Sigh. By way of a confession from an active crime scene, here’s a brief timeline of the international furore I somehow caused by posting a review of Paddington 2 just after lunchtime last Friday. I’d previously reviewed this film negatively in 2017 for the BBC, but as a radio show, that review didn’t show up on the Rotten Tomatoes aggregator. I recognised that a revised critique would knock Paddington off a perfect RT score, and adjusted my copy to emphasise the reasons for the late review being published. I figured these steps would be enough to defuse any potential backlash. I was wrong.
Nope. By 11pm that night, I felt I had reason enough to shut down a comments section filling up with death threats from rabid Paddington fans, a hate-tsunami stoked by the online press, much of the language obscene, some messaging just the word “DIE’, along the lines of “I hope you ******* get AIDS and ********die’ sometimes with ‘OLD MAN’ added for additional zing. Under the Communications Act 2003, a person is guilty of an offence if he or she sends ‘by means of a public electronic communication network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character’; prima facie is there in plentiful quantities. Even more gravely, anyone who sent these kinds of messages to a complete stranger seems to me to have not truly taken the friendly teachings and genial mind-set of the lovely Paddington Bear to heart.
Over Memorial Day Weekend, this ‘story’ was picked up by thousands of news outlets, most lifting their text from early copy in Deadline and The Hollywood Reporter, then feeding the results through some kind of garbled mis-translation machine. Now I was being reported as an ‘assassin’, and ‘the murderer of Paddington’ who, readers were tremulously warned, had the bear in a ‘vicious stranglehold’. It was reported that I was a ‘contrarian’ who loved films like ‘the Dumb and Dumber sequel’, a film I can’t honestly claim to have even seen, never mind written about or liked.
By Monday, the story was mutating, growing arms and legs and had been linked to over 200 news outlets. No recent article by Donald J Trump on his new website had raised over 15,000 interactions, whereas Paddington 2 had easily eclipsed that score in a matter of hours (Trump has since packed his writing gig in). I also saw that most of the complainers came from the North America, where few know the earlier, gentler incarnation of the bear’s character, and I’m guessing that this is the reason why many found my review so hard to take.
Jon Ronson’s valuable book So You’ve Been Shamed explored the way that social media operates without editorial restraint or common sense; there’s an automatic pile-on effect when an opinion or life-style choice is deemed to be against the groundswell of public opinion. I’m not going to withhold or suppress an opinion out of fear of cyber-bullies, and wouldn’t see any point in being an independent critic if I did. The critic Dilys Powell noted that film criticism ‘is not an exact science’, and it would be a bore if everyone felt the same way about everything they saw. It’s just an opinion, man, so if you’re here from the self-appointed cancel-culture police to harass, intimidate and deride those who speak their mind, then that’s on you! As a philosopher said ‘…If you’ve got a blacklist, I want to be on it…’
As both the iceberg and the Titanic in this drama, I badly needed an Oprah, and was delighted to find one in Tom Power at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Tom was just the man to handle a matter of such gravity, and a link to my fireside chat on the topic of Paddington is included below. I’m sure that network malfunctioning while we were live on the air is just a co-incidence…