Power, its exercise and abuse has filled our screens and newspapers during the last week. The word takes our minds in a particular direction – towards the power that can shut down the internet, buzz protesters with fighter jets, marketise the NHS, sell off our forests, kettle and pepper-spray dissent.
But if power is the capacity to act, we, the ordinary citizens, now have more of it in our hands than could have been imagined a decade ago.
Leaderless groupings, acting quickly, have flourished with the growth of social media and the ubiquity of smart phones. Running commentaries on, and video clips of, police action at demos can be all over the internet within minutes. 'Flash' protests have given tax-evading businesses nowhere to hide. Resistance to injustice and self-interest can be rapidly mobilised from Tahir Square to Grizedale Forest. Bloggers spread the unauthorised versions of the public spin of the powerful, from politicians to bishops, from police chiefs to PR execs.
I need to come clean here. I am a late convert to Twitter. For some time, I though it the playground of the inane and the self-promoting. Wrong. The interchange of ideas and information and the linkage with sources that might otherwise have escaped me, is invaluable. It is a powerful and engaging tool. But as with every other tool, it carries a weight of responsibility and self-restraint which is the down-side of its ability to enable us to hold authority accountable and to expose hypocrisy, selfishness and brutality.
For me, the best example of this conflict are the Tweets of @eyespymp which invites emails or Tweets about “what you see an MP doing.” It describes this activity as “crowd sourced gossip”.
I'm not sure if anything much is added to my understanding or professional efficacy by knowing who is “sliming” through Portcullis House, taking coffee at a station and looking pleased with themselves or having a spot of bother with a revolving door. It feels a bit more like an intrusion - not of privacy, because all the sightings are in public places – but of an individual's reasonable expectation to go unremarked unless they are doing something wrong, rude, or pompous.
But that is not going to keep me from following eyespymp. It may offer an insight into a line of enquiry or comment and it would be hypocrisy to deny that there is a certain tacky satisfaction in reading of a politician one dislikes doing some small public action which raises a groan.
What is important here, and in our usage of all the new power which information technology has given us, is to use it well. Abuse of power is wrong, whatever its source. Of course, a hack retweeting without discernment some minor piece of smugness or stupidity on the part of an unwary MP, does not occupy the same moral space as concealing corrupt dealings or acts of violence against peaceful protesters, but it is still a dubious use of power understood as the ability to act.
The power to do something does not confer the right. Speaking truth to our own power is just as as important as doing so to those who hold political, social, military and economic power. Failure to do so will poison the wells of our common life and that would be a betrayal of the best opportunities which have ever been available to radical and principled dissent.