Frontline Club: Politics and blogging

Last night, Suw and I went to a discussion on World Press Freedom Day at the Frontline Club here in London. I’ve tidied up my liveblog notes and added a little commentary as well as tried to link out to the sources that were mentioned.

The moderator, Richard Gizbet of Al Jazeera English’s Listening Post, started off this evening: “We’re here to talk aboout the blogosphere and the MSM: What it is good at and what it’s not good at.”

The panel:

Ben Hammersley, former multimedia correspondent at the Guardian

Kevin Marsh, BBC College of Journalism and former editor of the Today programme at Radio 4.

Ethan Zuckerman, with Global Voices Online, OpenNet Initiative (Ethan let me know that while he lends a hand at ONI, that he’s not actually on the project team).

Alaa Abd El-Fatah, Egyptian blogger at Manal and Alla’s bit bucket

Richard first talked about his fascination with the Egyptian blogosphere. It’s one of the least covered but most active in the Middle East. Alaa has used technology to help empower activists. More on that later.

Richard: I do a broadcast at Al Jazeera called the Listening Post. In the 18 months before we pitched this and we got on air, we had an idea of what this would look like. We thought it would be a multimedia look at the newspapers around the world. That has all changed, in large part what is going on in the blogosphere. They are pushing, pushing mainstream media.

Ben: Difficult to know where to start this. Key thing to talk about over the next half hour is the results of this revolution. Free tools to express yourself. For every blogger, there is a different style of blogging. There is not one blogging, there are 50,000 different kinds of blogging. There are free or cheap tools on the internet. There is no such thing as blogging (in the sense that there is one thing called blogging, not to put words in Ben’s mouth but to try to interpret), just blogging tools and lots of people are using them.

Kevin Marsh: I think if there is one point that I really want to emphasise this evening are the claims that are being made in mature democracies on its behalf of blogging to mend politics and mend political journalism. Those aims are unachievable. It is wrong to say that blogging fixes what is broken in politics and what is wrong with political journalism. It would be wrong on World Press Freedom day to say that people shouldn’t have freedom speech, but I don’t think blogging reconnects the political disconnect that exists in mature democracies. Politics and political journalism is broken, but I don’t think that blogging will fix that.

Ethan: One of the things that we’re interested in at Global Voices doesn’t address Kevin’s concerns about mature democracies, but it is about providing views and opinions from developing nations. In a lot of countries, the blogosphere is a lot less constrained than the press or the broadcast media. If you are in Zimbabwe, you can’t really get free views from the press or broadcast media that you can get from bloggers, some blogging anonymously. The openness in this space is closing quite rapidly. The number of countries filtering the internet is expanding.

Richard: Go to Alla in a few minutes This week there was another casualty in the Egyptian blogosphere. One of the bloggers, Sand Monkey, has decided to pack it in.

Sand Monkey said that he thought security was closing in on him and that soon his anonymity would be blown.

Alaa: Sand Monkey had some complaint with others in the blogosphere. It looks grim. There are two bloggers in jail. There have been several bloggers taken by security. This is not new. This is normal. It happens to journalists all the time. It happens to activitists all the time. We are now worried that the government is attacking the medium itself. With the religious taboos, there are many who are looking to limit freedom of speech. We see people who are being sent to jail. It is difficult to say if this is a trend that will continue. It is having a chilling effect at the moment.

Ethan: Let me jump in on this chilling effect. There are two ways gov’ts can constrain access. They can limit access technically. China, Ethiopia and Pakistan limiting access to The other way is to intimidate people to tell them that they are under surveillance. When you see Sand Monkey stop blogging, you see a chilling effect.

By threatening to arrest a few people, you can silence hundreds or thousands of people.

Ben: It’s very interesting to ask yourself, these gov’ts not technically sophisticated. Why is the blogosphere being targetted as bad speech? Bloggers are the ultimate boogeyman for authoritarian governments. It’s like the moral majority in the US or UK blaming video games for violence. Is it because bloggers so efficient at spreading political ideas or just because they are new?

Alaa: We are seeing a general crackdown. It affects bloggers less than mainstream media. Bloggers use the medium for journalism but also for activism. There is media interest.You hear more about bloggers being arrested than journalists being arrested.

Ethan: I think that governments being interested in controlling information that blogging is very interesting for activism. One thing that freaks out gov’ts is that this is an international space. Ethiopia is worried about what is being said by Ethiopians abroad. They are more strident than if they lived in Ethiopian. The internet is more open than other media.

Media enthusiasm can’t be discounted. Bloggers are arrested and they blog from jail, as Alaa did. Activists can get their message out to a wider audience. If bloggers can do this, it is not just for local activists but to get the message out to the rest of the world.

