29 November 2009

Ghosts of Blogs Past

You know, it's weird. In amongst all the news stories this weekend, all I can think about is one that made the headlines last June, when Right for Scotland was unmasked as former Tory candidate Ron Kane, had his reputation dragged through the mud, and ended up with some rather awkward explaining expected of him by his employers.

Remember that? It was caused, primarily, by TerryWatch (which I certainly do remember) but it wasn't even his own posts on that blog which caused the problem. Rather, it was the posts by Shotgun, whose particular role on the blog, other than making the rest of us look like complete and utter prats, is something I was never clear on. I never really figured out what his beef with Terry Kelly was - I could understand where Ron was coming on, and I sympathised totally with Clairwil's anger and we all know why he enraged me so, but I never really worked out what Shotgun was bringing to the party save our own undoing. Frankly, we should have seen the warning signs when his avatar displayed a figure making the 'wanker' gesture, but we didn't have the benefit of 20:20 hindsight on this matter at that time. Of course, when his posts arrived, and were as disgusting as they were, Clairwil decided to call it a day, with me following suit soon after.

But Ron didn't, and it was him that carried the can for Shotgun acting like a tosspot, it was him that ended up being exposed in the Sunday Herald and it was Terry Kelly who gained an easy - and undeserved - victory. Meanwhile, the real villain of the piece - Shotgun - is still free to maraud the internet acting like an arsewipe when it suits him. And it's now harder for anyone to challenge Terry Kelly's BS.

So why am I bringing that old chestnut up now, after so long? I think it's obvious really. What Ron's troubles showed us is that whether we like it or not, anonymous/pseudonymous blogging only shields your identity to a limited degree, and anyone with that bit of time and/or determination available to the professional journalist (one wonders what impact they could have if they turned their fire on politicians). Accordingly, however you refer to yourself online, you have to be very careful and 100% sure of that you say. Mark MacLachlan, who you used to know as Montague Burton, is someone I've met before and I can tell you that he is, in real life, one of the nice guys. Indeed, it's hard to believe that he's the one the papers are talking about. But he is, and the reason is that he didn't learn the lessons that were there for all of us when Ron was forced out of anonymity and into blogging retirement. Neither did Wardog, or Bruce Newlands, as we now refer to him.

And as with the RfS story, it all seems a tad warped. The really damaging posts - the allegations about other politicians - are, save the one about Colin Smyth, from ages back. And the Colin Smyth one can be corroborated or contradicted by something as simple as one eyewitness report. The so-called smear about Paul McBride QC is about one of his defence cases. The George Foulkes one, though, is something that has a tendency to amble its way through the Holyrood Village from time to time, as all sorts of racy gossip about all sorts of people has a way of popping up when a bunch of politicos are in the same room. Mark's mistake was to turn an idle rumour into a blog post. Frankly, we can all do better than that.

Firstly, if you're going to go with rumours, make them about political developments, not who boffs whom and where - that belongs in the tabloid tittle-tattle section. Secondly, if you're going to go ahead with anything lurid, make sure you have the full facts, and the evidence. a persistent rumour won't do, and the particular gem that Mark relayed to the blogosphere is one for which evidence is hard to come by. Mark would lament - as we all do these days - about the state and the standards of the Scottish MSM, but in referring to that particular tale didn't live up to the standards he was setting for the press. That's another lesson: don't attack anyone for something which you could be seen as guilty of yourself.

Then there's the insulting posts. I mean, let's face it, if saying something nasty about a politician means you have to be dragged through the streets and ritually humiliated, then what are we to do about all those politicians who have been rude to each other all these years? That last lesson I mentioned ought to apply to everyone if it's to apply to anyone. Let's all be nice, or let's all get a thick skin. Pick one, or pick the other.

That said, if you're going to insult someone, a bit of class wouldn't go amiss. Swearwords on their own are blunt instruments. A bit of charm, an element of wit or a dash of observational humour can go a long way - hell, they've made some of the nastier lines from sketch writers like Simon Hoggart some of the best to read. Just calling someone a c**t? Well, unless you're in the mother of all rages (I think I've been in one of those and done just that), it's best avoided. And if you are in the mother of all rages, it's best not to blog at all (something I've had to reflect on at times, as well).

Basically, we can do better if we think more carefully about what we're posting and why. A lot of the mistakes that have got both Mark and Bruce into such trouble could have been avoided simply by learning from the media's treatment of Ron. The worst part is that in Mark's case certainly, most of what he posted wouldn't fall foul of any of this, and he routinely ended up in the Roundup, which wouldn't touch anything overly ugly with a ten-foot pole. But he lapsed into the odd unfortunate post, and now we see the result. Yes, all this means that we have to be more careful bloggers. But that doesn't mean that we can't be better bloggers as well, putting more thought into what we say before we press 'Publish'. We could retreat into hand-wringing, we could man the barricades and blame the nasty media, we could say we're all awful people and give up, or we could take the middle path, use this difficult time to reflect on our own blogging practices, and revise them accordingly, lest the man from Johnston Press come a-knocking on our door. We could use him as proof of a conspiracy or as a political scalp, or we could, just for a minute, stop thinking like members of different, warring tribes and realise that, as I've said before, "There, but for the grace of blogs, go I". We need to cut the hysteria, ditch the hyperbole. This is a time for sobriety.

