Listen to this article
Every week when I sit down to write my bit for this corner of the paper I take a few minutes to limber up before setting upon the keyboard. This might involve making a coffee (or having one delivered chair-side); it could involve going for a run to focus on what I’m going to write, or scanning a few newspapers to see which way the winds of opinion are blowing.
Before I commit words to screen, I conjure up a few images of where people might be reading their copy of this paper, and I like to put myself in their setting. For purely romantic reasons there’s always a reader sitting under an awning at a grand café in a Mitteleuropean city such as Graz or Trieste, enjoying a fresh-pressed grapefruit juice, and they’re chuckling at the scribblings of David Tang. The other settings change but I usually picture someone neatly folding the various sections of the paper, sipping a glass of pinot bianco in first class on Lufthansa; then there’s the late-afternoon reader in Seattle, who’s stretched out on their veranda listening to the raindrops on leaves; and there’s also a Norwegian (feel free to swap with a Swede, Finn or Dane) who took his wooden launch (yes, I know women also skipper boats but this scenario involves a man) into town to buy his provisions for the weekend.
During the past 15 years or so I’ve met many of you in all kinds of settings — too many times with toothpaste on my whiskers on approach to Haneda, or with my hair at odd angles early morning in an immigration queue at Heathrow. Without fail, you’re always polite and full of questions and praise in person. “No, I don’t have a desk at the paper.” (In fact, I can’t remember the last time I paid a visit.) “Yes, I’ve met Lucy Kellaway but no, we don’t hang out together.” (She’s a busy lady and I’m a busy boy.) “No, I don’t keep columns in the drawer and pull them out when the mood of the week fits.” (If only I were that organised.)
On screen via my ft.com address, or in the mail pouch (indeed, I receive many letters in wonderful, swirly script on fine stationery), you can be a bit more outspoken but the tone is almost always polite. When it veers from being wide of civil I’m quick to point out that it’s not necessary to be abusive or rude.
As for the comments section that hangs off the bottom of this column on the website, something very strange happens in a digital environment when people don’t need to reveal their true selves or go through the effort of having to type in an address, or the exercise of constructing their thoughts in a more formal manner.
When I think about you, dear reader, I wonder if you have similar thoughts about the otherworldly behaviours of the digital world. As you’re all quite sensible sorts, have you been standing back from the terrorism atrocities of recent years and wondering why we tolerate terms such as “known users of Twitter and Facebook”? Do you question why authorities don’t do more to shut these sites down, or to apply greater pressure to companies sitting in the Valley to act responsibly and stop hiding behind “freedom of speech” as some catch-all excuse for broadcasting beheadings or the propaganda of extremists, recruiting teenagers to carry out attacks? Moreover, have you been looking at your investments and also questioning why one set of rules seem to apply to tech companies and entirely another set of more stringent values are applied to other listed companies?
This paper spends a lot of time covering activist investors agitating along the sidelines of some of the world’s most valuable companies. I’m curious as to where the activist voices are who are questioning the morality of what passes for acceptable, “public interest” footage, or comment among companies that want to be seen as news companies in their own right.
For sure, appetites might have shifted but this doesn’t mean the bar should shift for what passes for common decency and respect for humanity. Great care is taken to run well-written correspondence on this paper’s letters page, so why is abusive comment allowed to flourish digitally? This newspaper and its peers in international newsgathering would be held to account, have their editorial standards called into question and see advertisers pull their pages and commercials if there were a sudden lapse in judgment on editorial desks.
We can spend billions putting more troops and armoured personnel carriers on the streets, and divert thousands of police and intelligence officers to kick down front doors and monitor chatter. Or shareholders can start selling their stock in irresponsible tech companies; advertisers can stop supporting them; and users can switch off from the businesses that are aiding and abetting the horrors that fill our front pages and haunt us long after.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine; firstname.lastname@example.org