Saturday, July 30, 2005

British Blogging

There have been three major events this year in the British blogosphere - the general election, the call for a different electoral system in its immediate aftermath, and the London bombings. All seem to have excited more or less everyone, whilst in the down periods the political bloggers have either returned to their hobbyhorses or just taken breaks entirely.

The comments on this Chicken Yoghurt thread seem to be highly pessimistic. Mr Pastry says "A blogger asked recently - 'can blogging damage your mental health?' - I think he's got a point (seriously!). It's certainly doing my head in." Justin is "tired and it's becoming clear that British blogging is too much like whistling in the dark." I don't want to be so defeatist. Even if I'm not in a position to get the readership of a Tim Worstall or The Sharpener, I still think there is a point to British blogging.

Our national psyche is often said to be one of despondency; we're better at criticising and moaning than we are in actually trying to get something done. Just look at how we react to one (admittedly comprehensive) defeat at cricket against Australia - suddenly all the critics start chiming in advocating wholesale change. Perhaps it is apt that two of the best articles about British blogging, therefore, highlight its limitations very clearly. Both are by Nosemonkey; one criticising groupthink and the adversarial style of blogging, and this one officially denouncing UK blogging as a pointless waste of time.

A determined few, led primarily by Manic over at Bloggerheads via campaigns such as his latest Backing Blair lark are genuinely trying to make a difference. Around 80% of the rest seem to be either single-issue obsessives, vindictive arseholes or nowhere near as educated or clever as they think they are. The remaining 20% is made up of people - like me - who really just want to be columnists on a national newspaper. Why the hell do our opinions matter?


Many of the attempts made at making British blogging more "relevant" or successful have, as yet, been as triumphal as attempts to revive the Tory Party. When the response of the mainstream media to the coverage of the London bombings is a page of cut-and-pasted paragraphs from blogs in The Times, something obviously isn't working quite as it is supposed to. Even the first-class jobs of liveblogging done at Europhobia and Perfect recently didn't make much of an impact - as interesting as it was to have lively discussion in the comments section, we bloggers are still hopelessly reliant upon more conventional news sources for our information. Martin Stabe has his own ideas as to why Britbloggers are failing to make a difference:

Blogging has filled a niche that the particular structure American journalism has left open: partisan reporting. The ideology of journalism that has emerged in the United States since the 19th century is professional “objectivity“. A widely-held norm of objectivity lends itself to criticism based on charges of partisan bias... British mainstream journalism, by contrast, is relatively more diverse... People who read the Daily Mail or the Guardian understand that they are getting a particular point of view.

That's certainly true. Blogs such as Biased BBC often end up being cringeingly embarrassing - so determined are the writers to make their point that the most insignificant evidence of "bias" is trumpeted heavily. There is a valid case to be made against BBC reporting in many cases (I certainly think it has a political line that gets damaged by the fact that it is supposed to be objective). Yet such is the blog's doctrinal libertarian obsession with getting rid of the BBC that their valid points get lost in a sea of irrelevance.

Other vaunted attempts to revive British blogging, or at least rescue it from total despair, are also of somewhat limited value. Whilst I hate to criticse Tim Worstall's BritBlog roundup, not least for the number of additional hits it gives me whenever I manage to make it, it is much more a showcase of good writing rather than politically incisive. That is not of itself a bad thing; we can all learn much from reading other articles, and the growing standard of British blogs must be attributable, in part, to the fact that there is a real incentive in writing well, as well as the fact that only the most ignorant bloggers are not having their attention drawn to good writing. The Sharpener, too, is continually filled with posts of a high standard. Far from achieving the aim of fostering "civilised discussion among people with often vastly different political opinions", however, it often reads much more like a "best of" collection rather than an active debate.

Those two projects highlight one key point. British blogging IS very different from American blogging. The fact that 20% of British bloggers just want to be newspaper columnists has the potential to be its greatest strength. We should make our arguments more developed, more objective, and less hysterical than our American counterparts. Simply denouncing opinions as "self-evidently liberal" or "hopelessly conservative" doesn't get anyone anywhere - and it is a strength of the British realm in the blogosphere that arguments tend to be highly developed.

What it lacks, however, is a sense of interaction. Bloggers may well be known for cross-linking, thus throwing blogs high up search engine rankings (although I still find it hilarious that this post on Gavin Henson seems to be my most reliable source of random hits), but that tends to be where interaction ends. "Go and read this, it's highly incisive" tends to be about the extent of it. Rarely will bloggers genuinely pick apart articles that they disagree with - unless they disagree with the article so strongly that there is almost no point in starting a debate, for no common ground will ever be found.

Certainly, constructive efforts to actually use civilised debate to progress on an issue are few and far between. Comments sections on the most popular blogs may rack up huge numbers of posts, yet are some of the most childish and immature debates possible. Dare to criticise the dominant train of thought on Harry's Place or Samizdata, and often you will be met with cries of "why do you post here if you don't agree with us" or even, in the case of the latter, "he writes for Samizdata, you don't, so shut up" (I may be paraphrasing, but only slightly). Even Chicken Yoghurt's collection of posts on the London bombings failed to bring about a genuine debate on the aftermath, even if it did contribute greatly to my understanding of how the bombings affected us all.

No wonder we feel like we're whistling in the dark. Yet when I consider what the mainstream media is actually like in its coverage of politics, I fail to see how British bloggers can't carve out a niche for themselves. Anyone who watches an edition of Question Time must realise that the exercise is totally pointless. Not only is dashing off to the audience in the spirit of "participation" totally futile; the panelists themselves are chasing a quick soundbite or indulging in rabble-rousing rather than actually engaging in debate. The last time Tony Blair actually answered a question at PMQs is a matter for ancient historians.

In short, we have a political culture that is almost completely devoid of principle and substance. Political debate is geared around the instant news cycle; the quote or two that makes the evening news or generates a headline in the morning papers. TV coverage of politics, in the name of participation, has allowed itself to become dumbed-down to ridiculous extremes. An audience member on Question Time can't possibly make a point in the two sentences that he or she has; that doesn't stop her trying. Instead, we lapse to the reciting of anodyne slogans, where anti-war demonstrators shouting "stop this terrorist war for oil" get more coverage than people opposing the war on decent, well-thought-out grounds; where having a placard is more important than having an intelligent opinion.

British blogs can fill that void. We can reclaim politics from the 24-hour news cycle and actually restore some semblance of proper debate. The difficulty is, it will take time for serious debate to get any proper attention. Those of us who want to be newspaper columnists may have to put our ambitions on hold. Collaborative projects like Once More, which is trying to work out where the Tories should go next, are exactly the sort of projects that can restore life to the Britblog world (although they may need to be somewhat more active than Once More is at present). We don't all have to go creating group projects to succeed, though - we just need to be prepared to think a little more about posts we do or don't like. And then post a detailed and constructive criticism on our own sites - getting involved in proper debate and trying to win a constructive argument, not just seeing who can shout the loudest.