My mind also wanders back to that interview I did for Radio Scotland three years ago. They also interviewed Paul Staines - a.k.a. Guido Fawkes - who lamented that there wasn't a 'Guido McFawkes' in Scotland who could do what he did, i.e. aim a constant barrage of vitriol towards politicians, not overly dissimilar to (and, if anything, far uglier than) the one that Mark is being punished for and get away with it, on the grounds that he did very well at covering his tracks, and when he finally was unmasked, he was in a sufficiently strong position in both real life and the blogosphere that he could just continue as though nothing was going to happen. And when it does, he usually ends up winning.

What I should have said, but didn't think to at the time, was that just because the Westminster blogosphere has a Guido, it doesn't mean that the Scottish blogosphere had to copy it. That given the different political landscape, Scottish bloggers can't rely on the scene in the rest of the UK as a template and they have to find their own path. That's just as true today as it's ever been (even when Staines first floated the idea, the immediate attempt to implement it - Jenny's Stool - died a very quiet death, possibly as it was set up over the Christmas period when, frankly, nobody gave a shit) and the events of the past two Sundays prove that any attempt to emulate Guido now would be doomed to certain failure, and its architect guaranteed a rather public humiliation. There is no one who could be certain of either the power or the anonymity required to succeed, and as someone who finds the Guido approach distasteful, may I be the first to shout Hallelujah at that!

What I'm saying is this: with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight again (and let's stop using that - we've seen enough that way to get a good idea of what might be ahead), Mark was always heading for a fall, as was Bruce. And the signs were there, but they didn't see them. So those who follow that example, and go for the tittle-tattle, the gossip, the rage, should stop looking for a conspiracy, stop screaming about a plot and start looking at their own blog as well as recent history, and get to grips with the fact that they are the problem here - not the hostile MSM!

However, those sneering at the Cybernats, those calling this the SNP's Drapergate should realise that the loudest SNP voices in the blogosphere are a standing rebuttal to every allegation thrown at the SNP (well, I would say that, wouldn't I?) and that we are the first to wonder how to deal with those who (rightly) draw the criticism. And we should all realise that when the original Drapergate scandal hit, we all got tarnished. Every blogger, regardless of party. So if I were them, I wouldn't be dancing on the graves of these blogs or any other. Instead, I'd be standing beside them, in quiet reflection.

Why? Because we don't know which one of us could be next. Let's clean up our own houses first, before we slag off other people's.


J. R. Tomlin said...

While I think you make some good points, I am afraid I don't buy the "it just HAPPENED to be two SNP bloggers that several newspapers hung out to dry on the same day followed by another one the next week".

Especially considering the terms I've seen applied to nationalists on quite a few blogs.

Fine. Call me a conspiracist but I just plain do not believe it and I DO believe that supporters of the status quo are quite capable of protecting themselves.

However, that supports much of what you say. It is wise to (at least generally) be moderate in what one posts--not that I ALWAYS follow that rule.

I wasn't yesterday which just goes what happens sometimes.

Will said...

Hi Jeanne,

I think you're right to flag up the possibility that it's open season on SNP bloggers in the MSM - given the political leanings of the journos and, more importantly, their employers, that's no real surprise and as such, like we both believe, it's down to us to restrict their access to ammo.

That said, I still think that bloggers from other parties shouldn't be so quick to gloat: the press now has a model for going after a blog and a blogger. The right-wing or anti-Labour elements (I'm thinking the new political configuration of the Sun, here) could use it to take a potshot at Labour bloggers; left-wing papers (the Mirror springs most readily to mind as the Record will retain its seat on the anti-SNP bandwagon) could easily go for Tories, and there's always the possibility that bloggers could end up going after each other if things get ugly.

One thing I would say though is I don't tend to follow any conspiracy theory as I just don't think human nature is capable of sustaining a conspiracy for very long without someone's ego getting in the way and leading them to blab that they know something we don't.

My diagnosis of what's happening for the moment, therefore, would be that this is less of a conspiracy and more of a bandwagon. As a result, our aim should be to avoid walking in front of it.

Stuart Winton said...

"...and there's always the possibility that bloggers could end up going after each other if things get ugly."

I thought that was happening already?!?

Will said...

To a degree, Stuart, but compared with Drapergate, what goes on between bloggers at the moment is basically like office bitching.

If things do spill over into an actual rammy, however, well, I dread to think how things will pan out. I can't see there being any winners though.

Alan Smart said...

Just catching up on this thoughtful post. I think near bang on.

On jeanne's point, I m sure that SNP minded bloggers are a bit more vulnerable, given the MSM media outlook , but that dont mean they can act daft and then moan conspiracy when what they post catches up with you.

And nat bloggers are far from alone in being caught out like this - they just seem to be in fasion at the moment