I’m pleased to report that this evening I will be joining the panel of the BBC’s Question Time as their @BBCExtraGuest. This means I’ll be responding to the questions, commenting on the show and debating/arguing/falling out with the Question Time audience on Twitter.
The show is being broadcast from Eastleigh, for obvious reasons, and the panel includes Jeremy Browne MP, Angela Eagle MP, Claire Perry MP, Neil Hamilton and Ken Loach so it should be a fairly provocative discussion.
If you’d like to follow my tweets and join in live, I’ll be tweeting from @BBCExtraGuest from about 10 minutes before the show starts. I hope you’ll join me there!
It would be in my interests for Brian Leveson to support statutory regulation of the press tomorrow.
As Guido Fawkes writes in the Wall Street Journal today, putting a legislative leash around the neck of the mainstream media will only have one effect – to drive a truth-hungry public to online outlets and blogs for real news and honest insight.
This has always happened. When the Warsaw Pact countries and the Soviet Union censored what could be published, people shipped in or built their own presses and produced samizdat – illicit, underground news-sheets and books that circulated in secret. It is notable that the Russian word “samizdat” literally means “self-published”.
Samizdats were never expected to be subject to balance, they were explicitly written from a particular perspective and, most of all, they gloried in saying whatever they wanted – not saying what others demanded they say.
If, 50 years ago, people’s hunger for a free speaking press was sufficient that they were willing to transport and conceal large pieces of industrial machinery, the internet will have a far easier job of it.
Information is a commodity in its own right. It can be bought and sold, it can be given away or stolen, its price can be increased or devalued. And just the same as any other commodity, the one thing that cannot be done to it is successful prohibition.
The problem – and those who dislike our free press do view it as a problem – is the twin, trickster forces of supply and demand. The more people are interested in something, the higher its price rises and the harder it is to keep secret. The harder you try to keep it secret, the larger the incentive becomes to leak it – be it for cash or cachet.
This is what happened with MPs’ expenses. Yes, Heather Brooke fought a brilliant legal battle for the public’s right to know, but the scandal really broke when the censorship practiced by Commons authorities created such a high-paying Black Market that an insider was willing to sell the data to the Daily Telegraph.
These forces are inevitable, irresistible and they won’t be changed by legislating to make our press unfree. If the Daily Telegraph hadn’t been in a position to buy and publish MPs’ expenses, then someone else would have done so – on the internet, offshore and out of reach of the fat, black marker pens of Westminster’s quiet censors.
For goodness’ sake, the net filtering out forbidden commodities isn’t even tight enough to catch guns, grenades and tonnes of drugs – can anyone really believe it could be made tight enough to catch something as small and as fleet of foot as knowledge?
So I, and Guido, and a thousand other blogs yet to be born would be in a pretty good position should Brian Leveson persuade the Government to end three hundred years of British press freedom. Advertising would increase, traffic would boom, and everyone would be able to feel every shade of smug about their latest Google Analytics numbers.
But you won’t find me cheering for it. What would be the attraction of being a more widely read, or even a richer, libertarian in a country that has become less free? No, I’d rather miss out on the opportunity, thank you very much, Brian.
The ever-tenacious David Hencke has a report of some worrying attempts by Barnet Council to muzzle local bloggers.
Wasting goodness knows how much taxpayers’ money, the local authority has now twice tried to secure rulings that would mean in effect that no blogger may write about public officials.
A local blogger, Mr Mustard, identified a £50,000-a-year (plus perks) non-job, Barnet’s new “Change and Innovation Manager“. He was doing a good public service by spotting a wasteful post stuffed full of management-speak twaddle – taking up the charge much as the TaxPayers’ Alliance has encouraged people to do for some years now.
To properly investigate how this money was being spent, Mr Mustard investigated the public blog of the person appointed to the post – a Jonathan Tunde-Wright. This was perfectly reasonable – particularly when it turns out Mr Tunde-Wright appears to be a big fan of management mantras, such as:
I am persuaded that organisational culture eats strategy for breakfast.
All in a day’s work for a blogger scrutinising public spending. But that’s not how Barnet Council saw it.
Barnet have now twice tried to secure a ruling from the Information Commissioner that Mr Mustard was in breach of the Data Protection Act by daring to blog about someone who was not part of his own family or household. If successful, they could have had him slapped with a £5,000 fine – and, of course, silenced.
