Monday, June 20, 2011


Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Secretary General of NATO and a former Danish prime minister, gave an interview to Shaun Ley of Radio 4’s The World at One today that was little short of a disgrace. The interview will be available in the UK for a few days on the BBC iPlayer.

Rasmussen had made himself available in the light of the deaths of nine civilians, including two children, in Tripoli on Sunday. NATO has conceded that a missile overflew its military target. Rasmussen described the error as “a weapons systems failure”. He also accounted it “a very tragic event, a tragic accident actually”. Having found the phrase he wanted – “a tragic accident” – he used it as his default reference to the incident.

There was no acknowledgment in the interview, either by Ley or by Rasmussen, of the 15 civilians Libya says were killed by a rocket attack on the Sorman area of Tripoli in the early hours of this morning. This was certainly a residence, one owned by a close ally of Muammar Gaddafi. Taken to the scene, the BBC’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen reported Libyan officials claiming that eight missiles had hit the compound and that two of the owner’s grandchildren along with their pregnant mother were killed. NATO has so far declined to comment on the attack but if what the Libyans say is true it can hardly be dressed up as “eight tragic accidents”.

Rasmussen, an accident waiting to happen

Referring to Sunday’s deaths, Rasmussen commented that “obviously the Gaddafi regime will use this tragic accident as part of their propaganda”. This is an extraordinary statement at so many levels. It seems to suggest that only one side in the conflict has any truck with propaganda. It seeks to imply that somehow the deaths are part of the crimes with which the regime is charged. It certainly suggests that the deaths should be viewed as above or separate from the conflict, as though no more responsibility attaches to NATO than if the children had happened to run out into the road in the path of one of its vehicles. And why should the Gaddafi government not make mention of the civilian deaths? If Danish civilians perished in some missile attack, whether or not the strikers called it an accident, would the Danish government draw a veil over it?

The notion that the deaths are fundamentally the fault of Gaddafi develops in Rasmussen’s argument in this passage: “We see the Gaddafi regime … launching rockets from mosques, placing bunkers near children’s playgrounds etc”. Of course, any right-thinking person can see that a country being attacked by foreign troops ought to have the decency to lay out formal battlegrounds away from built-up areas. Indeed, no civilised country ever sites military or intelligence within blast distance of residential buildings. Well, I say that … all around where we live there is a vast network of military and intelligence units including, it has been suggested by specialist investigative journalists, a “top-level NATO command post” that runs “a gigantic US computer system”. No doubt if Britain were subjected to aerial bombardment, such sites would be prime targets and perhaps we would be hit in “a tragic accident”.

Gaddafi, down but not out

It’s not at all clear who sets out the rules for confrontations in which one side claims it is being attacked and invaded by foreign powers and the other side claims it is protecting the people from their own government. Nazi Germany invaded several of its neighbours before and during the course of World War II. I expect Berlin complained that resistance movements – which it would no doubt have dismissed as Communists, extremists, terrorists and Jews – mounted guerrilla attacks on Germany’s brave soldiers in urban areas, using the populace as human shields. It is in the nature of guerrilla warfare, particularly as conducted in the homeland of the resistance, that it challenges the enemy to retaliate without committing atrocities.

Rasmussen said “We have carried out more than 11,000 sorties … we have damaged or destroyed more than 2,000 important military targets". Even if only ten percent of those sorties and those missile attacks were targeted at sites within blast range of homes, the least “collateral damage” they will have inflicted will be the extensive disruption of civilians’ lives. And who will pick up the tab for making good the damage?

Always at risk in Libya

When Shaun Ley questioned Rasmussen on NATO’s objectives in Libya, the Secretary General was at his most slippery. “There is no military solution solely” he said. “We need a political process and as part of that Gaddafi must go”. Now it is clear from this that regime change is part of NATO’s policy, although regime change is not provided for, implicitly or explicitly, in Resolution 1973, the United Nations instrument that enables the imposition of a no-fly zone on Libya. Making regime change a necessary part of the “process” is what commentators feared and forecast when they warned against so-called “mission creep”. We can be sure from this that the mission has crept.

But Rasmussen also said: “We have defined three very clear military objectives for our operation: a complete end to all attacks against civilians; withdrawal of Gaddafi’s forces to their bases; and immediate and unhindered humanitarian access and we will continue our operation until these objectives are met”.

