Belfast Telegraph

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Biting political satire is a vital element of our Press tradition

By Paul Connolly

Published 08/05/2015

Twitter users can add an extra 116 characters to any tweet and embed the quoted tweet within the message
Twitter users can add an extra 116 characters to any tweet and embed the quoted tweet within the message

TwitterStorm: "A sudden flurry of activity on the Twitter social networking and microblogging service that influences current events. A focused effort of many people using Twitter to influence current events to their favour."

If's definition of a TwitterStorm is correct, then the Tele found itself at the centre of one seven days ago. OK, it was a minor TwitterStorm, more of a TwitterStrongBreeze. The reason for the Twitter outrage? A humorous article on election posters.

The Telegraph took a sideways look at election posters on the grounds that they are essentially public documents; carefully crafted and polished representations of candidates 'looking their best' - as far as the party PR machine can manage, anyway.

Newspapers are usually serious affairs, and editors need to add light and shade with light-hearted topics, eye-catching photographs and so on.

One of the tools is satire. On this occasion, two Telegraph writers gave acerbic and witty thoughts on the candidates' appearances. Tongues were firmly in cheeks.

Like most of these things there were some genuinely funny lines and some rather contrived ones. But the overall effect, clearly badged, was that it was a bit of satirical comment on nine election posters. So far, so very normal.

That's when TwitterStrongBreeze broke. Several people took to social media under the hashtag #everydaysexism to complain that the spread was sexist as women's appearances were being discussed and lampooned.

Comments included "horribly inappropriate", "asinine", and that the article hinders the work of "getting more women involved in politics".

What the critics initially didn't mention was that more male than female candidates were mocked, and in a similar way about their appearance on the official election posters. And a photo of the Telegraph two-page spread promoted on social media - and which popped up on UTV's website - had been deliberately cropped to only show the female candidates (all grouped in the middle so easy to do) and remove the five men.

Now, newspapers generally take criticism and comment on the chin - it's the business they're in, after all. But the Belfast Telegraph hit back on this occasion with an online article that stated: "This editorial spread has been wilfully misrepresented by being selectively shared online."

The critics then complained that although the Telegraph had indeed interviewed five men and four women, the women were grouped together in the middle and the men around the edges. The conspiracy was that this was a fig leaf to hide the article's real intention: sexist commenting on women's appearances.

A call went out to protest outside the Telegraph offices on the next day. Eleven people turned up; most were reckoned to be from the same political party.

Everyone is entitled to their views, but I think the Telegraph was right to hit back at the misleading crop and slant on social media. There was equality in the satire.

Freedom of expression aside, it is an editor's right to choose what to put into their paper; the readers will soon let them know if they make the wrong call. This was political humour published, incidentally, by an editor who as a columnist railed against everyday sexism long before it became a hashtag.

Ed Miliband is relentlessly mocked for his looks and voice; Eric Pickles for his weight. John Major wore underpants over trousers in Guardian cartoons.

Cutting political satire is commonplace on these islands, and civic life would be the poorer without it.


Belfast Telegraph

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