The best comment must be truthful and uplift us as human beings

The last 12 months have been the richest for news in Britain for many years.  Where does one start?  

We have had one of the closest and most unpredictable general elections in our history, the fracturing of our party system with the rise of SNP and UKIP, the Charlie Hebdo massacre which unleashed debates over freedom of speech, the continuing march of Islamic extremism in its latest and most bloodthirsty guise, uncertainty over the continued existence of the United Kingdom, with the Scottish referendum settling little, and a significant chance that Britain might break away from Europe.
 
No country has such a galaxy of talented commentators, or such a range of quality outlets, print, broadcast and online.  It would be easy to spend all day reading quality comment and now, thanks to technology, everybody is a commentator.  A constant flow of news and comment hammering away at us on our handhelds and computer screens, can make it hard to discriminate the substantial from the ephemeral, quality opinions from the anodyne.  We can all too easily become swamped, at the mercy of comment about events, unable to focus on what is truly significant.
 
This is precisely why we need to focus in on the quality of comment and to be unashamedly hierarchical and judgemental when doing so.  High Street graffiti is not of the same quality as David Hockney, though it might resemble it nor childhood scribblings the same as late Matisse.  Quality matters and we need to be clear what quality is.
 
The genuine article helps us to see the world in a different way and adds significantly to our understanding of it. The test of a strong comment piece is whether we are changed having read it, whether we become just a little wiser and have more understanding.
 
The best comment pieces always have three qualities:  they must be well, and ideally beautifully, written.  They must not re-hash opinions that we heard yesterday or last year but be original and fresh.  They must be truthful and uplift us as human beings.  This last point is important.  It is easy enough to write elegant prose and to strike an original pose.  But unless the comment is grounded in the hard evidence of truth about the human experience, it is worth nothing.

The best comment pieces make me want to turn away from my screen or paper, and to be alone with myself, because I have been moved, intellectually or spiritually, by what I have read.  Life is full of the transitory and the insubstantial.  Great comment puts us in touch with the depths and makes us better people.  That is why the best comment pieces always have a moral quality.  The greatest writing throughout history indeed always has the same moral quality and power to uplift us as human beings.
 
Quality comment does not just remain on the page or the screen while we go off in search of a cup of coffee or return to our work.  It inspires us into action.  This is the challenge and the importance of great comment.  It has never been more needed.

Dr Anthony Seldon is chair of judges for the Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards. The deadline for entries is 31 July 2015.

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