Gaddafi's planes strike back

Each of these objectives has its unclear elements. If Gaddafi were to call a ceasefire and then rebels were to push out of Misrata and start trying to take other towns, what would NATO do? Attempt to halt them? And of course there are implications for the NATO objectives if NATO is itself beginning deliberately to attack civilians, as in the bloody Sorman carnage. If, as Rasmussen claims, Gaddafi’s military infrastructure is being destroyed, what would pass muster as the “bases” to which the troops should return? And as for the “humanitarian access”, how would that be policed except by what are called “boots on the ground”, which Resolution 1973 very definitely does not permit?

Ley did push Rasmussen on the increasing evidence that NATO’s solidarity is fraying and that few participants are looking for a long-drawn-out involvement. NATO has committed to a further three months of policing the no-fly zone, making six months in total thus far. This will mean that its involvement in the action will have cost the UK alone more than £500million. Rasmussen was evidently not prepared to engage with any idea of there being a limit on NATO’s capacity. “We do have the assets that are necessary to accomplish our mission” he declared and otherwise kept restating NATO’s determination.

Rebels swarm over a captured tank

As I read it, NATO has slid into an uncomfortable cleft stick in Libya. The rebels grow restive, agitating for more consistent, coherent and penetrating assistance in their struggle. If and when the conflict grinds to a halt, with whatever result, Libya’s economy will be too damaged for it to be able to rebuild without help from the international community. And certainly a new regime will soon denounce NATO if it is left to pick up the pieces by itself.

And then Gaddafi is not Hosni Mubarak and probably has grounds for his confidence that he has sufficient support to hold out longer than NATO will want to contemplate. But Libya is clearly deeply divided. What is to prevent a bloodbath of the defeated at the hands of the victors, whichever side prevails? Meanwhile, as other demands on governments’ resources start to take centre stage, politicians and the public will increasingly ask whether this commitment of cash and overstretched military might is really worth it. In sum, the whole adventure is a catastrophically badly planned and managed mess. Many of us warned at the outset that it would pan out like this.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


The Labour Party is indulging its death wish again. You’d think its supporters in Westminster and Fleet Street would remember how damaging these bouts can be. But we know that journalists and columnists have the attention span of a mayfly and backbenchers would die of boredom if they didn’t have something vague but loomingly large to gossip and grumble about.

Ever since the Tory press started to worry last autumn that Ed Miliband might prove to be an effective and election-winning leader, it has systematically attacked him in its columns and editorials – and of course in its news-reporting which, in modern newspapers, is not distinct from expressions of opinion. If Miliband were not doing well, they wouldn’t need to bother. But the endlessly suggestible backbenchers and the commentators in the centrist and slightly left-ish papers have let themselves be influenced by these attacks and are parroting them. So now a consensus is building that Miliband is not doing well.

The front page of The Sunday Times today cites David Blunkett and John Prescott to justify its headline: “Labour big beasts maul Ed Miliband”. Here is the entirety of the “mauling” quoted from Blunkett: “We need to remember that Ed has only been opposition leader for eight months and it took David Cameron two years to establish himself in the public eye. However, the next year will prove vital in creating momentum and a sense of direction”. Stand well back while the blood flows past you.

Ed Miliband has every reason to be fed up

There are also quotes from party donors (all of them usually figures of fun) and further unattributed quotes, none of them especially critical of Miliband. The most savage unnamed speaker has a go at Ed Balls. This kind of non-story suggests that the Murdoch press do not expect readers actually to read their journalism but merely to be swayed by headlines that bear little relation to the text. And insofar as people do skip over political news and glimpse front pages in shops or being read by others, such headlines probably do have the effect required by Murdoch’s own political agenda.

John Prescott is also quoted in the Sunday Times piece. Prescott spent the morning on Twitter angrily denying that he and the author of the piece, Isabel Oakeshott (whom Prescott rather niftily refers to as Bullshott), had discussed anything other than how she came by his ex-directory number. He says that the quote was pure invention and the paper eventually accepted that and posted an apology. But of course in the unlikely event that a retraction appears on page 94 of next Sunday’s edition, it won’t signify because the lie has been spread. Job done.

