Abbott's 140 characters in search of a race row


The Labour MP shows that controversy is easy when a tweet is taken out of context, writes DONALD CLARKE

DIANE ABBOTT has got herself into a bit of bother with this Twitter malarkey. The MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington – the first black woman to be elected to the House of Commons – has, not surprisingly, had quite a bit to say about the belated conviction of Stephen Lawrence’s killers. Appearing on Newsnight, Abbott, currently a shadow health minister, made some modest criticisms of the Metropolitan Police. Returning to her handheld device, she paid tribute to the dignified parents of the murdered teenager. Then it all kicked off.

“White people love playing ‘divide rule’. We should not play their game,” she tweeted.

Smelling red, red blood, various Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians grabbed burning torches and marched towards the gothic ramparts of Castle Abbott. Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat leader and metaphorical piñata, accused her of being “crass and stupid”. Nadhim Zahawi, the Tory MP for Stratford-on-Avon, pulled out the “R” word. “A healthy society should not tolerate any form of racism. DAbbott should apologise and resign or EdM must sack her,” he tweeted.

At time of writing, the furore looked to be dying down. Abbott apologised and argued (with some justification) that the quote was taken out of context. The Labour leadership made a few negative noises. Abbott is still in a position to comment on bowel cancer screening facilities in South Wirral.

Space prohibits a discussion on the inadvisability of drawing bald parallels between black people’s attitudes towards their white neighbours and white citizens’ opinions on minority communities.

“What if a white person said something similar about black people?” many have screeched. Well, we would – considering that such a person speaks from a position of cultural dominance – probably treat the statement very differently. Quite right too.

Something should, however, be said about the way the press reports comments on social media. It is worth remembering that Abbott’s remark appeared as part of a conversation with a fellow Tweeter. Bim Adewunmi had gently castigated Abbott for using the phrase “black community” as a generalisation. “I understand the cultural point you are making. But you are playing into a ‘divide and rule’ agenda,” Abbott replied before going on to make the notorious remark.

Most of us can imagine, while in the heat of discussion, letting slip a phrase that, if analysed in isolation, might allow us to come across like a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. If preparing an article for publication, Abbott might, perhaps, have written: “Many white people have, from time to time, adopted a policy of ‘divide rule’.”

Then again, she might not. Perhaps she does believe we all think exactly the same. It cannot, however, be denied that a distinction exists between snippets of an online conversation and statements delivered to camera, within newspaper articles or as part of a public speech.

This is not to say that Abbott – a grown woman, who plays the game hard – should not have taken more caution when replying to her correspondent. Open dialogue on Twitter is not a private conversation. But such statements do occupy a nebulous territory between idle chat and public pronouncement. The tweeter feels a little as if he or she is carrying on a conversation by text. Unhappily, a few thousand (in Abbott’s case) watchful eavesdroppers monitor such exchanges.

As time has passed and journalists have become more comfortable with the new media – the younger pups actually grew up in the online age – newspapers have developed a better understanding of such distinctions.

In the early days of the internet, news editors often regarded websites as if, treated at face value, they were significantly more reliable than the ravings of That Man in the Pub.

About a decade ago, the Observer, commenting on a site that allowed visitors to pretend they were raising a baby, argued it had found evidence that young people were less likely to commit to parenthood. This is rather like suggesting that the popularity of Angry Birds proves the general public enjoys the ritual torture and annihilation of blameless pigs. It’s a gag, grandad!

This writer doesn’t much bother with Twitter. There are, already, quite enough places where citizens can go to publicly denounce that Clarke bloke as a bald idiot (you’re doing that right now, aren’t you, DarkKnight226?). Try as you might, it seems nearly impossible to navigate the feeds without hearing what somebody is having for dinner or how difficult it is to clear the gutters of leaf mulch. But the service has undeniable value as a monitor of what’s being discussed out there in the chattersphere.

It is, nonetheless, worth keeping in mind the distinction between online banter and more carefully considered, soberly composed ponderings.

You already know this. Didn’t one stray tweet recently destroy some poor sap’s presidential campaign? #couldntmakeitup