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Political Blogging: Does it Make a Difference?

Last night I attended an interesting debate hosted by Westminster Skeptics entitled What Difference Does Political Blogging Really Make?

Nick Cohen, for the prosecution, seemed to change the frame of the debate. He attacked bloggers and bemoaned the decline of the newspaper industry. His main gripe seemed to be that bloggers are not the people going out and knocking on doors and doing proper old fashioned reporting. Bloggers, he argued, do not spend all day sitting in the House of Lords and reporting on some of the proceedings. He said that they could do it, but they don’t and a reason for this is that there is no money to be made out of blogging. Referring to Guido Fawkes, Cohen made the point that when he does get a scoop, instead of reporting it on his blog, he may sell it on to the newspapers to make some money.

He also argued that political blogs in the UK are very London focussed and they have not developed to where they are properly reporting on the news from local areas outside the capital. He gave weight to Alan Rusbridger’s argument of the possibility that problems in the newspaper industry are so acute that local newspapers in some areas may not survive and close down. There was a brighter side: blogging was not all bad as Cohen admitted that it was as result of blogs that he became familiar with Norm Geras and some others.

Sunny Hundal took a different line. He criticised the mainstream news organisations for their reporting and argued that blogs such as his could cover stories and make points not made by the mainstream. This brought an interjection from Cohen that Hundal will only be influencing his own small readership base, preaching to the converted and it does not make a difference. Hundal’s view was that his blog cared about the views of his readers and that was who he was focussed on. Cohen thought that this meant that he was not helping the Labour Party, the party of the left, and that such an attitude could lead to the Labour Party spending years in opposition.

On problems with the mainstream, Hundal made the point about The Sun reporting on a hit list of British Jews which turned out to be fake and was exposed by Tim Ireland. In the question and answer session, Hundal mentioned that the top ten Conservative blogs were all Climate Change “Deniers,” a comment that brought cheers from some of the men in suits at the back of the room.

Jonathan Isaby of Conservativehome defended political blogs. As a former mainstream news journalist who moved to be a fulltime blogger, this should be expected. He argued that shadow government ministers always return his calls and argued that blogs such as Guido Fawkes’s have more readership from many of his readers than a number of newspapers. He also commented that newspapers run stories that he reports.

Mick Fealty of Slugger O’Toole, a blog that specialises in stories related to Northern Ireland, argued that his blog is well read. He noted the allegations of Gerry Adams’s brother Liam’s sexual abuse that his blog highlighted and extensively reported. Cohen was not impressed: Fealty had not broken the story, he had just blogged about it. Fealty thought this was an unfair attack because what his blog was able to do was gather all the information in one place where mainstream journalists reporting on Northern Ireland, who did read his blog, would see.

Guido seems to have a lot of fun both blogging and debating. He aims his blog at the three thousand people in the country that matter, those in parliament, in Westminster and other people with influence. He hoped that about half of them read his blog. He emphasised that what makes a blog good is a good story. It does not matter if it is reported on a blog or in a newspaper, if it is a good story, it will be read. He questioned what breaking a story meant. For Guido, a tweet on Twitter does not really count. The reporting of the 2010 general election will be real test for bloggers and Guido hopes to come out on top.

In so far as Cohen’s comment that bloggers were not spending their time all day in select committees or in the House of Lords, Guido’s response was that it was because no one was really interested and if someone is interested they can read Hansard on line.

It was an amusing evening and my congratulations go to Westminster Skeptics for putting on the event. I shall read any comments below. I say this because Guido mentioned that he does not read his comments. To be fair, he does not have time. He said that last year he had some 400,000 comments to his blog. He questioned the lives of the fifty people who were responsible for half of them.

Update

For those interested in this general subject, Intelligence Squared will be hosting a debate with some high profile speakers on a related theme next month.

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