How galling this all must be for Miliband. He must ask himself, as I ask, what the hell these grumblers think they want. The 2015 manifesto to be published now? Another leadership contest? The leader to change his voice, as Margaret Thatcher did, or his choice of headgear, as William Hague did, or – worst of all – his instinct not to grin inanely, as Gordon Brown did? Once it becomes the conventional wisdom that Labour cannot win with this leader, nothing he does will satisfy the doubters. If he starts to trim to accommodate this insanity, he will begin to make gestures that are against his own instincts and then he really will be in trouble. As Michael White wrote in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago, “some Labour activists are gagging to be betrayed”.

John Prescott contemplates The Sunday Times; or channels Les Dawson

Today’s Observer carries various soundbites of “advice” from presumed supporters of the party. Needless to say, they don’t stand up to much scrutiny. Sunder Katwala of the Fabian Society has the most supportive verdict on Miliband’s leadership thus far, but his advice on how to proceed is far from useful: “Articulate his strategy to get Labour into power … we need to hear where the leader defines where he wants the rethink to end up”. That sounds like fair advice for the party conference in, at the earliest, 2013.

Robert Philpot of Progress says that “Labour needs to reach out to those who have voted Tory in the past”. A lot of modern politicians talk about “reaching out” without suggesting what it means in practice. Philpot’s notion seems to involve co-opting right wing policies. If the opposite of reaching out is shoving away, then such a switch would certainly shove away many who have voted Labour in the past.

A lot of the others use the kind of warm waffle that all politicians of all persuasions use – about articulating people’s aspirations, reconnecting to the people, uniting interests under common themes. Ed Miliband already goes in for too much warm waffle. I hope he doesn’t take any of this vague and patronising advice to heart.

Prescott in his 20s: rather a looker

Guardian columnists like Martin Kettle and John Harris, nominally Labour supporters, do Cameron’s work for him by wringing their hands over the future of Labour, just as they did while Gordon Brown was prime minister. You begin to wonder if they aren’t Tory fifth columnists. They and the Labour backbenchers briefing against Miliband need to ask themselves some serious and searching questions:

1) How much of your criticism of/misgivings about Miliband translates directly into a wish that somebody else was leading the party, rather than that he would change his personality (which he won’t and shouldn’t be expected to do)?

2) If someone else is to lead the party, who? Can you guarantee that similar criticism and misgivings will not arise twelve months into that leader’s reign, rendering the leadership change pointlessly damaging?

3) What policies is Miliband failing to advance that would carry any support in the party?

4) How does any leader of the opposition, of any party, connect with the public without gimmicks or stunts? Are you absolutely sure that you don’t secretly want some kind of celebrity as party leader? If so, there is one who would happily take the job and I’d like to hear why you would not support him. His name is Ken Livingstone.

Labour is running a consistent opinion poll lead of five or six percent over the Tories. Sceptics say that this is “soft” and that it should be higher. Sceptics, by their nature, are never satisfied with anything. It is often said that the ballot box is the only poll that counts, so let’s examine the by-elections in this parliament. Bear in mind that all three could be accounted “unnecessary”, that is to say, precipitated by a vacancy that ought to have been avoided. In the past, the vote has often reflected irritation with unwarranted electoral burdens of this kind. Not this year.

Labour held Oldham East & Saddleworth on January 13th with 42.1 percent of the vote, an increase of 10.2 percent on the general election. The Tories came third, shedding 13.6 percent of their vote. Labour held Barnsley Central on March 3rd with 60.8 percent of the vote, an increase of 13.5 percent on the general election. The Tories came third (after UKIP), dropping 9 percent of their vote. (The Lib Dems fell from second to sixth). Labour held Leicester South on May 5th with 57.8 percent of the vote, an increase of 12.2 percent on the general election. The Tories came third, shedding 6.3 percent of their vote. The next by-election will be at Inverclyde, this time an unavoidable one because the sitting member died. It will be held on June 30th. I am hopeful that the 14,500 Labour majority is safe, even from the SNP.

You can call Labour’s support as soft as you like, but these are real results in real elections. I can’t see anything in these results suggesting that Ed Miliband has anything to fear from the electorate just yet. An average increase in a party’s vote of 11.97 percent is pretty impressive by anyone’s standards, especially in relatively safe seats where the scope for advance is necessarily limited. I look forward to the first by-election in a Tory seat and, even more, in a Lib Dem seat.

