Terence Blacker: The painful truth about bloggers

The evidence suggests that this clear, babbling brook of opinion is likely to have been contaminated
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The Independent Online

Certain groups of people are more likely to be annoyed by public criticism than others. Poets tend to be rather touchy. Priests will take to the pulpit at the slightest opportunity. Millwall football fans are notoriously sensitive. But no faction is quite as quick to take umbrage when it feels its group honour has been impugned than the community of bloggers. These people, whose hobby or even job it is to express opinions on internet weblogs, are surprisingly prickly when they are on the receiving end.

For the blog has become regarded, at least by blogocrats, as the ultimate in free expression. Whereas someone writing in the mainstream media - the "MSM" as it is now contemptuously known - will be cribbed and confined by fear of offending a vested interest, a brutal editor or a proprietor, the blogger, putting down his or her views without fear or favour, is as unrestricted as someone talking in the pub. The system is the free market of ideas at its purest, and those who argue otherwise are almost always hacks fearful of their dwindling influence from within a dying media establishment.

Or so the argument goes. Unfortunately, the evidence is beginning to suggest that this clear, babbling brook of individual opinion is likely to have been contaminated. The internet is the ultimate product of a post-hippie sensibility, offering both anarchy of choice and unlimited marketing opportunities. More and more people are said to be deserting traditional TV for an on-line version catering for niche specialisms. Industries like book publishing, whose slavery to the mass market has led to a creaky lack of editorial inventiveness, are likely to find that new areas of talent are appearing not on their lists but from self-publishing outfits on the web.

The blog, its champions argue, is doing the same thing for opinion. Individuals are able to communicate without working through a meddlesome intermediary. Star or nobody, political heavyweight or run-of-the-mill cyberbore: they all have a shop window for their views.

As the Metropolitan Police have just discovered, the reality behind blogging can be rather different. Over the past year or so, a number of discontented rozzers have taken to the internet and have moaned about their work. The effect has so concerned the Met that it has just banned its employees from "expressing views and opinions that are damaging to the organisation or bring the organisation into disrepute".

There has been a mighty keening from the blogging policemen - all anonymous, of course - who believe some basic right to bitch about this and that from the perspective of an insider in the fight against crime has been traduced. "I have committed no crime. I have compromised no police operations. I have received no payment for anything published on this blog," wrote World Weary Detective. Cough-the-Lot agreed, complaining that "in the police we are constantly reminded of diversity and human rights, and yet here are individuals being punished for penning the way it really is". According to Bow Street Runner, blogs have revealed the truth behind the spin of the Met's PR office.

Yes, but who are these people? The most basic logic would suggest that only those who are prepared to be identified can speak with any moral authority. Anything else is anonymous whingeing and indeed might come from some sad case, or political stirrer, who is no more a policeman than I am.

The problem faced by the police and by other organisations reflects a paradox of our computerised society. The internet represents both the personal and the public. While most blogs are little more than the grumpy outpourings of an individual, some of them have considerable political and marketing power. The fact that there is no difference of category between them, one is as homely and innocent as the other, has not gone unnoticed by politicians and those in business.

Last week, it was discovered that Walmart, the large and ruthless American shopping chain, had been defended against criticism in several of the more prominent right-wing blogs. Not only were the arguments similar but so, in many cases, was the wording.

It was no accident. Walmart, under general attack - it was the liberal conspiracy in that mainstream media again - had hit on the bright idea of feeding websites deemed to be sympathetic with what the corporation called "the occasional update with some newsworthy info about the company and an occasional nugget that you won't hear about in the MSM".

Anyone who has worked for the MSM will know that these "nuggets" appear in one's in-box every day. If one were ever tempted to push a particular product or shoehorn a paragraph from a press release into an article, the consequence would be immediate and brutal.

Bloggers, in contrast, can never be fired, no matter how badly or dishonestly they behave. Yet their influence will continue to increase because the internet has reached the many thousands of people who feel alienated from the political and media establishments. There is, genuinely, a sort of political underground at work which cannot be ignored.

But, in the blogosphere, there is no accountability. The identity of the messenger and the integrity of the message are never called into question. Behind those quirky expressions of personal opinion may lurk, undeclared, some powerful forces.

Terblacker@aol.com

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