Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Journalist bloggers - gamekeepers turned poachers?

This was an article written for Iain Dale's Guide to Political Blogging 2007 published recently by Harriman House.

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Whether it’s a ground-breaking new band, an up-and-coming avant garde painter, or just the latest technological craze, there is always a tendency among groups of people who have discovered something new to want to keep it to themselves, to resent those Johnny-come-latelies who seek to get in on the act and jump aboard the rolling bandwagon.

That was, by and large, the reaction among internet political bloggers when, during the course of 2006, the UK’s national press and major broadcasting organisations belatedly woke up to the emergence of the new blogging phenomenon.

They were pejoratively dubbed “old media,” “mainstream media,” and worse of all, the “dead tree press.” They represented the smug, complacent old elite, the handing down of received wisdom from on high, the stifling of true debate in the name of bogus consensus, the past.

Bloggers, on the other hand, were the future, the pioneers of a new, postmodernist style of political journalism in which there was no truth, only opinion, and in which the views of Joe and Joanna Bloggs were as intrinsically valid as those of the most highly-paid political pundits in the land.

Thankfully for me, perhaps, I had by then left full-time journalism for the world of digital publishing, and although I continued to supplement my main income by writing political columns for various regional newspapers, the blogosphere tended to treat me from the start as one of its own.

But for other, better-known figures from the world of political journalism, it was a different story. The Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh, the most influential “dead tree” lobby hack of the past 25 years, was deservedly ridiculed after his blog, launched in a fanfare of hype as “The Blog the Politicians Fear,” was updated only a couple of times before it swiftly died a death.

More enduring, but equally contentious was The Guardian’s attempt to capture the zeitgeist with the launch of its uber-blog “Comment is Free,” which sought to corral the best of the blogosphere and its almost infinite range of opinions under the already flourishing Guardian Unlimited brand.

It has performed a valuable function in providing a forum for people to interact with Guardian columnists and other guest writers, but its claims to blog-dom have always been hotly contested - for instance it still does not link out to other blogs and is too diverse to possess a true personality of its own.

But such developments were really only one relatively small facet of a much larger commercial game that is still ongoing – the reorientation of the newspaper publishing industry as it seeks to diversify away from print and respond to the fact that much of its business is now migrating online.

It wasn’t just blogging that suddenly became the flavour of the month. Newspapers and broadcasters also enthusiastically embraced podcasting, vodcasting, and other new technological gimmickry, while more and more news was being published on the web before it appeared in print.

In other words, the gamekeepers of the dead tree press needed to turn poachers simply to remain competitive in the new 24-hour news environment – but at the same time, some of the poachers of the blogging world have effectively turned gamekeepers as the profile and importance of the blogosphere has increased.

It might have been pistols at dawn to begin with - but the story of the relationship between political blogging and political journalism, over the past 12 months in particular, has been one of gradual and irresistible convergence.

So if Trevor Kavanagh was to blogging what Alastair Campbell was to objective truth, the BBC’s Nick Robinson was always a different kettle of fish, using his blog not so much to rehash his on-air prognostications as to amplify them, earning a reputation for a time across the blogosphere as the only MSM blogger worth reading.

Robinson’s success as a journalist blogger has been emulated in recent months by the Daily Mail’s Benedict Brogan, one of the youngest of the national daily political editors yet already regarded by his peers as one of the outstanding political journalists of his generation.

Brogan is not an old-fashioned story-getter in the sense that, say, Kavanagh or his Mail on Sunday counterpart Simon Walters obviously are, but he does have an instinctive feel for what constitutes an important political story, and it is this quality which makes him such a good blogger.

As a politics junkie – you don’t get where he is without being one – he is also fascinated by the kind of detail that would not necessarily be of interest to general Mail readers, using his blog, like Robinson, as a sort of “Politics Plus” channel for a more specialist political readership.

But at the same time as some of the leading political journalists have been getting into blogging, some of the leading political bloggers have become steadily absorbed into the journalistic mainstream, reflecting their increasingly high profile in the media generally.

Blogs such as Iain Dale’s Diary, Guido Fawkes, Political Betting and Conservative Home are now regarded as primary political news sources, and are reputedly read by most Lobby journalists and MPs.

You could make a respectable argument that their authors are now more influential media figures than, say, the political editor of the News of the World, and indeed The Guardian already has done, recently listing Guido in its media Top 100 “Power List” alongside national newspaper editors and proprietors.

As if to emphasise the fact that the old demarcation lines are now becoming increasingly blurred, the man behind the Guido mask, Paul Staines, has applied for a Lobby pass, while Dale has been given a column in the Daily Telegraph to complement his regular slots as a TV pundit.

Even the government, it seems, is now treating blogs as an extension of the mainstream political media. As the Financial Times reported last month, the COI’s Media Monitoring Unit is now considering how to add blogs to its regular summaries of government coverage in mainstream press or television.

The FT itself acknowledged that the move reflects “the growing media profile of the format and the fact some individual bloggers are moving from niche self-publishers to establishment opinionformers.”

