Elephant in the Room: Ideology in political blogging

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while but somehow didn’t quite get around to it.

Back in July director of LSE’s Polis media think-tank, Charlie Beckett, posted a great analysis of where the UK political blogosphere will go if/when Labour lose the next general election.

I won’t rehash his article, you can read it for yourselves. However, I do want to highlight an important observation he makes that is regularly overlooked: the influence of political ideology on political bloggers.

Many commentators fall back on the argument that right wing bloggers have the flexibility to attack the government while in opposition, while left wing (predominantly Labour) bloggers have to more or less put up or shut up as the party in government.

But Charlie rightfully suggests that the respective types of blogging carried out by left and right wing bloggers may also be influenced by their personal, political preferences.

Or more specifically as Charlie puts it:

Perhaps the individualism of blogging better suits the less collectivist mentalities on the right.” while “the fragmentation of leftwing blogs is very much a reflection of the divided nature of the post-Iraq, post-Blair left.”

But then Charlie (perhaps deliberately?) undermines this position by reflecting candidly that maybe this cacophony of voices and opinions is “a tribute to the variety in style and substance of what we call political bloggers.”

And that line is perhaps the key takeaway for political analysts, commentators, journalists and PROs.

Political bloggers are lumped together on party lines primarily (although not always) by others – most often the political analysts, commentators, journalists and PROs.

Blogging allows grassroots politicos the opportunity to become active around an issue or series of issues that may not always fall on party political lines. We then retrospectively interpret these as party political as our political system is clearly delinated and doesn’t really allow us to think beyond the Lib/Lab/Con/Green(?) silos.

Of course there are some caveats: Sites like ConservativeHome, LabourHome and Lib Dem Voice are clearly party affiliated, but it can be agued that they are affiliated only in name as many of their ideas differ from the official party line.

Similarly, many political bloggers happen to be party affiliated. But again, this doesn’t mean they always follow the party line. I would go further and argue that joining a political party will become more and more irrelevant for politicos (as it already has for most of the population.

As David Wilcox has already argued:

It used to be that you joined associations because it was a way of meeting like-minded people and getting help, facilities, information and other things difficult or costly to organise for yourself. These days it is much easier to find people and resources online.”

Moreover, blogging allows politically motivated people to organize themselves around particular issues that reject or cross traditional political party boundaries.

Charlie poses the question:

What will happen to political bloggers when the government changes?"

I want us to consider this point another way – what will happen to government  when political bloggers change the way we (self)organize ourselves into issue driven groups, no longer reliant on the traditional and formal structures of membership organizations which have been built on a model first established by thinking during the early days of western Enlightenment more than 200 years ago.

The answer to that question says a lot about the condition of political debate in this country. Both left and right have seen the internet as a chance to push for power.

Technorati tags: Blogging, politics, Charlie Beckett, Enlightenment

Review of Charlie Beckett’s Supermedia

So it’s been weeks since I’ve ahd a chnce to put some thoughts down into a blog post, but an email from Charlie Beckett, director of the new media think-tank at the LSE and London School of Communications, about his new book called Supermedia [full title] has finally spurred me into action.

Supermedia is an optimist and positive book outlining how the media can enhance its forces-for-good using the internet. its essential argument is that:

  1. journalism plays a vital role sustaining healthy liberal societies;
  2. journalism (like most industrial economic complexes) is being re-shaped by the internet;
  3. that we are a media cross-roads where we have the chance to shape the future of journalism for the better;
  4. that when we talk about contemporary journalism we mean, in effect, digital journalism.

Charlie terms this type of contemporary digital journalism: Networked Journalism. Networked Journalism includes what we term ‘citizen journalism’ bit it is also a type of journalism that “is a reflection of emerging realities” as well as an opportunity to transform the ethics as well as efficacy of journalism.”

Now I haven’t read the full book, just the introduction (available with other chapter excerpts over at Harvard University’s Berkman Center). But it seems to me that in creating the concept of Networked Journalism Charlie is seeking to explore how journalism – and by extension – the news media can function in an internet-enabled or to use Yochai Benkler’s term, networked information economy.

This gets my thumbs up. There is a lot of general talk about how the social web and its various tools is changing media production for the worse – eg. the dumbing down argument (in fact, Private Eye magazine, the original challengers of establishment views are one of the worse purveyors of this which really annoys me – but that’s for another post).

The only issue I would raise about this line of argument is that in a networked world where everyone can publish their news, Charlie takes a specifically journalism-centric approach to the question of who actually owns contemporary media production.

Nowhere (at least in the book’s intro) is this made more clear than the following sentence: “Networked journalism offers the news media to enhance its social role.”

In my notes I wrote: “Or offers society to enhance its news media role.”

The point I’m making here is that the internet rejects the traditionally formalised structures and boundaries we artificially created around things like “the media” and “business” and “politics”. To borrow David Weinberger’s idea, the internet makes all of these traditionally siloed areas of life miscellaneous.

To push that idea a bit further, the interent removes these areas of life of their identity until we chose to invoke those identities in what ever form suits us best – not media publishers, not politicians, not business leaders, us.

So with this logic, the news media is no more. Or at least is no more different than citizen journalism, blog content, Flickr content etc. Charlie discusses the importance of these new social media tools, but still privileges ‘real’ journalism as a separate part of this new media ecology. In my mind the internet rejects any and all hierarchy and distinctions between citizen journalism and professional journalism.

Anyway, I’m getting abstract and I don’t think this represents any faults with Charlie’s arguments. Charlie himself tells us early in the intro that “I do not pretend to be objective … So I’m afraid that it is back to the journalist this time to understand what is happening to our news media.

Supermedia is a book about what is happening to contemporary journalism, written by a journalist, from a journalist’s perspective. That’s not a problem – that’s the framework through which Charlie is interpreting the miscellaneous landscape of the internet.

One final thought on this is where PR or the professional communications industry sits in this view. I bet that for every 10 citizen journalists or bloggers there is a PR person trying to work out how to influence what that blogger blogs about.

This clearly presents challenges and opportunities to the growing ethics and efficacy of the news media. Maybe this issue is covered off later in the book but I’d love Charlie’s take on the subject.

Technorati tags: Charlie Beckett, Supermedia, Polis, London School of Economics