Paul Flynn and the backlash against the blogosphere

This post was written by Reuben Bard-Rosenberg on December 28, 2010
Posted Under: Uncategorized

“The blogosphere is not an area that is open to sensible debate” said Labour MP Paul Flynn on Radio 4 today, “it is dominated by the obsessed and the fanatical”. The blogosphere has been getting quite a lot of stick of late. When Iain Dale departed a couple of weeks back, he cited numerous reasons, but it was his references to  ”backbiting” and “character assasination” that journalists picked up on.  The idea that blogging is dominated by the aggressive and abusive has become something of an orthodoxy.

In October, Andrew Marr caused a ripple with his vituperative rant against  ”the socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men” who dominated the blogsosphere and gave it an “angry and abusive” character. Meanwhile a recent headline in the Independent told us that “the stench of the blogosphere is overpowering”.

But is any of this true? Is Blogging really dominated by the nasty, the bitter and the aggressive? The big irony about Marr’s rant is that most well established bloggers would be embarassed to have a rant like his published on their sites. The image of bloggers as bitter, socially inadequate types arguably owes more to tired cliches about boys who like computers, than to reality.

The sheer size and diversity of the blogosphere, of course makes it possible to prove virtually anything about the nature of  the medium. You wouldn’t judge broadcast journalism by the ugliness of Press TV, and in the same way, the mere existence of some crazed and aggressive of bloggers doesn’t illuminate a great deal about the nature of blogging in general. If we are to talk about what the blogosphere is like, then it is perhaps wise to narrow our focus.

A decent starting place is wikio’s list of the most influential political blogs. These blogs tend to be the most popular, but their rankings are determined by how often they are quoted and linked to by other bloggers. In other words, Wikio is a good barometer of the attitudes of the general blogging community. Looking through the top 60 it is genuinely difficult to find sites that conform to the perceptions of Andrew Marr and Paul Flynn. Sure there is  Guido – and the less said about him the better – but he is very much  the exception. Above him you will find Left Foot Forward – with its fiercely empirical discussion of government policy and Liberal Conspiracy. Below him you will find the likes of Adam Bienkov, a polite but utterly incisive bullshit slayer, A Very Public Sociologist,  and entertaining and intelligent rightwingers like Archbishop Cramner, not to mention us at no. 43. I would venture to suggest that if a list of the most popular blogs was compared to a list of the most popular newspapers, it would be our medium that came off looking better.

If, as I suggest,   the image of the blogosphere bears little relation to the reality, this in itself poses some interesting questions. Why are sections of the media and political establishment so keen to do blogging down? It may be that those unfarmiliar with the format have trouble distinguishing significant blogs from the insignificant. It might be that some journalists are averse to having their words uncompromisingly chewed over (see Christina Patterson below). And it is, I suspect, the case that some people are uncomfortable that the oiks have made it in by the back door – that even without the endorsement of a major institutions, ordinary individuals are being read by tens of thousands of people. This, indeed, would explain Marr’s determined insistence that “so-called citizen journalism” has “nothing to do with journalism at all.”

And if this is why the likes Marr and Paul Flynn MP sneer and  recoil, it is also why I am genuinely proud to be a part of the blogosphere. I do not think it is hyperbole to say that blogging is one of the great democratic transformations of our generation. It is amazing to consider how difficult it was, just a few years back, for somebody to reach a substantial national audience without support from one of a handful of media organisations.

Without well recognised brand names or big marketing budgets, bloggers have carved out a substantial  audience soley on the strength of their writing, and their ability to imagine what might interest people. And long may we continue to do so.

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Reader Comments

I think you’re absolutely right – there’s no more idiocy on blogs than there is on politics more generally. Usually the worst offenders aren’t read, aren’t influential and just like in meat space they are utterly fringe to the online debate.

#1 
Written By jim jepps on December 28th, 2010 @ 8:35 pm
#2 
Written By Reuben Bard-Rosenberg on December 28th, 2010 @ 8:38 pm
David M

Fair points made, but Marr is right in that blogging isn’t really *journalism* in the traditional sense. To (at least old school) journalists, journalism is standing all day with a notepad in the local courthouse, or town hall, or getting to know civil servants, politicians, public service chiefs etc.

Ideally, journalists present us with what is actually happen, whilst bloggers and opinion writers interpret it and act on it. The problem is that if many people only get their news from blogs then where are the facts coming from in the first place? Ideally journalists, but with newspapers shrinking and dying out the way they are (especially local ones, when ideally decentralised power is what we need right now), we risk relying too much on less specific and detailed information – perhaps even misinformation and hearsay?

Nonetheless, the democratic nature of blogging is undoubtedly useful to political discourse, if handled properly. That’s where someone like Marr comes in (or more insightfully, David Simon, creator of ‘The Wire’) with his concerns, particularly since his own profession is currently on its last knees.

#3 
Written By David M on December 28th, 2010 @ 8:48 pm

Anyone who only gets their news from bloggers will be as badly informed as those who only get their news from personal conversations and/or the newspapers’ own comment pieces.

Bloggers mainly aren’t journalists (although actually some of them are). However, I think Marr was making a larger claim than simply bloggers commenting on the news aren’t journalists, he was actually claiming that bloggers were a problem. In that he was basically wrong.

There is a problem of quality in political debate in this country – just look at the dismal quality of our MPs for a start, and apparently they’re running the country!

