It’s time we made ‘trolling’ socially unacceptable

Internet abuse is rife.

Internet abuse is rife.

I suspect like me, many people love and loathe the internet in equal measure.

Perhaps it’s an over-simplification but I would suggest that if you went to school in the days before the worldwide web then you realise that a) books (real ones, with paper) are good and b) there really is more to life than having a mobile phone surgically attached to your hand.

Don’t get me wrong: The internet has its uses. It’s a wonderful tool for learning (so long as you’re savvy enough to wade through the dross for reliable sources). It’s also great for shopping.

But, of course, the best thing about the web is that it brings people together. It instantly connects us with friends and loved ones around the country and all over the world.

For example, yours truly can chat online, face-to-face with my gamer friends in the States or via social media with my cousin Steven in New Zealand.

I’ll be sitting at work here in Hanley early in the morning and suddenly a message will pop up on Facebook from a little town called Feilding in the Manawatu region of the North Island where Steve is just about to hit the hay. This will never cease to amaze me. Bear in mind I’m still in awe of touch-screen technology.

But for all the advantages of the internet, there are many down-sides – not least the way in which it, and social media in particular, perpetuate bullying and abuse.

I was heartened to hear this week that people who abuse their victims on social media face prosecution for the first time in a shake-up of domestic violence rules.

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Alison Saunders announced that criminal prosecutors have been given new guidance to modernise the way they investigate abuse.

She said some teenagers may not consider themselves victims if they are being targeted on sites such as Facebook and Twitter – as opposed to being physically abused.

This new guidance means online abuse will now be taken into account in domestic violence cases.

The problem is that these kinds of incidents are just the tip of the iceberg.

There have been numerous documented cases of teenagers committing suicide after being bullied online; Of celebrities and high-profile individuals being stalked or harassed; Of organisations being unfairly targeted by individuals with an axe to grind.

It’s just so easy, isn’t it? This technological marvel which is seen as a vital lifeline in countries where people live in fear of oppressive regimes is a double-edged sword.

Anyone, anywhere can log on to the internet and create a platform to spout their (very often not so nice) views about other people.

Anyone with a social media account will see this abuse daily. Anyone who logs on to forums – such as the hugely popular football club fan sites – is exposed to it. Anyone who reads The Sentinel online and looks at some of the comments posted beneath stories will know what I’m talking about.

Many of the worst offenders hide behind pseudonyms and often have several of them. They like having the last word – believing this means they have somehow made their point or won the argument.

Ironically, I suspect very few of the abusers – because that’s what they are – would have the courage to say such things to the faces of their victims. Otherwise presumably they wouldn’t hide their identities.

The internet tends to embolden morons and give such people an over-inflated sense of their own importance.

I thought I had left the playground bullies behind when I finished school 26 years ago but it seems many of them have re-emerged via keyboards.

Forgive me if I sound like a representative of the Thought Police but it is hugely worrying to me that this sort of abuse is commonplace.

There’s a world of difference in my mind to free speech enabling robust, healthy debate and the insidious persecution of individuals because someone has an axe to grind with them or just because they can.

To my mind, swearing at someone on the internet or calling them ‘scum’ or a ‘liar’ or worse should be as socially-unacceptable as drink-driving.

I’ve blocked about 80 people from my Twitter feed in the last five years – the vast majority of whom claimed to be Port Vale supporters. Most of them began abusing me when the club’s chairman fell out with The Sentinel last November (ignoring the fact that this newspaper and yours truly did a bit to help the Vale in recent years).

Such abuse is water off a duck’s back to me these days but not everyone can shrug it off. We should remember that sticks and stones may break bones but words can also hurt people.

Sure, you can ‘block’ someone from your Twitter account or ‘unfriend’ them on Facebook. You can avoid forums or report abuse. But why should you have to?

Internet forums and social media are the verbal equivalent of the Wild West.

Given that children now have access to tablets and mobile telephones from a very early age, I think it’s vital that parents and teachers advise them how to behave online.

It’s one thing to install restrictions on devices to block certain websites or to protect your child from predators through education, but I think it is equally important to equip youngsters to deal with online abuse which can’t be filtered out – and to ensure they don’t actually dish it out themselves.

My view is: If you can’t say something politely then don’t say anything.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

A poodle is one thing, but we shouldn’t be anyone’s lap-dog

I am pleasantly surprised to record that my faith in British politics and politicians has been somewhat restored in recent weeks.

First MPs shocked us all when the Government was defeated in the House of Commons in a vote over the possibility of military intervention in Syria.

