I attended a "Westminister Skeptics in the Pub" event titled "What difference does political blogging really make?" last night.
It was a panel discussion with Paul Staines (Guido Fawkes), Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy, Jonathan Isaby of Conservative Home, Mick Fealty of Slugger O'Toole and journalist Nick Cohen of The Observer. It was chaired by Allen Green of the Jack of Kent blog.
Nick Cohen started by asking why bloggers do not cover things like select committees. He also made the point that he thought that bloggers would not ultimately fill the gap left behind as local (and national) media ebbs away in the coming years. A concern he expressed several times during the evening was that there is very little money in blogging and therefore it impacts on the ability of blogs to do proper investigative journalism which requires time and resources.
Jonathan Isaby was introduced as the first journalist to have left a national paper in order to devote his full time to blogging professionally (he worked on the Daily Telegraph until about a year ago). He suggested that blogs and newspapers have a symbiotic relationship with them both feeding off each other and also that blogs often bring emerging stories to the sharp attention of the public via the mainstream media. In his opinion blogging is a great democratisation of the space and it largely removes the barriers to entry that used to exist for people to have their voices heard and read in print.
Sunny Hundal spent much of his initial contribution rebutting Nick Cohen's claims about investigative blogging by listing examples of bloggers he knows such as Tim Ireland and Adam Bienkov who have regularly broken stories that have then made the national or regional media. He also said that Liberal Conspriracy's main objective is the "destroy the right".
Mick Fealty (who based on the two times I have now seen him live is a very good public speaker) suggested that the ability for all to be able to publish is a "disruptive technology". He said that lots of bloggers do try to pull things down and that often skeptical questions can stray into cynicism. In his view there are also not enough blogs discussing positive things that governments could actually do. He also thinks that the government and establishment response to blogs has so far been pretty poor and that they are hampered by an 18th Century structure trying to respond to something that is only a few years old and constantly evolving. Quite a nice line he came up with is that "blogging gives opportunities to opportunists". He then discussed how his blog was able to forensically examine the statements of Gerry Adams regarding the Liam Adams case (he described it as a qualitative analysis) of the kind that the media often don't do. He rounded off by saying that bloggers are "emotionally free" to explore stories that the mainstream media are not.
Paul Staines started by saying that there are about 3,000 people who run the UK (politicians, financial people and the media) and about half of them regularly read his blog. They are the people he is trying to reach although his primary purpose in writing it is to amuse himself. He suggested that there is very little readership for special issue blogs. He also quoted Alex Smith (editor of Labourlist) as having recently listed the different categories of blogs: influential, policy based, and interest group. He said that despite Nick Cohen's lament we really do not need parliamentary reporters any more as everyone can get Hansard on their laptop if they want to know what was said although he did concede that the specialist interpretation would not be there for that. He also pointed out that his Sunlight Centre for Open Politics had originally reported Labour MP Jim Devine to the police with the implication being that blogs and associated organisations are often ahead of the curve.
After a short break it was opened up to the floor for questions. There were lots of them and the event ultimately went on for two and a half hours.
I managed to make a small contribution myself where I explained about the impact that my work last May on MPs' expenses and the apparent link to the electoral system had had on the national debate at which I was amazed given that it was just me blogging in my pants in my bedroom. I also suggested that some of the work that e.g. Conservative Home and Left Foot Forward do on policy development are examples that address some of Mick's concerns. Finally I asked if the panel thought blogs would get more polarised and mud-slinging or whether there would more and more policy analysis. The consensus seemed to be more the former than the latter.
Here are a few of the points made by audience and panel that stuck in my mind:
- In response to a specific question Paul said that he does not read the comments on his blogs. He also said that half of the 400,000 comments annually are made by 50 people! He thinks that people who complain about comments on blogs should "f*ck off". In contrast Mick came straight in and said that he does read and value his comments.
- In response to a question about science coverage on blogs lamenting how the Climategate e-mails were covered Mick pointed out that like journalists, bloggers are generalists.
- Paul thinks that the New Statesman is read by old tramps in the corner of the library!
- Mick suggested that when the history of this period is written, there will be an analysis of how Paul has been able to deconstruct the character of Gordon Brown and strip him bare in a way that the mainstream media is just not able to do.
- In response to a question specially for Paul and Sunny: "Nadine Dorries, snog, marry, avoid", after briefly threatening to read out some of Nadine's texts to him Paul said that his relationship with Nadine was private. Sunny said "avoid".
For a political blogger like myself it was an absorbing discussion although I think it probably could have been half an hour shorter. I noticed a number of people having to rush away just before and bang on the end (me included) which was a shame as there were loads of people there who I would have liked to have talked to afterwards.
I am not sure the main question was thoroughly addressed by the panel but there were some interesting vignettes on how blogging functions from some of its leading lights.
Thanks to Allen Green for organising the event and I will certainly try and get to more Skeptics in the Pub events in the future.