The steam appears to be leaving the Prescott story, for now at least. But it has had a galvanising effect on the UK blogosphere, which had been in a bit of a slumber for some time. The buzz continued from Wednesday’s Newsnight onto Sky, ITV News and finally a more relaxed, but frustratingly short, exchange on More Four News at 8pm last night.It was a set-piece discussion between Iain Dale and John Lloyd, who has put more thought into journalism than anyone else on these islands over the last few years. Lloyd made the point that the patterns we are seeing now are a repetition of what had happened in the US three and four years ago. He recalled journalists he knew on the New York Times agonising over whether they should pick up stories from blogger Matt Drudge or not. In the end they did, because Drudge was picking them up faster and more efficiently than them, and they felt they had no choice.
Returning to Prescott, Lloyd made the deeply unpopular assertion that there should be some respect due to the private lives of politicians in general. “After all, they have much less of a private life than the rest of us”. That’s something both journalists and bloggers should ponder before they blow the gaffe on every private door in Westminster (or ‘virtual’ Stormont and Leinster House for that matter).
Iain Dale was fairly hot on the issue of libel, and argued strongly that bloggers are just as vulnerable as journalists to libel action. More so, since the paper would take up the tab for a journalists indiscretion, whilst a blogger would have to respond to any action on his own account. This is undoubtedly true. Added to that is the problem for any blogger that the burden of proof is on the accused to prove innocence, not the other way round. You don’t get a choice: you have to fight it.
But as veteran of nearly a dozen libel threats (of varying levels of seriousness, none of which were regarding anything written by me), I’d add several very strong caveats to that.
It takes a fair amount of money to launch a libel suit. Papers clearly have assets, which makes it worth a plaintiff’s while going after the organisation responsible. In many cases the paper settles before it gets to court – in order to restrict damages. So there is a lot of playing of the margins. Taking a blogger to court is a gamble, since a typical action can cost in the region of £10,000. That’s not much good if you are not going to at least re-coup your costs at the end of the action, since the blogger in quesion may or may not have the means to stump up the damages.
This case has raised the profile (and therefore the public importance) of blogging. Some are already anxious that the relative anonymity of bloggers (thought by some to be a major protection for the freedom of discourse) is disappearing, and that blogger heads are above the parapet, the rigour of the law may not be long in falling terribly and swiftly.
Then, as one commenter put it on Paul Mason’s blog:
…you have the problem of the “No I’m Spartacus” effect where “bloggers unite” and the problematic material is copied around the world in a matter of minutes, making the problem worse.
This is the effect of the bloggers’ ever expanding network. It is a big disincentive for the big man in taking legal action against the little man. It is the old word of mouth, markets as conversations scenario. You close one down, then ten, twenty, a hundred or even a thousand kick off. But it can also create a false air of invulnerability on the blogger’s part.
The danger for bloggers is that they take this apparent invulnerability as licence to say whatever serves their own purpose, which could in turn lead to a loss of credibility and ultimately peg good bloggers in the ha’penny place. Matt Drudge has pole position because his stuff is generally light, accurate and timely.
The same is also true of the best journalism. In this regard we would do well to recall Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the New Millenium (he only got to five by the time of his untimely death in 1985): “Lightness”, “Quickness”, “Exactitude”, ”Visibility”, and ”Multiplicity”. A veritable blogger’s life contracted to five short(-ish) words.
Though he has been under pressure from some big bloggers desperate to have Prescott’s (and by extension Tony Blair’s) head on a plate, Nick Robinson was right not to try to land a killer blow when he didn’t have the substance with which to do it.
But what he has helped to do, is to head the BBC’s engagement with the peasant’s revolt (similarly a rag bag of interests and publicly led by an Essex man Iain Dale) that is the frenzied UK blogosphere today.