The Westminster Skeptics in the Pub gathered last night in a different pub, the Old Monk, for a different type of event- a discussion on ‘what difference does political blogging really make?’
The evening focussed around a couple of questions; what is the relationship between traditional journalism and blogging, and is it sustainable; and what influence do blogs actually have? The event certainly attracted a diverse crowd, many of whom were new to Skeptics in the Pub, which is to be welcomed, and BBC Parliament were there to record proceedings for posterity.
A writeup follows below, but I will start with some general comments.
Although I enjoyed listening to Nick Cohen, Mick Fealty and Sunny Hundall, I’m afraid that I found Jonathan Isaby to be unremarkable; he seems to be a better writer than he is a speaker, although I suspect that he was restricted, for one reason or another, in what he could say.
On way home from #sitp polital blogging. Learned that Guido serious about nothing but Guido. Narcisist not journailist.
Being something of a political nerd, it’s no surprise that I blog a bit, and I’ve heard all the points that were made at the event before. It comes down to the funding model for blogging vs volunteerism and whether blogging complements or replaces traditional journalism. Different people have different views. This is not a simple case of the jury still being out, but something more fundamental.
There is no such thing as blogging.
There isn’t even any such thing as political blogging. As we know, there are blogs that concern themselves with everything under the Sun and a little bit more mixing of sometimes siloed conversations would be good. Political blogging could certainly benefit from a healthy dose of skepticism.
However, to group even all political blogs together makes as much sense as saying that the Financial Times, the Daily Sport, the New Statesman and the Downing Street Years should be grouped together because they’re all printed on paper.
There are, within the political realm, blogs that range from the single issue to the generalist, from the ultra-local to the global. They aim to inform, provoke and proselytise. If we look at the question – what difference does political blogging really make – we can’t just look at the Westminster bubble or even just national politics. We have to look with much more detail and much finer granularity to gauge the differences between UK-wide, London, Northern Irish and so on blogging. I am convinced that the distinctive blogospheres in London, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are to do with the devolution of powers to those regions and that further regional blogging will only take off in concert with devolution of powers from Westminster regarding England.
Equally, a blog like the excellent Jack of Kent, focussing on legal matters, is only tangentially part of the main political blogosphere when it should, IMHO, be required reading. Ditto Ben Goldacre and various others.
Moreover, other social media, particularly Twitter, act as a force multiplier so that a given story or action can be replicated by many people with ease and speed.
Anyway, vesti la giubba; a writeup follows beneath the fold.
Our inimitable host, Jack of Kent, introduced the panel; Nick Cohen of the Guardian and others, Jonathan Isaby of Conservative Home, Paul Staines of Guido Fawkes, Mick Fealty of Slugger O’Toole and Sunny Hundall of Liberal Conspiracy.
Nick Cohen, who might best be described as a qualified supporter of blogging, opened the batting by saying that the bonus of blogging is not the quantity but the access to quality; without blogs, he’d never have heard of Norm Geras or Chris Dillow. The problem is that blogging is killing newspapers and literacy.
Blogs aren’t doing reporting or investigation, but duplicating the work of the mainstream media; there’s lots of blogging on PMQs but very little on select committees or the Lords. Equally, there is no coverage of England outside of London. He recalled something Alan Rusbridger had said – for the first time since the Enlightenment, we might see major cities without their own newspaper scrutinising what’s going on in the city and that this have never been tried in Europe before.
Blogging won’t ‘work’ for the same reasons that journalism is failing; a lack of money. Without money, you cannot pay for the reporters to sit in the courtroom etc.. For instance, Paul Staines sells stories to the national press; blogging doesn’t make money.
Jonathan Isaby was next up. He was the first gamekeeper turned poacher – the first traditional journalist to move to the wholly online realm, which he did by moving to ConservativeHome just over a year ago.
A poll of Conservative PPCs by ConservativeHome suggested that 96% read ConservativeHome, 64% but only 56% read the Telegraph – the highest score for any newspaper. Isaby felt that ConservativeHome had a symbiotic relationship with the traditional media but produce their own content. He was delighted that the media run with ConservativeHome stories. In response to Nick Cohen’s having said that blogs were killing newspapers, Isaby pointed out that newspapers were on a downward trend before the emergence of blogging. Nick Cohen interrupted to say that his point was the decline in classified advertising revenues rather than the emergence of blogging.
The coming general election, according to Isaby, would be fascinating as it would be the first to be seriously blogged and so we might see individual gaffes that might otherwise not be reported being picked up by the blogosphere.
Blogging was the democratisation of the internet, available to anyone with flair and ability. Former barriers had been removed in what George Osborne called the post-bureaucratic age.
Third was Sunny Hundall of Liberal Conspiracy, the UK’s biggest left wing blog, set up about two years ago.
By way of examples to counter Nick Cohen, Hundall mentioned Tim Ireland, aka Bloggerheads, who exposed the Jewish hitlist story as a fake, leading to the Sun, Mail and Telegraph withdrawing the article, the Sun having to issue an apology and Alan Sugar saying he was going to sue the Sun. Hundall felt there were a lot of dubious antiterror experts, for instance, that can”t be discussed because of libel laws.
