Journalism – and especially political journalism – is about criticism. The meat and drink of the oeuvre is taking people, governments or other institutions to task, either for not doing things, for doing things, or doing them badly.
If they do things well, they are largely ignored. A functioning system doesn’t make headlines (although it might if we ever had a government IT system that worked). By its very nature, the media concentrates on “bad” news, and on criticism rather than plaudits.
Strangely though, those very journalists (and their employers) who so freely dish out their criticisms of all and sundry tend to be rather unenthusiastic about being on the receiving end.
In the old days, of course, there was no problem. Letters to the editor, attacking a story (or its author) has no chance of being published, while there was a “gentleman’s agreement” between proprietors, that “dog shall not eat dog” – one that largely holds to this day. With the exception of Private Eye, the media did not attack other media.
What then brought the biggest change since newspapers graduated from their leafleting origins, was the internet. It had several effects, one of the most obvious being online commentary.
For the first time, readers were able to air their views on the material they were being offered, without the approval of the letters’ editors. However, there were the dreaded moderators, who for a while held the line (and some still do), removing any content that attacked either the medium or the author.
While many posters have thus been banned, there has developed a sort of uneasy vade mecum, whereby you are permitted to attack the author in general terms – although not too often – but you are not allowed to attack the host, the specific media which carries the piece. Mostly, though, generalised attacks on the media are permitted.
As a result, within certain limits, commenters often get a free pass when attacking online authors, many of whom stand above the fray, choosing not to defend their work against what is sometimes a torrent of rather unpleasant abuse – on the very sensible basis that it is unwise to get into a fight with a chimney sweep.
Into this unholy mix comes the political blogger – of which there are three broad types: the media-hosted; the party affiliated; and the diminishing band of the non-aligned, such as EU Referendum, who neither have media backing nor support any particular party.
Sticking with the non-aligned, in common with the legacy media, we are able to take people, governments or other institutions to task, either for not doing things, for doing things, or doing them badly. Sometimes we can do it better. Most often, the media, with its greater resources and contacts, will take the lead.
But, non-aligned bloggers also enjoy the unique position of being able to criticise the media. The party affiliated blogs will not do this, and they are in bed with them, but we can and do take on the giants and point out their all too frequent failings – a process that is so easy at times that it is embarrassing.
To my certain knowledge, the newspapers know this, and hate the criticism. But they adopt the tactic of ignoring it – much the same tactic they used with UKIP in the early days. They don’t link to us and, where others place our links on legacy media comments, they very often (but not always) disappear.
However, this means that, as bloggers, we are out on our own, and more so if we are attacking party-affiliated blogs and well as political parties. Some bloggers take great offence at being criticised, believing that – unlike the general media – they should be immune. This belief they often apply to their own comments, ruthlessly deleting those who disagree with them.
This brings me to the main point of this post, which is to explore the relationship between bloggers and their readers, and with that sub-set who comment on their posts. Here, quite obviously, I can only speak for myself – although I am fully aware that some of my observations will apply elsewhere.
The reason why it becomes necessary to take time to do this is that there is a certain proportion of commenters who have a seriously distorted view as to the nature of blogging – and what bloggers may or may not owe to their readers – and vice versa. Basically, I need a post on the record, to which I can link when I have to confront certain commentators, without having to write a specific response each time.
Firstly, in order to set the scene, I need to explain why I blog, and why I am still blogging after more then ten years – one of the longest-serving non-aligned bloggers in the country. And, as with any complex enterprise, there is no single answer.
The first reason is that I am Christopher Booker’s researcher- and have been for over 20 years. I don’t work for the Sunday Telegraph (although I used to do so) but for him personally, on issues related to his column.
Before even blogs (and the internet) became established, I used to write every week for him a number of news briefings on specific subjects, that he could use in his column. Some were by request. Others were more speculative, others were markers to flag up developing issues which might become relevant later.
Initially, I was sending these to Booker by fax, and then when we both got internet (and the computers that went with it), I used to send him e-mails. Because some of the content was of use and interest to others, I would also send copies to an expanding mailing list. Eventually, several hundred people were getting my briefings each week.
For a lot of reasons, it then made absolute sense to migrate onto a blog, making it more accessible, and reducing the time it took to administer an e-mail list. And initially, it enabled me to include a co-author, Helen Szamuely, who has since moved to her own blog.
The second trigger which brought us into the blogosphere was the promise of a referendum on the then EU constitution by Tony Blair, back in 2004. We thought it would be a good idea to provide information for “no” campaigners which was not then (or now) being provided by the media or the political parties.
