David Amess and the twilight of the commentariat
Blaming social media for a brutal killing is a new low for the professionally opinionated.
As night fell on the shocking murder of Sir David Amess last week, virtually the only conceivable malevolent forces that hadn’t been identified as likely culprits were his exposure to ridicule after being duped into speaking out against Cake (‘a made-up drug’) on Brass Eye, and of course the sheer murderous wickedness of the perpetrator himself.
It has frankly been a rather dispiriting display, watching hobby horses being mounted in haste and forced to leap to conclusions that had very little evident connection with the hideous events which had just occurred. It might be a bit early into my tenure as one of spiked’s new Hip-Replacement Gunslingers to start decrying the very notion of the Professional Take, and the Haver of Opinions. But boy, has that trade taken a hammering these past few days.
‘Whereof one cannot speak’, said Wittgenstein, fully a hundred years ago, ‘thereof one must be silent’. You’d think the underlying causes of a sudden, bloody attack on a much-loved public servant might fall into that category – at least while the blood was still coagulating on a priest-free crime scene. But no, it seems not. If Ludwig’s ghost was directing his famously piercing gaze across the intervening century towards the distinctly unsilent, if grave and sombre, figures hunched over their keyboards, desperately trying to strike the right note while still clearing their shelves of some old stock – a slightly foxed reflection here, a shop-worn solution here – well, fat lot of good it did him.
Having a flexible range of bespoke opinions is a luxury, one that most of us manage fine without. The great majority try to get round life’s golf course with at most a couple of drivers, a wedge of some sort and a putter that doubles as a walking, or leaning, stick. At least one or two of these clubs have been handed down to us by our father, a cleverer workmate or perhaps a favourite pro. And this is fine. At least, it doesn’t really matter. Strong, coherent opinions aren’t the stuff of good friendships, let alone marriages. They are just something to have between meals.
But from the hacks you expect to see a more extensive range available. Yet it has become increasingly obvious in the past week that a great many of them are packing just as half-empty a bag as the rest of us, and treat every ball as if it is lying in the same thicket. Currently, that thicket is the threat that social media, and especially anonymity thereon, present to the Discourse.
The instinctive flex of many MPs, to make a scapegoat of the trolls that lurk under the bridge connecting them to the Green Grass of Public Engagement, is perhaps a forgivable error. Especially those who are getting it in the neck from them morning, noon and night. Many MPs – of both sexes and all shades and thickness of hide – endure such a relentless stream of death threats and abuse, spattering against their front doors every day like verbal silage, that it would be a huge relief, I have no doubt, for them to identify a really solid case against allowing the public to continue to hide behind digital hedges as they hurl their filth.
Fair enough. But this is why it is incumbent upon the news media to gently but firmly detach them from that understandable pursuit and redirect their attention to the issues that might actually lie behind the killing of their colleague. Instead, the inclination of the newspapers, TV and talk-radio stations to amplify and tease out this focus on the very worst scuttling rats in the rafters of Twitter, in particular, into a full spectrum critique of the whole platform – that is more sinister.
The fact is that social media, as Marshall McLuhan would surely have understood, are a threat to the monopoly on opinion once enjoyed by these businesses. Social media are their arch rivals in the attention economy. To paint these platforms as irredeemably rotten from basement to roof is very tempting.
I don’t like the term legacy media. I think it summons up too many images of old-school ties, wood-panelled studies and burnished Maxply rackets in wingnut presses, rather than the smell of stale sweat, sexual harassment, stewing coffee and unemptied ashtrays of which traditional editorial offices typically consisted. Legacy is too polished-walnut and New England Fall. But it certainly gestures at the sense of a vested interest trying to look like a legitimate heir.
Twitter by comparison is at best a scholarship boy, quite possibly grammar, and the idea is that you can’t trust it. It is suggested that Twitter is not merely harbouring anonymous accounts but actively encouraging them to cause trouble, to radicalise and to stir. That all the incentive structures, however unintentionally, are perverse and lead predictably – inevitably – to misery, discord, mayhem and now, don’t say we didn’t warn you, murder.
In a way, I do feel sorry for them. The authority of the former media titans is now as bedraggled as the mane of a deposed despot, a Gaddafi or Saddam, sheltering under a corrugated cow roof with straw in his beard, scribbling furious instructions to his last loyal factotum, who daren’t tell them what he does with them.
Nothing would make legacy media happier than to be able to paint Twitter as not merely riddled with the cancer, but actually consisting of it. Of being not turtles, but crabs, all the way down. And to reassure us that, don’t worry, once you have seen the folly of your ways, we are waiting here still.
But the idea that the ‘coarsening’ of debate online has somehow led to this present outrage is honestly deranged, not to say insulting.
One theory was that social media were targeted because no one can dare confront the threat that Islamic terrorism now presents in the UK, or the supposedly inevitable backlash that identifying it would trigger. But it is far from clear that it is even radical Islamism that was behind the attack. A man has been arrested and the incident is being treated as terrorism – but that’s about as much as we know so far. While far more serious than mean tweets, and far more likely to be implicated, Islamism isn’t the only reason a Muslim might commit murder and this one may well prove to be something else. We just don’t know, yet.
So, whereof I cannot speak, I shall keep schtum. Besides, it would be pretty rich for me to kick off a column as I have done and then attempt to wrap up an ongoing investigation by the end.
But the death of Colin Powell this week surely reminds us that if there is one thing that the threat or commission of Islamic terror is good for, politically, it is for providing a smokescreen for what might otherwise prove unpopular – and unwise – governmental action.
Two things stand out for me, as needing to be said. One is that anonymity is not merely a right, in the right hands it is a public good. It is often only the anonymous or pseudonymous accounts on Twitter and elsewhere that are still able to speak freely on all manner of controversies, without fear of unemployment, ostracism or indeed death threats.
Those who can make you believe absurdities, warned Voltaire, can make you commit atrocities. Once those absurdities get elevated to a certain height, it can be very hard, and take some courage, to break cover and start shying rocks at them.
Voltaire was a committed Anglophile, and he very much approved of the discourse as he found it here, in all its robust good health. But one can only imagine what he would have thought of some of the absurdities one is currently expected to believe, or at least not openly challenge. Our best anons are among our last lines of defence against these abuses of reason. Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth. And it is worth noticing that the greatest iconoclast of his age – the man who dared observe that if God had not existed, he would have had to be invented; as close to outright atheism as anyone dared come at that time – also adopted a mask. Voltaire was in his own small way an anon. It is his kind that reminds us that this nonsense can be challenged, that it wobbles much more easily than you might think.
Indeed, it was effectively as an anon that Brass Eye’s Chris Morris presented Amess with the campaigning of FUKD and BOMBD – ‘Free the United Kingdom from Drugs (Incorporating British Opposition to Metabolically Bisturbile Drugs)’. It might seem disrespectful to bring this episode up under the circumstances, but the fact is that episode remains what a lot of people knew Sir David Amess for, until last week. And the funny thing is, I don’t think he came out of it badly at all.
Amess came across on that show – which you can still see on YouTube – as sincere, yes, almost painfully so, and heartbreakingly eager to please. Gullible, even. But not as morally defective in any way. Not as a self-canonising, worthier-than-thou plonker like Noel Edmonds or a well-meaning but out-of-his-depth-in-a-puddle belligerent like dear old Bernard Manning. He presented as a hard-working, trusting and selfless public servant who would never stop to wonder exactly how a bright yellow pill the size of a dinner plate might give Czech Neck to the young ‘Custard Gannets’ who were supposedly taking the stuff. Possibly because only a couple of years before, Leah Betts had become the most famous young victim to succumb to Ecstasy, a death that must have been as tragic and absurd to Amess as the idea of Cake itself.
As so often in his matchless satire, Morris made us think about the pretensions and shortcomings of broadcast news media in a way that broadcast news media are so repeatedly and tiresomely unable to make us think about almost anything, let alone Twitter.
He might also have made us think about the dangers of appeal to authority generally.
But I doubt anyone ended that show feeling the same sort of contempt for Amess as they did for most of Morris’s victims. For myself, I have only ever felt affection towards him ever since.
Meanwhile, Amess’s own approach to his job remained by all accounts undamaged. If his ego was bruised, it deterred him no more than would a stubbed toe. He remained largely anonymous himself – most people outside Southend were scarcely aware of him, and he evinced no ministerial ambitions at all. Instead, he dedicated his professional life – and as so often with MPs, large chunks of what might reasonably have been assigned to friends and family – to trying to help people. And he did that by treating each and every case, each and every problem, complaint or request that came before him, as the thing itself, and not as some avatar for a pet cause that he happened to quietly believe to be more important.
It really does seem to me that the very least we might do is pay him the respect of treating this crime, and his horrible, untimely death, with the same degree of objective respect.
Simon Evans is a spiked columnist and stand-up comedian. He is currently on tour with his show, Work of the Devil. You can buy tickets here.
Picture by: Getty.
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