Steve Richards: Blogging: the power of the instant opinion

Rolling comment is as significant a development as rolling news. Indeed its influence is greater

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This week the intimately connected worlds of politics and media are in mourning. The cause of their grief reveals much about where power and influence lie in the seemingly never-ending era of the communications revolution.

The tears were shed when the Conservative-supporting blogger Iain Dale announced on Tuesday that he would blog no more. Within seconds the tributes erupted from both the left and right. Bloggers and newspaper columnists spoke out almost as if he had died. Even more flattering, his departure became a news story. I heard him on BBC Five Live explaining his decision. On the Today programme yesterday he was in the studio once more with the Labour MP Tom Watson, a politician who has acquired far more prominence as a blogger and tweeter than he did as a minister.

As for Dale, he got almost as much attention as a cabinet minister suddenly announcing that he was leaving the government. There was sadness in the air and, more importantly, the move seemed significant.

At this point I will pause. Readers who do not tweet or read blogs on the internet will probably be a little baffled. I know how the bewildered feel. Friends told me some time ago about Twitter but I had no idea what they were going on about and was not remotely interested. I heard conversations between tweeters and they might as well have been speaking in Latin.

Then one afternoon in the late summer someone showed me how it all worked and I am now dangerously addicted. It is a bit like realising that a mind-blowing party has been taking place for years of which you knew nothing and perhaps alarmingly had not been invited. Once you are in it is difficult to leave, and easy to forget that most people are not in the same part of the room as you and perhaps are not partying at all.

So for those of you still not partying (perhaps wisely, as there are dangers as well as upsides to the media revolution) let me explain why there was an outbreak of mourning.

Dale is one of the media's great innovators, more daring and imaginative than many who get paid fortunes for making very little practical impact on how people read, view and listen. His blog was one of the first to make an impact on British politics and the rest of the media. Cleverly he combined comment on news stories with a few exclusives, opinions on the media, along with cheeky unscientific polls on MPs and political journalists. There is nothing more guaranteed to get MPs and journalists reading a site than surveys in which they feature.

As a result of the blog's success Dale became a ubiquitous pundit on the airwaves. Now he is focusing more on presenting his nightly show on LBC, the independent London talk-based station. He has opted for more live on-air presenting and less blogging. I can understand why he makes the move. The LBC show is a paid post. Presenting is great fun. Blogging has no guaranteed income and can make no money at all.

But in terms of influence, prominence and as a route to appearing on other outlets, Dale's blog was an incomparably better platform than an evening show on LBC. Indeed the reaction to his departure proves the point. If he had announced he was leaving LBC the news would have made few, if any, waves. Or to make the point in a slightly different way, if Dale had begun his media career as an evening LBC presenter, rather than as a blogger, he would be much less prominent and influential than he has been.

This is where Dale's career choices cast wider light on the relationship between media and politics. Dale's LBC show is terrific. I heard one with such a stimulating array of guests I tweeted in excitement. But listening to radio in the evening is a habit that few seem to have these days. If Dale had made a critical comment about David Cameron on his show few would notice. If he had done so on his blog Cameron would have noticed. I am sure that LBC is armed with listening figures that show the audience is huge and incomparably higher than traffic on any political blog, but broadcasting is fractured in the modern era, and competes within a daunting multimedia environment. It is no longer an automatic route to fame and influence.

For a decade on Sundays I presented a political programme early on GMTV, went straight to Broadcasting House to review the newspapers on Michael Parkinson's Radio 2 show, and in the evenings took part in a weekly debate with another columnist on BBC News 24. Quite often I did not meet anyone who had watched or heard a single word. Prominence in political broadcasting, and any other kind, is guaranteed on BBC 1 and 2 and peak-time on BBC Radio, but in few other places.

Even those who make it big in broadcasting are constrained in ways that some non-broadcasters underestimate. The BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, is the best-known political journalist in the country, but his views are not known at all. He cannot express them and does not do so. Robinson has considerable influence in interpreting the significance of stories to audiences on a scale to die for. But no one knows whether he approves of the Coalition and its economic policies or not.

I nearly wrote "the Coalition's dangerous economic policies". Robinson could never use such an adjective. His blog is similarly constrained. The former editor of The Independent Andrew Marr is a major national figure and his documentaries are lavished with awards, but I once asked him whether he missed expressing views on politics as he used to do in columns: "Only three or four times a day," he replied.

Some newspapers rail against the BBC for its website. The BBC's site is a wonderful resource. Newspapers should relax. The BBC's contributors cannot express opinions. Writers for newspapers can do so. The additional freedom is the distinctive offer that newspaper websites can make.

Politics is defined and shaped by the clash of views from left to right. Rolling comment is as significant a development as rolling news. Indeed its influence is greater. During yesterday's Prime Minister's Questions I observed the respective aides of David Cameron and Ed Miliband looking at their mobile phones attentively in the press gallery after the two leaders had engaged in their weekly duel. They were getting the verdicts of pundits from the left and right on Twitter and on blogs. I dread to think what this does to the blood pressure of party leaders, but there is no getting away from it. Verdicts are instant and powerful.

In the US, the huge success of The Huffington Post, the site of informed, rolling comment, shows that the potency of the written word is extraordinarily strong, as does Dale's rise as a blogger. Leaders seeking positive media coverage must pay at least as much attention to columnists and some bloggers as broadcasters who cannot become part of the conversation in the same way. Media and politics are in a state of flux but influence, power and indispensability lie as much with the written word as it ever did.

s.richards@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/steverichards14

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