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going to the blogs?

analysis, bbc radio 4, 31 march 2005

KENAN MALIK   I'm a blogger. At least I was until real life intervened. A blog, short for weblog, is a kind of online journal, where instead of spouting off your opinions in the pub, you tell the whole world via the internet. I gave up because it was too much effort to be opinionated all the time. But others are clearly made of sterner stuff. There are currently more than 4 million blogs in the world - culture blogs, technology blogs, even sex blogs. But it's political blogs that are really causing a stir.

SANDRA GIDLEY   My blog's called Romsey Redhead and now when I go places people frequently call me Romsey Redhead or sort of come up to me and say they enjoy reading it.

KENAN MALIK   Romsey Redhead, AKA Sandra Gidley, Liberal Democrat MP for Romsey in Hampshire.

SANDRA GIDLEY   Part of the idea behind the blog was just to give people an insight into the other things a politician does. And that actually people have commented on 'I didn't realise you did so much or such a variety of things'. The thing where you now visit somewhere is you're very conscious do you actually put in the little anecdotes that may be told to you, this is what we were talking about in the tearoom today kind of thing: 'This is the latest gossip: Blunkett's going to resign; you heard it here first.' And I thought very hard before putting that down. I thought I'll look a right fool if he doesn't, but I was proved right. So some people did quite like the fact that they were in on the gossip and in there first.

KENAN MALIK   Over the past few years MPs from all parties have taken to blogging. The very first was Tom Watson, Labour MP for West Bromwich and these days a government whip.

TOM WATSON   I like the format. It was new and I wanted to see whether I could reach new groups of people who weren't traditionally interested in politics.

KENAN MALIK   People talk about politicians being detached from the public. Do you think that blogging brings you closer to your constituents?

TOM WATSON   I was a little cynical about reaching my own constituents with a blog; it wasn't my intention. After all, I've got a constituency that really does suffer a digital divide. You know not all my constituents have got home computers and are wired up to broadband. That being said, I've been pleasantly surprised at the number of people who've engaged in local civic campaigns as a result of my blog. Web logs are just one way in which parliamentarians are finding they need to get their message out more clearly. For me, it's great to have an online journal that's read by people where I can put my interpretation onto the day's press rather than the editors of Britain's biggest newspapers.

KENAN MALIK   But blogs can be a dangerous thing for a politician as Liberal Democrat Jodie Dunn discovered when she stood as a parliamentary candidate in the Hartlepool bye-election. Fellow Lib Dem Sandra Gidley tells the story.

SANDRA GIDLEY   Blogging's immediate: you press the button and it's there for all time. Jodie Dunn in the Hartlepool by-election made a post. She thought it was going to be funny. She'd been out canvassing. She commented that the few people she'd seen were either drunk, half naked or accompanied by an angry dog. And that was picked up by the Labour party and run with during that election.

KENAN MALIK   The internet allows you to talk to thousands, even tens of thousands, of people at once. And it allows them to talk back to you. At a time when there is general worry about political apathy, could this be a way of re-energising the relationship between politicians and the public? Even those who don't know their blog from their google are getting animated. Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith doesn't have a blog and admits that he isn't particularly tech-savvy. But he's both depressed by the state of British politics and excited by the possibilities that blogs create.

IAIN DUNCAN SMITH   It is a disaster I think the state we're in now in Britain. It's reached the point where the governed and the governing are further apart than they've been certainly in my political lifetime. You know if you go out now, as I do, visiting everywhere from inner city projects right the way round, you find that they never really do talk about what's going on up here at all. But for the most part, they genuinely don't think that we have any involvement in their lives at all and so they quite happily ignore everything that may come out of here on the basis that most of it, they think, is a waste of time.