Appalled as we all are at the thought of anyone using chemical weapons, I have to say I felt hugely uncomfortable at the prospect of the UK rushing into another Middle East conflict it can ill afford and which our over-stretched Armed Forces can certainly do without.

Thus I was encouraged that Parliamentarians seemed to have learned from past mistakes and, in particular, the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’ and exercised a degree of restraint.

Some were even prepared to vote against their own parties rather than galloping towards another endless war in a country most of us would struggle to pinpoint on a map.

No nation should ever go to war lightly but it helps when the public at least understands the reasons why its leaders may choose to do so and are sympathetic to the cause.

In the case of Syria, at the time when the Prime Minister called for the vote there were simply too many unanswered questions and a majority of MPs quite rightly, in my opinion, said no.

They had correctly judged the mood of the nation and certainly, at the time, there was simply no appetite for more ‘world policing’.

To his credit, the Prime Minister took the defeat on the chin as his right honourable friends on the opposition benches revelled in the moment.
David Cameron then, quite unexpectedly, did something I haven’t seen a British PM do for about 20 years.

Reacting to remarks allegedly made by a Russian diplomat who had described Britain as ‘a little island nobody listens to’, our Dave actually went and stood up for us.

The Prime Minister gave what I thought was a rather charming, indignant, Love Actually-esque defence of our Sceptered Isle.

He threw in Shakespeare, the abolition of slavery, great inventions. Oh and The Beatles.

I have to admit I almost cheered to hear it – so used am I to our glorious leaders being pathetically wet and insipid when it comes to international affairs.

Who can forget, for instance, the way in which that towering intellect George W Bush treated our then PM Tony Blair.

We may be a poodle on the world stage when compared to the U.S. and Russia but it is nice, just occasionally, to not be portrayed as some other country’s lap dog.
Of course, most people’s reactions to the Prime Minister’s defence of Britain was coloured by their political affiliations – with those on the left steadfastly refusing to give any credit.

‘A nice bit of myopic jingoism’ was how one of my Twitter followers described it – which I thought was a tad harsh.

I like to think, naively perhaps, that David Cameron stuck up for Britain, its traditions and values, because he believes in them.

It’s the kind of thing I’d expect any Prime Minister worth his or her salt to do but the sad truth is that, in recent years at leas, there has been nothing in the way of Statesmanship from the those living at Number 10.

It may just have been window dressing against the background of a summit at which precious little was actually achieved, but I was heartened – nonetheless – by the PM’s language and the sentiment.

The Britain of 2013 is a far cry from the global superpower it once was but it is clearly still important enough for the Americans to view us as a key ally – at least in terms of public perception, if not militarily.

I’d like to think that, going forward, any Prime Minister – from whichever party – understands that the British electorate deserves to be represented proudly in international affairs. If that means being unpopular, then so be it.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

‘Not the time for falling out. The players and manager need a cuddle…’

Vale co-owner Norman Smurthwaite.

Vale co-owner Norman Smurthwaite.

Norman Smurthwaite says he knows exactly what the Port Vale players and manager need right now – and it’s not criticism.

The club’s chief executive and co-owner has called on supporters, home and away, to get behind whoever wears the shirt.

Smurthwaite said: “What the players and the manager need at this moment in time is a cuddle. They need us – the owners, the staff at the club and – crucially – the fans, to put our arms around them and make them feel warm and loved.

“We can all see what is going on. We know that results haven’t been going for us, but criticising the players and the manager who have put us in the automatic promotion places won’t help.

“Every other team and set of fans is out to get us. Our team and our manager are there to be shot at, and we can help take some of the heat off them by encouraging and supporting them at this difficult time.

“The younger players aren’t daft. They know that this is their time and they know that unless they do the business they could end up painting and decorating Vale Park rather than playing here, which is a real privilege.

“Of course, fans are entitled to their opinions and I understand their frustrations, but the truth is that everyone at the club is just as disappointed as them at the way things have gone recently.

“I can assure the supporters that no-one hurts more than the players and the manager when we get beat. Micky Adams is a proud man and he doesn’t accept failure.”

On the subject of the manager, Smurthwaite was unequivocal in his support.

He said: “Micky Adams is going nowhere. He will be at York on Saturday, he will be with us until the end of the season and I fully expect him to be with us next season when we will hopefully be in League One.

“There is no doubt that Micky Adams was one of the key reasons for me buying this football club.

“As much as I saw potential in the stadium, I could see that we were lucky at this level to have a manager of his calibre and experience.

