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Home > Media

Blog Envy

31 July 2006

There's been a bit of a flap of late about the rise to prominence of a handful of British bloggers. Some in the old school media worlds have had their ivory towers, not to mention their future career prospects and inflated salaries, shaken by the thought that there are legions of web-savvy people out there willing to put intelligent, well-researched articles in the public domain for nothing.

An article in the Guardian this week said there are nearly seven million bloggers in the UK. That's one in four Internet users and one in nine of the entire population. Some of the cream (and some of the shit, naturally) is starting to float and is getting noticed in wider circles, challenging the mainstream media particularly in the area of political commentary.

The Independent seems to be leading the charge in the counter-insurgency against blogging. Three of its columnists have got stuck in this month, two of them this week alone. Women don't blog because they 'tend to be less confident than men that the rest of the world wants the benefit of [their] opinion,' said Mary Dejevsky deftly glossing over the fact that British newspaper columns are bursting with women, including a certain Mary Dejevsky, confident that the world *does* want the benefits of their opinion.

'Blogs are so uncool. If David Milliband's doing one, and the Chief Constable of North Wales, then it's not something that rings my bells,' opined Janet Street-Porter last Sunday, Vice President of the Ramblers Association, and erstwhile contestant of 'I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here' and 'Call me a Cabbie', a reality TV show where - stand by for excitement - she learned to drive a taxi. Blogs 'are the verbal diarrhoea of the under-educated and banal,' she sneered before rounding off her column with a paean to the joys of porridge. (Really.) What qualifies Street-Porter to be a journalist herself is unclear. Her website says she studied architecture which surely makes her 'under-educated' for a job in the media.

On Monday Yasmin Alibhai-Brown asked: 'Where do blog writers and surfers find the time? When do they do the washing, cooking, eating, talking, cuddling, story reading to the kids? Do they never help with the school homework, go to the theatre, make love, read books, talk to friends, entertain?' Presumably, Yasmin, they find the time in the same place you do, between your writing for the Independent, being a Senior Researcher at the Foreign Policy Centre, authoring numerous books and pamphlets, producing reports for the Institute of Public Policy Research, and never being off endless speak-your-brains slots on News 24. And frankly, we don't want to know if you have the time to make love or not.

Is it coincidence that it's three women columnists who've chosen to speak out? Is it the nature of the pundit industry that women columnists feel less secure in their positions in a still largely male-dominated industry? They do seem to come in for the worst of the stick from bloggers, it's true. Some of the female writers over at the Guardian's 'Comment is Free' überblog have complained about the attention they've received at the hands of bloggers commenting on their articles. 'What do you do all day... that you have time to spend your life on this site?' asked Polly Toynbee, echoing Alibhai-Brown. Toynbee in particular seems to have attracted a following of bloggers willing to perform meticulous post mortems on her every utterance. Still, if her rumoured huge salary doesn't help, she should maybe think of doing something else. Such scrutiny can't be easy though and, having received an unforgivable email from a reader, saying, 'Nobody would miss you for 5 seconds if you were dead like your despicable shitball husband. I should like to see you in a cancer ward screaming with pain and vomiting blood,' Toynbee should be congratulated for her admirable restraint when the rest of us would have been on the phone to the police.

So why the fuss? Street-Porter gives it away when she says that, with its 'Comment is Free', 'The Guardian seems, in a perverse way, to be saying that amateurs are the future in publishing - and that can't be good for business.' Armies of intelligent writers who do a better job at a fraction of the cost are gaining on Janet and they didn't have to do all that tedious slog of producing offal like 'The Full Wax' and 'L!ve TV' to do it. It's sour grapes mixed with a little fear. She's feebly trying to strangle the blogging baby at birth in case it grows up and overthrows her.

'And please don't tell me this is democratising communication. Mass blogging may indeed be giving access to Everyman, but is he always worth listening to?' said Alibhai-Brown, completely wrong on both counts. Notice the patronising 'Everyman' as Yasmin sets herself above the herd. Blogging most definitely *is* democratising communication. It allows anybody to publish on the Internet for free. If they're popular enough, with the use of Internet ads, they can even make a few quid if they choose to. As to whether our plucky Everyman is worth listening to, well, you could say that about anything. Like turning the page on a dull, whining newspaper columnist, another blog is only a click away. Quality will out, which is why we're now seeing some bloggers writing books and newspaper columns (look out, Yasmin!), and appearing on television.

'When one or two bloggers inexplicably find fame, yet another wave joins the industry,' she said. One of the blogs that has hit the big time recently is the one belonging to the pseudonymous political gossip-monger Guido Fawkes. It's read by more people than the Labour and Conservative parties' websites combined apparently. Which is a bit like saying Harry Potter is read by more people than 'Pipefitter's Monthly' but never mind. We know Fawkes' blog is read by more people than the Labour and Conservative parties' websites combined because he likes to tell his readers so. All the time. It's the blogging equivalent of bragging about the size of your cock. The News of the World is Britain's biggest selling newspaper but that doesn't make it the best.

A lot of Fawkes' popularity stems from the fact he recently named the female Labour MP with whom John Prescott is rumoured to have had an affair - an outing that the BBC's political editor Nick Robinson described as bloggers 'attempting to make the political weather' (Fawkes had accused Robinson of burying Prescott's bad news, which rankled with the BBC man somewhat). Fawkes promises further revelations but so far, between low-grade gossip about 'wonks', 'totty' and Mark Oaten, nothing else has appeared.

Of course, massively and mysteriously popular as Guido Fawkes is, he's also wildly unrepresentative of the quality that can be found if you take a short walk across blogland. It's as if Pot Noodle has been voted Britain's favourite food. Most journalists think blogs like this are the yardstick because they're too lazy or stupid to spend time finding the quality. Street-Porter and Alibhai-Brown whine because they've never read Europhobia, Bloggerheads, Robert Sharp, The Sharpener or Pigdogfucker. Dejevsky can moan about a gender gap in blogging because she's ignorant of the likes of Pandemian, Rachel North or the Gendergeeks (to name but three in the vast pantheon of female bloggers).

On the current crisis in Lebanon, for example, the writers of Smokewriting (www.smokewriting.co.uk) and Blood and Treasure (bloodandtreasure.typepad.com) have written well-researched, thoughtful and darkly humorous articles that shame most of the guff coming out of the mainstream. All of the bloggers mentioned here are producing pieces of a quality that Janet Street-Porter, staring into her porridge bowl, can only dream of writing. Which is damning them with faint praise, admittedly, considering there are chimps with a better grasp of English than Janet.

The major aspect of blogging that gets overlooked by most people, particularly the 'what do you want to do *that* for' wing of the punditocracy, and even bloggers themselves, is what you have here is millions of people *writing for pleasure*. Thinking, learning, ordering their thoughts. How is that a bad thing? Nearly all of them are never going to attain the heights to which Janet's ruminations on breakfast cereals have elevated her, more's the pity, but they're enjoying themselves in the meantime, making connections and, in some cases, lasting friendships ('I don't crave a 'dialogue' with you,' said Street-Porter of blogging's interactive aspect on Sunday. Her loss and our gain, we hope you'll agree). Plus, bloggers (by doing their own thing) and their readers (by reading something fresh and unconstrained by the interests of advertisers) are taking a break from, and in some cases rejecting completely, the mainstream media whose sole purpose in life these days is to be paid mountains of cash to tell people what and how to think.

Which leaves the writers of a weekly satirical email comment sheet where, exactly? Fucking bloggers, coming over here, taking our jobs...



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