By Catharine Lumby 

May 11, 2013

A couple of nights ago I rang the News Limited columnist Miranda Devine. I had gone to some lengths to obtain her mobile number. I needed to apologise to her in person for retweeting a tweet by Mike Carlton that I did not read carefully enough before flipping it on to the Twittersphere.

Carlton’s original tweet read: “@mirandadevine is ‘embedded’ with the Police Riot Squad, as she puts it. What, all of them at once? Must be exhausting”. What caught my eye at first glance was the notion that the Australian police had adopted the practice, familiar from the invasion of Iraq, of ‘embedding’ journalists. I retweeted it  and less than a minute later, I read my retweet and realised that Carlton’s original tweet included a very offensive sexual subtext that I missed when I first read it. I immediately retracted my retweet and apologised on Twitter.

Like many people who inhabit the Twittersphere, I was working on my laptop while scrolling the Twitter feed on my phone when I sent the retweet. I wasn’t prepared to excuse my retweet as mere carelessness because I knew that there was a real person at the other end of the tweet and my retweet.

Miranda and I are at very different ends of the political spectrum and she has been less than kind about my views in some of her columns – as she is entitled to be. I don’t know her well but when we have bumped into each other socially I’ve been impressed by her warmth and her openness to dialogue. When I rang her she was gracious enough to accept my apology. Others on the right, however, saw my retraction as ‘bizarre’ and implied that I was intentionally maligning Miranda because I thought it was OK to cast a slur on someone with different opinions.  So I copped my own abuse that same day and it behoved me to take it on the chin.

It’s a small story that contains the seeds of a much larger story about the world of potential pain which unfolds every day on social media. Miranda Devine and I are from the same generation. When I started in journalism at the Sydney Morning Herald, in 1987, Remington typewriters were still lying around the newsroom among the computers. At one point in my endless apprenticeship to what was still called a trade, I was assigned to the Letters page. My major task, apart from deciphering the spidery handwriting of Retired High School Principals from East Lindfield, was to call the writers chosen for publication and verify their identity and get them to agree to me editing their copy down to one paragraph.

It seems a world away now. The public sphere has been democratised in ways we could never have imagined before the digital, online and social media era. The media no longer operates one-to-many. Everyone with access to a computer or a mobile phone can have their say – even if they are sitting in a café sending 5,000 angry tweets frustrated that only have five followers. As someone who passionately believes in dialogue – and most importantly civilised dialogue – I love the fact that the public podium has been opened up to everyone. What I don’t like is the level of vitriol and abuse that so often characterises debate.

I suspect many people feel the same way. Neither the Left or the Right have a monopoly on ethical engagement. As a left-leaning  feminist commentator, I have had far more abuse and defamatory comments angled at me from people who are supposedly on my ‘side’ of politics. My problem, perhaps, is that I refuse to take sides. I genuinely care about having a conversation.

Twitter is a fabulously ambiguous space where you can tweet a wry comment about something you saw at a bus stop one moment and the next engage in serious political debate. As with television and radio before it, we haven’t worked out how to work the medium yet. We are still experimenting.

What matters is that we exercise some generosity in this relatively new space. We should openly admit it when we get something wrong. We should not abuse other people on the basis of their politics, gender, race, religion or any other status. And we should recognise that the new virtual agora is still filled with real people who are affected by what other people say.

Miranda and I are both journalists – at least I was for 20 years. We’ve both experienced hate mail and have learnt to dump the letters with ugly sexual slurs written on the back of the envelope in the bin. Female journalists are targets for sexual abuse and there are still too many men out there who don’t understand how undermining that is.

Miranda tweeted that Mike Carlton had messaged her when she asked him to retract his original tweet and that he replied: “What a fragile little plant you are. Ultterly (sic) devoid of any style, wit or grace or humour. And a fool to boot”.

Mike Carlton and I are far more on the same political page than Miranda Devine and I. But I am totally in her corner on this issue. Miranda is gloves off with people and has been with me. But I will not stand by while someone is spoken to in that tone in ways that are now public.

Miranda will probably print robust attacks on my views in the future. I don’t mind – as long as she plays the ball and not the girl. I may well write critical assessments of her views in the future.

In assessing the ethics of engagement on Twitter, I think we also need to make room for satire and black humour. How that is possible remains to be seen. Like email, tweets are prone to literal readings. And I’d hate to see humour disappear from Twitter – it’s the only thing that gets me out of bed besides jogging…and checking my Twitter feed.

Read more:  Counsel Carlton on tweet: Deveny (paywall)