Mercifully, the ICO ruled against Barnet both times – but the fact they even tried to go down this route is disturbibg.
On the surface this attempt to silence a blogger in this way is pure aggression and censorship from a public body. They wanted to shut him up regardless of the fundamental right to free speech or the entirely positive influence of bloggers and the transparency agenda because they thought it would be better that way for Barnet Council.
Look deeper than that and it gets more concerning. Numerous times in my years at the TPA we encountered attempts by public bodies to draw a false distinction between public roles and the people who occupy them. We could, we were told, talk about a job title and the associated salary, but criticising the actual public servant was not allowed.
During the compilation of the annual Public Sector and Town Hall Rich Lists we regularly got FOI responses that refused to name even a council’s Chief Executive. Tellingly, Tunde-Wright repeats this mantra in David Hencke’s article:
I also do feel that by going beyond the Post to naming the Post Holder, referencing my personal blog and making particular comments, the said blogger may have crossed the line and placed myself and my family in this uncomfortable place of feeling harassed online.
This is a pernicious attack on transparency and accountability. The Post and the Post Holder should be open to scrutiny by the public who fund both of them. The existence of a job is only one element of public spending and administration – how well the person who holds the post actually does the job is equally important.
Barnet’s argument effectively means individual incompetence or other personal failings would be beyond the realm of public scrutiny. It would be like saying no-one could cover the Liam Fox scandal because talking about him as an individual was beyond the pale, and as everyone would accept the need for a Defence Secretary then he should have stayed in post.
It is good that the ICO was robust in defence of the free speech of bloggers – but appalling that a local authority would think public scrutiny is a bad thing and then try to use legal intimidation funded by taxpayers to silence their critics.
We clearly still have a long way to go until we have a proper transparency culture.
Total Politics have started to publish the results of their annual Blog Awards, based on votes from the blog-reading public. I’m delighted to say that this blog has been voted Number 5 in the rankings for Right Wing Blogs, up there with the big beasts and full-timers of the political blogosphere. Thank you to each and every one of you who voted for CrashBangWallace, I’m really chuffed and will do my best to live up to the ranking over the next 12 months.
Here’s the Top Ten (with last year’s ranking in brackets):
1 (1) Order Order
2 (3) Conservative Home
3 (4) Spectator Coffee House
4 (26) Archbishop Cranmer
5 (81) Crash Bang Wallace
6 (5) Daniel Hannan
7 (-) The Commentator
8 (18) Talk Carswell
9 (17) EU Referendum
10 (10) James Delingpole
There are now only two days left to vote in the annual Total Politics Blog Awards. If you’ve enjoyed reading Crash Bang Wallace over the last 13 months as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it and interacting with so many readers, please consider casting your vote for this blog.
Last year, only 5 weeks after launching, I entered the rankings for Libertarian blogs at Number 21 – that was really pleasing, and obviously I’d hope to do as well or better this time round. However, I can only do that with your support. Remember, you can vote for up to 10 blogs so there’s plenty of opportunity to include all your favourite reads. Click here to cast your vote.
Whether you vote or not, thanks again for continuing to read Crash Bang Wallace.
I wrote when Iain Dale closed his personal blog about the potential future for the blogosphere as the balance of power shifted. As well as the upheavals in the mainstream media, the last couple of weeks has seen the first big change in the UK blogosphere for some time: the arrival of the superblogs.
With the launch of Huffington Post UK and Iain Dale and Co we’re experiencing the first tests of whether group blogging will succeed, and whether it will replace or complement the more atomised blogosphere that we’ve seen to date. My personal view is that it will be complementary – an online equivalent of the mainstream media which can afford to provide more regular and broader updating than individual blogs, but inevitably lacking the personalised character and focus of individuals (like yours truly).
For that reason, I’m pleased to say I will intermittently be contributing to both HuffPoUK and Dale & Co – writing about politics for the former and about media and culture for the latter. Needless to say, this blog will remain my focus, and the location of the vast majority of my writing. My first articles on each superblog have gone live this week, so please give them a bump by rating and commenting if you’d be so kind!
Here they are:
Iain Dale & Co: “Science Fiction should be abolished”
Huffington Post UK: “A new English politics is emerging – but which party will harness it?”