He also mentioned
- Dave Hill of the Guardian finding problems with Deputy London Mayor Ian Clement’s expenses;
- the story concerning communications between Boris Johnson and the Prince of Wales, which ran on the front of the London Evening Standard after being found by Adam Bienkov;
- Andrew Gilligan’s references to dark forces of anti-Boris blogs;
- Liberal Conspiracy and Twitter popularising the story of Dan Hannan’s trashing the NHS on Fox News in the USA, leading to Cameron saying he will cut the deficit but not the NHS.
Hundall said that Cohen was flat wrong on blogs investigating stories, but that they were rather hampered by libel laws. Crowdsourcing and co-operation amongst bloggers, together with encouraging tip-offs, allowed blogs to have an investigative capacity.
Liberal Conspiracy, according to Hundall, differed from other blogs in that it is not interested in influencing the Westminster bubble so much as supporting a movement that will eventually impact not just Labour but the Lib Dems and Green and so change the atmosphere at Westminster. Liberal Conspiracy’s aim was to destroy the right.
Hundall noted that since Guido had attacked Damian McBride et al., Gordon Brown’s ratings had gone up; since the Sun had said it would not be backing Labour, it had lost 100,000 readers and Labour had gained the same number of voters. Together, this emphasised the disconnect between the Westminster village and the rest of the UK.
Mick ‘Slugger O’Toole’ Fealty started by saying that, as it included the capacity for everyone to become involved and publish their thoughts, blogging was a disruptive technology but, as with all such technologies, it’s about what you do with it. Lots of bloggers tear things down; this is not a bad thing but a natural reaction against the command-and-control model of the mainstream media. Skeptical questioning had led to excess cynicism, but was otherwise good. However, blogging hadn’t driven a positive agenda. In the USA, the people most distraught with Obama are those who were his biggest supporters. Fealty felt the same could happen with the Conservatives in the UK.
According to Fealty, we currently have a disaggregated community. However, politicians need bloggers more than bloggers need politicians, in no small part because of our eighteenth century governmental system.
Answering the question of bloggers’ influence, Fealtty felt that bloggers have the capacity to capture media and political elites but they don’t speak to the mass. That gives bloggers certain freedoms and so they are actively sought out by the elites. Bloggers were opportunists, seeing gaps, which gained them credibility, leading to their being sought out.
Looking at Northern Ireland over the past few weeks, the crisis was about saving the edifice of devolution and government. Much of the mainstream media is totally committed to maintaining the edifice; without that restriction and given Slugger’s group nature, there were wide disparities between the blog and the mainstream media in Northern Ireland. For instance, the story regarding Liam Adams’ alleged sexual abuse of his daughter, Gerry Adams’ niece, was put through a qualitative analysis by Slugger O’Toole that the mainstream media did not do.
Closing, Fealty felt that one of bloggers’ strengths, in contrast to traditional journalists’ tendency to hunt in packs and agree a line, was that they prized dissent.
Last up was Paul Staines, aka Guido Fawkes, who began by stating that he’d set up his blog for one purpose – to amuse himself. He writes for the Westminster bubble; of the three thousand people who run the country, he hoped half read his blog.
Regarding Nick Cohen’s complaint that no-one covered select committees, he simply said that no-one was interested. Equally, there was no need for a traditional Parliamentary correspondent as Hansard was online for anyone to read, although he might make an exception for the expert commentary provided by journalists.
Regarding the influence debate, Staines said that the Tories went through 40% support in the polls the week after Smeargate and that he’d given the story to the papers for free. He also said that he had done positive things, such as the Sunlight Centre and reporting Jim Devine to the police, but that his audience complained when he did that.
Finally, he said that the 2005 election was his big break as noone else was covering it on the blogosphere, but the field is now much more crowded. Thousands of unread bloggers wouldn’t make a difference; a good story would.
The questions were to a certain extent a rehash of the arguments above, but there were a couple of gems.
Jack of Kent – “the psychotherapist Derek Draper, or to give him his full medical title, Derek Draper”
Paul Staines – “I have the worst comment on the blogosphere. Last year, I had four hundred thousand comments. Half of those came from fifty people. Sixty per cent of readers don’t read the comments. Comment don’t matter”
Mick Fealty (in response) – “I value my comments; one of our commenters broke our first national story. We have the ‘play the ball not the man’ rule and while we’re not perfect, I’ve tried to build up a positive atmosphere amongst commenters. You get out of comments what you put in.”
David Colquhoun asked if nothing was as bad as political blogging on science issues, particularly on climategate and mentioning Paul Staines.
Sunny Hundall flagged up that the top ten Conservative blogs were climate change deniers.
Nick Cohen said that there were brave scientists on papers like the Mail and the Telegraph who resisted pressure from editors to run bad, science stories. There is a danger that elitism has moved from an anti-aristocracy charge to an anti-education charge.