18 November 2006

In defence of Blogs

Like many bloggers, I'm concerned at what Matthew Taylor, Tony Blair's outgoing strategy adviser, had to say about blogs, and how he believes they're harming the political process. Here's the part I'm most concerned about:

"The internet has immense potential but we face a real problem if the main way in which that potential expresses itself is through allowing citizens to participate in a shrill discourse of demands.

"If you look at the way in which citizens are using technology and the way that is growing up, there are worrying signs that that is the case.

"What is the big breakthrough, in terms of politics, on the web in the last few years? It's basically blogs which are, generally speaking, hostile and, generally speaking, basically see their job as every day exposing how venal, stupid, mendacious politicians are.

He's having a go at three things: what bloggers are saying (i.e. 'this is what we want our Government to do'), how they're saying it (shrill discourse, apparently), and why they're saying it (to expose politicians as corrupt liars).

Firstly, what we're saying: well, our list of demands, apparently. People have been petitioning their politicians for generations. The difference is, that they went through formal channels and what happened next was largely up to whoever received the petition, whereas now, a blogger can suggest that it's time X was done, and other users can respond, allowing a widespread debate about what government policy should be to take place. Personally, I thought this was part of the democratic process (the people ask for X, the politicians provide X or get voted out), and that's what Labour's 'Big Conversation' was meant to be about. Of course, we now know that that was really about us proles paying tribute to the Dear Leader. But in any case, Matthew Taylor seems to be criticising people for wanting to speak out about the issues that concern them. On this, he is wrong.

Secondly, how we're saying it. OK, you won't find stirring political rhetoric, or 'literary salon'-style discourse, but it's a discussion, an open one, involving the people. You have a body of citizens talking about politics. That is in itself a good thing, however it's carried out. But if he's concerned about shrill tones from the people, what about from the politicians? And if you're worried about shrill tones on a blog? What about in real life? Remember, according to Tony Blair, if you want an inquiry on why UK troops went to war in Iraq, or a rethink on future strategy there, you want the insurgents to win. According to Jack McConnell, if you think the Scottish Parliament needs more powers, you're obsessing with the Constitution at the expense of schools and hospitals. That's not great discourse either, in fact it's an attempt to suppress debate on the issue at hand. The fact is, Mr. Taylor, the standard of political discourse from our politicians is low already, and has been for some time. The difference is that now it involves the general public.

Thirdly, our mission to expose politicians as lying crooks. Well, ever since the Profumo affair, the media have collectively ended their deferential approach to politicians and taken a more robust line. Do we want to expose every politician as corrupt liars? No, we want to expose the corrupt liars as corrupt liars. We don't expect perfection or sainthood from our representatives, but we have some basic standards. We would like it if politicians didn't take liberties with their expense accounts (we are paying for them, after all). We think that there are better criteria for Honours than giving (or loaning) large amounts of cash to a political party. We aren't pleased when a government plucks reasons to go to war out of thin air. I don't see these standards as unreasonable, and I think I have a right to complain publicly when they aren't met.

We shouldn't fear blogs, we should be excited by them. For the first time outside the newspaper letters page (and even that is subject to editorial control), the people have a medium to present their opinions to a wide audience, and to discuss ideas with people from across (and outside) the country. Now we are all journalists. We are all commentators. We all have access. That's a good thing. And for Mr. Taylor to complain that we aren't saying the right things, in the right way, with the right intentions is supreme arrogance. Mr. Taylor is wrong.

And, Mr. Taylor, if those ideas, showing as they do such contempt for the people and their opinions, have governed the political strategy you've offered Tony Blair in recent years, no wonder Labour is viewed as arrogant in power, and no wonder this third term Labour government was formed with less electoral support than any UK government since 1832. Let us hope you do a better job at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts.


budgiebird said...

Excellent post.

The article you refer to made my blood boil when I read it. Mr Taylor calls for new ways in which the public can engage in consultation with the Government, but when the public DOES take the trouble to get involved in an official Government Consultation, their views are treated with contempt.

During the consultation regarding proposals to bring in new laws to deal with Extreme Pornography, over 71% of individuals who replied said they felt there was no need for a change in the law. The consultation itself was extremely biased and misleading, but despite this, the overwhelming majority of those responding put forward well reasoned arguments as to why these proposals would make bad law.

Their views have been totally ignored and Labour is pressing on with this, regardless.

Please spend a few minutes checking out the background to this on my blog at:


Neil Craig said...

The arrogance of politicians & even moreso of the functionaries like Taylor & civil servants who never even have to meet the odd member of the public at elections is breathtaking.