And it's not just the politicians too, by the way. They're beginning to ignore their newspapers and even now national broadcast. Stuff that goes out from the sort of Westminster base, the London base is now, I gather, you know less and less listened to; and certainly when it is listened to, it's less and less believed, it's less credible. Regional, local broadcasting, local newspapers - they, however, are not. They are read, they are listened to and they tend to be more credible. And so in a sense the blog fits into that level of debate rather than to the national level. It's lots of ordinary people that you can read and decide whether you agree with them or not.

KENAN MALIK   For Iain Duncan Smith it's important not for MPs but for the public to blog. They can use the internet to overcome their political isolation and to pursue issues that are too often ignored by both politicians and the national media. Blogging, he believes, can give a voice to those who have been rendered voiceless by today's political process. So can blogging transform the relationship between the governing and the governed? Can it enervate the political process and allow ordinary voters heard in a way they are not today? British evangelists usually point to America to demonstrate the possibilities of this technology. And probably no American speaks with greater authority on the subject that Glenn Reynolds. By day he is a law professor at the University of Tennessee. By night he is Instapundit, whose instant and pungent opinions on everything from the war in Iraq to the debate on the right to life have made him the world's best known blogger. 150,000 people visit his site every day - that's more than 87 million visits since the blog began.

GLENN REYNOLDS   Well I started it simply because I teach Internet law at the law school where I teach and I thought it would be a worthwhile little hands-on venture, and I've kept it up because I really enjoy it. I enjoy the people around the world that it brings me in touch with and I enjoy the insights it gives me and it's just fun. A blog is sort of like a personal news service or a newspaper really in which somebody posts usually either original reporting or links to new stories and adds their commentary and their perspective.

KENAN MALIK   So it’s like an online journal?

GLENN REYNOLDS   It's more than just an online journal. I mean people do those where they just write about their private life, but it really kind of crosses the line between the personal and the professional in all sorts of ways.

KENAN MALIK   How do you mean?

GLENN REYNOLDS   Well there are plenty of blogs that really report primarily news. There are a lot of bloggers from Iraq and from Lebanon and such, or from the Ukraine who've reported on political and other events there and really provide sort of another outlet for information. Then there are a lot of blogs that do media criticism in which they note omissions, misrepresentations and slants in media reporting stories.

KENAN MALIK   One famous case in which bloggers challenged the veracity of mainstream reporting came in the wake of report on American TV about George W Bush's military record. Last September, CBS's prestigious 60 Minutes programme, fronted by Dan Rather, perhaps America's most famous journalist, claimed that the young Bush had pulled strings to enter Texas National Guard rather than being drafted to Vietnam. It also produced memos from his squadron commander which suggested that Mr Bush had received favourable treatment while in the National Guard, missing drills and physicals. Unfortunately the documents were forgeries. And it was bloggers who first discovered the truth. Here's a sample of American blogs on the day after the CBS broadcast.

VOICE 1   The chances that you could produce, by accident, a typewritten document that looks exactly like what comes out of your laser printer when you write the same thing in Microsoft Word, is a hell of a lot smaller than the chance that the earth will be destroyed by an asteroid: i.e. too small to worry about. What flabbergasts me is how Dan Rather could have been taken in. He's old. He knows what typewritten things look like. These documents don't look like that. It also makes me wonder if 60 Minutes is staffing its newsroom with twelve-year-old Pakistani children in order to save money on labour. How else could not one person say 'Y'know, this looks an awful lot like the stuff I type on my computer'.

VOICE 2   Every single one of the memos to file regarding Bush's failure to attend a physical and meet other requirements is in a proportionally spaced font, probably Palatine or Times New Roman. In 1972 people used typewriters for this sort of thing (especially in the military), and typewriters used mono-spaced fonts. I am saying these documents are forgeries, run through a copier for 15 generations to make them look old. This should be pursued aggressively.

KENAN MALIK   These kinds of online debates sometimes informative often abusive is helping, Glenn Reynolds suggests, to change the nature of politics and may even have shaped last year's American elections.

