Was ever a medium more suited to journalists and journalism than Twitter? Solipsistic, self-promoting, credulous and with a short attention span – no wonder we keep going back. It gets stick for encouraging the mean-spirited, but today it deserves only praise. Twitter has become the apotheosis of news, bringing us stories as they are born, information in its purest form.
The collapse of Downing Street is the event it has been waiting for all its 15 years, turning doubters into devotees. The allegations about the conduct of the prime minister come too fast for the newspaper cycle, depend overmuch on unnamed sources for radio, and fail on pictures for television. Happily, the journalists who follow the story have learned to overcome those obstacles by updating Twitter with anything they find out, as fast as they can upload it. It gives those of us who crave the adrenaline rush of news a remarkable overview. We sit in a media panopticon, editing for ourselves a stream of hard fact, flying rumour, instant analysis and opinionated commentary.
The fingers of ITV political editor Robert Peston – how his classmates must once have admired his ability to be the first boy with his hand up – fly regularly to the Twitter keyboard. That prompts retaliatory action from the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg and – for this is the joy of media competition – Sky’s Beth Rigby. None waits for a news bulletin to broadcast what might in any case be too nebulous a story for television: better to put out instant lines based on latest conversations to demonstrate depth of knowledge.
Their colleagues in newspapers are at it too, going with those developments that they do not believe will hold exclusively, taking the opportunity to demonstrate they have them first. The Sun’s Harry Cole drops a ripple in the pond by revealing that the prime minister’s new press spokesman used to lobby for Huawei, the Mirror’s Pippa Crerar responds with a compromising “party” picture of Boris Johnson at the very moment he is answering prime minister’s questions.
Next thing, Mr Johnson’s tormentor Dominic Cummings drops an observation to keep us all aquiver: “There’s waaaaay better pics than that floating around, incl in the flat.”
Oh my. Now we have a medium not only breaking news but also making it. The No 10 feed replies, MPs join attack or defence and we learn immediately that many are parroting a line written for them by Downing Street. Now the commentators, anxious to show how much they are thinking about this, offer instant punditry. Then we have the satirical artist Cold War Steve dropping his latest photographic composition, and the radio and TV channels replaying all the good bits from interviews and speeches. Finally, as the frenzy intensifies, Mr Peston takes real-time journalism to new levels, reporting not only those new facts that he has gleaned, but also the methodology of his approach. He muses on questions he would like to ask and on the hypothetical consequences of potential new developments. We’re in a news reporting seminar!
This is not to all tastes. We should acknowledge that many purists find these developments depressing. They worry that reporting is losing its discipline. Some of Mr Peston’s lines, in particular, are becoming self-referential or, as the digital world would have it, “meta”. If there is not enough in a story to make an item on the TV news, why put out half-baked lines by other means? Is this a genuine political crisis or a media construct, inflated by an over-excitable lobby? What happened to those rational, objective judgments imposed by the old editing processes?
We have a different concern, which is that the TV and radio bulletins, by the time we get there, tell us nothing we do not already know. Overexcited by our rich diet of information, rumour and comment, we can’t help finding Huw Edwards and Tom Bradby and Evan Davis and colleagues rather bland. Worse, when we pick up the papers in the morning, there is little we have not read the night before.
Let us set that irritation to one side, in celebration of something greater. We were told that the digital world would usher in an age of citizen journalism, that we were to be disintermediated as custodians of information. Happily, in the matter of Downing Street, the citizens can’t get near enough to find out what is going on. On Twitter, that most democratic of platforms, the pros are back in power.