The weblog of Commentary magazine refers American readers to a recent amicable exchange:
A contretemps about the value of political blogging is currently taking place between Oliver Kamm and Norm Geras, two British intellectuals who have vigorously opposed what today passes in Britain for mainstream liberal commentary - and, as it happens, two formidable bloggers. Kamm, a leftist in domestic politics, vocally supports a neoconservative foreign policy; Geras is a Marxist political philosopher and a co-author of the Euston Manifesto, an online statement denouncing the growing alliance between the European Left and radical Islamists that has garnered dozens of signatories.
So what, you might ask, are they arguing about? About this puzzling statement from Kamm in the Guardian last week: "Blogs are providers not of news but of comment. This would be a good thing if blogs extended the range of available opinion in the public sphere. But they do not; paradoxically, they narrow it. This happens because blogs typically do not add to the available stock of commentary: they are purely parasitic on the stories and opinions that traditional media provide."
This was a curious lament from one who not only has his own blog but who sees nothing but political tendentiousness on display in such "old media" outlets as the BBC and, indeed, the Guardian.
I said I would respond to Norman's argument, and do so in this post. But first I should point out that our American observer, Michael Weiss, is mistaken on one point. I am very far from seeing "nothing but political tendentiousness on display" at the BBC and The Guardian. I am critical of the BBC's journalistic standards, but I don't take the view that the corporation's news output is politically biased. In my opinion, its principal fault is the opposite: in trying to avoid any suspicion of bias, it ends up pursuing equidistance from contending parties' interpretations and confusing it with objectivity. The Guardian, conversely, is a good newspaper whose values I share. I have many differences with its editorial line - though on important issues in my adult lifetime, such as Nato's deployment of Cruise missiles in the 1980s and Milosevic's aggression in the 1990s, it has been right, in contrast to significant bodies of opinion among its readers. I regard with scepticism certain of its regular columnists (one in particular, who is a resolute foe - as I am not - of "Islamophobia", a concept I consider bogus). But I am a fan of The Guardian's news coverage, which is generally successfully kept separate from the paper's opinion columns.
These are, after all, news organisations. They strive for accuracy. My ire is reserved for the absurdly-termed "blogosphere", which has no editorial control and operates by different standards. When I wrote my column for The Guardian about this damaging phenomenon, I added a footnote to the version I posted on this site, to include links to Norman's criticisms along with those of Daniel Finkelstein and Stephen Pollard. I did so because these are more serious arguments than most defences of blogging.
(By contrast, see this blog, previously unknown to me. Its author states: "Oliver Kamm, who describes himself as left-wing, has very right-wing views about the great unwashed: 'the problem with this [poor] section of society is that they don't have a culture of responsibility', unlike he says, those whose 'parents were respectable people'. [from BBC Radio 4 Talking Politics 14 April 2007]" The blogger then draws an analogy - I think - with my supposedly snooty attitude to the blogosphere. The first quotation he gives is in fact from John Rentoul of The Independent on Sunday, who was also on the programme and is well able to speak for himself; the second is not from me either, and nor can I identify its source. As an important part of my argument was that the blogosphere diminishes policy debate, I was pleased to see this and very many other involuntary confirmations of my point. [UPDATE: The blogger who imagined he was making a clever analogy between my views on the blogosphere and my views on social policy has now discreetly deleted his post.])
In short, my friends whom I've linked to observe that there are good blogs and bad blogs, and that it makes no sense to talk of a homogeneous medium. I disagree. There are good blogs, but it is an act of faith to suppose that good blogs will determine the practice of the blogosphere. I see no evidence that this is true and some evidence against. If you want a cautionary tale, look at the example - which I've raised once or twice on this site - of Wikipedia. Supposedly the wisdom of crowds will enable incremental improvements in which good practice will in the end supersede the bad. You can quite as well argue - and certainly observe in practice - that a Web-based encyclopaedia with no standards of expertise will exhibit a decline in quality. As one of Wikipedia's founders observed recently, Wikipedia is "broken beyond repair" owing to its determined refusal to discriminate between expertise, and it must "jettison its anti-elitism".