GLENN REYNOLDS   I think it influenced the election campaign in two ways. The story that John Kerry had lied about being in Cambodia in Christmas of 1968 got no real big media coverage until the blogs brought it up and the story that CBS ran with forged documents about George Bush's National Guard service would I think have been uncritically received had bloggers not pointed out that those documents had been done on Microsoft Word, which did not exist in 1972 when they were supposedly authored.

KENAN MALIK   But was it necessary for bloggers to do that? Would not any other journalist have done that?

GLENN REYNOLDS   Apparently not. I mean it would be nice to say that other journalists would have done it, but not only did they not notice these things themselves but indeed they took forever to pick up the story. They were days or weeks behind the blogs on that story and one can only suspect that it's because they didn't really want it to be a big story before the election.

KENAN MALIK   Actually, the mainstream press was not so far behind on the George Bush story. The day after the CBS broadcast, rival network ABC ran an investigation into the forgeries, while the following it was a front page lead in the Washington Post. Nevertheless, it was bloggers who made the initial running on the story. Blogs, in other words, believes Glenn Reynolds, help challenge traditional structures, both political and journalistic. And nowhere is this more important than in Britain, suggests Iain Duncan Smith.

IAIN DUNCAN SMITH   I think that the most exciting thing about blogging is that it's going to challenge what has become, I think, a rather tight grip of the media, of what I always refer to as the metropolitan media over the whole of the political debate. And that's got worse, I think, over the last fifteen or twenty years really because the diversity of sourcing has gone in the sense that people don't really read their newspapers like they used to, the national papers now. You know in the days when Mrs Thatcher came up to power, you know she'd write an article in the Express or something and that was news everywhere, you know, and picked up and read. Nowadays you know you write an article in a newspaper and it's really not that well read. And so unless you're on the broadcast media, people don't really know what you're saying; and because that's a very narrow and a very short time scale, it's very generalist, and the result of all of that is that you end up that everything's falling away into soundbites.

Now that's very difficult for... to conduct a political debate, a proper you know three-dimensional political debate, if all we've ever got reduced to is a set of completing soundbites because the public, as you can see now, is completely switched off to soundbite concepts. They more often than not ignore them, they don't believe them half the time, and so everything gets lost now in a sort of plague on all your houses. This is the way to break through to reinvigorate what I referred to in a piece I wrote the other day as a sort of re-establishment of the townhall debate, but done now through the electronic media.

KENAN MALIK   What do you mean by the virtual townhall?

IAIN DUNCAN SMITH   The people that at present control the debate - ie essentially the media and the metropolitan media, more particularly the broadcast media - will lose that control because now people, ordinary people will control that debate. And it would be best summed up by you know the people that used to crowd in to public meetings and have robust exchanges with the candidates or whoever was speaking because they were asking the questions, and not having them filtered through somebody else or commentated on to somebody else, that it was in the raw. And that's very much blogging.

KENAN MALIK   It's interesting that you should say that it's a bit like old-fashioned meetings...

IAIN DUNCAN SMITH   It is, yeah.

KENAN MALIK  ...where you might have a candidate and people putting him under pressure, asking him questions and so on because in a sense blogging's not like that, is it? It's just people who express their views and nobody's there for them to hold accountable, to put under pressure and so on.

IAIN DUNCAN SMITH   The point I'm making is that what you've now got is people who would otherwise be completely excluded from the normal political debate that goes on up here, they are actually interrogating the candidates. You can interrogate politicians and the media without ever talking to them. You interrogate them by running a parallel set of arguments to them and digesting those arguments.

KENAN MALIK   Blogging, in other words, can restore the old-fashioned cut and thrust of politics that these days seems to have given way to soundbite and spin. Blogging as people power. Labour MP Tom Watson remains sceptical.

