Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

BA and the online newspaper ethos

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One of the more interesting features of the newspaper industry is its long-standing use as a bulletin board: from quirky, ‘disgusted of Tonbridge Wells’-type letters to letters to The Thunderer and to other newspaper editors setting the world to rights or getting something on record, whether from the establishment, interested individuals and opinion formers. Letters usually had the resonance of importance and their publication in print frequently added weight to the arguments expressed, not least to the usual readerships of the newspapers concerned, whose leanings and approaches are well-known. Given this, their role in changing views might have been pretty limited – preaching to the converted is never going to change the world – but at least they had a role in commencing debate at some level. And you could open your favourite newspaper knowing that it wasn’t going to turn you a nasty shade of apopletic red.

Which is why I turned to yesterday’s letter to the Guardian by 95 leading academics criticising the behaviour of British Airways in its dispute with Unite with some interest. At the last count, there were 495 comments on the story and, at the (early) point at which I stopped reading them, a large percentage of people were using the piece to hang anti-Unite, frequently anti-trade union views, regardless of the debate which the academics had sought to start about BA’s actions.

Clearly, not so many typical readers of The Guardian among them. The question is, I guess, why – why would you hang around on a newspaper site, to the leanings of which you are not instinctively sympathetic, just to have a go? Well, because you can, probably: Web 2.0, where your opinions are not only desired but an integral part of the experience, has some things to answer for. Dialling The Times today re-directs you to a page (no doubt in the short-term) inviting you not just to read the thing but to ‘listen to it, watch it, shape it, be part of it‘, as part of its charging-based re-vamp, but the outcome in practice is frequently the facilitation of opportunities for wind-up merchants and trolls of all types.

I really don’t want to open the online version of The Guardian and be assaulted by a range of closed-minded views straight from the pages of the Daily Mail. If I want that, I’ll open the Mail. I’m as happy to engage in debate as the person stood next to me – and I’m not frightened of views opposed to mine. But what I do want is the sensible and rational, not the mindless. And I want it focused, not random. And I want debate, not diatribes. OK, no-one’s forcing me to read this stuff (and indeed I didn’t get very far with it, thus – at some level – wasting the time of all those whose views I didn’t trouble myself with, natch) but Web 2.0 does have the power to extend debate and that power is dissipated when debates are dominated by those whose purpose is not to engage but to flame. And that’s evidently a lost opportunity.

The answer – more active moderation, perhaps. That might be asking a lot for popular newspaper sites but, at the same time, if the benefits of Web 2.0 are to be realised, perhaps that lies in fewer articles and better moderation. A sort of approach based on ‘never mind the width, feel the quality’. It has to be possible. Alternatively, perhaps one of the benefits of charging for online access is not just support for journalistic quality, as these pages have argued before, but also a re-focusing of the debate engendered within such sites by making them less open to passing trolls.

As regards the academics’ letter: they’ve got more than a point about some of the actions of BA in this dispute and, from the perspective of this particular academic manqué, I like the phrasing of their approach around the issue of the ‘representation gap in UK employment relations’. Such a gap clearly does exist in all too many workplaces up and down the country. From the point of view of this debate, Keith Ewing has taken this on in today’s The Guardian in arguing that there is a human right to engage in strike action. The current laws of this country do not provide a right to strike, but industrial action is never undertaken lightly and remains a legitimate weapon to use against an intransigent employer. The increasingly hardline, right-wing approach to the taking of industrial action over the last twenty years is one that continues to divide this country from our European neighbours and the quality of our democracy is all the poorer for it.

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Written by Calvin

26/03/2010 at 5:02 pm

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