Richard: Broaden this out to Virginia Tech shootings. There was the discussion about the appropriateness of using video, but this was the first time mainstream media turned to blogosphere. Students blogging in real time on Live Journal, MySpace and Facebook. They were upset. Called it digital doorstepping. In the Guardian, Patrick Barkham said that bloggers didn’t understand the public space they were in. He said they need to grow up. (The full discussion on the Media Guardian between Patrick and blogger Jeff Jarvis) Kevin, is if fair for journalists to go there?

Kevin Marsh: I might be one of the few people who think it isn’t right to go there. It’s right to say that people who were filing stuff to MySpace or whatever that they should have known the rules. You go back to people uploading stuff, it wasn’t their intention that the media …

(I have to interrupt the liveblogging with a bit of a postscript: He compared it to someone who had written something in a diary. He said that a diary because it is written is now public. I couldn’t disagree with this analogy more strongly. I have a paper journal in addition to the blogs I write. When I die, I have instructed friends that my journals are to be burnt. Just because I wrote them on paper, I do not want them public under any circumstances. These are my private thoughts, my private musings, and I do not want them ever made public. Everyone compares blogging to keeping a diary. Yes, most people blog about their personal experiences, but I have levels of what I want public and private. I think this analogy stands up very poorly, and I do not consider my personal diaries as public record or in the public domain in any way. As a journalist, I reject the idea that my personal diaries are public in any way whatsoever.)

Kevin Marsh: At the first time in history, we have the ability to build up the richest picture in history. It makes me uneasy. I do wonder if there should have been a pause button. Where is the common humanity? Is it true that they filed to the globe that that was their intention?

Richard: Any thoughts from Cairo or US on digital doorsteping?

Ethan: Most bloggers most of the time are writing for a tiny audience. Most on LiveJournal are writing in public but only writing for a dozen people. But the same is true for most bloggers. What happened for Virginia Tech, they were writing for a very small group but what they were writing was interesting to a very large audience. People find themselves committing acts of journalism. What got tricky with Virginia Tech, they didn’t embrace that identity. They found themselves writing for a much larger audience. Journalists need to be sensitive that people may be writing in public but writing for a much smaller group of people.

Alaa: Most journalists assume that bloggers want to be journalists. Most bloggers don’t want to be journalists. Sometimes when journalists are telling your story or quoting you, you are being put in a different context. It is very common in Egypt that newspaper use comments from the blog. People are angry are about it. There is this idea that you are writing to smaller public and a public online. I don’t know what can be done. It is bound to happen.

Ben: One of the things that we have to deal with is the rapidly changing standards of media literacy. We’ve only had the internet for 10 years. We’ve only had blogging as a mass phenomenon for three or four years. I think it’s very interesting what Kevin was saying with LiveJournal stuff. If you say that you can’t use found letters, then documentarians would be out of a business. Ken Burns couldn’t have made the Civil War. The British Library said that they were starting to collect e-mails.

Richard: Too bad, we can’t get the White House to do the same.

Ben: We haven’t made the rules, but we have the old rules. The idea that it was written this morning and not hundreds of years ago. Does it really change anything?

Richard: When we were first confronted by the power of the idea, it was seeing as a panacea.

Kevin Marsh: You still see it. You go to a politician’s blog site. They say it is all about engaging with the public. But it’s no more engaging with the public than knocking on doors. David Milliband quite interesting guy because we thought he was standing for leadership. When he says he isn’t running, he doesn’t do it on his blog, it goes into the Observer. It is difficult to differentiate between Boris Johnson writing on his blog and Boris Johnson writing on his blog. He has links to his articles on the blog.

In order to pass first base, you have to have a civil conversation. It’s very humbling when you look at political journalism in the last 25 years. You see the political journalism and it’s very easy for bloggers or anyone to do it better. Political blogging in the States is more or less a running commentary on the failings of political journalism. Here, it is more or less political journalism. Guido Fawkes, it’s rumour. It’s supposition. It’s the same thing that alienates people from political journalism. There is nothing special about putting Tony Blair on YouTube.

(Again, I have to interrupt. In holding up David Milliband, Boris Johnson and Tony Blair’s laughable efforts to publish content in an interactive space, I have to ask this questions: Is it a failing of blogging or vlogging, or a failure of politicians to grasp the idea, the opportunity that they could interact directly with their constituents in a new way? This is not a failure of blogging. This is a failure of mainstream politicians to truly engage, and I would say not only to engage via blogging but even through more traditional methods of political engagement. Later, Kevin Marsh will talk about authenticity. The problem with politicians moving into this space is similar to the failings of traditional media often in this space, they simply use a new tool in a traditional way. They use blogs as broadcast and publishing and forget the return channel. That’s not a failure of the technology. It’s a failure of vision and a failure to understand not only the technology of engagement, but engagement itself.)

