Fry defends Twitter but fears his ‘tribune’ status
While liberal spirits dominate the site, all is well. What happens when the enemy join in?
After a week in which Stephen Fry's Twitter posts about Trafigura and Jan Moir have both put him firmly in the public spotlight, the comedian, actor and quiz show host has written at length about his relationship with the popular micro-blogging site.
Fry was the most high-profile of a number of commentators who revealed that it was Trafigura who had slapped an injunction on the Guardian, banning the paper from mentioning a Parliamentary question about the company's alleged involvement in toxic trading. Then he responded to Jan Moir's mean-spirited article in the Daily Mail on Friday about the death of Stephen Gately with a strongly-worded attack, calling her "a repulsive nobody writing in a paper no one of any decency would be seen dead with".
But the incredible popular response to his pieces - more than 21,000 complained to the Press Complaints Commission as a result of his tweet about Moir - has led to criticism that he is a champion of press freedom only when it suits him. In response, Fry has written a six-page blog post titled 'Poles, Politeness and Politics in the age of Twitter'.
Fry begins by declaring his regret that Moir has been attacked by quite so many people, and suggests she will now be able to write "the inevitable Vulnerable Frightened Piece in which she tells the world just how tyrannised, terrorised and victimised she felt". But he goes on to discuss the wider implications of Twitter, and criticises journalists for lazily crediting him with being "a kind of a Citizen Smith of the Twitting Popular Front".
He says he was not cut out for the hurly-burly of adversarial politics: "This whole thing has just grown up around me and now I cannot help wondering if, despite my preference for turd-sucking over politics, I have found myself in a new Fifth Estate political assembly, willy-nilly hailed as some sort of tribune by friendly people on one side and being yelled at by unfriendly people on the other."
Fry, who had 868,689 followers at the time of writing, insists that his joining Twitter "was not part of a clever commercial plan to 'build my brand' (whatever the arse that means) nor to sell tickets, books and DVDs nor to ready myself for government, nor to disseminate a point of view nor to raise my profile in the media."
About how the site has attracted so many people so quickly, Fry says: "'Political consultants' who had never heard of the service six months ago will be hiring themselves out as experts who can create a 'powerful, influential and profitable Twitter brand'. And the moronic and gullible clients will line up for this new nostrum like prairie settlers queuing for snake oil and salvation."
He also discusses the relationship between Twitter and traditional media. "The press dreads Twitter for all kinds of reasons," he writes. "Celebrities (whose doings sell even broadsheet newspapers these days) can cut them out of the loop and speak direct to their fans which is, of course, most humiliating and undermining. But also perhaps the deadwood press loathes Twitter because it is like looking in a time mirror. Twitter is to the public arena what the press itself was 250 years ago - a new and potent force in democracy, a thorn in the side of the established order of things."
And the future? "Twitter may seem to some to be dominated by bien pensant, liberal spirits at the moment. Will I be so optimistic about it when these spirits are matched by forces of religiosity and nationalism that might not accord with my chattering-class, liberal elite preferences? ... What will I say then?"
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
Charlie Brooker of the Guardian on Twitter: "Agree with [Stephen Fry] - I also empathize with Moir: often shot my gob off then regretted it. In 2004 I wrote a dumb (and not even original) Bush joke and ended up getting shouted at by what felt like half of the USA so I know, it can FEEL like you're on the end of an 'orchestrated campaign', even when you aren't really."
Damian Thompson, the Daily Telegraph: "Moir's reputation is in tatters this evening. But, my God, the social media world harbours some pretty smug and self-righteous individuals. The words 'I'm sorry, but you're not allowed to say that!' are never far from their lips – or, to put it another way, only liberals are allowed to be offensive."
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, the Independent: "The ship flying the flag for free speech is often unsteady, sometimes leaky, as it sails capricious, tempestuous seas. Sometimes even the captains jump off and struggle to keep faith with its mission. Like the supremely erudite Stephen Fry who has always, to my knowledge, been an uncompromising champion of free expression, keeping watch on deck whatever the provocations." ·
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