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On Hazel Blears and blogging

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:14 pm on 8 November, 2008.
Categories freedom of speech, British politics.
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Further to my previous article, here is my direct response to Hazel Blears’ Comment is Free article entitled Nihilistic new media, in which she attacked bloggers (and commentators in the mainstream media) for fueling “a culture of cynicism and despair”.

In a nutshell, I accuse Blears of talking authoritarian rot. She does not present a shred of evidence that cynicism about politics and politicians can be traced to bloggers, and the argument she uses in her attempt to portray them as fueling cynicism about politics actually implicates the politicians, not the bloggers who are merely the messengers. She simply fails to understand how blogging and bloggers work. She also exhibits some very authoritarian tendencies in the language she uses.

Below, I illustrate these points by examining several quotations from her speech:

And in recent years commentary has taken over from investigation or news reporting, to the point where commentators are viewed by some as every bit as important as elected politicians, with views as valid as cabinet ministers.

This is a curious comment. Blears seems to suggest that being a cabinet minister confers some sort of validity on ones views when it does no such thing. Being a cabinet minister merely means you are in a position to inflict your views on the country in the form of public policy. For this reason, the views a cabinet minister has and the reasoning they use to justify them and the polices they pursue as a result deserve to receive the utmost scrutiny. To the extent that commentators provide that scrutiny they are providing a public service.

And if you can wield influence and even power, without ever standing for office or being held to account by an electorate, it further undermines our democracy.

The commentariat operates without scrutiny or redress. They cannot be held to account for their views, even when they perform the most athletic and acrobatic of flip-flops in the space of a few weeks.

This claim betrays both an authoritarian view point, a flawed view of democracy and a false view of the commentariat’s ability to act with impunity. Blears comment suggests that being an influential commentator speaking their mind is undemocratic, when in fact, for a democracy to operate properly, it is insufficient just to hold elections, one must also have a culture that encourages people to express their views and to scrutinise the views and actions of those who (would) rule over us. The fact that influential commentators can speak their mind is in fact a sign of a healthy democracy! Yet Ms Blears seems not to like it.

Also, Blears is wrong to suggest that the commentators are not, or cannot be, held to account and operate without scrutiny or redress. They are and can be held to account, and are scrutinised in several ways:

  • We have laws against libel and defamation to deal with the worst instances of misrepresentation and deceit on the part of individuals and newspapers, when such misrepresentation damages the reputations of others.
  • Their outpourings can be read and criticised by both politicans, other commentators, readers’ letters and these days… wait for it… bloggers! Indeed one well known blogger, Tim Worstall, regularly dissects the outpourings of Polly Toynbee, George Monbiot and other commentators pointing out errors of fact, errors of logic, the consequences of the things they propose, their changes of position and occasions when their views contradict each other. This is not unusual. I have seen many bloggers attack the mainstream media for representing only a narrow range of views, for misrepresenting issues or occasionally for forgetting or contradicting what they wrote the previous week.
  • Their editors can hold them to account.
  • The readers of the newspapers can vote with their feet if they don’t like what they’re reading.

I get the impression Blears does not like the freedom the press has, and does not understand the impact of the freedom that bloggers currently have.

There are some informative and entertaining political blogs, including those written by elected councillors. But mostly, political blogs are written by people with a disdain for the political system and politicians, who see their function as unearthing scandals, conspiracies and perceived hypocrisy.

I take issue with Blears’ characterisation of political bloggers. Yes some may have a disdain for the political system and for politicans, but many do do not. Nor is it true that they mostly unearth scandals and conspiracies or perceived hypocrisy (but what would be wrong with that if they did?!). The political blogs I’ve read include highly partisan blogs promoting a particular party and attacking the rest, blogs that examine the impact of government policies, blogs that scrutinise the outpourings of the commentariat and politicians, blogs that cover international affairs, blogs that specialise in covering elections and opinion polling, and blogs that examine government legislation. Many blogs contain elements of all the above mentioned topics. Blears seems to be unaware of the diverse nature of political blogging.

Unless and until political blogging adds value to our political culture, by allowing new and disparate voices, ideas and legitimate protest and challenge, and until the mainstream media reports politics in a calmer, more responsible manner, it will continue to fuel a culture of cynicism and despair.

Ms Blears this comment is unmitigated bullshit, for the following reasons:

  • Even if you were right that bloggers predominantly disdain politicians and politics and see their role as unearthing scandals, conspiracies and hypocrisy, they would already be adding value, by exposing those politicians who undermine democracy by lying, engaging in corruption, acting hypocritically and trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes as they do so.
  • Anyone with internet access (e.g. someone with access to a public library!) can set up a blog without paying a penny to do so. Blogging has thus already allowed new and disparate voices, ideas, legitimate protest and challenge to emerge on a scale never seen before. You can find people blogging from every conceivable political viewpoint whether it be hardline Marxist, radical free market libertarians, greens, conservatives, socialists, fascists or for that matter racists. This is freedom of speech in action!
  • To the extent that exposing scandals, conspiracies and hypocrisy fuels cynicism and despair, blaming bloggers and commentators for engaging in such activity is shooting the messenger. The politicans who lie, engage in corruption, act hypocritically and try to pull the wool over the eyes of the public are the fuel for such cynicism here. You seem to be suggesting that bloggers should not expose such people, lest it fuel cynicism!

The fact that you attack the messengers, the people who are subjecting politicians to scrutiny on a scale and in a manner that hitherto was not previously possible makes me wonder whether you really believe in “allowing new and disparate voices, ideas and legitimate protest and challenge”. Bloggers are already doing exactly this, and yet you write rubbish like the above about them. You are fuelling my cynicism about your politics in doing so. Shame on you!

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