Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

UK political blogging handbags

It’s Manic vs. Guido – and full-on, this time, following last year’s spat over the Oaten affair.

Manic was, until a couple of years ago when he started to post more infrequently, one of the UK’s most popular political bloggers. And a lefty. Guido is currently (almost certainly) the UK’s most popular political blogger. And a righty.

Manic has tirelessly campaigned to get elected officials to take up blogging as a great means of engaging the public with politics. Guido has been slagged off by Cabinet Ministers for giving the internet a bad name.

You can see why they might not get on.

I’ve met both Manic and Guido twice each. Guido still owes me a pint after our last meeting (and has just dropped me from his blogroll*) and Manic’s Australian, but I won’t let either of those get in the way of objectivity.

A lot of the more analytical political bloggers – especially those on the left, and including many whose opinions I generally respect – don’t much like what Guido does. Because whereas I, and a decent chunk of other UK polibloggers, tend to concentrate on policy, Guido focusses on gossip, rumour and innuendo. Whereas us policy-focussed lot are usually trying to be interweb equivalents of newspaper columnists, Guido aims more for the diarist approach. His notoriety, however, has become such that, every now and again, he lands stories which one would normally have expected to see first in the likes of Private Eye. This is helped, no doubt, by the fact that in the real world he has been on the Westminster fringe for some years, and knows a fair few political types who, it would appear, are happy to bunk him the occasional story.

Guido is unashamedly tabloid in approach; most of the bloggers I read are rather more broadsheet. There is, of course, plenty of room on the internet for both types of blogging – but, as with newspapers in the real world, the tabloid approach is both more accessible and more popular, even while being (usually) more superficial in its coverage. Again, not necessarily a bad thing – at least people are reading about and becoming more informed about politics, after all…

But Manic’s major concern is not the presentation, nor the reliability of the content (except for the theories about Guido’s supposed homophobia, which may or may not have some basis in fact – although I don’t think this stems from anything more than the frequently wilfully playground/infantile approach on Guido’s blog). It is, instead, that Guido’s attitude poses a danger to blogging as a whole.

The theory runs like this: Guido is the UK’s best-known political blogger, and is frequently cited in the press as a representative example of blogging. (Which, in itself, means that he simply isn’t. A representative blog gets around 20 hits a day, whereas Guido’s is many times that. A representative political blog would probably get between 50 and 100 visitors a day, and would usually spend much of its time on long-winded, detailed analysis of newspaper columns and/or policy announcements – something Guido has never done, that I recall.)

By having, as the blog held up as an example by the press and politicians, one that deals in gossip that sometimes borders on libellous, Manic fears that our dear overlords may use Guido as an excuse to start legislating to censor blogs as a whole. There have already been noises about regulation of online content from people closely associated with the government. But this is nothing new – it is pretty much as old as the internet itself, and certainly older than the World Wide Web.

It is also, most importantly, both impractical and impossible to enforce. There are always going to be ways around internet censorship – be it via proxies or hosting in other countries. It is not legislation we need to worry about – it is the first use of the insanely harsh British libel laws against an individual blogger, which has the potential to severely limit free debate merely through fear of litigation. Guido is a prime candidate to be the first blogger to be sued – but even if his readership triples is highly unlikely to be the cause of an Act of Parliament, even from this legislation-happy government.

The rest of the argument – that Guido has his own unclear motives for blogging, his own unclear associations and networks – is surely hardly a surprise. Equally, not reporting a story because one of the people involved is a mate/informant of Guido’s is entirely Guido’s prerogative – he has no duty to blog impartially, and to call on him to do so is, arguably, not far off the calls of various governmental types who want tighter internet regulation. Guido likewise has no obligation to provide a right to reply, no obligation to allow all comments to appear, and no obligation to force his readers to register before commenting so that – if the accusations that he comments anonymously on his own blog are true (quite likely) – it is easier to tell when and where. It would, of course, be nice if he did – but comment registration is no solution, because (as Manic notes) it is incredibly easy to simply set up innumerable anonymous accounts.

Manic argues that “This is not what blogging is supposed to be about. It’s not even within shouting distance.” But the beauty of blogging is that it isn’t supposed to be about anything. Guido has his style, I have mine, Manic has his. Manic’s style is probably closer to my own than Guido’s, but that doesn’t mean that I think Guido shouldn’t be doing what he does, nor that the way in which he does it is such a terrible thing. If you don’t like it, don’t read it – it’s that simple.

