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Paul Mason's Idle Scrawl

Why I do not diss bloggers, but...

  • Paul Mason
  • 7 Jul 06, 08:38 AM

If you look at the thread attached to the last Prezza article, or plunge into the blogosphere's discussions adjacent to the Prezza issue, you will see a theme emerging whereby the bloggers repeatedly assert that, a) they, in some way are doing better journalism than the journos and b) we are somehow hostile to them.

This is not the case. I want to make clear my attitude to the bloggers who are on Prescott's case...

1) I welcome blogging as an extension of the political public space. It probably start of a decisive extension of public space - akin to the arrival of uncensored newspapers in France in 1830, which had immediate social impact and added an extra dimension to public life.

2) But blogging and professional journalism work to different codes of conduct. The journalist's role with regard to facts is to check them; with regard to assertions - to doubt them. I have to start the day presuming anything said to me by people who want to get it in print is not true; and that every invitation to participate in something nice comes with a reciprocal favour attached somewhere down the line. From that starting point it is easy to work backwards towards what is true, what is uncompromised. The blogger may or may not do that.

3) The number one addition blogging has made to the public space is the ability to collectively and incontrovertibly chase down facts: was the George Bush military record used in a CBS report a fake? It was. Did the US military use white phosphorous as an anti-personnel weapon in Fallujah? It did. Blogging, by drawing in fair minded people from across the political spectrum, can immediately neutralise the journalism of propaganda and censorship that, for example in Britain, defines tabloid newspapers. It is one of the reasons newspapers are dying - not because digital replaces print; ad revenues decline etc - but because what the Daily Blurb tells you can so easily be checked by reference to other people minded to read the Daily Blurb and found to be baby talk.

4) However journalism is more than a list of facts. It is the facts selected to tell the story of what happened. The facts don't all appear at the same time, and some of them are purposely hidden: but you have to tell a version of the story at any given time. On the sharp end are agency journalists - from PA, AFP, Reuters: I have never heard a blogger criticise a wire journalist, partly because few get to read wires, partly because what they do is beyond reproach: a bomb goes off in Gaza - they rush to the scene and count the bodies. After wire journalism, the decisions begin about the crucial question: what is the story?

5) Anybody who denies they approach a story with an preconceived idea of what it is, is lying. Anybody who sticks to the same preconception having looked at the facts is not doing journalism.

6) Here the crucial difference between journalists and bloggers - it does not make us better than them, but we are doing different things in the truth ecosystem: because of the authority of what I say (even tiny Newsnight goes out to 1.2m people) it has to be right. If I say "Prescott has slept with more people than we know about" I have to be able to prove it. Likewise the assertion "Prescott lobbied for a casino in the Dome in a way that conflicted with his role as planning arbiter". Right now we cannot prove it, but we can ask questions. With the latter, like Unity, we can make a case for saying he did - after that it's over to the standards bodies and the electorate.

7) Here comes the next difference: the type of journalism you do depends which line of inquiry you pursue. My personal belief here is allied to the priorities of the programme I work for. I think the casino is a more substantive issue than the alleged philandering. Even so, however, I have to ask if it is worth pursuing. Obviously Newsnight thinks it is, as we devoted more programme time last night to the Prescott-Casino issue. One thing I should make clear here is that I personally am not assigned to the Casino story: so don't keep asking me why I haven't done x, y or z. My mind is on other stories. Harass David Grossman and Martha Kearney if you must.

8) One of the most annoying things about bloggers is their paranoia - but it is partly justified. If you do not report exactly as they wish, they accuse you of being in the pay of the government, corrupt, useless etc. I think media executives have to get over their annoyance and come to terms with why so many rational and intelligent people feel this way: it is the result of their frustration with journalism's lack of creativity, ambition, courage. The solution is to allow much greater prominence to conflicting viewpoints and stick to the facts - and ultimately I believe blogging will synergise with reporting and a better kind of journalism will emerge. Another solution, demanded by some bloggers and not entirely unattractive to me, is for the journalist to make clear exactly where they are coming from: then the reader can add a percentage discount (up to 100%) on the truth of what they are saying. However it will take primary legislation to get the Beeb to do this!