Oh Balls, here comes another revelation.

None of this is to say that I am complacent about Labour’s chances or uncritical of Miliband’s positions. I will advance some criticisms below, but they will be of policy not of personality, of substance not of style. The context of them is, however, that I know of no one in the parliamentary party who is advocating, privately or publicly, the policies that I advocate.

First, I think it a great pity that Labour supported the government’s policy on Libya. I have set out my own view on the matter in earlier postings and do not propose to rehearse it here. But, with his well-known opposition to the Iraq invasion, Miliband could credibly and consistently have voiced opposition to Britain joining the NATO attacks on Gaddafi’s regime. Such opposition would have anticipated the dwindling support for the action among the British public and given Labour a line to use about public finances, so that, when Cameron and Osborne claim “no alternative”, Miliband and Balls could say “don’t spend £3million per day on military hubris”.

Second, Labour ought to have immediately countered the coalition’s attacks on the welfare state and public expenditure by demanding a balancing attack on tax loopholes, bank profits and city bonuses. There is a deep well of untapped public resentment against tax avoiders, non doms, fat cats and those who are patently not “all in this together” with the rest of us. Miliband and Balls can openly accept that Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling got too close to the city and that city regulation was neglected by successive Labour governments. They need to counter Cameron’s playground taunts that “you didn’t do it when you could” with an undertaking to do it next time and a strong statement that Labour not having done it does not justify the coalition not doing it.

Third, Labour does need to get onto the front foot about the government’s record. Cameron easily turns arguments about his present policies into attacks on Labour’s past policies and/or lack of present policies. Miliband – indeed, the whole Labour frontbench – needs to grab this nettle and make it clear that the only policies of interest to anyone are those being presently pursued. Cameron’s stock answer – what would Labour do? – needs to be neutralised as irrelevant when there is no election in sight. It doesn’t matter what Labour would/might do and has/hasn’t done. The only thing that actually redounds on people’s lives right now is what the coalition is doing right now. Labour must keep the focus on that and that alone.

The current email revelations have not been fielded cleverly. Ed Balls shouldn’t leave himself looking slippery, defensive and rattled by trying to deny plotting or justify what may or may not have been said. Rather, he should take the line that The Daily Telegraph ought to be prosecuted for receiving stolen goods, that the paper – with its regular use of illicitly acquired material, whether by sending a fake constituent wired into Vince Cable’s surgery or publishing stolen records of MPs’ expenses – is no better than the News of the World hacking public figures’ mobile phones. And nor is The Guardian publishing the diplomatic traffic hacked by WikiLeaks. He should say that nobody outside the loop can know about party and government relations because the emails are only a part of the story seen out of context. And anyway it’s nobody else’s fucking business (he probably should leave out “fucking”).

Regular readers will know that I felt that Gordon Brown should have attacked SkyNews for broadcasting his private remarks about Gillian Duffy rather than humiliating himself for being overheard. It’s the same with the emails. Politicians need to tough out these attacks and to counter with the absolutely justified argument that the gutter methods of the media need to be brought under control by legislation. I don’t advocate more secrecy. I do advocate more confidentiality.

Labour has a big and juicy target to oppose as the coalition unravels and Cameron’s overweening self-confidence leads him into more and more miscalculation. Support for the coalition is on a downward path. In the end, elections are always lost by governments rather than won by oppositions. Ed Miliband has every reason to expect to be the next prime minister. But he needs not only to ride out the misgivings but to quell them.

I’d start by retiring at least two-thirds of his under-performing shadow cabinet and toughing out any outcry from the party about the supposed democracy of having a voted-in front bench. The party has made life difficult for itself by electing too much dead wood. Miliband could do much worse than bring some hungry and angry trouble-makers into the front line.

Friday, June 10, 2011


A large part of my journalism career was spent writing about television. As someone who grew up with the medium’s golden age, I eagerly cast myself in the 1970s as its print champion. It seemed to me that television was not yet written about well enough: where were the weighty books and where was the newspaper criticism that did it justice? In fact there was already a pretty strong tradition of thoughtful arts section writing about television, but I couldn’t know then that such thoughtfulness would die out rather than deepen.

Apart from a year on the trade magazine Broadcast, I never got to write regular reviews of television or any other art form. Reviewing jobs are very tricky to come by. Basically, you need to be standing by the arts editor’s desk beaming benignly when the baton is passed on. Such opportunities are almost always bestowed before anyone outside the paper knows there is one. Suddenly, a critic’s column ends with a sign-off and a commendation to follow the critic’s anointed successor. When an unplanned vacancy occurs, there is a mad scramble. The long-time theatre critic of The Daily Mail, Jack Tinker, died suddenly. I zipped down to Northcliffe House and delivered a letter to Paul Dacre, the veteran editor, applying for the job. He wrote me an unexpectedly charming, personal and modest reply, apologetic that he couldn’t give me an immediate answer. But I didn’t get the gig.

Most of my journalism about television was previewing and reporting. Previewing never had the status of reviewing, though Time Out magazine, whose third television editor I was, and Elkan Allan at The Sunday Times considerably raised the game for the penetration of previewing into programme-makers’ consciousnesses. And such was the pertinence of the news-gossip-and-preview format that Pattie Williams and I worked up in the Time Out television section that we became remarkably influential. One BBC producer told me that each week on publication day Television Centre fell silent while everyone absorbed our latest fusillades. When The Guardian ran a piece on Bruce Forsyth with the headline “The Most Important Man in British Television”, someone at Time Out cut the headline out and stuck it over my pigeonhole.

The point was that Pattie and I were serious about television. We thought that it should be covered with the same expertise, discrimination and passion as any other art form. We developed an auteur theory of programme-makers and we wrote about the mechanics of montage, camerawork, genre and transmission modes, in order to encourage our readers to understand better why some programmes worked more effectively than others and why programme-makers made the decisions that they did.

After less than eighteen months, I got headhunted by The Observer which was expanding its coverage of television. I wrote a more extensive selection of weekly previews than the paper had ever carried before, along with a comment column. Colour pieces were supplied on a fortnightly turnaround by Russell Harty and Melvyn Bragg, and there was also a review column. This was the only element that I had a problem with. The review was by Clive James. I considered James to be the destroyer of proper criticism of the medium; and James was – important distinction – a reviewer, not a critic.

Clive James, a serious critic

The Observer had a fine tradition of television critics: TC Worsley, Maurice Richardson, George Melly. Each of these was serious about television. James wasn’t. He was serious about wanting to get onto television, which he duly did. But his writing about television was, in fact, a blog avant la lettre in which he mused about the world. Thus he merely used television as a sounding board against which to bounce his worldview. Tragically, many people were seduced by this, even otherwise sensible people who worked in television. It was claimed by some at the paper that James accounted for a quarter of the paper’s sales all by himself. I ground my teeth.

Inevitably, James’ notion of how to write about television became the template for others to follow: AA Gill, Stephen Pile, Charlie Brooker. The critics who, in my time, assessed the medium on its own terms rather than as a thing over there to be mocked – Peter Black, Peter Fiddick, Séan Day-Lewis, Jimmy Thomas, Shaun Usher, Dennis Potter, Jennifer Selway, Chris Dunkley, even (in her own sweet way) Nancy Banks-Smith – have no successors.

Grace Dent, with whom I had a Twitter spat described in the previous posting, writes about television in the Guide section of the Saturday edition of The Guardian. I read her for the first and last time last weekend. She wrote about a programme called Four Rooms, employing the kind of look-at-me-ma allusions and comparisons that were staple Clive James. The programme being about antiques, she began with a clod-hopping assault on Antiques Roadshow (so timely 32 years into its run), including an elaborate conceit about it being on at tea-time that was somewhat scuppered by the fact that transmission was moved out of the tea-time slot some three years ago.

She described one of Four Rooms presenters as “foisting dice in some hapless victim’s face”, clearly unaware of the meaning of “to foist” – maybe she was thinking of “hoist”. Her characteristic showy riffs are extended way past their effect and only scratch, never bite. In sum, she’s a lightweight. She has no seriousness of purpose. She cares diddly-squat about television for its own sake and is, like her predecessor in the slot Charlie Brooker, merely looking for an all-purpose on-screen career delivering banter. I expect she’ll get it too. If you want to read her column, it may be found at

Grace Dent: last appearance (I promise)

Cheap show-offs like Dent are terribly sensitive about any remarks made about them, however determinedly they maintain a scornful attitude to all of television’s output. Indeed, reviewers generally dish it out readily but take it badly. Dusty Hughes was theatre editor when I was on Time Out, went on to run the Bush Theatre and then became a playwright. I reviewed a play of his at the National Theatre. Its director, Richard Eyre, actually went to the trouble of dropping me a line to thank me for my remarks. Dusty, by contrast, rang my home and demanded of my partner to be allowed to speak to me (I was out) because he wanted to call me a cunt. Same review. But Richard Eyre hadn’t been a reviewer.