I also see no problem with blogging anonymity, nor with political blogging that aims more at frivolous gossip than detailed discussion. Guido’s pseudonym is no more of a barrier to understanding his motivation than was Addison and Steele’s “Spectator” persona, or than are the many in Private Eye. If you care about what the writer’s own motivations are behind the pseudonym, they are often fairly easy to find out – and the people who can’t be bothered to find out evidently don’t care anyway. Quality will out – and it matters not a jot whether I write as “Nosemonkey” or under my real name if my arguments and evidence are good enough. The same goes for Guido – although (based on what crops up in his comments) a good proportion of his readers aren’t exactly the sharpest tools in the box, enough of them are bright enough to know not to take everything he writes at face value.

I only read Guido from time to time – one or twice a fortnight at best. Others choose to do so far more frequently. Good for them. There are many blogs out there that are far more my sort of thing, so I stick to those – but I’m afraid I can’t see the point in an attempt at an organised boycott, because – based on the tiny number of referrals I got from his place when I was still on his blogroll – the people who read Guido’s blog are unlikely to be reading (m)any others anyway.

In short: blogging is the broadest of churches, with as many approaches and styles as there are bloggers (several tens of millions and rising). To try to promote accountability and honesty within this Fifth Estate – at least, within the political part of it – is obviously laudable. But any attempt to set up a voluntary code of conduct – be it stemming from a well-known blogger of long standing like Manic or from an external body like the Press Complaints Commission – is doomed to failure.

Because the only thing that genuinely does seem to unite bloggers – of the political variety, at least – is that we’re all opinionated bastards and don’t like being told what to do. There’s something in the personality of people who set up websites from which to broadcast their thoughts to the world that makes them singularly unsuited to be dictated to – we’re all rather more arrogant and self-important than your average Joe. As a general rule, you tell us not to do something, we’ll go out and do it just to spite you. And, in terms of blog readers (at least, those who don’t blog themselves), for every person who follows the advice to boycott Guido, there’ll be another couple who’ll head over to his place to see what all the fuss is about.

Meanwhile the problem of all political bloggers being conflated with Guido will still not be addressed, because the idea of a mysterious, anonymous, seemingly non-party political activist leaking details of Westminster gossip is far more appealing to lazy journalists looking for a story than the many other bloggers our there who provide political analysis and research that rivals – even excels, in some cases – that which can be found in newspapers themselves.

An alternative take on all this is up over at Chicken Yoghurt – someone with whom I more often than not agree. On this occasion, however, we’re at slight odds – largely because, try as I might, I can’t see how any of this is really that important. Blogging is not going to be taken seriously by the press for the forseeable future because (as I’ve argued elsewhere) it is a threat to those in the press who determine opinion – the highly-paid columnists who rattle off the ill-informed think-pieces about blogs that seem to be perceived as a problem by both Manic and Justin. Guido isn’t the cause of this, he’s merely a handy way of providing additional justification for an attitude towards blogs from the press that was pretty much inevitable from the start, echoing preachers’ dislike of the printing press in the 15th century and cinema’s dislike of television in the 20th.

But hell, at least they’re taking blogs seriously enough to write about them… Better than being ignored – and why would any of us bother blogging and publishing our thoughts to the world if we didn’t want people to be aware of them? Guido may be taking much of the attention from “more serious” political bloggers – but would the attention be there if lazy hacks didn’t have something interestingl to latch on to in the first place? Does anyone really think that considered political analysis was ever going to get as much press coverage as “plots, rumours and conspiracy”?

To the vast majority of the population, politics is boring, and so’s the internet. So no sensible paper would risk alienating their readership by providing stories that combine both unless there’s a bit of excitement and controversy – and say what you like about Guido, he’s very good at being controversial.

* Update: Actually, I’ve just noticed that he hasn’t – he’s merely buggered up the HTML so that anyone clicking on what appears to be a link to comes through to one of my 404 pages, and a text link to this site doesn’t appear in his blogroll. Ho hum.

Update 2: Another, similar take at Obsolete, which develops in more detail some of the above concerns. Good stuff.