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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 PoliticalBetting.com 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.

18 Comments

  1. Pingback: Chicken Yoghurt » Off the artistic role call

  2. We differ on a few points:

    1. I would argue that Guido does have a duty to blog impartially if he claims that impartiality is what makes him different/better to other media outlets. Which he has.

    2. I wouldn't put anything past this legislation-happy government.

    3. I hope to prove you wrong on self-regulation soon enough. The largely-unregulated world of Usenet provides many lessons on this.

  3. To be honest I'm surprised the political Brit bogging community hasn't gone down this road sooner. I guess we'll all see just how committed to 'blogging as a community' we are once the next General Election happens…

  4. I think there can be ground rules, and I think they can be deployed voluntarily and effectively by a community. I've seen Usenet communities playing host to some greatly differing opinions (over very high stakes) but the people involved know that the discussion group will fall apart very quickly if they perform in a way that makes it easy for trolls to infiltrate and/or in a manner that is eventually self-destructive.

    They learn this over time after watching a couple of communities fall over. We're still getting started on this one, big community and I fear a hard lesson is ahead.

  5. And Leon, you raise a good point. The next general Election will be a first in terms of blogging. For the first time, every side will have active activists *and* candidates.

    In fact, I'll be watching this year's local council elections very closely, as it's a small first of the same ilk. There are a lot of blogging councillors out there with a range of differing notions regarding honesty and credibility.

  6. Pingback: Saucer Of Milk For Table? at Cynical Chatter From The Underworld

  7. I dunno, Tim – I just reckon the world of blogging (even if narrowed down to UK political blogging) is simply too broad for any such voluntary code to work.

    And, in any case, it's pretty much guaranteed that those who most need some kind of "ground rules" to keep them in check aren't going to sign up.

    Those of us who don't get near the line likewise won't really see the need – in my case, with the sort of stuff I do, to sign up to some kind of system of blogging ethics would be akin to wandering the streets with a t-shirt reading "I'm not going to stab you in the face". Not only should it be obvious that I'm going to act nice and civilised (for the most part), but by merely mentioning the possibility that it might not be obvious, I'd end up looking like a nutter.

    (There's also the fear of the cringe factor. Any kind of alliance of "ethical" bloggers will swiftly come to sound ridiculous. Much like the "reality-based community" thing does.)

    As for Guido's impartiality – he's not a signed up member of any political party (unless something's changed recently), but apparently did once use to be a member of the SDP before working for the Tories. Then again, so did I (work for the Tories, that is, not be a member of the SDP). It doesn't mean much in itself – unless you've got evidence of something more sinister that you're going to spring on us in a follow-up post.

    And as for his anonymity – the Wikipedia disambiguation page for Guido Fawkes states his real name, and links through to a page with the title "Paul Staines". Likewise, do a Google search for "Guido Fawkes" or "Guido Blogger", his real name appears on the first page of results. The cat's long been out of the bag as much as to be as meaningless as your "Manic" or my "Nosemonkey" pseudonyms.

  8. Try using his name in a comment under any recent post.

    :o)

    I would also argue that an existing voluntary code (that is still developing, but used to be a lot stronger) led to you outing yourself. I'm talking about strengthening the same natural and positive influences. Anyone wishing to shut down the debate will, of course, attempt to corner me via a false dichotomy (i.e. a fascist intention of their own invention).

    As for impartiality, Guido claims to be impartial, but clearly isn't. Membership of any given party or interest group doesn't even enter into it.

  9. The reason for the pseudonym when I started was twofold:

    1) I sometimes blogged from work, and didn't want Mr Google to give me away to my overlords

    2) I was worried I might be shit, and that that would damage my writing career in the real world.

    The reason for dropping it was largely because some of my blog writing was turning out to be quite good after a year or two, and so could have a positive impact on my career. It has done, so I made the right choice. It wasn't anything to do with a code of conduct, or of credibility.

    If anything, my credibility as an analyst of current affairs was better served by remaining anonymous, because when I wrote well, it looked like I was coming from a well-informed position. Now it's fairly obvious I'm just a freelance hack with a bit of spare time.

    As for Guido's impartiality, he doesn't try to hide the fact that he's a right-wing libertarian – and that would naturally make him more sympathetic to some causes than to others. If he's actually got solid real-world connections to particular interest groups and/or campaigns which he is promoting through his blog, that could damage the impartiality claims. But it's still his blog, his rules – and if he started promoting a selfish agenda, I'm pretty sure that his readers would swiftly spot it and start to abandon him.

  10. I think the thrust of your argument misses what is (to me) the main point. Guido is generally dishonest. If he wants to be a tabloid hack so be it, but he has chosen to be a dishonest tabloid hack.

  11. Guido is a hack – my arse.

    While blogging is journalism, bloggers are NOT journalists per se.

    "Hacks" in the regional newspapers – some of whom also blog – had to work their knackers off to complete professional exams to be prepared for the full spectrum of reporting, from council meetings, obituaries, crime reporting, community reporting, political reporting, health reporting, education, environment, human interest nad feature stories. THAT is a fucking hack.

    Not just gossipy shite from mates in the Notting Hill set. That is merely politico-ego-wanking.

    *sorry, i'll get off me high horse now*

  12. Carl – I was describing myself as a hack, not Guido.

    (Though I'm not in the traditional sense you describe, certainly – I came into full-time writing by a rather less tortuous route. I do, however, have to churn out 4000 words by tomorrow, so I certainly feel like one at the moment…)

  13. John is right. What you almost entirely ignored in your post is that Guido appears to be dishonest, and suppressing the news of his dishonesty. If that's the case, then we as bloggers have an unwritten, unenforceable duty to 'out' him as dishonest in order that people who read his blog understand that he is dishonest, and can continue reading, or not, with the knowledge that what they are reading may be seriously misleading.

  14. Dishonest in his comments boxes? Most likely – Tim makes a good case, though not comprehensive. The comments are, however, pretty damn silly most of the time, and (I'd suggest) part of the character of the site. Guido is, after all, a persona as much as a pseudonym.

    Dishonest in his posts? Possibly, from time to time. But I've not yet seen evidence of that (at least, that I recall) – and it is the posts that are the most read part.

    He has, certainly, stepped over the line in terms of an ethical, respectable approach to his gossip-mongering on occasion. But then again, that's the nature of the type of commentary he's providing – political diarists in the papers and in the likes of Private Eye sometimes step over the line as well. I wouldn't personally put Guido in the same class, but still. It's an unfortunate but practiclaly inevitable part of the sub-genre of political writing in which he works.

  15. Pingback: Nosemonkey / Europhobia » Sorry Tim,

  16. Pingback: Martin Stabe » The great political blog flame war

  17. Voluntary code for blogs? I don't think you would get many takers.

    http://disillusionedandbored.blogspot.com/2006/11

    As for the problem with the pseudonym thing, I just don't get that. I post under a pseudonym, all the time, basically for the reason that I don't want to be an open book for google. Anyone who hangs out around the same blogs as me, knows me by that name, not my real one. My real name would enlighten absolutely nobody.

    At the end of the day, Guido is far more famous than Paul.

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