Saturday, November 18, 2006

Crisis and disaster: blogs vs mainstream media

Matthew Taylor, strategic advisor to Tony Blair, “fears the internet could be fuelling a ‘crisis’ in the relationship between politicians and voter,” according to the BBC. He said:

“At a time at which we need a richer relationship between politicians and citizens than we have ever had, to confront the shared challenges we face, arguably we have a more impoverished relationship between politicians and citizens than we have ever had. It seems to me this is something which is worth calling a crisis. …
“The internet has immense potential but we face a real problem if the main way in which that potential expresses itself is through allowing citizens to participate in a shrill discourse of demands. If you look at the way in which citizens are using technology and the way that is growing up, there are worrying signs that that is the case.
“What is the big breakthrough, in terms of politics, on the web in the last few years? It’s basically blogs which are, generally speaking, hostile and, generally speaking, basically see their job as every day exposing how venal, stupid, mendacious politicians are.
“The internet is being used as a tool of mobilisation, which is fantastic, but it only adds to the growing, incommensurate nature of the demands being made on government.”

Well now. I can only speak for myself, but I try to do various things with my political blogging. Sometimes, yes indeed, if I think a politician (or for that matter, a media pundit) is being venal, stupid, or mendacious, then I’ll say so; sometimes I try to poke fun. But if I automatically assumed they were all liars and rogues, I wouldn’t bother at all. Sometimes I look at a particular policy issue and try to explain some aspect of a problem and how, perhaps, it might be dealt with. Sometimes I discuss party electoral strategy. Sometimes I argue more abstractly about political philosophy. My blog is a mixed bag, and even if you think it’s a deeply third-rate mix, it simply can’t be defined as driven by hostility.

Actually, I was wrong above when I said that I could only speak for myself. Another thing I can do is to give a very few examples, picked from the Bloggers4Labour blogroll over the past couple of days, of political posts that are constructive and non-shrill. I’ve deliberately chosen ones that refer specifically to individuals, to show that this can be a way into raising an issue thoughtfully without being a prelude to a personal attack.

Dai on libertarian socialism and Peter Hain’s deputy leadership hopes; Aaron Heath on Central Asian power politics in light of Robert Gates’s appointment as US Defence Secretary; Paulie on how more politicians should put their persuasive abilities to the public test, as Tony Blair does; Bill Jones on Milton Friedman’s legacy.

Also, Nightowl, Brian Hughes and Mike Ion respond to Taylor constructively, taking his point as regards some political blogs (including some of the more prominent ones) but cautioning against overgeneralisation.

(A couple of idle hypotheses: [1] many of the more prominent political blogs owe some of their prominence to coverage in the mainstream media; [2] the mainstream media prefer to cover blogs that are personalised and hostile.)

The worries that Taylor has are really nothing to do with blogging. If you give an aggressive idiot a blog, you’ll get aggressive, idiotic blogging. If you give them a job on a newspaper, you’ll get aggressive, idiotic reporting. The medium is only a medium: it mediates between a source and an audience. The quality of the source is the determining factor. But of course, different media do mediate in different ways.

One thing to be said loudly and clearly in favour of blogs is that their great diversity means there’s a far broader range of topics covered, and perspectives taken on given topics, than in the relatively few outlets that dominate the mainstream media. There’s a fine example of personalising and simplifying herdthink in the MSM today that shows their tendency – even in pieces that are nominally news reporting rather than comment – to favour gaffe-chasing and playing the blame game over simply informing their readers.

It’s an example that Matthew Taylor should appreciate, as it concerns his boss. Tony Blair was interviewed by David Frost for the new Al Jazeera English service. One aspect of the interview was widely reported:

BBC: ‘Blair accepts “disaster” in Iraq’
Times: ‘Iraq war “pretty much a disaster”, Blair concedes’
Telegraph: ‘Iraq invasion a disaster, Blair admits’
Guardian: ‘Intervention in Iraq “pretty much of a disaster” admits Blair’
Independent: ‘Blair suggests Iraq has become a disaster but blames “terrorists”’
Financial Times: ‘Iraq war a disaster, signals PM on al-Jazeera’
Channel 4 News: ‘Blair admits failings in Iraq’
Sky News: ‘Blair admits Iraq “disaster”’

Gosh. Pretty unanimous. But dig into each of these reports and some fog emerges. They all make clear that Frost, not Blair, used this word in a question, and Blair replied:

“It has, but you see, what I say to people is, ‘why is it difficult in Iraq?’ It’s not difficult because of some accident in planning, it’s difficult because there’s a deliberate strategy - al-Qaida with Sunni insurgents on one hand, Iranian-backed elements with Shia militias on the other - to create a situation in which the will of the majority for peace is displaced by the will of the minority for war.”

Now, even though I agree that the ‘insurgents’ of various stripes are entirely culpable for the people they choose to kill, I disagree with him that failures of planning had no contributory role. But that’s beside the point. What does that opening “It has” mean? What exactly is it that was described as a “disaster”?

The BBC says that it was “the Western intervention there”. The Times says “the Western intervention in Iraq”. The Telegraph says “the West’s military intervention”. The Guardian says “western intervention in Iraq”. The Independent says “the western intervention”. The FT says “the western intervention in Iraq”. Channel 4 says “the West’s intervention in Iraq”. Sky says “the western intervention in Iraq”.

All the quotation marks here are because I am quoting the media, who seem to agree on the concept if not the wording; none of them quotes what Frost actually said. The BBC helpfully provides a two-minute video clip of the interview, but unhelpfully starts it with Blair’s “It has”.

I can’t find a fuller video or a transcript, but the nearest I can get to the horse’s mouth is the write-up on Al Jazeera, which says:

“Tony Blair, the British prime minister, has admitted in an interview with Al Jazeera English that events in Iraq since the US-led invasion have been a ‘disaster’. But he insisted it was right to remove Saddam Hussein, the country’s former leader, from power and he blamed al-Qaeda, Sunni fighters and Iran-backed forces for the ongoing violence. …
“Speaking on the Frost Over the World programme, Frost suggested that since the 2003 invasion of Iraq events there had been ‘pretty much of a disaster’. Blair replied: ‘It has, but …’”

We still aren’t told precisely what point Frost put to Blair. But it does say, twice, that Frost was referring to “events” in Iraq “since” the invasion as disastrous, which is not the same thing at all as the Western military intervention. This is at least fairly strongly indicative that Downing Street’s standard protests of ‘misrepresentation’ are justified.

But possibly not. Perhaps Frost really was talking about the Western intervention. But if so, why couldn’t any of the media just tell us what Frost asked? The universal refusal to quote, and the unanimity of the supposed paraphrases with some variant including the word ‘intervention’, don’t inspire confidence. They have, acting as a herd, spun the interview in a way that portrays Blair as having slipped up and ‘admitted’ that his policies were a disaster. And none of them has supported this with evidence.

You’d not get that in the blogosphere. Well, not the better parts of it…

[Update: Victory (partially)! The BBC story about Blair’s interview, in the version I read at the start of the day and then quoted, had said: “Mr Blair was challenged by Sir David over the violence in Iraq, saying that the Western intervention there had ‘so far been pretty much of a disaster’.” A later version (11.00 GMT) says instead: “Mr Blair was challenged by Sir David over the violence in Iraq, saying it had ‘so far been pretty much of a disaster’.” Good call, Beeb!]

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