#4 
Written By jim jepps on December 28th, 2010 @ 9:01 pm

I think the likes of Flynn and Marr are mistaking journalism with Op-Eds. Journalism, done right, is detailed and authoritative. The problem is that it costs. Modern news media do not want the cost of real journalists checking details and cross-referencing. Instead we have newspapers that are a mixture of newswire reports, PR pieces and OpEds. Newspapers no longer do journalism. (However, specialist publications and trade magazines do have journalists doing real journbalism. The readership buy the magazine for the expert material and so are willing to pay for a proper journalist.)

Blogging, on the other hand, does not have the same economic model. Bloggers can afford to check out details, because, well, it costs the same as not checking (ie, nothing). Sure, blogs can be as bad as the worst tabloid, but when they are good they can be as good as the Sunday Times in its investigative journalism heyday. The good blogs get the visitors.

It’s been years since Marr did any reporting and I reckon he wouldn’t know how to do it now. Marr is a commentator – this is what happens to has-been journalists.

#5 
Written By Richard Blogger on December 28th, 2010 @ 9:24 pm
julia

Is that the same BBC Radio 4 that, at the behest of the Metropolitan Police, repeatedly reported from 9pm onwards that the demonstrators at the last student protest were quietly and peacefully leaving Parliament Square, when in fact they had been trapped on Westminster Bridge?
Was it Andrew Marr’s exemplary colleagues who ignored phone calls from protestors begging them to come and report the fact that they were being crushed, harassed and beaten with police batons and shields?
Or maybe the BBC’s model of professional journalism is Ben Brown’s disgraceful interview of Jody McIntyre, in which he implied that Jody deserved to be pulled out of his wheelchair and dragged across the road by the police because of his political views. In the event, Ben Brown’s pathetic questions gave Jody McIntyre a chance to illustrate the intelligent contribution that bloggers make to keeping us informed and raising crucial debates.
Journalists are supposed to dig deep, be sceptical about official sources and tell the truth. Plenty of bloggers are doing ok on all three of these. It wouldn’t hurt the BBC to emulate them.

#6 
Written By julia on December 28th, 2010 @ 11:28 pm
Keith McBurney

There is another factor rarely taken into consideration. We still have one of the most centralised states in the west. In their post wartime coalition separation to determine what sort of society we should have, mission creep has accreted powers from the up to now hollowed out flanks leaving them mere appendages of the centre treating them as far of provinces without any real feel or regard for between interregnums.

The centre became no only top heavy but bloated with power it could only apply fitfully in failing to delegate authority, responsibility and commensurate resources. Endless guidelines replaced clear direction to the downstream lost sight of. In taking on and trying to do too much, little of the lasting was delivered before another change of tack. Instead of calm, measured assessment and consideration we increasingly saw rafts of initiatives and reannouncements to set the agenda the overly concentrated media themselves were in hot pursuit of headlines for – and when not getting them, making them up like the political spin machines set on black, grey or white wash.

The internet age has added to the flurried frenzy, reflected on the blogosphere feeding from and to it. The hiatus of pre and post election coverage has hardly let up given the gravity of the mess we are in. The image i see and hear daily is a wall of noise babbling to itself, those inside the corporate Whitehall & Westminster and City bubble huddled over the entrails spewing from flickering screens whilst others outside get on with the reality they are dealing in but not with.

In turning an ever quickening buck without let up, investigative journalism is now a pale shadow of it itself in the mainstream media, the little of what remains captive too, the commissioned islands in the streams being eroded by breaking news to anyone still out there past the still ponds of reflection mirroring a sky doused of meaningful debate and deliberation often cut short to move to the next item guillotined.

What is the point of speeking truth unto power when it’s been lost sight of?

Keith

#7 
Written By Keith McBurney on December 29th, 2010 @ 3:22 am

David m I take your point. I would say that the third estate dabble in a bit of journalism of the kind you describe – ie mtg recent pics pf police without numbers – but yes our pieces are substantially comment pieces. If marr had rejected the term citizen journalist on those grounds he might have generated some interesting discussion. Instead he rejected on the grounds that it IS the spewings of socially inadequate drunks.

#8 
Written By Reuben Bard-Rosenberg on December 29th, 2010 @ 9:59 am

Bit of an irony that in a piece trying to rebut Paul Flynn’s critique of bloggers:
1. You don’t mention he has a blog that has been running for years – it’s here
2. You use a picture of some other Paul Flynn, not the MP! He actually looks like this

#9 
Written By Jon Worth on January 2nd, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

Jon, I was aware that Flynn has his own blog. Not sure why my failure to mention it was “ironic”. This was not intended as an encyclopedia entry on Paul Flynn and blogging, it a comment piece on a particular range of attitudes expressed by Flynn and others.

Putting up the wrong picture was bad practice. But must I’m failing to grasp the great sense of irony here. The criticisms I rebutted did not involve general accusations of sloppiness, but rather quite specific criticisms of the tone of bloggers. If I had called someone a “stupid dickhead” that *would* be irony. Not quite sure what you intended to contribute to this discussion.

#10 
Written By Reuben Bard-Rosenberg on January 2nd, 2011 @ 7:22 pm

The irony is that in a piece where you critique Flynn’s critique of bloggers, in which he says the quality of debate is lacking, you make a glaring error (still not fixed) by putting the image of the wrong person AND don’t link to his blog. So you hence prove his point about the poor quality of blog debate I reckon.

#11 
Written By Jon Worth on January 3rd, 2011 @ 1:55 pm

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