Paul Johnson, journalist and historian. Credit: Joss McKinley/New Statesman
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The NS Interview: Paul Johnson

“I suspect the sex abuse scandal has been greatly exaggerated”.

Did you always want to be a journalist?

I very much wanted to live in Paris when I was in the army, and I was quite determined to. I could have become a dress designer: Dior was willing to take me on as an assistant, but he did not have an immediate vacancy.

Kingsley Martin was the first editor you worked under at the NS. What was he like?
By the time I got to know him well, in the mid-1950s, he was rather past it. I think the quality Martin had - if you can call it a quality - was that he represented in his own indecisions and muddled thoughts the feelings of a very large number of people among Britain's educated classes. He reflected them in the hesitancies and ambiguities of the paper, and that's why it succeeded.

As a journalist, you've spent much of your life around politicians. Do you still?
Not much now, and I never go to the House of Commons. In the old days, if there was a new leader of the Labour Party or the Tory party, I would invite them to lunch and usually they came. But David Cameron I don't know, and must try to get to know him because he is a new kind. What do you think of him?

Some would say there's nothing there to know.
He's a clever fellow. Though one thing you learn from history is that collections of very clever people don't always make a good cabinet.

What do you think is the most important quality a politician can possess?
A combination of decency, integrity and good judgement. But those aren't any good in themselves unless they are backed up by courage. Courage is the essential element in any great public man or woman. This was where Margaret Thatcher scored: she was a very courageous woman, daunted by nothing. Churchill had absolute courage, too. He had this wonderful ability to pick himself up from the ground after a tumble.

Whereas Tony Blair, you've written, had very good manners.
He always writes you a personal letter in his own handwriting. I think good manners are an asset. When people talk about political correctness, the only element of any value is good manners. Unfortunately, manners are not all that common at the top nowadays.

You once advised Blair to stick close to the US. Wasn't that his biggest mistake?
No. I think that Blair was much better informed about foreign affairs than people will allow for. The other thing, which is more important, really, is that George W Bush was a much cleverer and much better-informed man than his enemies would make out. He and Blair together had a strategy that made sense and that they had the courage to carry through. Bush told me that he thought Blair was first class. And Blair always said he liked Bush very much. I think it was a genuine partnership.

The Pope is visiting Britain. Have you ever met him?
Yes - and I've got a great collection of photographs of him, me and Mrs Thatcher taken last year. I've also got a picture of me presenting John Paul II with a copy of my history of Christianity in Polish.

You were an admirer of Pope John Paul II, weren't you?
He was a very great man and that stuck out a mile. You could feel him radiating something, which I haven't noticed in anyone else in recent years. The present chap is very good in quite a different way, so I suppose the Church is lucky to have had two popes in a row who are quite different from each other.

How serious do you think the sexual abuse scandal is for the Catholic Church?
I think it'll blow over. I was educated by Dominican nuns, Christian Brothers and the Jesuits - and I was brought up in a very pro-clerical household, so I knew lots of priests and nuns - and I never heard anything like this. I was a very sharp little boy and I think I'd have known if a lot of it had been going on. So I suspect that it has been greatly exaggerated.

So you don't believe abuse happened at all?
I think the terrible thing that happened was when the Church first started to hand out compensation payments from clerical funds because, instantly, every ambulance-chasing lawyer in America was on to this - and that's when the number of cases multiplied. So I regard the extent of these abuses as very suspect.

Was there a plan?
I very much wanted to be editor of the New Statesman! But I never wanted to be prime minister, except maybe as a little boy.

Are we all doomed?
Oh no, I'm an optimist. I think the British are a very ingenious and clever people and, given a reasonable and decent leadership, we will get out of our present difficulties. And then you've got to consider how fortunate we are. We have now had increasing standards of living in this country for 32 successive generations. We've got a great deal to be thankful for.

Defining Moments

1928 Born in Manchester
1955 Joins the staff of the New Statesman
1957 Publishes his first book, The Suez War
1958 Marries Marigold Hunt
1965 Becomes editor of the NS; leaves 1970
1974 Serves on the Royal Commission on the Press
1978 Tom Stoppard's play Night and Day is dedicated to Johnson
2006 Awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W Bush

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Catholicism in crisis

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.