TOM WATSON   He's right with his virtual townhall concept if thousands of individuals decided to get together and plug in... plug their computers into the web log. I don't see that happening. However, I do see a role for online campaigning. And certainly with my own experience, when my community had a run in with a superstore that was creating problems for them, not cleaning up the outside of their store, we had no joy from the store - I won't mention the brand name - but when they started getting high up in the Google rankings, they all of a sudden took interest. And we nearly held up a takeover of a chain in Norway on the grounds that a newspaper in Norway had read about them from a Google search. Now that is quite remarkable civic action and it was a web log that created that momentum. So he's kind of right, there is a potential there.

KENAN MALIK   For those of you not yet up to scratch with blogging jargon being 'high up in the Google rankings' means that you've come to the notice of a lot of people on the Internet. Bloggers, in other words, can use the Internet to embarrass companies or politicians whom they feel are letting them down. But this sounds not so much a new kind of politics but just a new high-tech tool in the armoury of activists fighting existing battles. And those battles are not the stuff of major social change but single issue or local campaigns. Will Davies, new technology researcher at the left of centre think tank the IPPR, suggests that the Internet may be limited in what it can bring to politics.

WILL DAVIES   What the Internet is very good at is helping people find each other, find one another if they share their particular, often quite niche concerns. I think the problem with them is that they're not very good at the more sort of complicated, arguably slightly more grown up bit of politics, which is converting a sort of gut feeling that something is wrong about the world into practical policy outcomes. Often I think that a lot of the latest forms of e-democracy and the latest forms of Internet politics move too quickly and are too impatient and perhaps too mobilised purely by shared angst and not sufficiently able to actually engage on a much more slow day to day form of politics. And you'll regularly hear from groups who are organising themselves online that the Government can't listen, the Government isn't interested and that Whitehall is just a load of bureaucracies.

Now the reason Whitehall is a load of bureaucracies is it has some very, very complicated and very large scale obligations towards the public and often bureaucracy is the only way of organising something such as the National Health Service. I'm not sure that necessarily these rather... what are often called flash protests, flash politics - things which rise up quickly and say we want more of this - I'm not sure those necessarily can gel very effectively with the day to day operations of Government.

KENAN MALIK   But such bureaucracy is exactly what blogging evangelists view as the problem. What they are after is an entirely new kind of political debate. Adrianna Cronin Lukas is a founder of Samizdata, a libertarian blog created by a few friends which is now one of Britain's best read blogs. The very title is a playful reference to the old oppositional literature of the Soviet Bloc, a dissident culture the blog wants to revive in the 21st century.

ADRIANNA CRONIN LUKAS   For somebody like me to be able to write and comment on current affairs is a big deal. And not just the fact I can do it. The second thing is that lots of people are reading it and agreeing with it, and that to me is revolutionary; that I can... I can say something on Samizdata or some of our contributors can now use this platform to attract many, many very loyal followers. Okay it's not in the numbers; it's the loyalty. To me what is astonishing is not the ten thousand visitors but it's the fact that it's ten thousand daily visitors. To me that is of value. Now how does that transform politics? It may help people to formulate certain issues.

KENAN MALIK   But isn't virtual politics a bit like virtual sex - a kind of poor imitation when you don't have the access to the real thing?

ADRIANNA CRONIN LUCAS   Well what is the real thing? I mean do you think access to the real thing is watching the Parliament briefings? I don't know, Parliament sessions. Or is the local distribution of leaflets, is it... I mean what is the real thing? To me, the value of knowing that somebody else thinks in a similar way is very important. That's what gives rise to movements, to ideas, to changes in anything. You may have the best idea in the world, the most revolutionary, but if you are the only one and you don't even know whether people think like that, you'd have to be a pretty determined maverick or genius to persist in that. If you suddenly have a way of talking to loads of people, discovering that other people believe in it, that to me is far more powerful than talking and canvassing and distributing leaflets.

KENAN MALIK   But this sounds less like a new form of politics than a high-tech version of radio phone-in shows. Blogging as spouting off. Declan McCullagh is an American technology journalist who specialises on the relationship between politics and the internet.