“I was also struck with what he and the group of players he had assembled had achieved in the early part of the season before we came in and spent money to strengthen the squad.

“If ever I’m feeling low I think back to that terrific day in the FA Cup at Sheffield United. I was so incredibly proud – even though we lost the game.

“On that day I saw our potential. I saw how we could stand toe-to-toe with teams from a higher level, play good football and have fantastic supporters.

“It is about re-discovering the spirit of earlier on in the season when the club was fighting for its life.”

On Tuesday night, midfielder Ryan Burge took to Twitter to claim he was just five minutes away from Bristol Rovers ground on Tuesday when he received a text saying he was not in the Vale squad.

Asked what he thought about players voicing their disappointment at being left out of the squad on social media, Smurthwaite said he was disappointed.

Smurthwaite said: “In a perfect world this kind of thing wouldn’t happen and issues between the manager and the players would remain behind closed doors.

“However, I trust the manager and the players to get their heads together and sort these kind of things out.

“They are grown-ups and they’re paid to do a job. This isn’t the time for fallings out.

“At the end of the day we need the best possible team out on the pitch on Saturday – irrespective of personal grievances.”

Despite Vale’s recent poor run, Smurthwaite said he was still “loving” the challenge.

He added: “It was unfortunate but I had to be away for a few days and I returned to a real storm.

“But nothing will divert myself or Paul (Wildes) from our goals. We are here for the long-haul.

“I hope that the fans can see that we’re doing our bit and are happy with what we are doing.

“It is a massive learning curve because we are still relative newcomers to the business of football, but I’d like to think the fans can see that we’ve done everything that’s been asked of us.

“As an example, the wage bill for players and player support has gone up by 40 per cent in the time we’ve been here. That’s a significant investment to try to help the manager.

“Paul and I, and our staff, are working hard – perhaps doing the not-so-glamorous things which make the business sustainable because we want to build Port Vale up and go higher.

“There are lots of positives, lots of things we are working on which the supporters aren’t aware of just yet, but which will help the club down the line and improve the experience for fans.

“However, we understand fully that all that matters in the end to our customers is what happens out on the pitch on a Saturday or a Tuesday evening.

“I don’t believe that our early season form was a fluke. The fans know what our lads are capable of. We’ve seen the best of them and we’ll see it again soon – I’ve no doubt about that.”

For all the latest Port Vale news, views and pictures pick up a copy of The Sentinel. The Weekend Sentinel on Saturday includes The Green ‘Un sports paper with extensive Vale coverage.

I look forward to tweeting-up with everyone (Come on Vale…)

The Twitter home page of yours truly.

The Twitter home page of yours truly.

The Leopard Hotel in Burslem has played host to some big names during its long history.

A couple of years ago none other than the crown prince of pop music himself, Robert Williams esquire, turned up with his entourage to engage in a night of ghost-hunting at the famous hostelry.

It is not known whether our Rob communed with the spirits of guests who once frequented the ‘Savoy of the Midlands’ as The Leopard was known.

However, he certainly followed in the footsteps of some illustrious names that night.

Names like Josiah Wedgwood and James Brindley who met in the Burslem hotel 248 years ago next month, to be precise, to discuss the building of the Trent and Mersey Canal.

Yes, some of the great pioneers of the industrial revolution once supped at The Leopard and tonight their modern day equivalents will be doing just the same. Sort of.

The Sentinel’s digital staff – the people in charge of our online operation – have organised ‘a tweet-up’ this evening.

OK. I’ll admit I had to look up what it meant. Basically, a ‘tweet-up’ is a face-to-face gathering of people who use Twitter.

In this instance, it’s a chance for users of the social network to meet up with their favourite/most annoying Sentinel journalists and, crucially, other influential Twitter users from our neck of the woods.

I can’t promise that the conversations will be as deep and meaningful as the one had by Wedgwood and Brindley in March 1765 but we’ll give it a go.

Tonight’s meeting of ‘tweeps’ (check me out with the lingo) underlines just how much The Sentinel has changed since I first arrived at Etruria 15 years ago.

Back then email was in its infancy, this newspaper didn’t have its own website and there was no such thing as Twitter or Facebook.

Nowadays our ‘digital audience’ (people who visit The Sentinel’s website) is more than 513,000 a month and this figure is continuing to grow at a rapid pace.

The immediacy of the internet trumps newspapers, television and even radio reporting and it’s something that even Luddites like me have had to embrace.

