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Does the blogosphere matter?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 13:08 UK time, Thursday, 1 April 2010

Remember the blogosphere? In all the talk about Twitter, it's easy to forget that the political blogs were until recently seen as the place to go for breaking news, gossip and a different view of the Westminster village from that provided by the mainstream media. But are the bloggers - from Guido Fawkes to Labour List to Lib Dem Voice - going to make a mark on the campaign?

The Conservatives indeed believe that the blogosphere matters, if a row that's broken out this week is any indication. It's an argument between a Conservative-supporting newspaper and a blogger from the right about whether criticism of David Cameron's leadership is appropriate so soon before an election. But it's the man from the mainstream media, Damian Thompson of the Telegraph, who is the radical outsider here, while Tim Montgomerie of the influential Conservative Home blog is the one calling for unity and restraint.

He argues that it's madness for right-wing bloggers to lob grenades at their own side - "There is a time for debate on the Right and a time to either be silent or gun for Labour."

But Damian Thompson, who is blogs editor at the Telegraph, suggested that Mr Montgomerie had been "drinking the Kool-Aid". He went on to reveal that an un-named Conservative had been prevented by party officials from writing a blog post for the paper, claiming "the Tories were terrified that he or she might accidentally go off-message."

At every political party, no doubt, the high command is wondering nervously whether a few mis-spoken words on a blog could knock a whole campaign off course. But here's a question: is anybody actually listening?

I called a man at Nielsen Netratings, which compiles statistics on UK web audiences, and asked him to run his ruler over the political blogs. After having a look at the likes of and he warned that, with unique user figures well below 50,000, they were really too small to measure with any accuracy (see update below).

But if the audience for the bloggers is tiny most of the time, their influence can still be huge. Here's an example: the Conservative blogger Iain Dale ran an exclusive this morning about a possible threat to a 6 May election. He reported that returning officers had written to the Electoral Commission threatening a strike over plans to make them count votes overnight.

Cue panicked phone-calls around Westminster as journalists - and, according to the blogger, ministers and senior civil servants - chased down the latter and tried to work out whether a delay in the election timetable was a realistic threat.

Then Iain Dale revealed that it had all been an April Fool stunt - though one that might struggle to raise a laugh even inside the Westminster village.

Political blogs serve many purposes: preaching to the respective choirs; watering-holes for commenters; commentary that's too serious, or too ribald (or both) for newspapers and TV. But among the more prominent bloggers, there's still a clear hunger to get hold of an old-fashioned big story before anyone else.

It seems to me - I may of course be mistaken - that it's a while now since any them has produced a real scoop. The next few weeks will give bloggers another chance to prove that they, rather than the boring old mainstream media, can change the weather in an election campaign.

Update 1748: Guido Fawkes of Order Order has been in touch to express his irritation with my use of Nielsen figures above.


  • Comment number 1.

    Those that write political blogs, or pay attention to political blogs are largely those who are politically aware and already have entrenched views and support a particular party.

    Maybe some blogs will make a very marginal difference in some very marginal constituencies. There may be a constituency or two which have majorities of less than 20 at the forthcoming election, and perhaps some blogs may have made the difference in those. And in a very close election this could make the difference between a majority of 1 and a hung parliament. But there's a lot of "ifs", "buts" and "coulds" in there.

    The "digital election" will not be influenced by blogs directly - but commentators in the media could be influenced by blogs when it comes to determining the mainstream news agenda. That COULD make a difference.

    I see the power of the net as getting otherwise apathetic people interested. This will happen by thoughtful (and probably funny) virals and spoofs. Two recent examples are (Tories) and (Liberals). If something like one of these gets traction and gets shared among the huge swathes of apathetic or undecided younger vote, it could just make enough of a difference to matter.

  • Comment number 2.

    Will bloggers make a mark on the campaign?
    If you have to ask the question, then the impact must be minimal. Otherwise, you'd be writing about all that impact, right?
    Also I wonder about the political wisdom inherent in any political party that argues within itself and does so rather impolitely. Does anyone think that Damian Thompson's reference to "drinking the Kool-Aid" furthered the politcal wisdom. I mean was he climbing down to a lower level. He certainly wasn’t going upwards.
    Your querstion is right on: Is anybody actually listening?
    About this Conservative blogger Iain Dale who ran his exclusive about returning officers. Iain Dale revealed that it had all been an April Fool joke. How clever!
    Well that shows the mentality and likely the influence of this sort of April Fool.