Clarence Mitchell, director of the Media Monitoring Unit, was quoted as saying that although there was debate about the objectivity of some bloggers, several of them were taken “increasingly seriously” within government.

In this context, it is perhaps significant that most of the leading political bloggers – those most in danger of becoming “establishment opinion formers” - are people who had a pre-existing political commitment or background which had already taken them within the orbit of the Westminster Village.

So for instance Iain Dale has in his various incarnations been Chief of Staff to David Davis, a Conservative parliamentary candidate, and, before that, the proprietor of a bookshop known to, and at some time or another regularly patronised by virtually everyone in Westminster.

Likewise, long before he launched the Guido Fawkes blog, Paul Staines was a well-connected figure within libertarian right circles, supplying jokes for Mrs Thatcher’s speeches, and even working for the Iron Lady’s favourite fixer, David Hart, who, with the help of MI5, fixed the miners good and proper in 1984-5.

The leading left-of-centre bloggers were, if anything, even more obviously on the inside track. Recess Monkey’s Alex Hilton was a Labour candidate, Tom Watson an actual Labour MP, and Kerron Cross a long-serving MP’s researcher, allegedly the model for the central character in TV political soap “Party Animals.”

And of course, probably a lot fewer people would have read my own blog had I not been in a position to furnish it with some of the insights gained from my time in the Lobby, a period during which I was able to observe the internal politics of New Labour at fairly close quarters.

In this respect, the blogosphere mimics the world of journalism itself, where who you know is often more important than what you know and where the ability to construct networks is probably a more important skill than the ability to construct the perfect intro.

Just occasionally, an original writing talent will emerge as if from nowhere – in blogging terms Chicken Yoghurt’s Justin McKeating springs to mind – but among the ranks of the leading bloggers, such meteors are very much the exception rather than the rule.

Undoubtedly the single most talented writer thrown up by the entire blogging medium to date has been Rachel North, who began blogging as personal catharsis following the terrible events of 7/7 in which she found herself caught up - but her story was indeed truly exceptional.

In truth, the political blogosphere is not nearly so diverse as its own hype would suggest. It has the potential to be, yes, but thus far, that potential has not been realised.

So, for me, the blogging v journalism dichotomy was always something of a false opposition. Yes, they are different disciplines, and as Trevor Kavanagh proved, success in one does not necessarily engender success in the other, but essentially they are both part and parcel of that huge and amorphous beast, the modern media.

Sure, it sometimes suits both sides to paint them as diametric opposites, as personified by the infamous clash between Paul Staines and the veteran former Guardian political editor Michael White on Newsnight, which “Sir Michael” is widely held to have shaded.

But the relationship was always more complex than that. In actual fact the blogosphere has fed off the mainstream media from the earliest days of “weblogs” consisting of little more than long lists of links to interesting material that could be found online.

In those days, relatively few blog posts did not, in some way, lead back to the MSM, but recently the trend has reversed, with newspaper diary columnists in particular regularly plundering the blogosphere for material – not all of it necessarily accurate.

Journalism, like music, does not stand still. The political journalism of today bears absolutely no resemblance to the straight, low-key factual reporting of 40 years ago, an era in which the parliamentary correspondent reigned supreme while the lobby correspondent was regarded as a form of journalistic pond-life.

A line was crossed, in my view, with the reporting of Prime Minister Jim Callaghan’s comments after returning from an international summit in Guadeloupe at the height of the Winter of Discontent in 1979, when he was asked what he thought of the “mounting chaos” at home.

His complacent reply - “I don’t think other people would necessarily take the view that there is mounting chaos” – was famously transposed the following day on the front page of The Sun as “Crisis? What Crisis?”

That, of course, was an interpretation rather than a quote – but the episode exemplified that it had become fair game to report such interpretation as fact. Much of the political journalism of today – and I have been as guilty of it as anyone – is built on that pretext.

Why the history lesson? Well, it’s simply to demonstrate that journalism is a constantly evolving trade, and will evolve again as a result of the need to embrace new technologies and meet new commercial challenges.

At the same time blogging, too, will have to change and adapt. It is particularly vital, if the blogosphere is not to degenerate into a right-wing mutual admiration society, that the left gets its collective act together, and produces a blog that can rival Dale and Guido for influence.

But just as the best political bloggers, like Dale, will increasingly become seen as important journalistic figures, the best political journalists, like Brogan, will increasingly embrace blogging. Indeed it would not surprise me if, in five years’ time, much of Ben Brogan’s output as political editor of the Daily Mail was online.

Thus, as in music, and as in art, do new departures eventually become assimilated by the mainstream, while simultaneously ensuring that the mainstream itself is also changed beyond recognition.

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4 comments:

Guido Fawkes Esq. said...

Fact check. Despite what you and Matthew D 'Ancona think, I have not applied for a Lobby pass.

Paul Linford said...

Er...what about this? We had an email correspondence about it.

Ms Robinson said...

Rachel North is I am sure a nice lady and has been through a lot but I don't by any stretch agree with the praise you heap upon her. Let's not confuse sentimentality with talent. She's ok but not amazing.

Guido Fawkes said...

I didn't apply in the end.

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