As contributions to public debate, blogs are like that. The blogosphere isn't a single site, of course, but it does tend to exhibit some common characteristics that damage the quality of public life. Take an example that is fairly trivial and that to some readers will seem quaint. I share the view of Noam Chomsky that if you write to someone seeking his views then you should treat the reply as private correspondence rather than post it without permission on your blog or on a message board. From my experience - and I am not comparing my public following to Chomsky's - bloggers collectively have no notion of this principle. They have never heard of it and wouldn't understand it if they had. Their practice is an innovation, made possible by the instant character of Web-based publishing, and one that in my view corrodes the quality of public debate.
On a far more important point, I have much sympathy with the views of the novelist Howard Jacobson in The Independent :
There are reasons, in most instances, why some people achieve distinction as commentators and others don't. Reasons not unconnected with clarity of mind, soundness of judgement, patience, reason, acuity and the wherewithal to express thought.
Every man has a novel in him, the saying goes. No, he doesn't. Very few men have novels in them. What they have in them is idle inclination. And so it is with articles, reviews, blogs, and even letters. Very few people have one in them. Democracies insist that every dog must have his say, but our society is dying not of suppressed opinion but an overproduction of it.
We professionals are partly to blame for conniving in the fallacy that everyone's views are worth listening to. Some of us append our email addresses to the bottoms of our columns as though we cannot wait to be engaged in corrective conversation with those of our readers we would least like to run into in the park. Others agree to blog for their online newspapers though they know their blog will only initiate streams of bile. Indeed, you wonder whether the bile isn't what the newspaper are really after, and the occasioning essay merely bait.
The overproduction of opinion is the most debilitating of the blogosphere's effects on our political culture. In my article I pointed out that, in the conversation that blogs conduct, you need no competence to join in. To that, Norman replies: "Well, so you don't. Neither do you, to join in political discussion at a public meeting." Indeed; but the comparison I was implying was not with the individual voter. It was with the press and broadcasting media. Bloggers do after all consider themselves to be engaged in "citizen journalism"; and they are not journalists of any kind, because they do not operate under the same constraints as journalism does. What they are instead is a self-selecting sample of political activists untrammelled by editorial standards of quality or factual accuracy. And these are the people - as I demonstrated with reference to a dispiriting speech by a senior Conservative, George Osborne MP - whom political parties profess to be listening to. Bloggers ought not to be listened to, but, like any other lobby, politely discounted.
There is an additional constraint which, because it's a big subject, I shall devote a separate post to. It was raised tangentially in a recent article by the Sunday Times columnist India Knight about two recent legal cases:
There's nothing pleasurable about being defamed, although it comes with the territory if you're even remotely successful. Even if you aren't, blogs are so plentiful and, for the most part, uncensored that everyone will soon have experience of this, whether they're an A-lister or a plumber....
Both these cases set an interesting precedent - if it's simply not worth suing bloggers, will bloggers become self-moderating, or wilder and wilder in their allegations?
I have an interest and some experience of the issue of blogging and libel law, and so may be able to give a better informed judgement on this, at least, than other bloggers. (As some readers will recall, last year I defeated a purported writ that had been issued with high ineptitude by someone who sought, and was never going to secure, the excision from this blog of fair and true comments, such as these, on a matter of public interest.) In that unsought capacity I shall try to answer Ms Knight's question shortly.
UPDATE: One point I ought to have made clear and didn't: as in my Guardian article on this subject, my criticisms relate not to blogging in general but to that small subclass of the medium that is political blogging. One of my regular correspondents, who is among the most distinguished academics in his field, points out the range of expert blogs on, say, physics written by physicists, linguistics written by linguists, and so on almost indefinitely. That point is well taken; my criticisms don't apply to specialist blogs whether written for scholars and practitioners or to communicate scholarship to a more general audience.