Richard: I wondered why British political blogosphere such a quiter space. I think the blogosphere fills a vacuum where ever it is. It’s different in Belarus. The British blogopshere represents a tribute to mainstream British journalism. You felt like there were voices that spoke to you.

(I would disagree here as well. I think it’s a success in mainstream British journalism to marginalise voices that they find threatening. I think it’s a shame, not something that should be celebrated. I find unanimity, homogeneity and predicatability in the mediated conversation.

I also find a contradiction. The media here mourns a lack of civic participation, but then as some choose to participate via blogs, they attack and belittle bloggers’ contributions. And the only bloggers that get to play in the media space are those that are familiar and fit in current political alignments.

The US media is no better, using bloggers to reinforce a traditional political agenda. They highlight bloggers to perpetuate the right-left shouting match that has debased popular political discourse and leaves most people disinclined to participate out of frustration and alienation.)

Ben: The thing with the American blogosphere was that it was not to fill a void. It was to find a scapegoat. It rose with election of George Bush. America woke up day after election and recoiled up in horror at the other 50% of their country. They all blamed the media. left said Fox. Right said Hollywood. It became a meta conversation about the media.

Ethan: I am going to respectfully disagree with Ben on issue of timing. I saw a rise of political blogosphere in the lead up to ’04, not a follow up. People were desperately finding a way to participate. What came out of that was the Howard Dean campaign. It is very easy to get Americans active in online medium, but very difficult to get them helpful.

Bloggers very effective at raising money but what was less clear whether we created policy dialogue. It was the laziness of people wanting to be active without leaving their machines but feeling that things are quite off kilter in our country.

Kevin Marsh: I think that is really important. What is the most disappointing thing is seeing video of Joe Trippi on PrezVid. What did that achieve other than to campaign online? It ended no where. What was really disappointing, it was the relish Joe Trippi had that social networking sites would reveal more Macaca moments. What disturbed me was the relish he had in delivering more Macaca moments. That was the problem with traditional moment finding off guarded moment.

Alaa: I don’t know any about what you guys are talking about. If we think about blogging and fill a gap in journalism, in Egypt, we have not seen any coverage of local issues of local stories. When I looked at Lebanon, the way that bloggers see the world, it was very different than mainstream media sees the world. There is very little political blogging than goes beyond sectarian debates. There are black spots that aren’t being covered by bloggers as being covered by mainstream media.

Suw Charman: Why focus so tightly on political commentary bloggers? There are bloggers that talk about issues but not in a political world. There are bloggers talking about the ambulance service or NHS, or like the NGO I founded to talk about digital rights.

(Suw makes an excellent point, and I think one of the problems is that most people relate to governance and policy differently than politician and journalists.)

Richard: To be fair, Alaa not replicating political commentary

Kevin Marsh: The distinction of civic conversation what is connection behind sites that you are talking. What I don’t see is connection between that conversation and the political parties. I don’t see that connection. Political groups say look at all this conversation going on.

Ben: Massive class of blogs written by ambulance drivers, teachers and soldiers saying that this is broken.Their’s isn’t the failure. The failure is the political class. That is where poltics is broken. Used to say, politicians never meet nurse. If you’re in politics and dealing with health care why should you wait for Polly Toynbee to tell you that the health care system is broken.

In America, they are trying to ban military bloggers. It absolutely shows that it is broken, because you’re not listening to people you are serving. (Talked about here on Captain’s Quarters, here on Black Five or on Wired.)

Journalist with Japanese online newspaper: In Japan blogging is so huge, grown out of alternative media. Is there distrust of blogging in Britain?

Ben: Certainly, there was a distrust. Ben outs me as the Guardian blogs editor, as he says that it is entering the mainstream.

Ethan: I want to respond to Suw. I do think that we limit when we just talk about the political blogs. We show you the blogs talking about life and everyday issues. What are the issues of everyday life in Cambodia? I think that Ben’s point on milbloggers is spot on. What life is like for a soldier in Ramadi is critical for us. Bloggers that are taking a specific journalistic function.

Kevin Marsh: The trust element. The mainstream media is finding in blogs something difficult to find: Authenticity. Not out for out and out verification, but trying to find authentic voice. There is another thing. The BBC reported a story about riots two years ago. Thought it came out of nowhere. Look at Where I Live sites on the BBC, you could see tensions between West Indian and Asian communities. The precise elements pulling out there.

Ben: World Press Freedom day. Censorship doesn’t work. All of insurgents in Iraq are blogging themselves themselves silly. If you want to see US soldiers being shot, go to YouTube, on al Qaeda blogs. For Department of Defence to shut their side of the story down is silly.

Richard: The Department of Defence is outposting Iraqi bloggers 10 to 1. They are not stopping.

Ethan: This is the same mistake that the US government made with Radio Sawa. US government sees that YouTube is being used and think that to have US government video on YouTube is the answer.