  • Comment number 3.

    I intend to ensure that my blog will be completely fair and balanced, in line with the Representation of the People Act. So I will treat ALL politicians with equal contempt. Caledonian Comment

  • Comment number 4.

    I think that as has been noted above most political blogs are written by and for people who are already very politically active and in terms of which side they're on, most of those blogs are preaching to the converted.

    Where social media could have a much bigger effect is in the blogs of personal candidates. Can any of those blogs reach out to the local voters to make the candidate seem more human and more deserving of their vote?

    This is one area that I think independents have to really use. They don't have the party machinery to help them, so they have to make sure that they offer the best choice for the local voters and a great way to do that is with a blog.

    I've just helped Diane Park (independent PPC for Halifax) set up her blog - - which is in its early days, but will hopefully show the people of Halifax what she is doing for them and what she will do for them if elected.

    But on the issue of party machinery - there is definitely an argument that says that we should create a non-political party for independents:

    Rory, maybe you should do a post analysing how the candidates within constituencies are using social media to reach out to the voters (instead or as well as knocking on doors) to gauge the true impact on this election.

  • Comment number 5.

    As a former "insider" - when I was Vice-Chair of the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland - I was given several platform pieces on Conservative Home. This channel was closed to me when I was fired as a Party officer (by Eric Pickles) for daring to suggest that a pact with the Ulster Unionist Party was a very bad idea. (I think I have been proven correct). Now Conservative Home refuses to offer me any space - and when I publically critised this lack of balance Montgomerie wrote to me telling me I "could not be taken seriously" any longer as I had been publically critical of him.

    Given this sensitivity, one really has to question whether Conservative Home is real journalism or mere cherry-picked progaganda.

    On the point about traffic, however, it's not as simple as simply referring to audience - it's also about provenance. Political blog audiences tend to be very influential and highly connected. 50,000 visitors can translate into a further 1 million if the 50,000 have their own blogs or own Twitter followers. "Reach" in the digital world is a more slippery beast to measure.

  • Comment number 6.

    Hi Rory,
    I guess it's who reads them as much as how many people. Political Correspondents tell me that they do graze the blogs in the same way that, in happier times, they would hang out in pubs, bars or corridors. They leak stories to bloggers and most of them have blogs themselves. So the blogs - both independent and professional - are influential beyond their Nielson ratings. It may be a small world but it's a little big bigger than the old Lobby world and a lot more fun.cheers

  • Comment number 7.

    I suppose the question should be "will political blogs [or other social media] effect the way people vote?", rather than your way of thinking "will political blogs get followed up in other media?"

  • Comment number 8.

    Bloggers have had a huge impact on "global warming" politics.

    Climategate was ignored for weeks by the lamestream media - this backfired and helped to derail the Copenhagen jamboree.

    The BBC is a good example of why this ignoring and downplaying happened. The BBC enviro team is psychologically welded to the eco side of the debate. So the whole climategate scandal left them reeling - stratospheric levels of cognitive dissonance and denial. Probably like many Irish Catholics sitting in the pews feel today.

    But it wasn't just the BBC - enviro correspondents across the board were caught in the same dilemma: do I ignore this - or challenge it - or maybe even - there is something a bit wrong ?

    This subconscious strategy had a massive effect on the bloggers. A real hockey stick in fact. The bloggers ignored the lamestream media and ran with the stories themselves.
    Soon we had Amazongate, Glaciergate, Patchygate, ... Stories popping up nearly every day of blatant conflicts orf interest, of bad science, cooking the data - sometimes even just wrong arithmetic.

    All stories dug up by amateurs in their pajamas.

    Top sceptical blog Climate Audit buckled under the traffic and was down for days while they mirrored it to a new server. The more entertainingWatts up with that (WUWT) soon passed 20 million visitors.

    Our own Scottish Bishop Hill went from maybe 5 or 6 comments per week to over 100 comments every day.

    So yes this one topic where the blogosphere has had a huge impact on politics.

  • Comment number 9.