Indeed, most journalists would be worried if it weren’t for the fact that so much of what’s written on the web is nonsense and, thankfully, people still rely on trusted brands for their information.

Sentinel newspaper. Sentinel website. It’s all still The Sentinel, I guess.

What’s interesting to me is the kind of people from our patch who use Twitter to communicate with their friends/colleagues/contacts/fans and the wider world.

You’d be suprised at who’s tweeting and perhaps, more so, by who isn’t.

Stoke City and Port Vale players, darts maestros Phil Taylor and Adrian Lewis, England cricketer Danielle Wyatt, mobile phones billionaire John Caudwell, the Chief Constable of Staffordshire, Vale chairman Paul Wildes, stage star Jonny Wilkes, your MPs, local councillors, and the chief executives of some major employers locally, to name but a few, are all at it.

What’s more, some of them even write their own tweets. (You can usually tell by the spelling mistakes).

Tonight a fair few of them will be meeting up at The Leopard.

In a pub that’s more than 250 years old a bunch of people, some of whom have only ever met ‘virtually’, will be brought together by the wonders of modern technology and the promise of a pint.

Yours truly (@MartinTideswell) is even being forced to miss watching Vale beating Wimbledon just up the road in order to be there.

Hacked-off because there’s too much Stoke City and not enough Port Vale in the paper? Or vice-versa? Our Sports Editor Keith Wales (@SentinelSportEd) will be having his ear bent about that old chestnut.

Want to talk campaigns or have an issue with one of our stories? The Sentinel’s Editor-in-Chief
(@MikeSassi) will be explaining his thinking.

Have a question about The Sentinel’s Business Awards? Our Business Editor (@annking) can probably help.

Fancy venting your spleen about the city council’s plan to relocate its civic HQ from Stoke to Hanley? Our local government reporter Alex Campbell (@CouncilReporter) will be only too happy to listen.

Then there’s our star turn – my columnist colleague and ascerbic TV critic John Woodhouse
(@jwoody67), who will be doing a Twitter-related stand up routine. I kid you not. (He’s quite good, actually).

I just have one request: If you’re one of the Twitter users who’s going along to The Leopard tonight, go easy on my colleagues, won’t you?

Most of them don’t normally leave the safety of The Sentinel’s bunker to meet their followers/readers in person.

In fact, it might be better at the start if you limit your conversations to 140 characters until they all get the hang of this talking lark.

Mine’s a Diet Pepsi and a bag of dry roasted peanuts, by the way. Cheers.

*To sign up for tonight’s tweet-up email: chris.hogg@thesentinel.co.uk or david.elks@thesentinel.co.uk

*A video of tonight’s tweet-up will be posted on The Sentinel’s website at 9am tomorrow.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

The Leopard in Burslem.

The Leopard in Burslem.

Hats off to the Norman and Paul. Now let’s get the Pontiff signed up…

valebadge
Talking to Vale fans this week there’s confidence and hope in abundance that this season we will finally climb out of the lowest tier of English football.
This confidence is based on two things: Firstly, the majority of performances thus far by a terrific set of lads, put together on a shoe-string by Micky Adams and his staff, which have put us top of the league and, secondly, the addition of four vastly experienced players who will help to steady any nerves for the run-in.
Supporters know full well that our destiny is in our own hands. We’ve all done the maths: Every three points now represents one step closer to automatic promotion.
Since Norman Smurthwaite and Paul Wildes took over the club there’s been a steady drip, drip of good news from a club that used to be the dictionary definition of calamitous.
Off the field Papa Smurf, as our chief executive is affectionately known, has been beavering away doing all the unglamorous but rather important stuff like sorting the infamous toilets in the Railway Paddock and working hard to bring in lots of new sponsorship.
I would venture to say that Norman isn’t your ‘normal’ football club chief executive – if such a thing exists – and we, the fans, are all the better for having someone who is a businessman, first and foremost, at the helm.
It’s also really important that someone does the ‘people stuff’ and gets out and about meeting local people and Vale supporters from all backgrounds and he’s certainly doing that.
Paul Wildes, meanwhile, is the ‘face’ of the club. He is the chairman and figurehead – saying all the right things to the media and even creating a profile on social network Twitter.
Together, Norman and Paul are slowly starting to turn the ship around through a combination of sensible stewardship and innovative commercial and marketing initiatives.
I can only commend them for their endeavours thus far and hope that when the Supporters’ Club holds it AGM on February 12 plenty of people turn up to show how keen Vale fans are to work with the new owners.
The one nagging concern I do have is this week’s big talking point among fans which is the fact that leading scorer Tom Pope isn’t, as we were led to believe three months ago, contracted to the club until the end of next season.
We all know the Pontiff loves playing for the club he supports and he has indicated he wants to stay in Burslem.
I can only hope that the gaffer can persuade him to pledge his future to the Vale and that he gets the contract his efforts deserve.
Some fans argue that Tom has ‘only had one good season’. This isn’t true.
He worked his socks off last season too for scant reward in a team that was far less creative and where he had to play second fiddle to Marc Richards.
Now he’s sharp, hungry and a brilliant leader of the line.
It’s a rare thing when a local lad is banging in goals for his team and I sincerely hope we don’t lose him next week or over the summer.

