12 April 2009

uk - the rise and rise of the political blogger

The rise and rise of the political blogger
By Chris Watt

ONCE THE preserve of geeky computer nerds and lonely political obsessives, it was easy for critics to dismiss blogs: they were simply the online equivalent of droning pub bores and "green ink" letter writers to local papers.

The political fallout from yesterday's email leak, however, can leave no-one in any doubt over the power commanded by a select few, well-placed bloggers.

While the attempt by Labour insider Derek Draper to downplay the Damian McBride incident as "giving me and my internet work far too much credit", might have worked 10 years ago, it now holds little weight.

Brian McNair, professor of journalism at Strathclyde University, warned yesterday that people cannot afford to overlook the importance of the blog in Britain's modern media landscape.

"Bloggers are the new commentariat, a punditocracy on the internet that can compete with traditional print columnists," he said. "Many bloggers are well-read, influential and coming out at speed. They put news out very quickly to an international, global audience."

The three bloggers most closely involved with the scandal unfolding this weekend - Paul "Guido Fawkes" Staines, Derek Draper and Iain Dale - have backgrounds and connections within the UK's biggest parties, giving them access beyond the level of all but the top political journalists.

"We've really had a decade and a bit of the growing influence of blogs," said McNair, "and Guido Fawkes is one of the most influential in the UK."

McNair, one of Scotland's foremost media experts, believes Paul Staines' claims to employ traditional journalistic skills are well-founded.

"If it's someone known to be reasonably reliable and who has good inside sources, then in that sense a blog has the same values and the same skills as traditional media: who you know, how you cultivate sources," he said.

And while critics quite reasonably point out that blogs are unedited and generally display the limitations and fallibility of one sole writer, the vicious, cannibalistic nature of the wider blogosphere lends a natural check to any inaccuracies on the larger blogging sites.

McNair added: "Blogs are just as reliable as print - in one sense more. They are checked and double checked, and other bloggers will descend on them like a pack of hungry wolves if there's any inaccuracy. I don't think you can get away with mistakes much on the blogosphere."

But while some believe that blogs spell disaster for conventional print and online media, others are more optimistic about the joint coverage the two disciplines can provide. Philip Schlesinger, professor of cultural policy at Glasgow University, said after the McBride incident came to light: "It's not necessarily competitive to journalism, it's sustaining journalism ... the desire of individual citizens to broadcast their story can converge with traditional journalism."

Schlesinger cited the example of the passerby who filmed video footage at the recent G20 riots in which police assaulted Ian Tomlinson who later died of an apparent heart. That story, originating in the realm of "citizen journalism", fuelled traditional media in the following days.

"It's also interesting that Guido Fawkes described himself as an equal- opportunities anti-politics blogger'," Schlesinger added, pointing to more mainstream, establishment political blogs - such as those written by Tom Watson MP, who claims to be Westminster's first blogger - as a counterbalance to the rabble-rousing, destabilising fringe sites.

"There's an interesting political, generational thing going on here between the anti-politicals and the mainstream-politicals," said Schlesinger. "Clearly the anti are much more powerful because they rattle the cage, while the mainstream are quite conservative, using their blogs as vehicles for their own political personalities."

"There's also the big who cares?' question. This strikes me as quite an incestuous story within the blogosphere... It's only significant because it's become a mainstream political story, and because it's at a time that the government is facing a whole series of destabilising events."

Despite the fringe nature of the blogosphere, though, politicians and media analysts are convinced the unregulated sector is a force to be reckoned with in 21st century Britain. "There's no doubt that the rise of the blogosphere is one of the major political developments of the last 10 years," said McNair ~ view original

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