Error-strewn, insular and parasitic, political blogs tend not to enhance but poison healthy debate
Monday April 9, 2007
Political blogging has come of age. At least, that was the idea behind the BBC's Newsnight screening of a report by a high-profile blogger who writes under the pseudonym Guido Fawkes. His film argued that blogs provided more acute and independent political analysis than traditional journalism, owing to the absence of an editor, proprietor or regulator. Theatrically insisting on being filmed in darkness to maintain his supposed anonymity, "Fawkes" debated his thesis with Michael White of this newspaper.
It was a catastrophic performance, mainly because the blogger required continual correction on points of fact. He thereby illustrated blogging's central characteristic danger. It is a democratic medium, allowing anyone to participate in political debate without an intermediary, at little or no cost. But it is a direct and not deliberative form of democracy. You need no competence to join in.
To some, that is a virtue. In a recent lecture, the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, pointed to the proliferation of blogs and enthused: "In politics and in the media we've both assumed that we do the talking and the people listen. Now the people are talking back. It's exciting, liberating, challenging and frightening too."
Such is the ideological chaos of modern Conservatism. Osborne invoked the notion of the wisdom of crowds: knowledge emerges in a collaborative process rather than being dictated by experts. But political bloggers are not the required type of crowd. They are, by definition, a self-selecting group of the politically motivated who have time on their hands. In his speech, Osborne commended the work of Conservative-supporting bloggers. The notion that a political party becomes credible by being responsive to its activists is an error that Labour disastrously adopted in the 1980s. Political blogging is a new vehicle for an enduring force: what James Madison, in the Federalist Papers, termed "the mischief of faction".
Blogs are providers not of news but of comment. This would be a good thing if blogs extended the range of available opinion in the public sphere. But they do not; paradoxically, they narrow it. This happens because blogs typically do not add to the available stock of commentary: they are purely parasitic on the stories and opinions that traditional media provide. If, say, Polly Toynbee or Nick Cohen did not exist, a significant part of the blogosphere (a grimly pretentious neologism) would have no purpose and nothing to react to.
The great innovation of web-based commentary is that readers may select minutely the material they are exposed to. The corollary is that they may filter out views they find uncongenial. This is a problem for a healthy democracy, which depends on a forum for competing views.
In its paucity of coverage and predictability of conclusions, the blogosphere provides a parody of democratic deliberation. But it gets worse. Politics, wrote the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, is a conversation, not an argument. The conversation bloggers have with their readers is more like an echo chamber, in which conclusions are pre-specified and targets selected. The outcome is horrifying. The intention of drawing readers into the conversation by means of a facility for adding comments results in an immense volume of abusive material directed - and recorded for posterity - at public figures.
The blogosphere, in short, is a reliable vehicle for the coagulation of opinion and the poisoning of debate. It is a fact of civic life that is changing how politics is conducted - overwhelmingly for the worse, and with no one accountable for the decline.
· Oliver Kamm is the author of Anti-Totalitarianism: the Left-Wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy. His blog is at oliverkamm.typepad.com
9 Apr 2007
A Parody of Democracy
Saved here for my own records.