Whenever the “victim” of a bad review hits back, however briefly, the critic always wants the last word. The latest example is the theatre critic on The Daily Telegraph, Charles Spencer, another ineffable lightweight. Spencer’s only moment of limelight beyond the tiny proportion of Telegraph types who read about the arts came when he described Nicole Kidman’s brief nudity on the London stage as “pure theatrical Viagra”. Though the phrase was widely quoted – by far the most by Spencer himself who evidently felt he was Oscar Wilde reincarnated – it survives no examination as a meaningful metaphor, even if you wanted to go down that road.

In the present nonsense, Spencer had given his usual snotty review to the latest production of Deborah Warner, whose work he doesn’t have the capacity to understand. Warner, perhaps a touch ad hominem, accounted Spencer “a toad” (the resemblance is not wholly far-fetched). The amphibian, while declaring that “I’d hoped to take her anger on the chin like a man and keep quiet”, naturally could not forbear to write a whole column of reply, justifying it by essaying that “this spat does raise interesting questions”. Sadly he never wrote about any of those. I did laugh, though, when he described Warner’s work as “self-advertising”. Pure theatrical myopia, anyone?

Charles Spencer, the theatre critic, not the former brother-in-law of the Prince of Wales

Read it if you must at

Also last Saturday, Clive James returned to reviewing television. He had been secured by The Daily Telegraph under the banner or “world’s greatest television critic”, though of course this was probably demanded as part of the deal by his agent. James has in all probability returned to reviewing because he is ill with leukaemia and it’s a job he can do as and when his health allows (unlike his television interviewing). James’ return has been hailed by his friends on Twitter. I can’t raise much anger about it now, partly because he’s dying, mostly because the battle to establish a useful body of television criticism is long lost.

James’ first column is here:

It’s vintage in the sense that everything I hated about his stuff is intact. He always wrote like a man who could listen to the sound of his own voice all day and he still does. The chief topic of his column is the drama serial The Shadow Line about which he actually says almost nothing. There is an absurdly elaborated detour on the movie tropes of John Woo in order to make a tiny point about a directorial tic of the television serial’s writer-director Hugo Blick. And of course James comes back to a non-televisual experience of his own at the end. Yes, his metasubject is the same as ever: it’s Clive James.

Monday, June 06, 2011


In my third month as a Twitter user, I find that I am still feeling my way. It is in many aspects a curious phenomenon, most particularly because one is working in a public forum of unknowable nature and range. Anyone who has ever performed any kind of display in public or service to the public knows of that mysterious hinterland wherein one semi-exists, not discerned by most, but at the same time discerned both by some of the passing traffic and by those arrested by one’s performance or even witnessing it out of a planned intent. On Twitter, one sends remarks – it’s hard to know what else to call public statements of 140 characters or fewer – into a void that may indeed be empty or may be a vast echo chamber.

If echoes bounce back from public display, they may create a heady sense of being – I don’t know – validated, perhaps, or even (hah) important. Many years ago, I was sitting in a tube train in London when I noticed that the man sitting next to me was reading a theatre review that I had written for the monthly magazine Plays & Players. A moment later – and here it leaps into the surreal – I realised that the man sitting opposite me was reading the television section of Time Out, of which section I was at the time editor and hence author of much of it. In my corner seat, I was literally hemmed in by my public. You will be relieved to be assured that I kept my trap shut at this curious coincidence.

On Twitter, your “timeline” – the accumulating thread that logs your own tweets – also shows tweets by those you follow. All of us choose tweeters to follow – “following” – for a variety of reasons. Those who follow us – “followers” – are apt to seem and indeed be random (brought to you by some linking internet device) as well as be on your list because they think you might prove interesting.

