Yes, Giles Coren is absurdly thin-skinned, but aren't most writers?

The restaurant critic's Twitter "flounce" is typical - writers are just terribly insecure people.

We’ve all been there. You’re merrily pottering away on Twitter, minding your own business, laughing at hilarious Essex lion parodies, when all of a sudden something rather smelly turns up in the @-mentions column.

What happens next? Depending on your mood, you can simply ignore it, write something polite in response, write something angry in response that you’ll regret, or "do a flounce". The web flounce is a time-honoured tradition of pretending you’re so upset you’re going to leave, getting lots of people to tell you you’re lovely and you shouldn’t leave, then leaving... and sheepishly popping your head back around the door a while later, like someone who’s stormed out of a pub but forgotten their coat.

Poor old Giles Coren. The “what I had for dinner” correspondent says he didn’t flounce, and accidentally deleted his account – but he did get a wee bit angry when someone called him (and steel yourselves for a truly abominable insult that will have you reaching for the smelling salts) a “numpty”.

Despite not really liking anything he’s ever written, presented or done, I do have a lot of sympathy for him. Who can say they haven’t misread the tone of what someone else said, overreacted or written something they shouldn’t have done? I know I have; you probably have too.

Then again, Giles hasn’t exactly trodden a delicate path through the lawn without squashing any daisies along the way. He once looked back on his early career, saying: “I wasn’t happy unless jobs were lost, reputations were ruined and ‘closed’ notices were up in the window by the end of the week. I remember reading an interview in the Financial Times with the owner of a restaurant I’d just panned, in which he declared that ‘Giles Coren’s review cost me £150,000,’ and thinking, ‘Is that all?’”

Sounds like some of us can dish out out but can’t take it, then. Giles was so devastated when a sub-editor weakened a feeble joke some years back he sent a stinging missive of petulant complaint which has since passed into legend. One of the first things you learn as a journalist is not to upset the subs – they might wreck one of your weaker jokes, but 19 times out of 20 they’ll save you from looking like a tool. Giles, however, decided to ignore that rule and go nuclear – and guess what? He ended up looking like a tool.

What is it, then, about writers that makes us mimophants – slightly bizarre beings who go trampling into an argument like a rampaging elephant, but curl up like a shy, sensitive little mimosa when we’re subjected to the slightest bit of criticism?

I don’t think it’s just writers, by the way, but creative people in general. Some of them even search for their own name on Twitter, and end up fizzing off expletive-laden tweetbombs at hapless proles – cuddly Simon Pegg, of "used to be funny" fame, couldn’t resist a peek the other night, with disastrous results. When has searching for your own name ever had a happy ending? So you have to wonder, why do they do it, these fragile types?

I think writers (including columnists, and especially bloggers) are the caricature of stand-up comedians: representing a strong persona when they’re up there holding court (on stage or in print), but terribly needy at other times. Most writers have the thinnest of rice-paper-thin skins when it comes to writing a headline, or changing a single word of text; from scribblers at the crappiest little parish pump newsletter to the biggest publications in the world, we are deeply sad individuals who desire constant praise, and magnify even the mildest criticism to a gigantic scale of enormity.

Take comments, for example: most writers don’t read them, unless there’s a gun pointed at their head. Why not? We just can’t take it. The right thing to do is to engage with your readers and try to keep a lively debate going, while encouraging the right kind of commenters who really add something to the discussion... but the easy option is to publish, then run away and hide in a dark corner, waiting for it all to go away. It probably goes to the heart of why we became writers in the first place: the need to communicate to others in a mediated way, because we were too shy, or too awkward, or too introverted, to be able to manage it effectively face to face.

So, I think we should cut Giles a bit of slack. He was a bit rude, I’m sure he’s said sorry (he has said sorry, hasn’t he?) and now he’s back, after having accidentally deleted his Twitter account. It’s not his fault; it’s just that writers are terribly insecure folk, on the whole. RT IF YOU AGREE!

 

Giles Coren's Twitter page.
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.