Is there a more straight-forward explanation to how the Twitterstorm erupted?
It all stems from Amy Rutland’s intervention on Question Time [*wingtip Political Scrapbook*] where she tore into UKIP (who had Diane James, the Eastleigh candidate as a panellist) over their behaviour during the Eastleigh by-election. And she didn’t pull her punches. I was half-distracted by Puffles’ Twitterstream when I saw the feed erupt with delight. ‘Yeah – you tell them young lady! Throw the other punch! Slam dunk that Understanding Kilroy’s Image Problem stooge over #dodgystatsgate!!!’ was the general tone. Sorry, that acronym which was first used by BBC Dead Ringers when spoofing Robert Kilroy Silk’s membership of the party back in 2004, and it’s stuck ever since.
I then noticed that people were tweeting the Twitter-handle of the audience member concerned as Amy Rutland. The other thing I noticed was that she was following Puffles! Rewinding the online footage, I had a listen to what she said again – this time concentrating. My first reaction was that she had well and truly slam-dunked UKIP over their use of statistics. Diane James – as quite possibly most other politicians would have been – was clearly rattled. It’s why she (understandably) wanted to deal with the other question first so as to give her time to ponder a response to Amy (as I probably would have done if I was in her position). But Dimbleby wouldn’t let her. (As an aside, Dimblebot was noticeable by its absence that evening).
Labour tweeters were absolutely delighted – and it was noticeable that a number of fairly well-known Labour politicians were tweeting their congratulations to Amy on calling UKIP out in no uncertain terms.
But then came the backlash
And it came with added venom at an intensity that I had never seen before on Twitter. UKIP supporters didn’t pull their punches – a number resorting to personal insults about Amy’s appearance. It was also noticeable that the majority of those responding criticising or insulting Amy were male tweeters too. In the run-up to International Women’s Day, this led to a number of Twitter clashes between UKIP defenders on one side, and Labour & feminists on the other.
Having seen Amy’s tweet about tearing into Diane James which she sent before the show was broadcast – it’s not broadcast live unlike BBC Free Speech – my guess was that she had already made the comments at the recording, and tweeted what she had done after the recording was over but before it was broadcast on telly. Hence my thinking that it was a timing issue.
Twiggs from the Labour tree?
As the above-link states, Amy tweeted that she had been working with Stephen Twigg [of Portillo 1997 fame] – one of the other panellists representing Labour. Twigg has gone down in Labour folklore as the man who brought down Portillo. Younger readers may not be aware, but during the mid 1990s, Portillo was seen as a future Tory party leader and Prime Minister, and was seen as on the right wing of John Major’s Cabinet – especially after his “We dare, we will win” speech. The man you see on BBC This Week and travelling by rail on telly everywhere is a much more mellow chap by comparison.
During the mid-1990s, Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell were running an extremely effective political machine. Many of us didn’t realise it at the time, let alone what some of the dark arts they used were. Twigg, when elected was one of the beneficiaries of this machine in the landslide that also saw former Cambridge Mayor Barry Gardiner elected as an MP in Brent. Yet just over 15 years later and society has tired of the ‘spin’ – the manipulation and the party-political point scoring. Old habits die hard. And people’s perception of what they saw on Question Time and via their Twitter feeds counted for a great deal in this storm.
Fanning the flames of conspiracy theorists?
One thing we don’t know about Question Time audiences is who are the party members and activists, and who are the general members of the public, let alone what the overall breakdown is within the audience. One of the little ‘games’ that people across the political matrix play on the #BBCQT hashtag is spotting the party political plants. The people that engage with Puffles tend to be razor-sharp at spotting the young Tories. The same is probably true in those that tweet around Andy and Tim‘s circles. (Andy and Tim are local Tory activists but are also my webmasters – they are experts in most things computing but also understand the political/policy environment I’m in and they are local, hence why I chose them – even though we disagree on lots of things about politics).
Now, the difference with Amy’s case is that despite the strength and merit of the point she was making – in particular on the use of statistics in literature – she got identified very clearly as a party political activist. Not only that, the BBC Question Time Twitter Feed identified one of her tweets that evening and asked for comments. And Twitter went into boom-shak-a-lak mode.
What was the reaction from critics?
The very personal abuse (which, to be fair a number of UKIP tweeters did condemn – urging their fellow tweeters not to sink to such low levels) was noticeable, as was the reaction of Amy’s defenders in pulling them up on it. Unlike previous episodes of Question Time though, that abuse has continued all the way into the following afternoon. This I have not seen before.
Others have targeted Labour – and the other parties as being exposed as stitching up the whole Question Time experience, saying that this was an example of BBC bias towards the main parties. Others too have gone with the general ‘anti-politics’ theme, which is one that UKIP have been able to use to strong effect in some of the recent by-elections.
Was it Amy’s fault?
Only in that as an activist for the party she supported, she agreed to go on the show and do what a senior member of the party asked her to do. She could have said ‘no’. Also, social-media-wise she got stung. Basic error that she’ll learn from? Yes – as I hope we all do when we screw up on social media. But…
…and there’s always a ‘But’
…there is a much much bigger picture to look at. The first thing is viewer expectations. Do viewers expect there to be party activists in Question Time audiences? This is a separate question to whether there are, or whether there should be – or even how many such activists are actually in the audience.
The second thing is the alleged manipulation by, in this case Stephen Twigg. The idea that a Question Time panellist should ‘prepare in advance’ with an activist to make a comment from the audience doesn’t sit well with most people. Combine this with an existing disposition of the audience – let’s assume broadly that they don’t expect party activists to be in there, and that feeling is amplified. The difference between Twigg and the rest is that Twigg got caught out. Given UKIP’s disposition to the three main Westminster parties and the fact that they were the target of Amy’s comments, we start to get an understanding of why that backlash was so great. If it were a comment made say to a Tory or Lib Dem opponent by an older man from the audience (who happened to be a party activist and caught out in the same way) would the reaction have been the same? Or would they say ‘there but for the grace of…’ …exactly…?
Now, the reaction against Amy has been far more intense than it has been against Twigg. The personal abuse thrown Amy’s way is horrific and I have no time for people that use Twitter in that manner.
But let’s look at the power relationship between Amy and Stephen Twigg. If you’re a young activist passionate about a cause or a series of causes and find an organisation within which you feel at home, there is an incentive for you to want to progress within that organisation. Why? Not (just) because of money, but because of the desire to achieve something – to make a positive difference. In a hierarchical organisation, those higher up have more power. If someone reasonably senior in that organisation – and Twigg is a former Schools Minister and current Shadow Education Secretary – and asks you to work with him on something, chances are you’re not going to say no.
So…what should Twigg do?
At the moment, Amy is taking a Twitter kicking. In a situation like this – where as far as your organisation is concerned something has gone wrong, it needs the senior person to step up and take the flak. In this case, Twigg. He’s the one with the thicker skin. He’s the one that is paid more. He’s the one who is in the position of power and influence.
It would be better for him to give an open and honest account of what happened – and also to ‘spill the beans’ if this is something that other parties do when preparing for Question Time or other public panel debates. (BBC Any Questions/Any Answers etc). Because if that is the case, then the hand of the BBC will be forced accordingly. Thus the possible good that could come from this is that there is greater transparency within audience Q&As. In my view, Twigg should show some leadership and step forward.
As I’ve stated in other articles, if it were a Lib Dem or Tory senior politician that was exposed as working with activists prior to a show in the same manner, I would have said exactly the same thing. Maybe this episode might provide BBC producers to review the format of the show.