Tumblr photoblogs are one of the glorious, niche pleasures of the internet. My favourite is still probably the hilarious “Kim Jong Il Looking At Things” but there’s a new kid on the block which is a close second.
I present for your delectation, “Awkward Ed Miliband Moments” – which, among other classics, gives me an opportunity to repost this:
It’s a measure of Iain Dale’s huge success as a blogger that his departure from the blogosphere has led people to question the very future of political blogging itself.
A blog is dead, but blogging will live on – there is no reason inherent to blogging why the medium itself should die out, unless Government sets out to destroy it. Twitter is a complementary not competing medium, offering an outlet for snap reaction, jokes and debate but not providing space for longer analysis.
The real questions over the future of blogging are about its form and freedom. To my mind there are three essential issues about what may lie ahead.
There is a natural churn in any industry or hobby – but to have churn, new must come in as old departs. This blog is still a relatively new arrival on the scene, but I confess I can only think of a couple of other new political bloggers. Of course that may be because i haven’t found them yet, not because they don’t exist. Which brings us on to the second question:
How will the blogosphere function? The right wing blogosphere has developed – utterly organically – an infrastructure. Three main hubs (Iain Dale, ConservativeHome and Guido Fawkes) pull together the blogging that’s out there and transmit traffic to blogs further down the food chain.
One of those hubs has been removed, though I know Iain has expressed an interest in keeping the Daley Dozen feature going.
It’s not particularly healthy for any sector to be so reliant on so few hubs. The Big Three didn’t set out to build a monopoly – nor could they if they wished, given the way the Internet works. All three have in fact gone out of their way to provide a ladder for smaller blogs to garner extra readership through regular linking.
Really it’s down to the rest of us to work harder to build a new infrastructure in Iain’s place – either through a scrap that results in the emergence of another big beast or, more likely, through greater cooperation and linking between a number of medium-sized beasts.
The third and final question is the long-term and ultimately fundamental one. Who will control the blogs?
Iain’s departure is at least in part because his blogging has generated other work, such as his LBC show, which has ended up taking over his time. The ConHome team have long been able to work as essentially full time bloggers, while Guido seems to be taking the middle road of overseeing the blog while Harry Cole becomes News Editor. In the States, the professionalisation of blogging is best seen in the growth of the Gawker Media network.
This an understandable shift. Iain felt he had the choice between blogging and making a living in his dream job. Guido has strengthened his position enough to be able to afford to employ Harry but as a result has a business that consumes much of his time.
My concern is what this means for smaller blogs. On the plus side it means there is hope that at least some people can make a living from blogging.
On the down side, I fear this professionalisation may have unintended and perhaps inevitable consequences.
Look at the history of newspapers. When printing first became relatively cheap and widely feasible, in the 17th Century, it was an anarchic, free speaking and hugely popular industry that leant itself naturally to scepticism of power and authority.
The pamphlets produced were of varying accuracy and quality, but the public were free to decide what they liked. Ultimately, the pamphleteers’ radicalism was one of the driving factors in the English Civil War and the birth of the libertarian movement in England. The parallels with the recent history of blogging are obvious.
But the pamphlets eventually changed. Essentially, they became modern newspapers. Writers were able to become professionals, and quality improved – but regulation tightened its grip, and eventually a turgid morbidity set in. 300 years on, those weaknesses led blogs to become appealing, necessary and successful.
So maybe we’re seeing a similar shift taking place online (only faster, given the speed of modern technology). Professionalisation of the blogosphere is market-driven, so there’s little we can do about that. What we can and must do to escape the eventual fate of the pamphleteers is resist regulation. Hazel Blears has already led calls for the regulation of blogs, and I’m sure more such voices will follow – keen to stamp out a source of uncomfortable criticism and scrutiny.
There is a danger that as leading bloggers become professionals, Government will use the shift as an excuse to regulate what they can portray as an industry. Only by nipping that in the bud will hobbyists, spare-time bloggers and potential stars of the future be able to keep going. As with any market, to ensure competition and innovation the barriers to entry must be kept low.
If some bloggers are able to become professionals, then good luck to them – but to keep the medium relevant and therefore alive it must remain open, cheap to do and above all free to speak as it wishes.