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In praise of ... Wikipedia. By Robert McNeil

As I stood to write this article, I realised I knew little about the subject.

In a wide, varied and ultimately depressing journalistic career, I’ve never found this a hindrance.

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I remember being telephoned by a BBC personage: “Hello, Mr – well, I forget your name for the moment – but we’d like you to appear on the radio to discuss issues raised by your important and influential news article.”

“I’m sorry,” I replied, “I couldn’t possibly.”

“Why not? The article was fascinating.”

“I know, but I didn’t understand any of it.”

This was perfectly feasible, particularly with, say, science. The objective newsman simply sets out the facts provided, runs some quotes and background information, then puts on his hat and goes home none the wiser. You just hoped it made sense to somebody somewhere.

But I digress. Wikipedia is a godsend to journalists who, like everyone else, affect to despise it. You splutter: “But what is it exactly?” I knew you’d ask that. So I looked up Wikipedia on Wikipedia. Result: “Wikipedia is a free, web-based, collaborative, mulilingual encyclopedia project supported by the non-profit Wikipedia Foundation. Its 16 million articles (over 3.4 million in English) have been written collaboratively by volunteers around the world, and almost all of its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the site.”

That’s where the snooty objections arise: letting the proles in. But it’s not as democratic as it looks. After Baroness Deech made controversial remarks about Scots on Any Questions, Wikipedia refused to add these to her entry, even without comment. Big controversy – no mention.

But at least citizens can have a shot. Wikipedia is, on the whole, a Good Thing.

That it can make journalists look clever – reader: “I see no evidence of that” – makes it a Wonderful Thing.

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