'Rashford slams MP’s tweet about feeding children'
That was a headline last night on the BBC News site. It neatly captures a tale that sums up just about everything that’s wrong with politics and journalism today.
The 'story' – also in most newspapers today – is that Kevin Hollinrake, Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton, wrote the following on Twitter:
'Where they can, it’s a parents job to feed their children'
He was writing in response to another tweet asking why it has taken the efforts of Marcus Rashford, a campaigning footballer, to put the issue of child hunger on the agenda. In turn, Rashford wrote a tweet directed to Hollinrake:
'I would urge you to talk to families before tweeting. To this day I haven’t met one parent who hasn’t wanted or felt the responsibility to feed their children...'
'Very happy to debate this with you in any open forum'
And that’s it. A total of 51 words exchanged between a footballer and a politician – or rather 40 words, since the BBC has not, at time of writing, reported Hollinrake’s reply. That’s 'news' these days, and popular news at that. The story was one of the five most-read on the BBC site on Sunday.
I suppose that, in itself, proves that the exchange was 'news' – after all, a lot of people were evidently interested enough to click on it. But so what? People click on funny cat videos and porn in much larger numbers, and that doesn’t make those things 'news'. Or not yet, anyway.
I know I’m fighting a losing battle with this argument, but I don’t think 'people said stuff on Twitter' is news, no matter how many RTs and Likes that stuff got. I also think media outlets that treat social media content as news are destroying themselves: if all you 'report' is stuff that people can already see on their own feeds, what’s the point of you? Apart from anything else, by definition, the popular Stuff People Say on Twitter, the stuff with thousands of clicks, has already been seen by lots of people. The people who haven’t seen it are the people who aren’t on Twitter – presumably because they’re not that interested in Stuff People Say on Twitter.
Then there’s what that 'story' tells people, or rather, how they react to it. For some people, those few words will confirm that Hollinrake is a wicked callous Tory intent on blaming poor parents for their children going hungry, while Rashford is a beacon of morality telling it like it is. For others, it will demonstrate that Hollinrake is a common-sense sort stating the obvious while Rashford is a shallow celebrity offering simplistic statist solutions to complex social problems. Pick your narrative, according to preference and worldview.
Does Kevin Hollinrake blame parents whose children go hungry? Is he unaware of the economic, social and other factors that contribute to child hunger? Has he, as Rashford implies, never spoken to parents in such a situation? I strongly doubt that any of these things is true, and not just because I know Hollinrake a bit: I’ve dealt with him in his role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on poverty, a group that has been working on issues including child poverty and hunger for several years.
I also make this guess about Hollinrake’s views because Hollinrake is an adult human being with the ability to grasp the nuance and detail of this issue, and hold views that are not wholly captured in a few dozen words on Twitter.
Does Marcus Rashford believe that there are no neglectful or incompetent or selfish parents? Does he think that parents have no responsibility for feeding their children? Again, I doubt that very much. His public commentary on this issue elsewhere reveals he’s also an adult capable of accepting and processing complexity in the context of a debate about social policy and economics.
There is, in short, a great deal more to both men than those short messages convey.
My suspicion is also that both Hollinrake and Rashford have benign motives here. I think both want a better country and a better life for the children they are – so briefly – talking about in those tweets. I suspect that if they have the debate that Hollinrake suggests, they’ll find they have a great deal in common, and that where they do disagree, they can do so civilly while still maintaining a polite conversation. After all, this is what countless millions of grown-ups do every day in our personal and professional lives, away from the one-dimensional ephemera of social media.
Yet all of this is missing from the 'news' that a famous footballer has 'slammed' a Conservative MP. This is journalism as visceral entertainment, much like the write-up of a boxing match. It does nothing to inform or enlighten.
The story of Marcus Rashford and Kevin Hollinrake may get clicks and attention, but ultimately, it tells us nothing about the people and issues it purports to cover. The only things anyone should learn from it is that Twitter is a bad place to talk about politics, and that if reporting now means only 'repeating stuff people say on Twitter' then journalism is in serious trouble.