The Big Question: Is Hazel Blears right to accuse political bloggers of undermining democracy?
Thursday 06 November 2008
Why are we asking this now?
Communities Minister Hazel Blears made a speech to the Hansard Society yesterday in which she criticised political bloggers in the UK. "Political blogs are written by people with disdain for the political system and politicians, who see their function as unearthing scandals, conspiracies and perceived hypocrisy," she said. Conservative grandee Lord Baker has described the comments as "extraordinary". He said: "She needs to tune into the modern world. People have a right to say what they think and if she doesn't like it she can blog back". However, Blears maintains that: "Until political blogging adds value to our political culture, by allowing new voices, ideas and legitimate protest and challenge, and until the mainstream media reports politics in a calmer, more responsible manner, it will continue to fuel a culture of cynicism and despair."
But don't politicians write blogs too?
Yes, Cabinet Office Minister Tom Watson has an extremely popular blog, and so do John Redwood MP, Nadine Dorries MP and even the Foreign Secretary David Milliband. However, Hazel Blears is probably not suggesting that her colleagues "fuel a culture of cynicism". Instead, she has aimed her attack at irresponsible writing, particularly by right-wing bloggers, explaining: "Blogs have only existed under a Labour government. Perhaps if there was a Tory government, all the leading blogs would be left-of-centre?"
Is that correct?
Not really. The most popular British political blogs are right-leaning but there are many popular left-wing and independent political blogs too. Harry's Place, written by, among others, Harry Hatchet; and Labour Councillor Bob Piper's blog are successful left-wing sites.
So what else is Hazel Blears concerned about?
The Communities Secretary says that politics is dominated by a professional political class which is leading to low voter turnout in the UK and too few diverse political voices. She has a point. There are only 126 women in the House of Commons and 147 in the House of Lords – less than 20 per cent. The minister also attacked the media as sensationalist, warning: "We are witnessing a dangerous corrosion in our political culture." She is not the first to draw this conclusion. Right-wing political pundit Peter Oborne wrote a book last year called The Political Class in which he described how political parties were breaking down at the grass roots. He argued that Parliament is dominated by career politicians who have little knowledge of life outside the Westminster "bubble". Politicians of all sides cannot help but notice that the House of Commons is full of white, middle-class and middle-aged men. As for the role of the press, Blears is not the first to criticise that either. In one of his final speeches, the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, attacked the media's "feral beasts".
Is our democracy under threat?
The queues outside polling stations in the US earlier this week seem remarkable in the UK. And the popular membership of political parties is at a record low. Voter turnout at general elections has dropped by 20 per cent since 1992, so it is difficult to make the case that our political life is flourishing. However, the explanation may not lie with the media or the blogosphere but with our political institutions and our elected officials. Polling suggests that people do not believe that their vote counts. Hundreds of parliamentary constituencies are considered to be "safe seats" which give their candidates such huge majorities that individual ballots are irrelevant. Similarly, voters express increasing frustration about government in general: that their wishes are ignored and that so many decisions are made by experts appointed by politicians. This powerlessness is also perceived by local government politicians who feel that too much power over the decisions they make is held by Whitehall. Only by pushing for reform of Britain's political institutions, they argue, will we change our political culture.
Can the internet help?
Blears thinks so. It is an alarming statistic the most popular party website is that of the British National Party. Drawing her cue from the success of President-elect Obama, she believes that mainstream parties must learn to use the web as a fundraising and campaigning tool which may lure people away from the bloggers towards "considered" debate.
Who is the blogger that the minister finds most objectionable?
She singles out Tory-leaning writer Guido Fawkes as an "anti-establishment" peddler of "vicious nihilism" – which is perhaps fitting, since his online nom de guerre pays homage to the plotter who tried to blow up Parliament. His real name is Paul Staines. Fawkes breaks stories that are regularly covered by the rest of the media. In January he was widely credited for defenestrating Cabinet Minister Peter Hain by many journalists and politicians, including Blears' colleague Diane Abbott MP. He has reacted to the minister's comments, unsurprisingly, on his blog: "Asking political bloggers to add value is to misunderstand the relationship between a free press and politicians. Take a memo Ms Blears, we are not here to "add value", or do what politicians want. Guido has his own values and aims to hit back at political hypocrisy and lies. Politicians make laws, so they should be held to account, to a higher standard."
Who actually reads political blogs?
Political blogs have a reputation for only being of interest to the "Westminster Village" and anorak-clad political obsessives. A recent post by Iain Dale, for example, chewed around the idea that former Tory minister Michael Portillo thinks that Gordon Brown is thinking about holding an election – it's specialised stuff. However, the reach is huge. In the past 12 months Fawkes' blog received some 867,210 unique visitors. Nor is political blogging confined to Westminster. The left-leaning blog Labour of Love is edited by an activist based in Manchester called Chris Paul, who writes about northern politics.
What do Labour bloggers make of the speech?
They have already blogged about it. Chris Paul's reaction is to see it as a row between the minister and Fawkes: "Let us hope that any creature of the mainstream media who has been paying attention to the venal, careless, vendetta-driven dolt (Fawkes) will instead switch to listening to Hazel who, when she is not wielding the smoking starting pistol in the Cluedo library, is a great asset to the Labour Party."
If they are so good, why don't bloggers write in other media?
They do. Conservative blogger Iain Dale now commentates for Sky and the BBC, is publisher of Total Politics magazine and writes regularly for The Daily Telegraph. Similarly, Paul Staines has appeared (admittedly in disguise) on political programmes. What's more, most newspapers and leading journalists have blogs which gives them a dynamic relationship with their readers. All of which is, arguably, good for popular democracy.
Is the political process ill-served by bloggers?
* Bloggers are not professional journalists and, often unedited and untrained, can be misleading.
* By viciously attacking politicians they make it more difficult for everyone to engage in a debate.
* They can become a hub for slurs and anonymous, unwarranted attacks on politicians across the UK.
* Political bloggers are subject to the laws of defamation, and are every bit as powerful and well connected as other journalists.
* Blogs represent free speech – the mark of a healthy democracy.
* Bloggers create engaging content which encourages discussion and that is great for democracy.
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