Jonathan Charles, BBC Correspodent: While I think that this provides a slice of life, but I wonder whether bloggers’ lack of restraint harms their own case. Watch news, and I see that it is dissected by right and left. It is still a cacophony of voices. Do they discount themselves by their lack of restraint?

Kevin Marsh: I think it’s hard to talk about standards. I think you have to live with it. It feels a bit like journalism.

Jonathan Charles: Let me give you an example. I received an e-mail by someone. I responded and then it was posted on someone’s blog.

Alaa: It is precisely not a mature conversation not following norms and laws that it is important. If we chose to follow libel laws in Egypt, we would not be unable to talk about torture, unable to talk about corruption. You remove barriers that journalists have been unable to break through.

Member of audience: Blogs change standards of media literacy. I do question pilfering comments on MySpace for Virginia Tech. The second question is most influential political blogs. Philadelphia, Dan Rubin, Blink blog, tackles politics in very dispasssionate way.

Ben: The question about media literacy and privacy on MySpace answers itself. The social norms in MySpace and Live Journal are really only understand by people under 25. If you are the AP national reporter who discovered Google a couple of months ago, then they don’t understand the medium. We have to wait for everybody to catch up.

In US political blogs, there are people very good. In American political sites, you can always tell which side they are on. The non-mainstream blogs, you can always tell what side they are on.

Richard: My kids are on MySpace and Facebook, and my wife calls it MyFace.

Member of audience: Ask Alaa, if you see blogs as the new political opposition.

Alaa: I don’t think that blogs can go anywhere on their own. It is not what you can do on the internet, it is the network on the ground. When you add the blogosphere and SMS and e-mail to a thriving community of opposition, it can become very powerful. But if you don’t use these tools on the ground, you don’t have anything but debate. You see the rise of the new generation of activitists. It is being reflected in the blogs and empowered with technology. But it is turning out very easy to intimidate the activist bloggers.

Ethan: There are a wealth of other tools. You can’t neglect mobile phones or e-mail. What is great about the blogosphere, it is an international space.

Question from woman from Moscow human rights group: Several speakers have spoken about ethical limitations of blogging. To me, blogging is private, it has no ethical limits. It is about people getting on web and writing their private diaries. If there are politicians, it is public. If not public, how to apply ethical standards.

Ben: The ethics come in when you publish it in a public space like the internet. If you want it private, write it down in a book and put it under your bed.

Question in Russian: Director of journalism from Moscow. I wanted to draw attention that very important in Russia to situation of journalists to the rest of the world. Number of demonstrations around the world, police would arrest journalists. It is very important to have bloggers. Because of state control of internet, very hard to get information.

Ethan: Tremendously active Russian blogging scene. One of really interesting things is that Russian bloggers have attached themselves to LiveJournal because it makes it possible to constrain posts to certain audience. Some LiveJournal posts only limited to certain group. Different than in US where writing for a global audience.

Bill from Greece: What I feel from countries like the Middle East not as free as Greece, Europe or the US, feel like more free than working at BBC or Fox News. How are we going to protect this? How can we talk about these restrictions? Should we journalists put this on first level of information.

Richard: Not a plug for Al Jazeera. Egyptian blogosphere is a big story. We need to amplify the blogosphere where it is being shut down.

Kevin Marsh: I think that broadcasters do have a duty here. It comes back to the point of authenticity to take that point and amplify it. I think that blogging needs protection from a whole host of things. Mature democracies need protection as politicians look to social networking sites and they think that will solve their problems. You overlook at your peril of western politicians that these networks represent what is on the ground. This is free civic conversation but it isn’t politics.

Ben: Yes, there is a lot of nasty uncivil stuff on the blogosphere. If you want to see nasty comments, write a post about Israel-Palestine or read Richard Fisk’s e-mail. Free speech is a bitch, and the blogosphere needs to be defended even though at times you don’t want to look at it.

Member of audience: On one hand, we’re told we missed the story by not reading blogs in Birmingham, but we can’t go into blogs for Virginia Tech. But it is OK to send in large number of cameras to Virginia. Isn’t it less invasive to use found comments?

Kevin Marsh: Intrusion is part and parcel of journalism. This is a new phenomenon, a new medium. I agree with you rushing into a campus with a large number of cameras. that’s the nature of news. I’m much more equivocal about dipping into blogs and exchanged messages. I don’t think we have the etiquette sorted out. If you’re posting in what is your mind is half a private space or a public space.

Ben: A lot of people assume that they are writing under Chatham House rules.

Richard: Ethan, last comment from you.

Ethan: I think that a lot of this is learning how to read in this new medium. There are questions of how to read blogs. Look not just at post but through history of what they have written. Look back at who they writing for. Are they writing for the wider world or for just a few friends? It’s a new medium. We are learning not only how to write in this space but also how to read in this space.

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