Thursday, March 31, 2005

Going to the Blogs?

Anyone who listened to the Analysis programme on BBC Radio 4 this evening, called "Going to the Blogs?", on the phenomenon of political blogging, may be forgiven for coming away more confused than when they started.

Fronted by Kenan Malik, who explored the world of Blogs and analysed "whether they could really change our democracy", it followed the technique now common in radio journalism. The programme covered the subject at breakneck speed, offering time to a wide variety of speakers with diverse opinions, without itself coming to any conclusion.

Thus, variously, one can divine that political blogging is or is not significant, did or did not affect the course of the US presidential election, and may or may not become a force in Britain.

The view that they will become a force was espoused by former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, who also wrote a piece for The Guardian in February, in which he argued that Bloggers would "rescue the right" by allowing "Mr Knowledgeable" or (and it is usually a Mr) of Smallville, via his PC, to by-pass the established media and transmit his thoughts to the world.

No one, least of all Duncan Smith, thought to draw the parallel with Speakers' Corner, the blog being the electronic equivalent, allowing anyone to have their say. However, once on rainy Sunday afternoon, I recall wandering past the row of speakers in Hyde Park Corner, being arrested by a voluble and articulate Negro, who was delivering an impassioned and informed speech to a passive audience of a dozen or so bemused tourists.

Yes, we did have freedom of speech in this country, he stormed, and anyone was free to say what they liked. The trouble is, he added, was that no one listened.

I never forgot that speech and, for me, the most striking factoid that emerged from the Analysis programme was that 96 percent of internet users had never read a Blog. We may be the new Speakers' Corner, but the old problems stay the same.

Certainly, we can deal with issues which the mainstream media are ignoring, witness our attempts to instil some life into the debate on defence policy in this country. But one can feel for Mr Howard when yesterday he delivered what was for a politician a good speech on the subject, only to have it largely ignored by the media, in favour of wall-to-wall coverage of Jamie Oliver's attempts to improve school meals.

When you think about it, the first and main priorities of any national government are the defence of the country, the management of external relations and the protection of the national interest yet, when the leader of the opposition spoke on precisely these issues, he was largely ignored. By contrast, the prime minister took time out in Downing Street to meet a celebrity chef to discuss what is essentially a local government issue, and got the lion's share of attention.

That, in my jaundiced view, speaks volumes of the state of British politics today and justifies entirely our efforts on this Blog.

But there are two sides to the equation. As I am wont to say, you can lead a politician to water, but you cannot make him think. Similarly, Helen and I can write our pieces but we cannot make you read them – nor would we even attempt to if we could.

That, oddly enough dear readers, is largely up to you. As a popular phenomenon, Blogs are largely made or broken through personal recommendation. If you like what you see, tell your friends and colleagues, beat them over their heads and do not desist until they too are going to the Blogs.

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