Young Master Rooney, before needing the hair transplant he revealed in a tweet

You can tell from the number of tweets overtly or covertly on the subject that something exercising more tweeters than any other matter is the size of their own following. Naturally, public figures attract massive numbers of followers. Footballer Wayne Rooney joined Twitter a couple of weeks after I did and already he has 10,000 followers for every one that I have. That, I’m inclined think, is down to fame rather than literary merit.

Barack Obama is followed by nearly 8.5million, impressively but not too surprisingly. He follows almost 700,000 and you know at once that he can’t personally be looking at his timeline. Even if everyone he follows only tweeted once a week, he could still never read them all. Kevin Spacey is an example of someone who has it right. He has almost 2million followers and he follows just eleven tweeters. That keeps things within bounds. The more people you follow, the more work you give yourself.

And the work varies a lot from tweeter to tweeter. Some joined two or three years ago, posted half a dozen tweets, and then stopped. If they are famous, they may already have wracked up hundreds of followers and those followers have kept following. But of course if the tweeter has nothing to say for two years, the average follower has doubtless forgotten that this star was ever on their following list (you have to call up the list to see who indeed you are following – or who is following you – beyond the most recent handful).

Inevitably, there are some you would gladly follow if only they joined Twitter – in my own case, Alan Bennett, John Berger, Mary Robinson (her Foundation tweets on her behalf), Victoria Wood, John Pilger, Jonathan Miller, Marina Hyde – but you can see only too well why they don’t.

Mutual followers can and do swap remarks, even have extended conversations rather as they do on Google Chat. When you click on the ‘reply’ link on someone’s tweet, the box for your reply has their twitter identity along with an @ symbol. The back-and-forth appears on your respective timelines but not on those of your other followers. You can reply to – that is to say, address a tweet to – someone you follow but who does not reciprocate. However, your tweet will not appear on their timeline. Your tweet may still be seen by them, though, if they click on their own link called ‘@Mentions’: that brings up a list of all tweets containing their ID plus the @ symbol.

Some post their remarks abstemiously. Some – especially journalists, politicians and comedians, in my limited experience – appear to have their tweeting line open all their waking hours. Many of those compulsive tweeters pass on everything that catches their eye, so their tweets are full of links and retweets (repeating the tweets of others) that contain links. This is all very well if you have the time to follow up on all these impulsive heads-ups.

To keep the thing within bounds, I have tried not to be promiscuous in my following. Experience has shown what appeals to me most in using Twitter and it’s predictable enough. It is the reading of – and, whenever possible, the perpetrating of – pithy one-liners, original aperçus and interesting findings. This yields some unpredictable results. For instance, several humorists whose long-form work and appearances in other mediums have never attracted me prove very palatable at 140 characters a time: Steve Martin, Armando Iannucci, Arthur Smith, David Schneider, Albert Brooks, Danny Baker.

Oliver Burkeman, unquiet tweeter

I’ve picked up – and in several cases put down again (“unfollowed” in the jargon) – various contributors to the paper I read most regularly, The Guardian. Of these, Stephen Moss (who tweets as “benonix”) is the one I’m most likely to stick with. He doesn’t overtweet and he doesn’t give me too much extra homework. But he follows six times as many others as I do and I wonder how he finds the time.

One of the wrinkles on Twitter is something called Follow Friday. No doubt simply for the alliteration, this is designated the day for recommending tweeters you follow to people who follow you. The phrase Follow Friday, like any other phrase that recurs in tweets, soon produces a separate thread which one can access by putting Follow Friday in the search box (the place you also go looking for unaccessed tweeters). If a recurring phrase really takes off for a while, it is said to be “trending” and gets added to a trending list.

The hash tag – # – also creates a separate thread so by adding #ff to one’s tweet one immediately throws one’s recommendations into a vast list available to all. Ever out of step, I decided to institute a contrary movement and introduced Forsake Friday, listing those tweeters I propose to unfollow. Last Friday, this got me some trouble.

I had followed for a while one of The Guardian’s correspondents based in the States, Oliver Burkeman. He was often interesting and entertaining but he did seem to pass on to his followers every blessed thing that caught his eye and, when accessing those things means calling up various websites and looking at pictures or reading articles, you do start to flag. I tweeted:

#ForsakeFriday: giving up @oliverburkeman – so many refs and links and conversations equals too much homework; sorry …#ff

To my astonishment, he replied within a couple of minutes:

@WSteG I’m sorry! You must follow some very quiet tweeters if I am among your most prolific!

