Why we need more words, but not from BBC online

You would have to have been enjoying real life to miss the storm-in-a-tweetcup over the weekend in which Stephen Fry overreacted to a slightly negative comment on Twitter, to which a whole load of people without the excuse of being stressed and bipolar overreacted with even less attention to grammar and spelling (including an alarmingly aggressive Alan Davies).

But special points must be given to BBC online, who managed to turn the whole thing into something it certainly wasn’t: a news story.

As well as confirming our oft-repeated complaint that BBC online is unacceptably sloppy, the article shows a level of blinkeredness that even the Daily Mail might briefly blush at. After reporting that a number of twitterers rallied round in support of Mr Fry, the article adds that “not everyone has been supportive”, apparently on the basis that @Malcurion wrote: “The Stephen Fry story is NOT news, BBC, Sky, et al. Wake up.”

The assumption that @Malcurion was being in any way unsupportive of Stephen Fry takes a special kind of journalistic stupidity. Unless they meant that @Malcurion hadn’t been supportive of BBC online itself. Either way, @Malcurion is damn right, but the people he’s telling to wake up are so fast asleep that he’s wasting his time.

Of course, the story also shows that there are a whole load of other people who need to wake up – if nothing else, it shows that there are many ways in which 140 characters can be misinterpreted and misunderstood, and which hasty, illiterate responses of 140 characters will only escalate until respectable family entertainers are describing members of the public as “the biggest tosser on twitter” and the whole internet is ganging up on a poor guy who was only being lighthearted in the first place.

There is a news story here, and in case anybody at BBC online wants to write it, it is this: communication requires more than a 140 characters. In addition, communication requires time, to listen, think and understand. Fortunately, this incident was all over pretty quickly and Mr Fry himself has stepped in to resolve things. But it’s a warning to a culture obsessed by easy statements and instant responses – because if we’re not careful, before we know it the people who run the country will be dismissing complex and thorough reports on primary education or sacking scientific experts without even bothering to listen to or understand them, and then where will we be?

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