those behind it are claiming so, as did Prezza in that tweet above. Greater minds than mine will point to various other aspects in play – not least the BSkyB deal – but seeing as campaigners are claiming victory, what sort of victory have they got?

Well, the woman whose head many people have been calling for remains in post as chief executive. The deal for the Murdochs to take total control of BSkyB appears to still be on, and it’s quite likely the News of the World will be replaced by a Sun on Sunday – not a Sunday Sun, there’s been one of those in the North East for many years – into which all those advertisers boycotting the News of the World can return, hoping to make contact with the 2.9million ABC1 readers the News of the World has.

And then there’s the 200 journalists who are out of a job. Critics of the News of the World deride it as being all about kiss and tells, but there’s much more to it than that. And what’s more, most of those 200 journalists at the paper had nothing to do with phone hacking. As David Wooding, the political editor of 18 months at the paper said so eloquently, he and his colleagues are paying the price for those who have gone before them.

Is that fair? I’d argue not – and many of those who were contacting advertisers were saying as much on Twitter last night. Even Prezza admitted he didn’t want to see ‘200 workers’ put out of work. But perhaps they, and he, should have thought about that before pressing send on the retweet button.

Rory Cellan-Jones summed it up like this on his blog: 

You can argue, probably correctly, that the Twitterati are a minority unrepresentative group amongst whom you would struggle to find a News of The World reader. But the likes of @the_z_factor and@eroticpuffin – who’ve been tweeting up a storm over the last 24 hours – have shown how effective social media can be as a campaigning weapon. I wouldn’t mind betting that they’ll be getting calls over the coming weeks from an advertising industry keen to learn lessons from their campaign.

What Rory has summed up there is the brilliance of social media. It gives so many more people a voice. It has the ability to hold authorities to account – so long as they engage with the platform and with their critics, something many politicians, including Prezza, have yet to grasp.

But with that ability to project your voice comes a responsibility. Whereas once getting involved in a campaign involved time and effort, and starting a campaign began with the need to achieve something, it’s now almost too easy.

Social media makes it possible to do something just to feel to be doing something. That, in itself, may not be a bad thing – but campaigning without considering the consequences is a very dangerous place to be – as 200 people are tonight finding out.

With power comes responsibility. It’s the lesson which politicians say the media needs to learn. I’d argue that it’s something we need to remember on social media too. Maybe that planning councillor had a point after all.



4 thoughts on “On social media, power should still come with responsibility

  1. Like many journalists I didn’t want to see NotW close and throw people out of their jobs. As a consumer, however, yes I emailed nPower and Tesco to challenge them on their advertising stance. Like many, I expected any advertising withdrawal to be temporary, maybe a week or a few to punish Murdoch before resuming business as usual.I suspect that I like many other journalists have faced this dilemma over the last couple of days. What I wanted was to see consumer pressure force Brooks out, because I do see her as the one who should take ultimate responsibility for the scandals that happened under her editorialship. I’m distraught that 500 staff, the vast majority of whom joined NotW after the hacking scandals took place, are being sacrificed to save her. I suspect many others feel the same. I’m proud that consumer power had such a powerful effect on NewsCorp yet at the same time devastated that Murdoch has used that to sack 500 largely innocent journalists so as to save Brooks. No one wins here.

  2. The only potential winners I see here are advertisers – if a Sun on Sunday emerges, it won’t have the same commanding position over that end of the market, therefore a more competitive rate card will be required.

    With regards the campaign, I think you’ve probably thought about it much more than a lot of people who took part.

    I think the campaign was proof that people can rush without thinking on social networks.
    The campaign was very much a blunt instrument, and was aimed against the newspaper. There was no suggestion in the pre-written emails that people would boycott the paper until Rebekah Brooks was removed from office, or in the automated tweets people could send. Had the campaign been targetted better, then I think it less likely so many people now face being out of work. As it is, a quick campaign like this because people felt they had to do something effectively put those people at the NoTW in the firing line.

  3. The other issue with the advertisers was that as they began to pull out, they failed to say whether it was for this Sunday, for a bit longer (until maybe Brooks was ousted), until the conclusion of any inquiry or permanently. Only Sainsbury’s was transparent on that score. This was why I only contacted those advertisers I do business with as a consumer and asked them about their position. I didn’t engage in random clicktivism with brands such as 3 or Orange because I don’t use them. Consumer boycotts can be immensely powerful, as this episode has proved, but individuals need to think them through.

    For journalists, it’s far more complex though than for other people because we are wearing two hats – one as journalists and one as consumers. This creates a huge dilemma over how best to act in such a situation.

    I can’t help but agree with NUJ vice-president Donnacha De Long in the Guardian today – that if the NUJ had been permitted to maintain a chapel at Wapping, there would have been more checks and balances, firstly through collective pressure to counter poor management and secondly because members are bound by the code of practice, which demands an ethical approach and could have helped curb the excesses at NotW.

  4. I think that’s a little opportunistic by the NUJ. Easy to say in hindsight that NUJ members are bound by a code of practice, but most journalists know right from wrong anyway. Given the Information Commissioner alleges data protection issues at many titles, presumably including those where the NUJ is recognised, I think the NUJ’s stance here should be taken with a pinch of salt.

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