This week, like many of my friends and colleagues, I’ve been very angry about the rushed passing of the flawed Digital Economy Bill. I’ve also been increasingly angry about the nightmarish Twitter echo chamber of people being angry about the bill.
(Let me just say first, I’m with you all, in that the bill is terribly flawed and overly vague, shows the sticky fingermarks of powerful vested interests, didn’t have anywhere like near enough scrutiny, and was supported by MPs who appear to have very little grasp of the issues involved. Criticising some of the bill’s critics doesn’t make me for the bill.)
On Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, while the bill had its brief debate in the House of Commons, there was a lot of Twitter action. The following are all paraphrasing.
There’s hardly anyone in the House! Lazy buggers! This is an outrage!
I suspect everyone saying this was watching Commons proceedings for the first time. As far as I know (and I’m not an avid follower) the place is usually mostly empty. A lot of MPs will be in the building but watching proceedings on TV. Some will, no doubt be doing other things — I know this bill is the most important thing in the world to you, but unfortunately there are always other things happening that other people find just as important. Also, there’s an election on.
I wrote to my MP and they’re not even there! Lazy bugger! This is an outrage!
I’m really proud of you for writing or emailing your MP. No, really, it’s great. At the same time, don’t take it personally. MPs have tens of thousands of constituents and many of them also have genuinely important issues right now. Plus MPs have all that non-constituency parliamentary/governmental/party business to deal with too.
It really is a shame that MPs received so many letters and emails (20,000) to so little apparent effect. But some of the Twitter comments made it sound like MPs have never debated an issue that’s had popular attention before and that because “we”, the internet people, care about this, it’s a personal insult if we don’t get the attention we demand. Reading the #debill hashtag was like being inside the collective self-righteous mind of fox-hunting advocates when they felt Parliament was ignoring them. Not pleasant.
And as for calling your MP lazy… If you honestly know that your MP was spending the early part of this week on holiday or lolling about with their feet up, then yes, they are a lazy bugger and this is indeed an outrage. But before you shout to the world about how shit and useless they are, maybe you should find out if there was maybe a good reason why they weren’t in the House.
The MPs are all at dinner! Why aren’t they in the House! This is an outrage!
See above. But also, Christ, let them eat; some of them will still be following proceedings. It’s 9 o’clock at night and they’re at work. If they spent the rest of the day playing XBox or knocking back martinis, sure, this is an outrage. But I expect some of them have been working all day.
I also hope, if you tweeted something like this, that you’re outraged when the same thing happens to other bills. For example, the Finance Bill debated on the same evening also had a poor showing in the House. I couldn’t work out what the hash tag was for that. If I had I’m sure I’d have found you all critiquing what some MPs were also saying was a woefully flawed bill and being outraged at the low attendance. No? You don’t care about low attendance on any other bills? You do surprise me.
They’re giving up so easily on these amendments! They just want to go home! This is an outrage!
I saw this twittered when Tom Watson MP, hero of the hour, was tabling and then withdrawing his amendments to the bill on Thursday night.
Look, I know the parliamentary procedures are a bit weird. I don’t understand them. I didn’t quite understand what was happening here but I guessed that given there was little time allocated to this bill, this was basically just a way to outline some proposed changes. I think I was mostly right as it turns out.
But I didn’t shout to the world about what a lazy bunch these people were because I didn’t understand the procedure. Aren’t we criticising MPs for not understanding something properly and making arses of themselves? Maybe if we don’t understand something properly we should try and figure it out?
I choose not to recognise the UK’s Digital Economy Bill http://whatdebill.org/ #whatdebill #debill
How old are you? If you’re five and are used to refusing to accept what grown-ups say in the belief it’s how to get your own way, then fair enough.
The rest of you… What do you actually mean? I don’t understand what you’re saying.
Are you saying that if your net connection gets cut off because of one of the bill’s dumber clauses that you’ll refuse to recognise this has happened? That you’ll carry on bashing helplessly at your MacBook wondering why you can’t tweet your outrage any more?
Or have you at least thought this through for longer than it took to tweet, and think you’re prepared to go to prison or something “for the cause”? Really? Will you? I know this bill genuinely matters but have you stated the same about other, even more, serious issues? Like, did you break the law and were prepared to go to jail to prevent the war in Iraq? Did you go and chain yourself to Downing Street’s gates when the government tried to drastically extend the period prisoners could be held without trial? I’d guess so, because these sound at least as serious as the Digital Economy Bill’s clauses.
I’m aware that sometimes civil disobedience (or whatever it is you’re proposing in your vague proclamation) is necessary. But it’s generally a last resort. Think of all the places around the world where we’ve seen fighting on the streets and dramatic protests. Usually, for the people concerned, risking everything they have, it’s because this is all they’ve got left. They’ve tried everything else. If they’re lucky enough to live in a democracy, they’ve exhausted all the options. Have you? While you’re refusing to recognise the Bill — whatever that means — I assume you’ll be spending a good chunk of your free time also trying all the other possible avenues to change available. Joining interest groups, continuing to write letters and emails, telling your friends and relatives why this is important, organising protests, voting. You are? You’ll be doing all that? Good, sorry I doubted you.
So, look, this has all been very ranty. But I’m angry. I’m angry about the bill. I’m angry about the Labour Party being such useless, ill-informed, easily-swayed, big-business-loving idiots. I’m angry at myself for being no better than many of the anonymous twitterers I castigate above. I’m angry at the Twitter echo chamber being an unpleasant self-amplifying, rabble-rousing backchannel where everyone sees things as black or white, win or #fail, with all the subtlety of a Daily Mail front page or a campaigning politician.
On the plus side — let’s end on an up note — I was cheered by some aspects of all this. I was pleased that there are MPs, in all parties, who understand these matters and try to change things. Too few, too late, but even so. Quite aside from this particular bill, seeing MPs stand up against their party whip and speak out against what they believe is right was encouraging. My opinion of MPs couldn’t have been much lower recently, and this glimmer of light was welcome. More of that please.
I’m also feeling positive personally about all this. I genuinely enjoyed spending two evenings watching the House of Commons. I found it interesting and would like to do that more. For the first time in a long time, after months and years of my opinion of politics and MPs and government withering away I’m interested and want to get involved somehow. Even if that just means paying more attention, a fraction of the attention we payed to this bill, that’s an improvement.