An indenture to part with Grace

Now, I had once tweeted Mr Burkeman to suggest that he might like to follow me (a bit of a cheek, perhaps, and not one I’ve tried with anyone else) because I thought we had some interests in common. He didn’t rise to that and he never signed up to follow me, so he must have had his mentions thread open when my tweet dropped into it. I wrote back:

@oliverburkeman Well … there are only so many hours in the day.

And that was that. Between these tweets, I posted another tweet:

#ForsakeFriday – also shedding @gracedent – I don’t know what #bgt is, but, from her many, many tweets on it, I sure don’t want to know #ff

Grace Dent also writes in The Guardian. She took over the television column in the paper’s pocket-sized Saturday Guide when Charlie Brooker graduated to fame on the box. What I wrote there wasn’t strictly accurate. I did know that #bgt meant Britain’s Got Talent, a programme that I have never seen (indeed, I watch ITV so rarely that I doubt I have ever even caught a trail for it). As a cultural entity, it is impossible to avoid entirely because newspapers, including The Guardian, run so much stuff about it, stuff that I don’t read but do notice. As for feigning ignorance, playing the faux naïf card is something I have done since childhood and I am aware that it can be (doubtless, usually is) hugely irritating.

It irritated me that Ms Dent tweeted throughout each “bgt” broadcast – evidently nightly – and in a manner that suggested that anyone reading her must be doing the same. I had elected to follow her, rather on a whim, because I fancied that she might be entertaining. But even if she was being entertaining about “bgt”, I didn’t care to know.

Well, she too shot back, just as promptly as Burkeman, “via Osfoora for iPhone” which suggested to me that she tweets on the move:

@WSteG Oh please don’t go. I thought we really had something.

This made me laugh but astonished me. Like Burkeman, she doesn’t follow me. And she has nearly 64,000 followers. Why the hell should she be bothered to reply? I couldn’t resist. Back I shot:

@gracedent Oh, hey, if only you were THAT funny about stuff I understand …

Seconds later came the iPhone reply:

@WSteG are you ok? You seem to be sending shitty messages to a woman you don’t know on the Internet using your real name. Do you mean to?

Being more than 140 characters, this had to extend onto a website for elongated tweets. I was gob-smacked. She seemed to be suggesting that I was the kind of person who writes anonymous hate mail in green ink. Somewhat hysterical, no? I replied:

@gracedent Um … “shitty”? I didn’t know The Guardian was such a protective bubble. Is anonymity required of those who don’t follow bgt?

On reflection, I think I was trying to pack too much meaning into that tweet. She came back, via the web rather than the phone:

@WSteG Stephen. Leave me alone. Polite request.

Evidently this is a novel by Grace Dent, not one I am likely to read

Now, I feel sure that I made some bad misjudgments here. Perhaps unconsciously influenced by the name Twitter, I have been a little inclined to twit people when tweeting them and, especially if they don’t know me, this can come out wrong. No doubt as a result, I felt that this exchange had escalated horribly. Moreover, it seemed gruesomely ironic that an intention to stop following someone ended in them telling you to leave them alone. Well, I passed the rest of the afternoon feeling rather upset and rattled and, after a decent interval, I sent this:

@gracedent Really, really sorry to have given offence. Your column makes me laugh. Best wishes, Steve G

I heard no more. But I was still brooding about it next day. I had put Ms Dent’s name in search and quickly found a tweet that read, in its entirety, “I’d love to punch grace dent in the face”. This was by a woman who used “her real name”. Perhaps Dent had read that before I appeared on her radar and was feeling vulnerable. I looked at her own timeline and found that she had been chirruping away ever since her exchange with me. The only relic of that was her last tweet to me, the “leave me alone” one. I sent her a last message:

@gracedent Of our exchanges yesterday, the only one on your timeline makes me sound like a stalker. Please be kind enough to delete it.

She didn’t, of course. But her timeline lengthens so fast that the tweet she wouldn’t delete is too far down for access now.

Grace Dent, as I say, writes about television. I wasn’t being truthful when I said – trying to be kind – that her column makes me laugh. I’d never read it. So I did read it on Saturday. And that will be my starting point for my next posting …