Jumping On The Blog Wagon

Politics I don't tend to talk about politics here -- well alright I don't ever talk about politics here, partly because I wouldn't know when to finish but also because I wouldn't know where to start. I'm not an activist, I don't have really strong opinions on the subject, other than what might be expected of the so-called rank and file -- I'll turn up at the polling station put by cross in the Lib Dem box (usually) and walk away again, safe in the knowledge, at least in the General Election that either Labour or the Conservative party will be forming a government during the following day.

During that journalism course I took a few years ago, the tutor gave us students a preamble as to what it was like to be his brand of freelance journalist, the kind of work he does and then he essentially sat us down (well alright we were already sitting) and said that in essence, politics, especially home office politics didn't matter. Year on year, the economy will rise and fall, laws will be made, some of which might effect our lives (but mostly not) and it doesn't really matter you vote for or have an opinion about because nothing will change that much, because over the span of the human life it'll all, generally, balance itself out. Seventeen eyes widened in the room that evening and some people were slack jawed but some of us grinned because he was right -- in the grand sweep of history all politicians are doing is giving journalists something to talk about.

In this country it's very rare that there will be a news story about some law being passed. Most of the time it'll be an 'idea' being 'floated' to rile up the public to see if it's something that can stick as a manifesto pledge -- there aren't many of these ideas that actually pass into law and actually, I would guess that many of them are perceived to have become illegal when in fact they've just passed into lore without a single law being voted on or ratified. They create debate and in the mess of legislative process they don't ever (under these uneducated eyes) ever come into fruition. As the Blair/Brown/whoever debate shows, politics is about personalities rather than policies and having just spent a week watching some of Shakespeare's history plays it always seems to have been thus.

The reason I'm boring you with this now is because I've just returned from an excellent panel discussion at Urbis in Manchester on the subject of Political Bloggers. Chaired by Kate Feld, freelance journalist and writer of The Manchizzle blog, it featured Norman Geras of Normblog, Martin Stabe is an online reporter for The Press Gazette who also writes their online journalism weblog, Fleet Street 2.0 and Bill Jones of Skipper. The main thrust of the discussion seemed to be that although as with any subject online, there is a vast range of different uk politics blogs, they haven't yet caught fire in the same way as those across the pond. They tend to be commenting on events rather than creating them but that documents such as The Euston Manifesto are seeking to change that. It was striking to see that actually no matter the subject being considered, the blogging experience doesn't change all that much.

Geras talked about how he can get addicted and gets edgy when he can't blog because he's not near a computer but also when he can't find a subject to write about. That's been happening to me lately -- I sat for a good ten minutes glaring at the Blogger editing box last night before deciding to write about my Dad's birthday -- it's writers block and it can be frustrating. None of them other than the journalist claimed to be journalists; Jones prefixed the word with proto or cyber and Geras said that he was 'just a citizen' and that as a citizen in a democracy he can air his views. There was also some talk about online behaviour -- how discussions are conducted on political blogs and online in general and how abuse is often hurled in ways that simply wouldn't be tolerated in public. I noted in the Q&A that actually this sort of thing has been happening online since the days of the flame wars on bulletin boards and that actually you get used to it. I have someone who anonymously drops the odd sarcastic comment here but its parr for the course. You end up tuning it out in the end.

Stabe mentioned the lonelygirl15 story as an example of how the kid of internet hive mind can jump on something and investigate its implications in ways that a single journalist could not -- I was reminded of the days of the Kaycee-Nicole controversy so again this isn't a new phenomena -- silly notion, but I wonder if Watergate would have been broken by bloggers if the web had been around in the seventies. One of the best sections of the discussions, however, was about what actually constitutes a blog, especially institutionally. Stabe mentioned a number of examples of newspaper blogs that were essentially columns put out once a week or every few days that didn't refer to other blogs and simply seemed to be an extension of the printed content (if not actually the printed content in a new form). Does this constitute a blog? I suppose I'm a bit more lenient about the subject because I happen to think that the blog format is an excellent way to deliver these columns, time stamped and ready to read.

The frustration is when they don't take advantage of the online format by linking to relevant sources or explanations of topics that are only given a cursory mention. Many of these blogs lack a certain passion as though the writer has been ordered to partake in this 'journey' as part of some new-media remit when in fact they don't really want to be doing it -- which tends to make the copy a bit bland. Stabe called it 'jumping on the blog wagon'. [Updated: In the comments for this post, Martin notes that he was quoting from Kevin Anderson of The Guardian who cites Jon Stewart of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart as a source.] The reason BBC Political editor Nick Robinson's blog works is because it has the feel of a personal blog (often talking about what he's been doing that day) but also includes wodges of insider insight.

All of the panelist suggested favourite sites: Bill Jones offered Guido Fawkes, Iain Dale, Paul Linford and Mike Smithson. Norman Geras diversified with Harry's Place, Shaggy's Place, Tim Blair and Instapundit. Martin Stabe said that he didn't read that many political blogs preferring technical blogs lately except for Guido, Chicken Yoghurt and Europhobia suggesting Overheard in the UK and Digg instead. There were also some hints as to what makes a good blog entry the best of which was to be humourous and keep to three or four paragraphs, boths rules that I seem to have ignored in this post. Ooops. But this was an excellent panel and I look forward to future discussions on other topics.


Anonymous said...

I wouldn't worry about the 4 pars rule, that was really interesting! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I also recommended Chicken Yoghurt.

And to be fair, you should credit Kevin Anderson of the Guardian with "jumping on the blogwagon," because it was his article that I was quoting.

He, in turn, credits the phrase to Jon Stewart of the Daily Show.

Stuart Ian Burns said...

Thanks Martin -- I couldn't read my notes when it came to 'Chicken Yoghurt' and I was so busy listening on the other thing that I just had 'Jumping on the Blog Wagon' in my notes.