My old man, bless his soul, was an opera enthusiast. Whenever he saw a production he really enjoyed, he would get up at the end and applaud thunderously, repeatedly shouting out “Bravo!” and “Encore!” at the top of his voice.
Trouble was, he could sometimes be a bit too loud. One evening I was with him, an annoyed and slightly snotty member of the audience, no doubt deafened by my dad’s hearty cheering, turned to him and said, to my embarrassment: “My dear chap, I thought claques went out of fashion in the 19th century.”
Claques were professional cheerleaders hired to applaud dramatic performances, date back to Roman times. By the 19th century, they were so well organised they sometimes had to be paid not to boo a production instead, a form of extortion which happily went out of fashion thanks to the development of modern concert etiquette.
Unfortunately, the development of claques has become increasingly prevalent on the internet. What we are starting to see is commentators who, purely by virtue of the fact that they can append a comment to someone else’s work, believe their opinions are not only as worthy as the column they are responding to, which may indeed be true, but that in the absence of any countervailing view, their view is the only one that counts.
A classic example of how a claque at work can be seen in the comments that followed both my own column on the issue of the RDR and Stephen Gay’s first interview as Aifa director general in Money Marketing last week.
In my case, a group which had previously had nothing constructive to say about my opinions on the RDR somehow changed their minds, despite the fact that I was advancing a similar line of reasoning to one that had previously been slagged off by them.
Like a flock of starlings on crack cocaine, they mindlessly follow each other hither and thither, taking a lead from one another without regard for any of the underlying arguments. Praise from them, such as I earned last week, is truly worthless.
An equally interesting example greeted Stephen Gay’s announcement in Money Marketing to the effect that he proposes to carry out a fundamental review of Aifa’s structure, to ensure it is “fit for purpose”, to use the over-worked phrase.
The review is expected to take three months and will look at issues such as funding, membership and the future direction of Aifa.
Within hours of the story appearing, it became clear that his comments were not being greeted with admiration by the online claque that has now created itself round Money Marketing. At least a dozen familiar faces popped up within hours, almost all of them making hostile comments both about Stephen Gay and about Aifa, which they accuse of no longer representing IFAs like themselves.
Despite having had months since his appointment was announced in September to consider what he was going to say when he finally took office, Gay’s comments are anodyne. He does not make explicit what aspects of the RDR he is in favour of or what he opposes, whether there are any other aspects of Aifa’s policies that should be retained, amended or junked.
He talks about achieving consensus, about there being “every reason to think that this is a proper and appropriate moment to consider what the role and the future and the vision of this organisation should be”.
No doubt, Gay is aware of the fact that, as a perceived “outsider”, his tenure at Aifa is likely to be brief unless he manages to impose and consolidate his own authority within the organisation. He would not be the first to feel that way.
But to come into a representative body without giving members a clue as to your intentions and expecting them to take it on trust that something positive will come up in three months time, maybe a lot longer, sounds less an interesting strategy and more a death wish.
Last week, I spoke to an IFA I trust, a long standing and loyal member of Aifa. He told me that over the past two years there has been mounting concern within certain parts of the organisation at criticisms of the way it operates.
According to my source, there is mounting paranoia about the way a vocal minority constantly snipe at the trade body, most from outside but also internally. “Our message is just not getting through. We are not drowning out the critics,” I was told.
Ironically, if your stated aim is to reach consensus above all costs, to refuse to say anything that you believe might alienate a minority within your constituency, you effectively cede the ground to them.
In the absence of a powerful argument from you as to the way forward, the claque is able to gather more disillusioned critics together to challenge everything you do – and supposedly don’t do.
Stephen Gay may think he has several months to feel his way into Aifa and build the alliances he needs to take the organisation forward in the coming years. I’m not so sure. At the very least, if he thinks the RDR cannot be derailed, he needs to explain clearly why – and ignore the hostile claque waiting in the wings.
Nic Cicutti can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org