9) If me and Nick Robinson have sounded tetchy it is because we - and especially he - is/are being accused of failing to report on Prescott's affairs because of some ulterior motive. The reason the BBC has not reported Prescott's newly discovered affairs is because we cannot prove they happened. We have reported the allegations - but we have not named the names: it is against my professional code to defame somebody without justification. There is also frankly an editorial ethos that says even if he did that is less important than the Casino issue. You can quarrel with that - indeed it is your licence money, you can demand the bosses shift their editorial priorities. Go ahead. What you are up against is a huge institutional pressure the other way coming from parliament. So in a way yes, who pays the piper calls the tune - but you elected them.

10) Were the bloggers ahead of the journalists on the casino? Entirely likely. People who care about something are always faster to notice what's happening than people paid to be dispassionate. That is why blogging is a good thing. I mainly get stories from outraged people. Already the outraged can bypass me and go straight to print in a blog. But there is still a need for the MSM - although its role changes. Journalism has to be a bit like justice: slow, erring on the side of "innocent until proven guilty", acting with decisive authority if the case is proven.

Postscript: It is a pointless exercise quibbling with my language. This is a blog: I write it, read it once and fire it off. It in no way represents my final and precise thoughts on anything. I am always persuadable.

Comments  Post your comment

Re point 8 I agree. The BBC tend to be singled out unfairly in the blogosphere whenever they do not cover a story exactly the way the bloggers want.

It must also be remembered that blogs and the MSM work under completely different guidelines. In the Blogosphere you can write a huge article on the smallest issue whereas the MSM have to concentarte on what the perceive to be the biggest stories of the day.

With blogs it is almost impossible to find an article which is written in a neutral way, mainly because blogs tend to be personal thoughts of a person.

Paul:

I think part of the problem here is that you, Nick and the Beeb are late entrants into a debate that's been going on for some considerable time between bloggers and, in the main, the dead tree press.

To some extent some of the reaction this week has, therefore, carried an element of 'haven't we been through all this before' exasperation.

Bloggers, by and large, fully accept that there are considerable differences between what we do and how we operate and the professional mores and standards of paid journalism. Most of us have no real pretensions of being seen as journalists or even the illusion that we have the necessary skills, although there are some, like Justin at Chicken Yoghurt and Sunny Hundal at Pickled Politics - to name but two, who would more than hold their own in the profession.

We're very much aware of our strengths and our failings.

Where tensions often creep into this 'relationship' between bloggers and journalists is that much of time, when journalists start reflecting on that relationship they have an unfortunate tendancy to come across as being sanctimonious about the whole thing - and there are few things more likely to get right up bloggers' noses than an iffy claim to piety, which is one reason why certain newspaper columnists (La Toynbee and Mad Mel, in particular) tend to get it in the neck almost as a matter of routine.

Yes, I can appreciate you and Nick getting tetchy at accusations of bias and of soft-pedalling stories. However, and I do hate to say this, that's really just something you're going to have to get used to and learn to ignore.

There are many bloggers who will, as a matter of routine, cry foul and make claims of bias because in their world bias means not telling the story exactly how they want it told, which means in a completely partial and biased manner.

That's, sadly, how it works out here with some people, they're so biased in their own view of things that mere impartiality becomes and cause of offense, hence all the flak that come the Beeb's way over things like the reporting of the Middle East and whether you should, or shouldn't, use terms like 'terrorist'.

And that brings us back to the fact that bloggers and their reputations and biases are known quantities - we know, with certain bloggers, that accusations of bias against the Beeb are near enough reflex reactions and adjust our view of what they have to say accordingly.

Part of this also tracks back to Hutton and the perception that's created in some quarters that what happened there has left the Beeb rather gun-shy in some its dealings with government. That whole episode had a bruising effect on perceptions of the Beeb, not because many bloggers think you were in the wrong but rather because what we saw happen was minor defects in reportage used by the establishement to whitewash a far more substantive and important set of issues.