It’s not the snow that’s the problem, it’s how we behave

A snow scene in Burslem.

A snow scene in Burslem.

They were selling snow shovels in Asda: ‘The shovels and sledges are selling fast so you’ll have to be quick’, warned the nice announcer lady over the PA system.
It seemed to me everyone in the store had been gripped by some sort of collective hysteria over the first proper snowfall of the winter.
Bear in mind I was in there under duress doing the weekly shop for our family of four plus a dog.
In stark contrast everyone else seemed to be a walking case study for Doomsday Preppers on the National Geographic Channel.
A mere dusting of the white stuff had been enough to create panic-buying on a scale not seen since December 23 – with queues of miserable-looking shoppers snaking down the aisles from the check-outs.
Other supermarkets are, of course, available and a colleague of mine Tweeted a picture taken at a local Tesco where every loaf of bread and every bap and bun had vanished from the shelves.
This kind of behaviour is simply unfathomable to me and it would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.
I would guess the average house in North Staffordshire has enough food to see its occupants through any cold spell and yet, for some reason, a few snowflakes and madness sets in.
I mean, heaven forbid we have to make do with what’s in the cupboards and the fridge.
Granted, the media has to take some responsibility for the universal weirdness.
‘Arctic blast’ type headlines dominate newspaper front pages while the TV news shows re-run after re-run of planes being cancelled at Heathrow Airport and some fella’s car stuck in a ditch in Durham.
‘Why are we so bad at coping with the cold weather?’ a number of Sentinel letter writers have asked before blaming the council/Government or Met Office.
The answer is multi-faceted but must have something to do with the fact that we rarely have really bad weather in this country.
When I say ‘bad’ I mean lots of snow or prolonged periods when the temperature drops to minus something-or-other.
When this does happen it seems to catch an awful lot of people by surprise.
Presumably they either haven’t seen a weather forecast for several days or they don’t have a window.
It wouldn’t enter their heads to enjoy the picture postcard scene and make the best of it – not when there’s a chance to moan and forget that they too were young once and that not everyone’s as miserable and curmudgeonly as they are.
I reckon our inability to cope with frost, snow and ice also has a lot to do with the fact that many people are lazy, inconsiderate or downright stupid.
Occasionally all three.
On the internet our obsession with the weather plummeted to new depths locally as council gritting teams came in for a pasting on social media yet again.
There was outrage that a certain street in Meir hadn’t been gritted.
One poster disputed the city council’s assertion that its gritters were even out on the streets.
She commented: “Well all I av seen is cars sliding around and ppl gettin stuck this city is a joke I avnt seen any gritters and I walked to work, waste of space as usual, think the gritters and the grit must all av harry potter invisibility cloaks.”
(In English this means the lady in question didn’t spot any gritters during her extensive survey of her walk-to-work route).
Another poster, a mum-of-three, couldn’t understand why the pavements weren’t gritted too because of the risk the snow posed to her and her sprogs.
I kid you not.
This, of course, all boils down to a ‘woe-is-me’, can’t do anything for ourselves attitude which I find flabbergasting.
I refuse to believe people were so mollycoddled and useless 30 or 40 years ago when I was growing up.
Nowadays it seems some people aren’t happy unless every inch of the route between their front door and their local shop/pub/school/place of work (insert as appropriate) has been treated with rock salt and personally tested by their ward councillor (whom seven out of 10 couldn’t be bothered to vote for).
To be honest, if the main roads are kept clear (and they usually are) then I’m happy.
Having to take my time as I drive or walk along the side streets is no great inconvenience and using those little yellow bins to sprinkle a bit of grit on my drive and that of my elderly neighbour is no real hardship to me.
Yes, we’ve definitely gone soft in recent years: Take schools, for example.
Holden Lane High School only closed once in the winter during my five years there between 1983 and 1988 and that was because of a problem with the boiler.
Nowadays some schools close when there’s even a threat of ‘bad’ weather or text working parents at lunchtime to tell them to come and collect their children as soon as possible because there’s four centimetres of snow on the playground.
Why? The pupils are already in the school so what does it matter what time they leave?
‘Health and safety’ posted a teacher friend of mine on Facebook before adding a smiley face with a wink and presumably heading off to the shed to dig out his sledge.
Nice work if you can get it.
I love winter: A sharp frost in the morning and a fresh blanket of snow is a beautiful sight to behold.
What’s more, I promise to love it even when I’m old and grey and all I can do is stare out at the children making snowmen and throwing snow balls. In fact, I’ll be envious.
You see, it’s not the cold weather that’s unbearable – it’s the way most of us react when we get some.

