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Monday, April 09, 2007 

Oliver Kamm is not a blogger.

There has to be a certain amount of irony in Oliver Kamm writing an attack on political blogs for the Grauniad. Firstly, he himself runs something which many would consider to be a political blog. He obviously rises above the stinking sewer which the rest of us proles in the lower-"blogosphere" inhabit. Secondly, he's writing for the newspaper which has done much to encourage political blogging in this country: the first to launch a site dedicated to comment which includes pieces from those who have made their name purely through word of mouth on the interbutts.

He BEGINS (yes I actually previously had beings here rather than begins) by focusing on the shadowy appearance of Guido Fawkes/Paul Staines on Newsnight:

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.

From what we know of Staines' past, he's wrote papers for thinktanks etc, so it's hardly that he isn't competent. It's just that he was simply out of his depth, faced with two seasoned performers in Michael White and Jeremy Paxman, and hoisted himself by his own petard by agreeing only to take part if he was shrouded in darkness. It was a cock-up which made all political bloggers look daft.

Guido Fawkes is as Tim Ireland tries to point out, hardly representative of political blogging as a whole, even if he is the most successful, as he never tires of informing us. His blog is dedicated to gossip, naked speculation and some would argue smear attacks. There isn't anything particularly wrong with filling this kind of newspaper diarist void on the net: Guido does it reasonably well, but there are legions of other blogs where the last thing they are interested in is gossip.

This is where Kamm's pants begin to fall down. He claims that blogging requires little to no competence, and judging by how some blogs simply link to stories while the comments fill with outrage, he does have something of a point. The best blogs however are those that are fiercely independent, that do go in-depth and that then encourage discussion rather than throwing a cordon around any dissension. Ministry of Truth, Not Saussure, Pickled Politics are ones that instantly spring to mind. Kamm instead would prefer to ignore that these blogs don't exist: his own has no comment facility, because of the amount of people who vehemently disagree with him and his virulent pushing of a neo-conservative foreign policy, as well as his other interests, mainly insulting old communists and attacking Noam Chomsky. Out of all the "left" supporters of the war in Iraq, he's the only one who hasn't at the least expressed regret, or admitted with a heavy heart that had he known what would happen in the 4 years after the invasion, that he would have at least not openly supported the inexorable march to war. This is much the same reason why Melanie Philips (currently calling the Iranian regime "genocidal") and her ilk don't have comments enabled on their "blogs"; they're afraid of being challenged and made to look bad, if not wrong. The Daily Mail website is an example of how comments can on the other hand be a bad thing: they're so heavily moderated that hardly any dissent from the line the article is spinning is allowed, lest it start to look silly. This covert censorship is probably far worse than no interaction at all.

Kamm next has a go at the Tories:

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".

It's quite true that Conservative, or nominally conservative supporter bloggers are definitely in the ascendant in the UK. Whether this is down to the fact that the party is in opposition and has had to attempt to renew itself, much like how Democrat bloggers rule the roost in the US or not is a debate that could be had endlessly. Kamm though misses a trick here: most of the Conservative bloggers, or at least the most popular, are generally further to the right than Cameron's Conservatives are trying to be. Iain Dale, although loyal to Cameron, was David Davis's chief of staff during his leadership campaign, and is often critical of the Cameron agenda. ConservativeHome is noted for its hard right stance. As the opinion polls also suggest, Cameron hasn't needed to be responsive to the activists, as New Labour has instead been imploding, with Blair destroying the party through his own selfishness in staying on.

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.

This is rubbish. For every blog there is that focuses on the latest outpourings of Polly Toynbee, there's another that takes apart the day's real news from a stance that simply isn't given room in the papers; Stumbling and Mumbling, Flying Rodent, etc. This is also to ignore the stories that blogs have broken, and the way especially within the more authoritarian regimes across the globe that they can break the censor's monopoly on what can and can't be read and said.

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.

Judging by Kamm's blog roll, he's not much of one to talk. Almost the entirity of his links are given over to "muscular liberals" whose views are much like his own. He even used to link to Little Green Footballs, one of the most distasteful one-sided blogs there is. Comment is Free is one of the better places online where intelligent and reasoned discussion does occasionally take place, but Kamm never wastes much time in damning the Grauniad for whichever stance or writer it's published this week which he disagrees with.

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.

Or, as Kamm discovered, results in having to publish the opinions of those who don't agree with his diatribes against Noam Chomsky, who he managed to mention 1,052 times in less than a year and six months. There's no point denying that the amount of vitriol thrown around on some blogs or in the comment sections is unpleasant, and that some "swear blogs" are just nasty rather than amusing, but again, this is to see blogging through a distorted lens that only sees the bad.

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.

This is close in some ways to the arguments made by Tim Ireland towards something like a blogging code of conduct, or general etiquette. Blogs can be for the bad, especially when those running them are themselves fundamentally dishonest, or not prepared to let dissenting voices to interfere, but overwhelmingly the many are for the good. Speaking purely for myself, sometimes the measures being announced or proposed are so completely ridiculous or illiberal that they need to abused and poisoned in this way. Kamm claims that you don't need to be competent to be a blogger, but when faced with politicians like Hazel Blears attempting to become the deputy leader of the Labour party, it's more than apparent that you don't need to be anything other than a spouting, brainless ass-kissing robot to be a minister either. Politics may be a conversation, but if it's one in which the other person proposes bringing back flogging or making sandcastles illegal then they need to be told where to take their ideas.

In any case, bloggers are not responsible for the contempt and general cynicism about politics and politicians. This has been created thanks both to Labour's spin machine and to the wholesale breakdown of deference in society itself. They can certainly add to it, and they can distort the view of bloggers as a whole, but the media itself certainly isn't blameless either. Why else would so many publish articles such as this if they weren't in some way threatened?

Kamm then perhaps ought to try and be an actual blogger. Rather than being involved in a conversation, as he thinks political debate should be, he instead talks at you, and he's rather smug about that. Take for instance his fatuous comparison of the Communist Party of GB with the British Union of Fascists, where he insults an 94-year-old woman for having "scant imagination", while the real debate about the post occurs on a blog other than his own because of his own cowardice in not enabling comments. Forgive me if I don't take Kamm's criticisms of blogging as seriously as he seems to take himself.

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You only have to look at the BNP, chemical explosives story (that was missed by all major media outlets - until pressured to do so, belatedly), to see that bloggers are an important part of the political debate. However, I do accept that some political blogs appear entirely pointless (or are part of an attempt to create some formal establishment - see Iain Dale).

Anyway, what do you expect from a guy who wrote: Anti-Totalitarianism: the Left-Wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy??? Hardly a balanced individual!

ConservativeHome = Hard Right?!?!

Well, OK, slight exaggeration there maybe. We are talking to the right of Cameron and his clique though.

This was Kamm at his worst. My thoughts here on his pointless article.

Still, it could be worse, he could have written a post that supports the injustice of Guantanamo Bay

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