That's left some with the perception, even expectation, that the Beeb will softpedal a little on controversial stories around Ministers, not because it necessarily wants to but because in the back of journalists' minds there has to be the perception that even the most minor and inadvertant error could be jumped on to blow away a whole story, even if the story itself is rock solid. It's an area where, I entirely agree, we have much more margin for error that you guys - the sad part being that it sometimes appears that post-Hutton you have even less margin than usual and may be reacting accordingly.

So yes, there is some frustration at what sometimes looks to be journalistic timidity. British blog culture is, for the most part, very different to
that of our American counterparts, to whom we are often (irritiatingly) compared - we tend to much less politically partisan for one thing - but what we do share with them is a very strong sense of the importance of free expression. Ask most bloggers and you'll find that if there's one thing we'd all happily import from the US then its their First Amendment, and I would suspect many journalists, especially investigative ones, would feel much the same. Where we differ from journalists on this, however, is that we're more inclined to act on that belief in free speech, which is in turn because, I guess, we see ourselves as pretty poor targets for litigation.

There are other differences in 'culture' between bloggers and journalists which tend to spark tensions. Sheer weight of numbers is one, especially when it comes to columnists and op-ed writers where, these days, one comments on matters outside your area of expertise at your own risk as there's no shortage of people out here to pull you up short if you make basic mistakes - you need only follow bloggers' reactions to Polly Toynbee's columns in the Graun to see that at work, especially when she tries her hand at economics.

How columnists and journalists respond to such situations plays a big part in how they're perceived out here - those who're big enough to either concede a point or put up a robust and reasoned defence tend to get a fair bit of respect. The odd one or two who tend to whine a bit and come over as if they just don't like having punters answering back because they're 'professionals' tend to get short-shrift and if anything, make themselves all the more attactive a target in the long run. It's a harsh world out here and we're not overly gentle, especially if some start's playing the 'luvvie' with us.

In that respect, I will say that neither you or Nick have done yourselves any harm with your follow-up pieces this week, which is all to the good.

Ultimately you may well be right about the synergy between blogging and journalism, which I would see as very much a two-way street. We've already been referred to in some quarters as the '4.5th Estate' and the 'court of appeal' for journalism (although that last one is more in relation to the dead trees, where bloggers tend to have a clearer role
in picking up and countering press bias) and somewhere in all that is the key to this relationship, which may well come down a balance between our capacity to speculate and raise and push issues along and your ability to tie up loose ends, sift the signal out from the noise, and arrive a definitive and authoritative account of events. However, in that, I would expect the relationship to remain a little fractious as each of us tries to keep the other on thier toes, so the odd minor spat like this is inevitable.

Bloggers are starting to have an impact, sometimes good, sometimes bad - over the last year there's been the Dilpazier Aslam story which began with Scott Burgess at the Daily Ablution - you can look at that one in different ways depending on your view of Scott's very obvious agenda.

Bloggers were certainly first off the mark on the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill and triggered off the dead trees interest in that. One thing we do seem fairly good at is picking up on issues in legislation, which is the benefit of having many pairs of eyes to watch such things - there's also been an amendment made to the current Police and Justice Bill, at committee stage, which arose out of blogger spotting a badly worded clause and ragging MPs about it - although to be fair, from committee proceedings a couple of the members had spotted the same problem and would have challenged the clause anyway.

And then there's Prescott, the Casino and the Dome, which may come to something or amount to nothing in the long run, but which bloggers are again pushing along to some extent, if only by asking the kind of question which trigger journalists to look a bit more closely at what may have been going on.

Final thought - if the Beeb really do want to build a bridge or two with bloggers, then maybe you ought to think about whether the time is approaching where a blogger could be invited on to the panel on Question Time. We might not have the public profile of some of the non-politicians who ship up on the show, but in some cases we'd there are bloggers who'd make for a much more engaging debate.

