If you follow political commentators and journalists online, then in recent months you’ll have been bombarded with tweets and blogs on Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq Inquiry. In December, I commented on Twitter’s knack of stealing news-breaking away from professional journalists and giving it to ordinary people who happen to be on the scene. However, at a pre-planned event like the Iraq Inquiry, a press pass is a golden ticket that allows journalists to snatch this power back.
Hence the slightly desperate obsession with the Iraq Inquiry displayed by many commentators determined to have the defining word on that day’s hearing: to highlight every Alastair Campbell yawn, Tony Blair hand spasm and Clare Short gaffe. Most striking of all was the anxious and sometimes embarrassing fixation with breaking news, even if there was none to break. For instance, when Campbell gave evidence at the inquiry, Paul Waugh of the London Evening Standard blogged: “The big new revelation from today’s Iraq Inquiry is the existence of a series of private letters from Tony Blair to George Bush…and that whenever anyone questioned whether these top secret ‘notes’ existed, Blair’s closest aides always became incredibly touchy.” But Campbell pointed out on his own blog the next day that these notes had been summarised in his diaries, in 2007.
Then, when Blair and his new tan descended on Westminster again, the blogosphere and Twitter went crazy: there were 0.8 tweets per second on his attendance, and the volume of posts about him was nearly nine times higher than the daily average for news stories on local politics. The Guardian tweeted on everything, from what Blair was expected to say to an analysis of what he had said. Everyone was out to achieve the Holy Grail of Twitter: the retweet (when someone else shares your post with their own contacts and followers).
Yet among the melodrama there was a certain flippancy that highlighted how introspective members of our media and politicians can be. While we prattled on about what Campbell had in his lunch sandwich, real news was being made in Iraq: the execution of Chemical Ali, the ban on candidates allegedly affiliated with the former Baath Party standing at the next election and the delay in the election itself. The blogs of Iraqis themselves provide personal insights that the news cannot. Here’s an excerpt from an Iraqi dentist’s blog explaining how he reacted to a bombing.
“I reached my car and started racing the wind…the closer to the house the more damage I was able to notice and more stressed the people in the street are. I reached home in a record time, I opened the car’s door and started running towards the house’s outer gate while I was looking at my home and I noticed that all the windows are broken and that’s when my legs couldn’t carry me anymore, I stumbled and fell on the floor, I rise again, started running and kicked the door…I opened the door and I started crying, I was crying the happiness tears. Just as I opened the door I saw my wife and daughter sitting on the couch and holding each other.”
The internet may have connected us to people across the world, yet it doesn’t seem to have brought us much perspective.