DECLAN MCCULLAGH   Blogging is wonderful in that it reduces the barriers to entry for publishing your thoughts and that has to be a good thing. I mean it's what we have in the US enshrined in our First Amendment that says the freedom of speech and freedom of the press cannot be limited. But at the same time, most people don't have that much interesting to say on a variety of topics. I mean in my spare time I'm a programmer - I program a computer language called Perl, but I'm not an expert in it. I don't think that I'd have that much interesting to say if I were to blog about it. I'm honest enough or humble enough to realise that I only have a few things that I'm probably intelligent enough to write about that people would find interesting, and that probably puts me ahead of most bloggers in fact.

KENAN MALIK   So in a sense you're saying blogging is like a high tech version of a saloon bar debate?

DECLAN MCCULLAGH   In a sense, yes. I mean some... Let's differentiate between different types of bloggers. I mean some bloggers are journalists; some journalists are bloggers. Some bloggers will spend a great deal of time writing and reporting news articles that will be quite excellent ones, but for the most part that's not what the blogging phenomenon is about. It's, as you said, a high tech version of a salon or a pub discussion. It's more filled with invective attitude than it is sort of a careful, reasoned debate.

KENAN MALIK   As a former blogger myself one of the frustrations of blogging is this. If the blog contains serious, considered work, then you never have enough time to maintain it. If you want time to keep a blog going, it has to be light and throwaway. That's why the best blogs are short, pithy and angry - not necessarily the ideal template for a new kind of politics. For Will Davies of the IPPR there is another problem with the idea that blogging can provide a new kind of politics.

WILL DAVIES   The problem with any form of media is that it is liable to capture by certain interests and certain economic interests, and of course the United States is the best manifestation of that around. And unfortunately I suspect that at the moment blogging is still only representative of certain sorts of interests, certain minorities. And when I say that I mean socio-economic... I'm talking about class distinctions here really in that I think firstly internet access is not distributed entirely equitably. Even in the United States only around two thirds of people have the internet at home which is where you would need it in order to be able to blog. And within that, I think there's plenty of evidence showing that confidence and media literacy is terribly skewed by where one is across the spectrum of wealth, and so I think probably blogs seem like this wonderful, open space in which anybody can have a say.

I still suspect that the people who are the best and most articulate web loggers probably do not somehow speak for the populous. One of the problems I think the internet has is that people say here we are, we are representing such and such, but you only ever hear from the people whose voices somehow break through in that space; whereas at least in an electoral system if only 50 per cent of the people vote, you know that 50 per cent of the people haven't voted. You don't really ever get that sense with the internet. All you ever do is hear from the people who shout the loudest and the most confidently.

KENAN MALIK   For Will Davis the internet has been taken over by the playground bullies. For Iain Duncan Smith on the other hand it's a way of giving voice to the quiet man. Once again he looks to America for evidence. President George Bush's advisor Karl Rove says of blogging that 'it democratises the national conversation'. He claims that the ability of ordinary people to get online and make their views heard helped swing last year's presidential elections in favour of the Republicans. Iain Duncan Smith thinks that British Conservatives should take note.

IAIN DUNCAN SMITH   If you look at the way that Conservative politics has been turned around in the USA, they created a better and more... a wider message through the sort of local, regional outlets, media, newspapers. There was a start. The bloggers have added a huge new dimension to that because you can disseminate a message direct through both. And that process has just grown dramatically and has allowed people to take that message out in a way that it can't be done over here and still is in its infancy. So it's allowed them to break past the filter and to take a message about who they are and what they're doing in a quite dramatic way. You saw the results of that in the last election where the national broadcast media were predicting defeat for George Bush. In fact quite the opposite happened and they had failed to understand the nature of the strength of that support in certain key areas.

KENAN MALIK   In a much quoted essay in a national newspaper, Iain Duncan Smith suggested that blogging might similarly help revitalise the fortunes of the Conservatives at the coming election. It's easy, though, to overstate the impact of blogging. Even among those people who use the Internet, 96 per cent never read a blog. Glenn Reynolds, although a conservative himself, and supportive as he is of Karl Rove's view of the impact of blogging in America, nevertheless is sceptical of the idea that blogging might transform the fortunes of the British Conservative Party.