Most of us could even manage a whole hour without swearing - at a push - although I don't know if I could absolutely vouch for DK on that score. ;-)

Being a bit less facetious, I would say, if nothing else, QT's producers would do well to swing by a group blog called Slugger O'Toole and take a look next time they start planning a trip to Northern Ireland for the show.

  • 3.
  • At 02:11 PM on 07 Jul 2006,
  • Candadai Tirumalai wrote:

Many bloggers score highly in righteous indignation, trenchant point of view, uninhibited
spontaneity, some in vituperation and personal abuse. The worst offenders are those who have a point of view and are sure it is absolutely right. Newspapers, on which I grew up, are my staple, blogs a daily supplement.

Paul:

I have read your article "Why I Do Not Diss Bloggers" and I am going to reply.

You said "One of the Most annoying things about bloggers is their paranoia but it is partially justified
if you do not report exactly as they wish..you are accused of being in the government, corrupt....". I do not have that complex.

My reply: I have a respect for the journalists especially the BBC. I first heard the BBC as an 8 year old [1970] after receiving a shortwave radio as a Christmas Gift. [I still listen to my shortwave radio in case of emergency or when I want to listen to stations such as NHK [Japan], CRI [China], RCI [Canada], and RRI [Romania].... I have preferred the BBC to domestic stations for my news and entertainment.

I am also aware that journalists take a lot of time in covering a story. There are people who like being asked questions, there are others who cannot stand journalists.

Your comments about preconceived notions exist. Everyone has had a preconceived notion about something until otherwise.

Bloggers may combine with journalists to form a better journalism. Journalism and Bloggers have to work together in order for this to occur. I think this would occur.

Unity wrote that American Bloggers are more politically partisan than Britsh Bloggers. Actually American Bloggers are different with regard to ethnicity and ideology. I myself am a US Latin born in Ohio and who is Independent [of the Libertarian Bent]. What does that mean? I try to take a Live and Let Live approach to life and respect people as long as I am respected [Other wise known as "Do Unto Others as You Want People To Do Unto You"]

Before leaving for the World Cup weekend [I am writing columns for Univision TV at univision.con], I would like to say that the BBC and its staff have my trust. I hope to remain a listener for a long time.

Best Wishes from Miami Florida

Roberto

I wanted to add that when I stated: "American Bloggers are different with regard to ethnicity and ideology", I meant that since America is a diverse country, an attitude of "One Size Fits All" would not apply to American Bloggers.

Each one writes according to their experience.

I haven't been following either of the Prezza stories.
I would just like to agree with most of what you write here. I often hear rumours that turn out to be true via blogs, but for news I use mainstream outlets.
There of course is also the key difference between the BBC and the free press in that the BBC has to report the facts without bias. Often the newspapers will give little coverage to a story because it conflicts with the political viewpoint of the editor or owner of the paper. They will make a meal of other stories for precisely the opposite reason.
It must actually be quite hard for the editors at the Beeb to decide which stories to investigate most thoroughly. It's interesting that the reported stories must show no bias, but individual journalists ARE. None of them are nihilists. Everyone has a viewpoint. I imagine the editorial meetings can get quite heated, while on other days it might be a case of "OK, you can run your anti-Prezza story today, as long as we do the anti-Cameron one tomorrow".
If bloggers have been slating the Beeb, then they need reminding that they are free to do so, but bear in mind that they are responsible only to themselves. The BBC has a remit affecting millions of people to fulfil.

Paul,

While in the main agreeing with your stance, which of course is partly determined by the present laws of our country, I would take issue with you on one specific point, which is that many times, MainStreamMedia journalists don't ask what many on the outside would consider to be the pertinent questions, but instead hover around the barn poking sticks, as it were, into the middle and hoping someone or something reacts!

Roberto:

>>> American Bloggers are different with regard to ethnicity and ideology

Strangely enough, so are us Brits.

The point I made about partizenship is certainly a generalisation from which individual may freely consider themselves exempt but, as generalisations go, it does stand up when one looks at the US political blogosphere, which does tend to be far more polarised and partizan than is the case the UK.

