Belfast Telegraph

Citizen journalists? They are just internet whingers

By Fionola Meredith

It hasn't been a great few weeks for what internet bloggers call, with withering disdain, the ‘mainstream media’.

First there was the disgrace of Johann Hari, the star columnist with The Independent, who has admitted plagiarism allegations and has been sent off to expiate his sins on a journalism training course.

Hari has also admitted attacking his critics, behind the cover of a pseudonym, by editing their Wikipedia entries; he maliciously called one anti-Semitic and homophobic and another a drunk.

Then there's the case of Dr Steven King, the former personal adviser to David Trimble, whose column with the Irish Examiner has been discontinued following allegations of plagiarism.

Hari has issued what Private Eye wryly calls a ‘mea minima culpa’, but King’s would seem to be the stranger case: he appears to have simply regurgitated, almost word for word, large chunks of another man's work.

If he did so, it seems extraordinary – first, that he thought he could get away with it and, secondly, that he felt the need to do it in the first place.

King is intelligent, articulate, and presumably not short of his own opinions. Hari's antics simply look sneaky and skullduggerous, but the allegations against King seem to point to some kind of public meltdown.

Either way, it's a victory on a plate for those so-called ‘citizen journalists' who constantly carp about the continuing drop in media standards, bemoaning the lack of quality and depth of analysis in the mainstream print and broadcast media. They love the Hari and King stories, because they seem to confirm all their wildest suspicions; that paid journalists are too fat, lazy and indulged to do any real work.

There's nothing these guys — and, yes, they mainly are guys; sad, resentful men, with the veins standing out on their foreheads, blattering away at their keyboards in the middle of the night — like better than to attack writers who get paid for their work.

The abuse that they dole out, which I assume is largely motivated by envy that they aren't receiving any cash for their far superior efforts and insight, can be vicious.

I've been on the receiving end of it myself, as have most journalists and commentators. You have to have a thick skin to expose yourself to the scattergun invective of the internet.

I always take a very deep breath before looking at the comments underneath any article I have written, because I know that there will be at least a few hateful, mean-spirited and bitchy jibes.

It's not that I have a problem with people disagreeing with me. But I do have a problem with nastiness just for the sake of it, just as a way to vent some bitter, half-examined personal animus, hidden behind the convenience of an anonymous username.

Female commentators in particular, seem to attract especially vicious attacks and are frequently accused of sexual jealousy, or mental instability.

Old prejudices die hard, it seems. Others bloggers adopt a patronising tone of world-weary ennui: one very common, childish jibe currently doing the rounds in the world of online comment is to simply add the letters ‘zzzzzzz’ after the journalist's name, as if to imply that the writer's thoughts are so desperately boring that they have sent readers to sleep.

Here's an idea, chum: if it's that tedious, why not just get off to bed, instead of staying up until 3.01am to pump out endless quantities of obscure, poorly-spelled rant in response?

I do enjoy some of the insults, though, especially the Biblically-inspired ones. Recently, someone called me a ‘rattlesnake with lipstick', a caption I'm thinking of adding to my business card. Sharp, slippery, but with a touch of glamour. What's not to like?

The crazy thing is that the mainstream media has capitulated to this so-called ‘democratisation of debate'. Now everyone and anyone can be a citizen journalist and the media assiduously courts their opinion on everything.

Text us, call us, e-mail us with your thoughts. It's not all bad — sometimes you hear an unusual point of view, a genuinely fresh argument or observation. Other times, the responses can be predictable, pedestrian and, yes, boring. Zzzzzzz.

It isn't democracy when you simply throw the floor open to those who can shout loudest. The mainstream media may have its faults, but it does at least offer some fundamental standards of accountability, quality and editorial control. We've been pandering to these anonymous, point-scoring internet whingers for too long.

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