GLENN REYNOLDS  Given the situation of Conservatives in Britain, I suppose anything would help. But I don't know. The interesting thing about British media is that of course your broadcast media are much more consolidated and much more unified, as with the BBC. Your newspapers, on the other hand, are much more diverse and competitive than ours. We frequently have only one newspaper in a town and even in major cities typically only two. So I don't know. I'm not sure what the impact would be.

KENAN MALIK   However the Conservatives fare in the coming election, their fate is unlikely to be dramatically changed by whether more or less people get online. It is more likely to be determined by the usual factors - policy, personality, apathy. Indeed, some people don't believe that blogging made much difference in America either. Declan McCullagh.

DECLAN MCCULLAGH   If you look at the way that last year's election in the US went forward, it was pretty much along traditional lines. The vast majority of presidential candidates budgets, for instance, went to fundraising, went to pay for advertising in television, broadcast media. Blogging, at least last year in the presidential election, did not make for radical change. It's easy to hyperventilate a little when talking about this wondrous new phenomenon of blogging. I don't think they're nearly as influential as a front page article in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, or at least here in the US.

KENAN MALIK   For Glenn Reynolds the hope is that, in the future at least, such newspapers will not be so influential. Blogging he believes is turning the clock back in politics and journalism - and in a positive way.

GLENN REYNOLDS   Well I think it's going to return journalism to what it was a hundred years ago or more in a sense, which is an activity, not a profession - a term in which correspondent means someone who corresponds rather than someone with good hair who holds a microphone and one in which you have a lot of fairly frank, ideological component to people's reporting and that's taken for granted and discounted by the reader.

KENAN MALIK   But aren't you there celebrating a lack of professionalism, a lack of say editing, a lack of fact checking?

GLENN REYNOLDS   Well no. Indeed there's plenty of fact checking on blogs and blogs fact check each other and many bloggers are quite responsible about what they run. I have some photos of an Airbus rudder failure that somebody's sent me now that I'm trying to fact check to make sure they're accurate before I post them, and I don't think that's unusual. At the same time, we see big media running stories that are utterly false. And I won't raise the Gilligan affair with the BBC, but that certainly happened. So you know everybody makes mistakes and everybody's capable of doing a good job.

KENAN MALIK   Ouch! It's true that journalists make mistakes, misrepresent and occasionally lie - and the internet is a useful tool for exposing such shenanigans. Yet, whatever one thinks of the Gilligan affair, the BBC was held accountable for its mistakes and paid a price for it. Bloggers are not accountable in this way. That's both their strength and their weakness.

The Internet and blogging have made important changes to lives - from providing easier access to information to allowing ordinary people a platform for their views. But the idea that blogging might be the salvation of politics seems not just to overstate the impact of the internet, but to understate the problem of public disenchantment with politics. In many ways, far from saving politics, blogs reflect the changing nature of our political culture - in which personality has taken over from policy, where opinion often seems to matter more than fact, and where there seems little room for deep thinking. Liberal Democrat MP, Sandra Gidley, AKA Romsey Redhead.

SANDRA GIDLEY   There is a place for a considered view. You have six hundred and fifty-nine people in politics and I would say only a fraction of them are deep thinkers or original thinkers. That's the reality of politics. And the reality of the job is with the case work and the visits you're expected to do, the time you have to put in Parliament, you might have portfolio responsibilities, the real luxury is trying to find time to think. So I think there's this outdated idea of what a politician is and you can't actually have politicians who are the advocates for their constituents on all sorts of matters and ones who have time to sit and reflect and think and write. It's a world that's gone, sadly.

KENAN MALIK   Perhaps what our MPs need are not new skills in blogging but old-fashioned skills in thinking. Now wouldn't that be a radical change?