For example, were we to transpose the casino story to the US, i.e. on to Cheney rather than Prescott, you would find a large section of right-wing bloggers putting everything they had into trying to dismiss the story out of hand - the slightest error is reportage would become grounds for discounting the whole story as a lie and anyone digging after it would be 'working to an agenda' and at the very least a 'liberal' (near enough a swear word in some right-wing circles) or, even a worse, a communist.

None of this is to say that there aren't many excellent political blogs and bloggers in the US, there are - but too often they get drowned out by the 'my party, right or wrong' crowd leaving the US will a pretty poor 'signal to noise ratio.

  • 9.
  • At 11:10 PM on 09 Jul 2006,
  • Eric Dickens wrote:

I think Paul Mason makes some sensible points about the difference between journalism and blogging in his intro here.

Bloggers have no responsibility to tell the truth, as long as they can keep beyond the pale of libel. They can be seduced by all manner of disinformation serpents and be ensnared by enforced bribery. (Some people are so deliciously naïve!)

Paul Mason starts the day on his guard. Bloggers can wake up, drunk, drugged, depressed, in the middle of the night, in a bed far from home and, after urinating, can decide that today they are against Portugal and for Liberia. Or vice-versa. They grab their laptop, and spout forth. Journalists have editors, legal advisers and an expectation of fair play.

Another point: while the Redwoodèsque Mitfords of this world can allow an endless self-indulgence of long-windedness, journos have to get their stuff published somewhere. That's what they're paid for. Not bribed, paid.

What Pressflesh (nickname copyright another blogsite) has actually done must indeed be stacked in a hierarchy of meat processing. His father confessor can hear what he did to the ladies in their mutual spare time, but what billionaires did to him is of much more importance to the country.

Bloggers can hide behind usually daft pseudonyms and poke sticks at journos out of small hidey-holes, while journos are known (to at least 1.2 million viewers) by their real names.

Anyone for bloggery?

8) One of the most annoying things about [blacks] is their paranoia - but it is partly justified.

You see what I did there? Generalisations Paul. Some bloggers proclaim you're not covering a story because you're biased. Others (such as myself) agree that the real issue isn't who he sleeps with, but the Dome.

Some bloggers are paranoid. Some bloggers write gossip columns. Others write about their cats. Some campaign against the govt. Others pick up specific stories and analyse and run with them.

We choose our style, we choose our topic, and we write for our chosen audience. Guido and Unity are both political blogs, but from completely opposing spheres of interest and coverage. I read one for amusement, the other because the input is excellent and the research is as good as that of a seasoned columnist, at times.

Generalising about "all bloggers" is to delude yourself. You, sir, are a blogger. Just a different type of blogger to me. Plus, you get paid for it.

Like you say, blogging and other easy web publishing software is significantly opening up the public debate. This is good. We'll have to see how it goes.

But learning to filter the good from the bad, the signal from the noise? That's an essential skill, in any sphere.

  • 11.
  • At 01:16 PM on 13 Jul 2006,
  • Adam wrote:

An interesting article, but in talking about 'journalism' as though all journalism were like Newsnight, it misses a big point.

According to point 2, "The journalist's role with regard to facts is to check them; with regard to assertions - to doubt them." I'm sure that's true about the way you do things on Newsnight. That's one of the reasons why I watch it regularly. It unquestionably represents a very high standard of journalism.

If only that were true of all journalism, there would be no need for bloggers. We could just pick up our newspapers and trust everything they say. But the truth is that many journalists who don't work for Newsnight have very little respect for the truth. I have personal experience of this when I spent an hour on the phone to a journalist from a national newspaper explaining the details to him of a subject on which I happen to be knowledgeable. He obviously thought what I told him didn't make a very interesting story, so he printed a whole bunch of made-up stuff instead. I'm absolutely sure that you could pick up any edition of any newspaper and find simlar articles.

So, while I may not trust a single blogger as much as I trust Newsnight, I would certainly trust any blog, especially if it makes itself open to comments so that anyone can point out any inaccuracies, vastly more than I would trust any of our newspapers.

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