Fawning instant tweets look foolish if they fail test of time

Festival of sycophancy as ‘Guardian’ editor announces he is to step down

Alan Rusbridger: ‘An excellent editor, by most accounts, and can play Chopin’s Ballade No 1 on piano.’ Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

Alan Rusbridger: ‘An excellent editor, by most accounts, and can play Chopin’s Ballade No 1 on piano.’ Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

 

In 1990, when I had been at the Financial Times only a shortish time, the then editor resigned. I liked him; he had been kind to me and I was sorry to see him go. But I was also very junior and had a proper horror of brown-nosing. Should I write him a letter, I wondered? Or would that be unseemly?

In the end I didn’t write one, but only because I had spent so long dithering I had missed my moment. For a journalist to be several weeks late responding to news was not going to look good.

Since then the world has speeded up, so any response happens not in weeks but in minutes. It has also gone social: we no longer address our words of farewell to the person concerned but to everyone with an internet connection. And most remarkable of all, somewhere along the way, our aversion to brown-nosing has got lost. It is not something to be done shamefully in secret, but proudly and with as much fanfare as possible.

When Alan Rusbridger resigned as editor of the Guardian last Wednesday, the following spectacle played out on Twitter. Within a minute of the news getting out, the eulogies began. One former colleague tweeted: “few people in the history of journalism have had the vision and talent of @arusbridger – or could play the piano as well. A great editor.”

Then others piled in, tweeting “British journalism won’t be the same without @arusbridger. If you think the tweets you’re seeing are excessive, you just never saw him work.”

Grim fascination

Rusbridger, . But tweets are a vulgar way of saying so, and don’t even necessarily prove their point. Even in the pre-internet age, there was never a particularly strong link between public declarations of praise from interested parties and a person’s true value.

When King Lear decided it was time to carve up his kingdom he asked his daughters how much they loved him. “Sir, I do love you more than words can wield the matter,” said Regan, which Goneril trumped by saying she loved him just as much – and then some.

I couldn’t help thinking of the warring sisters when I read the competing tweets from two of the most hotly tipped successors to Rusbridger. First to declare her love for her departing editor was Janine Gibson. “Alan Rusbridger: Once in a generation editor; best boss ever; good at surprises,” she tweeted. Her rival for the top job, Katherine Viner, followed suit with her paean in 140 characters or fewer: “Alan Rusbridger – for 17 years my inspiring editor: never afraid, always pushing us to be bigger, bolder, braver.”

Fortunately, the Guardian has its own Cordelia in the shape of Patrick Wintour, its political editor. “Alan Rusbridger steps down as Editor in Chief of the Guardian in the summer of 2015 becoming chairman of the Scott Trust, ” his more dignified tweet read.

At the Economist, the other British media outfit to have lost an editor last week, tweeting by staff was more restrained. Only a few said they would miss their boss, and even fewer opted to fawn. “John Micklethwait, our outstanding editor at @TheEconomist becomes Bloomberg editor in chief. They are very lucky,” one wrote. Otherwise Economist journalists adopted the more tasteful Cordelia position and tweeted the facts.

Discourse vs decorum

There was no point in sucking up on Twitter, as one of the most remarkable things about the departing Economist editor is he has managed to lead a media organisation without tweeting at all.

An even more powerful objection to tweeted eulogies is that a legacy is more properly judged in years than in seconds.

This was brought home to me last week at the office Christmas book sale. As colleagues scrambled for bargains, I noticed that being trampled underfoot was a sad copy of the book written by a man who received instant plaudits when he quit his job three years ago.

Last week there were no takers for Terry Leahy’s why-I’m-so-great management memoir, even with the price slashed by 95 per cent. Given Tesco is halfway down the tubes partly as a result of Leahy’s dodgy legacy, demand was limited for his homilies on truth, loyalty and courage.

Even the title, Management in 10 Words, now seems like a blatant case of mis-selling. It is management in 312 – somewhat discredited – pages. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014)

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