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.
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.