This column appears in The Times today.
LAST WEEK the veteran American news anchorman Dan Rather stepped down from his post at CBS. Though the demotion was sweetened by his resuming a reporting role, few doubted the sequence of events. During the election campaign, CBS had reported allegations about President Bush’s military service that turned out to be based on fraudulent documents, easily identified as such. Rather had defended the veracity of the report with an indignation touched by hubris.
The denouement was hastened by a varied group of conservative bloggers. A blog (a contraction of weblog) is a running commentary posted on the internet about whatever takes the author’s interest. It is a valuable medium for those with a cause to ventilate, and who fancy that the print and broadcast media are biased against them.
An uncomfortable Rather had denounced his blogging nemeses as “partisan political operatives”, but it was left to another television executive, Jonathan Klein, to inspire a resonant image appropriate to this series on buzzwords. Surveying the bloggers, he declared: “You couldn’t have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances (in television news) and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing.”
Given a sense of history, Klein might have realised that a considered and satisfying sneer is infuriatingly liable to be appropriated with pride by its target. Methodism and neoconservatism both started life as terms of abuse. The guys in pajamas likewise speedily adopted for themselves the felicitous collective term “Pajamahadeen”.
Conventional journalists criticise bloggers for being parasitic rather than investigative, and Pajamahadeen, with its metaphorical connotations of guerrilla warfare, scarcely dispels that suspicion. But — though I declare an interest, as a (non-conservative) blogger myself — I am an unabashed fan of the medium. It is admittedly a ready vehicle for dilettantes bearing grudges, and at its worst it attracts political obscurantists. But at its best it offers additional checks and balances on the flow of information.
Had there been an equivalent force in this country — a Pyjamahadeen to match the Pajamahadeen — the Hutton inquiry might not have been necessary. Concerted scrutiny on the internet of that notorious broadcast might have spared the BBC later embarrassment — and the rest of us Greg Dyke’s self-regarding memoir.
The traditional vehicle of political activism is the organised campaign or interest group. Rendering political decision-making more sensitive to these groups is almost bound to produce unrepresentative outcomes, for the biggest interest group in a liberal democracy always comprises those who, politically speaking, are not particularly interested. Advancing from cornflakes to commentary in a single generation, the pyjama-clad are their champion.