Once you create a social media account, you’re on your own…

I can fully understand Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s rationale behind issuing its members with a social media rulebook to help them mind their Ps and Qs.

The powers-that-be want to ensure that the authority’s good name isn’t besmirched by some clever dick with a lap top.

The only mystery is why it took the council’s internet police so long to issue a rule book.

Any politician (or journalist, for that matter) brave enough to use social media learns pretty sharpish that it’s a double-edged sword.

Twitter, Facebook and the like can be wonderful tools for promoting whatever you want to promote.

Of course, the problem arises when not everyone likes your agenda.

You see, we’re not all Stephen Fry. There’s a good reason why a national treasure like the man who gave us Blackadder’s Melchett, among other unforgettable characters, has the best part of five million followers on Twitter.

A comedy genius, Fry oozes wit and wisdom in equal measure and the 147 character limit for Tweets seems perfect for him.

That’s why I don’t mind occasionally reading about the minutiae of his life or his streams of consciousness – especially as, like me, he’s a cricket-lover.

Unfortunately, most mortals simply aren’t as engaging and, crucially, cannot draw upon the huge reservoir of goodwill and respect that Stephen Fry enjoys.

This is why many people get sucked into unseemly and unedifying slanging matches which everyone (well, anyone who follows them or is their ‘friend’) can see.

An ill-advised post, written in the heat of the moment, can have catastrophic consequences for a person’s life, career or popularity.

It may take less then a minute to vent your spleen on such very public forums but, once you have, there’s a chance the world and his dog will have seen your missive and drawn instant conclusions about your worth as a human being.

If the pen is mightier than the sword then I would suggest the keyboard is infinitely more powerful than both.

The harsh reality is that some people simply shouldn’t be allowed access to a toaster – let alone the internet.

These are the kind of people who could start an argument in an empty room.

They are simply not good with, well… words – their common sense deficiency and GCSE grade G in English regularly exposed in the cold expanse of cyberspace.

Worse still are those who actually revel in being provocative and argumentative or making every other word an expletive – believing themselves to be somehow edgy and cool.

These keyboard warriors are legends in their own computer rooms and are to be avoided, blocked and ostracised because, as I’ve learned from bitter experience, there’s simply no point debating with an idiot.

Which brings me neatly on to the use of social media by politicians.

I should say first that I’m all for anything which helps MPs and councillors better engage with an electorate which is, generally speaking, apathetic about politics – particularly at a local level.

Social media gives councillors a measure of freedom and a voice beyond the confines of the council chamber or their own party.

While I understand the local authority’s desire to police the use of the likes of Facebook and Twitter by councillors, I think some of the advice reads rather like excerpts from a rule book for stating the bleedin’ obvious.

The city council’s words of wisdom include: “Treat others with respect; avoid personal attacks and disrespectful, rude or offensive comments; do not publish anything that might be considered sexist, racist, ageist, homophobic or anti-faith.”

To me, the very fact that PR officers feel the need to remind elected members to be respectful to other people seems absurd.

Other guidance such as telling councillors to avoid discussing ‘controversial topics’ such as politics or religion is patently nonsense.

After all, what’s the point of members having a social media profile if they’re banned from talking about politics?

Ultimately, the internet is a vast, ever-changing and unpredictable environment into which politicians – and everyone else for that matter – venture at their own risk.

Irrespective of what advice is issued, once someone creates an account they’re on their own.

At some point someone viewing their profile will undoubtedly take exception to something they’ve written.

When this happens, as it inevitably will, the trick is not to be intimidated or cowed and to remember that, whoever you are arguing with, is not a Bond villain.

More likely, it’s a bloke sitting in his box room, wearing slippers and supping a mug of Ovaltine as he sets the world to rights.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel