Tweets less than sweet when it comes to death - The Iron Lady deserved better

10 Apr 2013

Immediately after the John Terry racism trial last summer, a tweet which amused me was that ‘a measure of the 21st century journalist is not found in his skill or professionalism but in how fast he can tweet the verdict in the John Terry trial.’

Monday afternoon’s news that Baroness Margaret Thatcher had died after a sustained illness elicited all manner of reaction from the political blogosphere and the media world, provoking debate about every aspect of her premiership of the country which carried on all the way through the week as the country inquired, once again, whether she was ‘a good thing’ or not.

 

Now, whatever your opinion on the former Prime Minister, this seems a pretty undignified way to go; having every part of your life dragged up again like wild dogs tearing apart the deceased carcass of a once-proud stallion. There were newspaper tributes aplenty on Tuesday morning, but if one thinks about it, how would we like people to find out that we had died? Is a hastily banged out sentence on a social networking site from someone who had met us on maybe, one occasion or even worse, not at all, really the best way to go? Not for me.

As everyone who has advanced into the 21st century and the new age of technology knows, Twitter is all-powerful these days as far as news is concerned. In 2013, Twitter is the journalist’s most powerful tool. Less than ten years ago, the quickest way for the media to report news was to write an article about it and put it up online on their newspaper or magazine’s website. Today, news can be reported in seconds and in fewer than 140 characters, to boot. Twitter is more than simply a social networking site; it is a professional tool and has much to be said for it. However, when death, typically celebrity death is the news, this wonderful professional tool can turn ugly. In an age where social commentators such as the Independent’s Owen Jones and political bloggers such as Guido Fawkes have as much influence as elected politicians themselves, Twitter is the main outlet for such figures to express their thoughts on the political and social issues of the day to tens of thousands of followers, both in the tweeted form of opinions and in links to their articles. 

For the most part, this is a good thing; an excellent thing, in fact. 

Don’t worry, I’m not about to go all Ed Miliband on you re: press regulation. Politicians need to be held to account and it is right that the media have the power to do that to them, it ensures that elected representatives stay on the right side of journalists and don’t fob them off with stock answers to questions, they give the media the real story, which the media then reports to the public. This is a system that could be said to work better in terms of democracy than the actual democracy that in theory comes about through the public voting for their Members of Parliament.

What seems to me hard, and what highlights the potential danger of Twitter and the golden age of technology, is when a celebrity death occurs. Not only does a death such as Thatcher’s bring out the worst in the general public, with reports of street parties in Glasgow and Brixton on Monday night, it also brings the worst out of the online world. 

Every journalist I saw reporting the former Prime Minister’s death did so respectfully, sensitively and candidly, but the size and scope of Twitter is such that the majority of people were made aware of Thatcher’s passing via a social networking website, rather than via the official statement from her family, which, in her days in residence at Number Ten, would be the first people would have heard of any such news. 

So what exactly am I suggesting? Close Twitter down? Ban journalists from reporting deaths on Twitter? 

Of course not. The media have a job to do just like everyone else, and the majority of them do it very well and with sensitivity in cases such as this. What I am suggesting is that Twitter, for all its use as a journalistic tool and its practicality when it comes to reporting news and holding politicians to account, is not without flaws and certainly not without potential danger if taken too seriously or too literally. Margaret Hilda Thatcher was a great woman, a fine Prime Minister and deserved a more dignified reporting of her passing than a few hastily bashed letters on the keyboard from a journalist who barely knew her.

By Alex Shilling

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