This year is going to be the first British general election in which blogging is going to be a factor, someone said on Monday night at the event organized by the Westminster Skeptics on the subject of political blogging: does it make any difference? I had to stop and think: really? Things like the Daily Kos have been part of the American political scene for so long now - Kos was founded in 2002 - that they've been through two national elections already.
But there it was: "2005 was my big break," said Paul Staines, who blogs as Guido Fawkes. "I was the only one covering it. 2010 is going to be much tougher." To stand out, he went on to say, you're going to need a good story. That's what they used to tell journalists.
Due to the wonders of the Net, you can experience the debate for yourself. The other participants were Sunny Hundal (Liberal Conspiracy), Mick Fealty (Slugger O'Toole), Jonathan Isaby (Conservative Home), and the Observer journalist Nick Cohen, there to act as the token nay-sayer. (I won't use skeptic, because although the popular press like to see a "skeptic" as someone who's just there to throw brickbats, I use the term rather differently: skepticism is inquiry and skeptics ask questions and examine evidence.)
All four of political bloggers have a precise idea of what they're trying to do and who they're writing for. Jonathan Isaby, who claims he's the first British journalist to leave a full-time newspaper job (at the Telegraph) for new media, said he's read almost universally among Conservative candidates. Paul Staines aims Guido Fawkes at "the Westminster bubble". Mick Fealty uses Slugger O'Toole to address a "differentiated audience" that is too small for TV, radio, and newspapers. Finally, Sunny Hundal uses Liberal Conspiracy to try to "get the left wing to become a more coherent force".
Despite their various successes, Cohen's basic platform defended newspapers. Blogging, he said, is not replacing the essential core of journalism: investigation and reporting. He's right up to a point. But some do exactly that. Westminster Skeptics convenor David Allen Green, then standing approximately eight inches away, is one example. But it's probably true that for every blogger with sufficient curiosity and commitment to pick up a phone or bang on someone's door there are a couple of hundred more who write blog postings by draping a couple of hundred words of opinion around a link to a story that appeared in the mainstream media.
Of course, as Cohen didn't say, plenty of journalists\, through lack of funding, lack of time, or lack of training, find themselves writing news stories by draping a couple of hundred words of rewritten press release around the PR-provided quotes - and soul-destroying work it is, too. My answer to Cohen, therefore, is to say that commercial publishers have contributed to their own problems, and that one reason blogs have become such an entrenched medium is that they cover things that no newspaper will allow you to write about in any detail. And it's hard to argue with Cohen's claim that almost any blogger finding a really big story will do the sensible thing and sell it to a newspaper.
If you can. Arguably the biggest political story of 2009 was MPs' expenses. That material was released because of the relentless efforts of Heather Brooke, who took up the 2005 arrival into force of the UK's Freedom of Information Act as a golden opportunity. It took her nearly five years to force the disclosure of MPs' expenses - and when she finally succeeded the Telegraph wrote its own stories after poring over the details that were disclosed.
The fact is that political blogging has been with us for far longer than one five-year general election cycle. It's just that most of it does not take the same form as the "inside politics" blogs of the US or the traditional Parliamentary sketches in the British newspapers. The push for Libel reform began with Jack of Kent (David Allen Green); the push to get the public more engaged with their MPs began with MySociety's Fax Your MP. It was clear as long ago as 2006 that MPs were expert users of They Work For You: it's how they keep tabs on each other. MySociety's sites are not blogs - but they are the source material without which political blogging would be much harder work.
I don't find it encouraging to hear Isaby predict that in the upcoming election (expected in May) blogging "will keep candidates on their toes" because "gaffes will be more quickly reported". Isn't this the problem with US elections? That everyone gets hung up on calumnies such as that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet. Serious issues fall by the wayside, and good candidates can be severely damaged by biased reporting that happens to feed an eminently quotable sarcastic joke. Still: anything for a little light into the smoke-filled back rooms where British politics is still made. Even with smoking now banned, it's murky back there.