'Journalists think before they write - bloggers write before they think', runs the popular mantra of those who extol the virtues of professional journalists over bloggers.
The uproar over Jan Moir's article in the Daily Mail last week prompted my own article on the hypocrisy of the Twittter crowd who had jubilantly hailed their own success at ensuring 'free speech' in rendering Carter-Ruck's injunction against the Guardian newspaper meaningless, and were now being employed in a campaign to condemn and 'punish' a similar example of 'free speech' - this time one that they didn't approve of.
Across the blogosphere, acres of bandwidth were employed to debate the issues. Global warming took another step forward to provide the newsprint to defend (rarely) or condemn Jan Moir for her temerity in speaking her mind in print.
So many voices, so many uninformed. The few who were columnists - Roy Greenslade amongst them, were not Gay. The few who were Gay were not newspaper columnists - notably Iain Dale. I wanted to hear from someone who was truly an informed commentator, someone who understood the Gay issues involved, and also understood the parameters within which a newspaper columnist should operate.
I decided to ask Matthew Parris. He was kind enough to tell me. I didn't ask for his opinion on the Jan Moir article, I was more interested in how much thought columnists should give to the possible repercussions of their writing before 'putting the paper to bed'.
"How much of a mental tightrope do you, as a professional columnist, walk before committing yourself to print – do you write from the heart, or from the head, mindful of your advertisers", I asked?
Matthew says he tries not "to agonise too much. Obviously one must take care not to risk being sued or prosecuted, but if you think too hard about how to avoid offending individuals or groups, it has a chilling effect on the vigorous expression of opinion or comment. The one thing I do think really hard about" he continued "is whether I really believe what I'm writing. To be true to yourself (if you trust yourself, and I do) is what matters most."
Even Bloggers have to think about the risk of being sued or prosecuted before committing to 'publish', but Bloggers appeal to their own niche market, newspapers, theoretically have a wider remit; but mindful of Iain Dale's comment "What is it with the Mail that it wants to alienate 10% of the population?" - "should any 'single interest' group be able to dictate by coercion or any other means, what the majority of the population reads?" I asked.
"We Gays" said Matthew, "and others whose belief is in individual freedom, need to be very, very, careful before we start using statistics about the number of people offended, as arguments for what is effectively a kind of censorship. All sides can play this game. A substantial proportion of Daily Mail readers are probably offended by Gay-sympathetic coverage. The Christian Evangelicals are just as capable as are Gay campaigning groups, of getting a mass-bandwagon going in Social Networking terms"
Here in France, discrimination of any sort is officially frowned upon, in response, many feel, discrimination has been driven underground, forced to become more subtle, I wondered whether these sort of campaigns to 'dictate' the written agenda might not have the same effect.
"Gays need to learn to have broader shoulders" thinks Matthew, "like, for example, the Irish, who almost never complain. When criticism is forbidden it goes underground. Groups who might regard themselves as very successful in deterring public criticism - Pro-Israeli or Pro-Palestinian Lobbies, for instance, or disabled lobbies, actually build up unexpressed resentment."
One feature of the Trafigura/Carter-Ruck affair was the litigant's complaint that the Minton report was premature and didn't contain all the information. A frequent criticism of the Jan Moir article was that it was premature in the sense of intruding on the family's grief. I wondered whether Twitter itself is in danger of being a 'knee-jerk' reaction before all the facts are known, and whether 'timing' affected the validity of speaking out?
"Complainants sometimes sound as though they are asking journalists to wait until public interest in a story has faded, before we write about it"
"Good journalism has always waded in, fists flying, before final judgments have been reached"
Last word to Matthew...
"So it should"