Thirdly, I had by then developed a business as a political analyst and free-lance researcher, providing political and other clients with briefings on specific subjects. As with Booker, some were commissioned – some were general, background briefings. And once again, for a lot of very good reasons, it made sense to publish these on the blog – sometimes as the primary mechanism of communication.
Fourthly, the blog gave me (and Helen) a visible platform- a “shop window”, so to speak. Determinedly independent and knowing that no one else could be relied upon to host our material, it gave us a mechanism to reach a larger number of people than we could by normal means. It also offered a small opportunity for soliciting donations to help keep the bailiffs from the doors and it strengthened our influence in certain political quarters.
Of the major reasons for blogging, though, there was one more: the comments system, which gravitated into a forum and then become a comments system as well. The opportunity to get feedback from a wide range of readers has always been one of my main motivations for blogging, as it is through these that one learns a very great deal. Thus, by and large, I welcome criticism, and even insults. In fact, as Winston Churchill might possibly have averred, there is no finer art than the well-crafted political insult.
It appears, though, that this brings me into conflict with a number of my commenters, those who – used to the legacy media way of doing things – believe they have a free pass to criticise me on my own blog, while remaining immune from any response. These are free with their insults (some not even realising they are being insulting) yet take grave exception when I respond in kind.
That brings me to the first point that I need to make. Simply, it is this: I do, most sincerely welcome feedback, and have no problems even with insults (as opposed to abuse). But my main (but not my only) criterion by which I judge comments is whether they add value.
Thus, a comment that tells me I am wrong, without telling me why (especially when I am not), is of no use to me. A comment which picks up any one of my numerous errors is welcome, and treasured – even if I do fight my corner sometimes, before accepting a disputed point.
But what I won’t accept is gratuitous abuse, irrelevant dogma or those who complain when I respond in like manner to their own insults, whether deserved or not. This is a blog written by an adult, for adults. Expect as good as you give.
The second point I need to make is in response to those readers – very often identified by their own statements to that effect – who seem to believe that, by reading my blog, they are doing me some kind of favour. We get a lot of these and not just on this blog. Other bloggers get the same.
Usually attached to that is some kind of condition – in my case, an assertion that if only I modified my writings in some way, they would read more of my posts, and more people would come flocking to the blog.
Of course, I am fully aware that if I wanted to maximise hits, I would need to research what my target audience wants to see and then tailor my output for them. That assumes, however, that I am in the business of maximising hits, which might have been the case once, but certainly is no longer.
In this, I have to introduce yet other reasons for blogging. Essentially, I do it for myself, in the first instance because I enjoy writing, secondly because writing about things focuses the mind and helps me make sense of them, and thirdly, because I am often able to make use of the material in writing books for publication.
That latter process started with The Ministry of Defeat, and carried over into The Many Not The Few, and is currently informing Flexcit, where I am able to try out and develop ideas, before committing using them in a publication. Thus, the blog becomes a test bed for new ideas.
The point that emerges from this is that there is a hierarchy to my audience. Primarily, I write for myself. Then I write for Booker and a very small group of clients and influence-makers. And there’s the rub. If there was no-one else involved, and no-one else looked at the blog, my output would largely be the same. The blog would soldier on.
Only then, therefore, is the blog available to the general reader. Make no mistake here – I welcome you to the blog, and enjoy having you follow my work. But you owe me nothing (although I’m incredibly grateful for the donations), and I owe you nothing – individually or collectively.
Essentially, I write what I write, and if you care to read it, I am very pleased to have provided something of value. But I will not accept any form of conditionality, changing my work (or style) just to soothe my critics. For those who tell me that they deliberately turn away from my work because it does not please them, that is their loss. Non-readers, and even regular ex-readers, are of absolutely no interest to me.
And despite the pundits chirping about blogging, as they do from time-to-time, I am one of the few non-aligned bloggers who – the aid of donations and sponsorship – actually make a living out of my craft. It’s not brilliant, but it’s something very few others have achieved – and that’s without having to resort to advertising. In other words, unlike many of my critics, I am a successful blogger, and on my own terms.
Nevertheless, a lot of people do make the assumption that I am after volume (of hits). And if that was my original model, it led to the discovery of two things …the volume has to be insanely high for a British blog (easier if you are American), and to get the volume you have to make too many compromises. So I’ve come up (more by accident than design) with a different economic model.
In this, I’ve managed to square the circle. I have a blog where successes is not dependent on reader volume, which means I don’t have to pander to a general readership. I can go for quality rather than quantity. And quality blogging requires quality readers. The rest can go elsewhere.
To conclude, I come to a comment made to my son, who writes the blog, Complete Bastard. He is something of a chip off the old block, but he is his own master – I do not tell him what to write, and nor would I want to. But, to his work (and mine), he got this feline comment: