There was a time in the not so dim and distant past when mainstream journalists viewed bloggers as the media equivalent of trainspotters. We were people who reputedly sat in our bedrooms, wearing an anorak and typing furiously on a laptop because we had nothing better to do with our lives.
The Prescott affair has changed that. Blogs have helped make the political weather and for the first time in this country they have set the agenda for the mainstream media. And boy do they hate it. Over the next few days you’ll be treated to a stream of feature articles trying to explain this phenomenon and assessing what the long term implications are for the so-called ‘dead tree’ media. If we want to see the future for blogging and its relationship with the media we only need look across the Atlantic, where they’re a few years ahead of us. But before we do, let’s explain what a blog is.
The word blog is short for weblog. Translated, that means an online diary on which a blogger writes his or her views on life. A good blog is updated daily, is attractively presented and in some way is unique.
Blogs are easy to set up. If you’ve got a computer and an internet connection you can set up a blog free of charge within a few minutes. And it’s because of the easiness of access blogging has brought citizen journalism and commentary to the masses. It’s not just the likes of me who can pontificate on the great issues of the day – you can do it too. If you want to start now – but I’d be grateful if you finished reading this article first! – go to www.blogger.com or www.wordpress.com.
Matt Drudge is the most famous blogger in America. It was he who revealed the Monica Lewinsky scandal which almost brought down President Clinton. American broadcasters and print journalists didn’t know how to report the story at first, or even whether to report it at all. Their initial reaction was to be furious that a blogger had got the story ahead of the traditional media, and they then wondered if they should ignore it. We all know the result.
And this week, Britain has mirrored the Lewinsky scandal in the media response to a blogger revealing the identity of a female Labour MP who is alleged to have had an affair with our beloved soon-to-be ex Deputy Prime Minister. I should make clear that I have not named her on my blog, although I have linked to the Guido Fawkes blog which does name her.
It's classic New Labour tactics to smear those who are seeking to criticise them. We've seen it with Rose Addis, Martin Sixsmith, Pam Warren and a whole litany of others. This week, Prescott's henchmen turned their venom on Guido Fawkes and me. They briefed a newspaper anonymously saying they had advised Prescott to take legal action against Guido and me and to "have our sites closed down" - a typical New Labour threat. Just for the record, unless they amend the law, it would be impossible for them to do this as both our blogs are hosted in the United States. An anonymous Labour MP (aren't they always?) said "They are running a dirty tricks campaign and they are being used as a conduit by journalists."
So is there any truth in this accusation? Are blogs purely a conduit for unsubstantiated gossip? In some cases, of course - just as newspapers and various radio & TV programmes are. We all know that the Westminster village is a hive of political gossip, much of it either wishful thinking or vicious innuendo. The fact that some of it is repeated on blogs is actually having the consequence of allowing the public into the sometimes closed world of Westminster. It's up to them to judge whether what they read is healthy or not.
But it is also true to say that Blogs are no different from newspaper diary columns. They both specialise in the same sort of tittle tattle and they are both subject to exactly the same libel laws. The only difference is that if Hugo Rifkind gets sued for something he writes in his Times diary, Rupert Murdoch will pick up the tab. If I get sued, I don't have any big media organisation in the background to help me out. The consequence is that I am careful what I write.
But this isn’t the first time the traditional media has followed the blog agenda. I was the first to reveal Charles Kennedy was under threat from his LibDem colleagues because of his drinking problem. A few weeks ago I wrote on my blog that I couldn’t understand why national newspapers were ignoring the story of Cherie Blair autographing a copy of the Hutton Report. Within a few hours the story was on the radio and TV and the next day dominated the front pages. At first I thought it was a coincidence but I subsequently learned from half a dozen political editors that my article was the match which lit the fuse. Only then did I really begin to understand the power of my blog.
In the US presidential aspirants like Hilary Clinton are hiring bloggers to harness the so-called blogosphere for her campaign. David Cameron has just taken on an internet expert from Google. One of America’s most popular bloggers, British born Andrew Sullivan now writes his blog, the Daily Dish, for Time Magazine. So far the mainstream media has shied away from any formal relationship with bloggers, apart from blatantly lifting our stories with no attribution. I suspect this week will change that and provoke an interesting debate about just what kind of relationship there should be between the world of political blogs and journalists. Time to put my anorak back on.
Iain Dale’s Diary is at www.iaindale.blogspot.com