Tag Archives: nick-cohen

Why Nick Cohen should worry less about twitchforks and more about the media Frankenstein

Nick Cohen is up in arms about how Twitter is embracing the power of the mob and that this is bad news for freedom of speech. Ironically (at least ironic to anyone who has read Mr Cohen’s denunciations Revolutionary Communists), his old sparring partner Brendan O’Neill feels the same way.

I have to say there is a grain of truth in what they are saying. Twitter has proven itself as a useful tool for fighting the forces of darkness, but it has not yet been successfully used to actually deliver progressive ends more positively. It is a profoundly reactionary medium and while it has been dominated by the left thus far we should be prepared for the fact that this may not always be the case.

The case of Jan Moir’s deplorable column about Stephen Gately’s death is an interesting one. Personally speaking, the closest I have come to having a feeling either way about Boyzone and its alumni is resenting their cold blooded murder of Baby Can I Hold You? by Tracy Chapman, which unaccountably has still not been brought before The Hague. I was profoundly and deeply unmoved by Stephen Gately’s death in the same way that I am by all the other thousands of people who die every day. Nonetheless, Ms Moir’s article was one of the most mealy-mouthed and cowardly homophobic attacks I’ve read in a UK national newspaper and it deserved a response. I’m not entirely sure the right response however was to complain to the Press Complaint’s Commission. Any PCC which rules that the Daily Mail was not entitled to publish a piece of spiteful bile like that is not one I would want to have operating in this country, on a statutory footing or not. It is only a short hop, skip and jump from there to having David Miliband prosecute a newspaper for making allegations about Binyam Mohammed’s torture in the face of the official record. Let’s not go there.

What was very much positive was the fact that many more than 22,000 people took a stand against Ms Moir and the Mail and forced a tacit admission – if not a convincing apology – that they had behaved unacceptably. This was a triumph for common human decency. They haven’t been censored but they certainly have been censured. I can’t see how this small tactical victory in the fight against the coarsening public of discourse can be in any way reprehensible and the idea that millions of tweeters should have their freedom of expression clamped down on just so a few newspaper editors and their muckrakers can have theirs is pure self-regarding nonsense coming from the fourth estate.

Mr Cohen should be less worried about censorship and more worried about the vacility of the media in the face of a few thousand emails. Mr Cohen cited the Jonathan Ross-Russell Brand-Andrew Sachs incident. Here was an example where public opinion was genuinely divided, yet the BBC went for the path of least resistence and chose to side with those who shouted the loudest. The PCC would be equally wrong to somehow punish the Mail for publishing Ms Moir’s article (not that I’m very clear what exactly it could do). By the same token, I didn’t bother complaining to the PCC about the Telegraph’s unfounded attack on Jo Swinson (and presumably she didn’t either) because I knew they would ignore it and I could never rustle up a “mob” to force them to listen. We shouldn’t have to raise an online mob to persuade the media’s watchdog’s to do the right thing but if that’s what it takes then it is inevitable that people will feel they have to organise in that way. The solution is simple: get a better watchdog.

The biggest threat to the freedom of the media is their own failure to take a stance in defence of it and to engage in this mad rush to the bottom. If Mr Cohen thinks the problem is rooted in the fact that a few million people suddenly have a slightly louder voice than they had a few years ago, he is part of the problem.

The limits of collective bargaining

No-one can deny that collective bargaining has brought ordinary people very real rights that they could never have acquired through other means. Every employee in the country has a lot to be grateful to the Labour Movement.

But there comes a point where the disadvantages of the hive mind approach starts to outweigh the advantages. Arguably, that point was reached in the 1970s when the Unions began to behave as if they could order governments around, whether Labour or Conservative, which inevitably resulted in a backlash and thus their nemesis, the very much undead alive Mrs T.

I would argue that another example of its limitations is going on right now. For the last ten years, local authorities have been obliged to pay female workers on the same rates as male workers. Yet, fearful of job cuts, trade unions have been negotiating pay deals which undermine affected women workers, to the point that they have been frequently shown to be illegal.

In this case, collective bargaining has meant that unions have compromised womens’ rights, many of whom were never even consulted. Now, you might argue that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but the law’s the law, and the union-brokered deals have relied on these women, some of the most vulnerable in society, being ignorant of their rights.

Women have had no recourse but to get solicitors to fight their corner, and there are plenty of solicitors willing to take these cases on on a no-win no-fee basis (not least of all because they have pretty cast iron cases).

This is, in fact, a classic example of capitalism working to empower and protect people’s rights. A cause for celebration? Well, according to trade unionists, the lawyers who are helping these women are, to quote Chris Mullin, “parasites”. This view was echoed by Phil Woolas on the Today programme on Tuesday. That vanguard of socialism Nick Cohen says much the same thing.

Some of us happen to think that rights are indivisible; if there is a genuine tension as in this case, then local authorities should consult with the whole workforce, not leave it to their buddies in the unions to stitch it up for them. If Labour truly believe that women’s rights can be negotiated away by (predominently male) trade unionists, they should simply put their money where their mouths are and scrap the Equal Opportunities Act. After all, we know they only consider their much vaunted all women shortlists a priority if one of Gordon Brown’s pals doesn’t want the seat.

The most grimly ironic thing about all this though is that it was Labour who introduced pro bono in the UK as a first step to their dismantlement of legal aid. Overall, I’m sure they will be comforted in the knowledge that where trade union incompetence hasn’t left them so open to legal action, vulnerable people will have much less recourse now.