Getting beaten up in cyberspace

The annoying thing about Boris Johnson, the so-called ‘mayor’ of London, is not that he is annoying (though he is) but that he is such a good and amusing columnist. Even by his own high standards, however, today’s Telegraph column about Internet commenters is terrific.

There used to be a time when filing these comment page pieces was a lonely sort of business. It was like putting your money into a chocolate bar dispenser on a station platform, or practising your tennis serve. Nothing came back. It was fire and forget, hit and run, drive-by opinionising. OK, so if you said something particularly outrageous, a handful of letters would eventually turn up, depending on the mails. If you really put your foot in it and did something that no reader could forgive – such as confusing a yellow labrador with a golden retriever – a few people might be moved to ring the Telegraph switchboard.

But when any of us write something these days, it is like tiptoeing to a cage with a hunk of meat, and nervously prodding it through the bars. Sometimes the blogosphere will seem happy with the offering and the beast will briefly growl approval; and sometimes there is such a yowling and clamouring that we feel like Clarice Starling as she sets off down the corridor of mental patients, in search of Hannibal the Cannibal.

It’s lovely stuff, from which he draws the right conclusion, damn him.

And now, at last, the journalists are getting something like the same treatment; and of course, as a politician who loves writing, I must tremble before the wrath of pheasantplucker [one of the commenters who had said rude things about Johnson], but I also rejoice at the change that has taken place. A broadcast has been turned into a dialogue. When we write our pieces, thousands of eyes are scanning them for errors of fact and taste – and now our critics cannot only harrumph and curse us. They can tell the world – in seconds – where they think we have gone wrong. We are not just writing columns, we are writing wiki-columns, and if we sometimes get beaten up, we also have the satisfaction of gaining the odd grunt of agreement.

Politicians are being held to account by journalists; journalists are being held to account by their readers – and it cannot be long, the internet being what it is, before the wind of popular scrutiny blows through all the bourgeois professions. What are we going to do about the lawyers?