Paul Vallely: Listen to the electronic alarm bells

12 February 2008

Blogs and emails magnified the crude responses to Dr Williams, says Paul Vallely

Computers, as any City trader will tell you, enhance volatility. But that is probably not an insight that registered particularly highly in the consciousness of the staff at Lambeth Palace — until the past week.

  In the Square Mile, default prices for the sale of stocks and other commodities are now programmed into traders’ computers, so that, when a certain price is reached, the machines sell automatically, thus minimising potential losses. The downside is that the system can trigger a mechanical panic, as one computer magnifies the actions of the others.

Something similar happened on Thursday of last week between the interview the Archbishop gave to The World at One and the lecture he was about to deliver on Islam in English law at the Royal Courts of Justice. Some 17,000 emails immediately flooded into the BBC website. Huge volumes also hit the websites of newspapers such as The Times and The Daily Telegraph.

Their tone was instructive. The front page of The Times website carried a piece by its religious correspondent headlined “Has the Archbishop gone bonkers?”, which accused him of endorsing a system that undermines the rights of women, and ignored the fact that he explicitly stated that Muslim discrimination against women was unacceptable. The blog was accompanied by inflammatory photos and videos of Islamic extremists at their most fanatical, inviting the reader to infer that the Archbishop wanted to put these madmen in power.

Unsurprisingly, those who responded on the blog made exactly that inference. Taking their tone from the “bonkers” headline, these Times readers described Dr Williams as a “congenital idiot” and “furry Welsh troglodyte”, who has “lost his marbles” and “should be sectioned”.

Something similar happened on the Daily Telegraph website. Its official commentator described Dr Williams’s words as “the most monumentally stupid thing I have ever heard an Archbishop of Canterbury say”. He went on: “I don’t have time to comment in more detail now: just as well, probably.”


This was a telling admission. It reveals how, like the City share-selling computers, those who operate in the blogosphere value speed of response above measured reflection. The Telegraph readers responded in suit. Dr Williams was “a total berk”, “stark raving mad”, and “an old git who has lost the plot”.

Cultural commentators some time ago began to write on the anthropology of the email. Although it is written, it is closer in character to the spoken word, as its collapsed syntax and dashed punctuation suggest. Books on email etiquette now warn of the danger of hurried sentences, formed with the mental evanescence of speech, but engraved as permanently as pen and ink, and so much more easily duplicated and distributed.

The responses to the Archbishop’s initial radio interview before his lecture demonstrate this vividly. The intemperate street language — that of the professional journalists and their blogging disciples — is offensive less for the vulgar crassness of its language than for the crudeness of the thought that is exposed.

Diligent website watchers that Thursday could see very early on that “Archbishop says sharia is unavoidable in UK” was going rapidly nuclear, as this crudeness of response was transmitted, and magnified, with increasing volatility by this new communications technology.

It seems that there were no diligent website-watchers at Lambeth. Or if there were, and they pointed out to the Archbishop how seriously awry things were going, he failed to hear the electronic alarm bells. He would be a fool if he made the same mistake next time. And there will be a next time, make no mistake. Welcome to the world of the new media.

Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.

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