    You say

    "political blogs were until recently seen as the place to go for breaking news, gossip and a different view of the Westminster village from that provided by the mainstream media"

    A very introspective view from the westminster village, however out in the sticks here is someone who was absolutely frustrated at the absolute silence from MSM on anything that was remotely balanced on Climate Change issues. As a result genuine blogs (as opposed to the commercially supported blogs such as desmog and realclimate) became almost the sole source of information. Of course one thing leads to another and for all my interests now (worldwide) blogs are one of the most important sources of comment. Meanwhile the relevance of my daily paper has diminished greatly, TV news now not to be trusted.

    It has become apparent that MSM of which you are a part, are very much a subsidiary part of the political system and as with the climate scientists are beholden to this system for your continued employment and income.

    Perhaps you should have a search through Richard North's EUREFERENDUM blog, there you will find the revelation that your employer, the BBC ,an apparently trusted impartial source belongs to a greenie advocacy group dedicated to spreading a green agenda. That was indeed "breaking news" but something that no MSM would be prepared to report on, and you can see why some of us look on the BBC at times as almost as a branch of Greenpeace.

    And these blogs you list in your article - who provides the funding, are they like Desmog Blog, politically/comercially backed operations just acting as as a spoiler to those with genuinely held views, I certainly will not be trawling them unless reccomended from a "trusted" source elsewhere.

    And as for politics and the general with the Climate scandal there is much that is not talked about in the MSM, for instance because the mainstream political parties do not ever mention the EU in relation to the day to day issues in national politics neither do the MSM (cue picture of party leaders spouse instead), guess where all of my opinion forming comments and "breaking news" will come from.....

  • Comment number 10.

    "Conservatives indeed believe that the blogosphere matters"

    They are right, but is not the newspaper online bloggers since these are no different to the comment sections in the print editions of the newspaper. They are employed by the MSM and their content can be edited or they can be dismissed or influenced for providing inappropriate content.

    Outside all of this is the independent blogger who is beholden to no one. Most will be a minority taste, but amongst these will be some gems and they will have a disproportionate unseen effect on political opinions simply because their voice will be seen as genuine.

  • Comment number 11.

    If blogs and comment boards don't matter why are they littered with astroturfers each clamouring to have their voice heard above everyone else's.

    If you take the comments section on any article on the's website, you'll find the same old same old political commentators blethering away like eejits all day long.

    I can't see amateurs doing that -- who can be bothered -- but someone, perhaps even a team, being payed to will naturally put the effort in.

    And for those whom think there's no such thing as professional bloggers, please note the BBC had an article about this only a few years ago.

  • Comment number 12.

    The media went for dumbed down and that is what we all got.

    Maybe mainstream paid journalism is facing what a reduced manufacturing industry has done for the rest of society. Reduced diversity, reduced opportunity, and maybe it is going the same way as all collapsed industry has gone.
    Thanks Thatcher you did us all in. And thanks too to all the politicians who followed your magnificent disaster with yet more disaster. Yep thats all of Parliament. Utterly useless. In fact worse than useless. Blood letters and asset strippers who will do ANYTHING to maintain their stream of petty luxuries.

    The three main parties red, yellow, and blue are all so similar it is now effectively the political class working for the political class. A default one party state.

    You journalists just didn't see, or couldn't see, or wouldn't see beyond a certain middle class fog. Your credibility is alongside the politicians for being such authority pleasers or just plain dumbed down.

    No wonder the blogs are more attractive. At least those of us who never surrendered and are intelligent have the illusion of being heard now and have the certainty that one of our butterfly wings will prompt the wind of change somewhere even if we don't get to see it directly.
    The media is largely owned and controlled by the stupor rich or in the case of the BBC nepotism and a class system.

    (A little hint to the BBC. Northern accents are not seen by everyone as being synonymous with being working class any longer. That little farcical simplicity has been rumbled for a long time now. It is as hackneyed as the old black and white 50's BBC presentation.)

    The truth is the middle class is shrinking. It is way over sized and mostly unnecessary now. Combine a reduced manufacturing industrial complexity with the introduction of the home computer and internet and the middle class has been reduced to a piece of paper or virtual paper on which an ordinary person (poor these days) ticks boxes.

    Maybe the blogs maintain the illusion of a necessary middle class.
    If so the illusion is fading rapidly as more middle class offspring are punished for being unemployed in the job centers.


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