Why blogging is (generally) a good thing…

Thanks to Aaron for picking up on this morning’s Radio Ulster discussion with the incendiary Guido this morning. His approach and my approach to blogging are very different. Partly because he’s blogging into a settled polity that perhaps could do with shaking out of its remoteness and complacency, whereas in Northern Ireland we still baulk at the demand democracy (or rather imagined democracy) makes on us to think about our futures, collectively, and increasingly as we leave the days of ‘war’ in the rear view mirror, as individuals. For interest’s sake, here are my pre-programme notes:

1. Libel was much mentioned last week during the Prescott affair. Bloggers are not yet as vulnerable journalists. In theory it is true that they could be sued. In practice no one ever has been. To some extent there is a degree of safety in numbers. The echo chamber effect of the blogosphere would mean that anyone taking an aggressive action, would also need to consider the risk of infinitely multiplying the reach of a negative story. The reason many libel actions are taken against newspapers is that they have deep pockets. That is not necessarily going to be the case with individual or ad hoc group of bloggers.

2. But if bloggers want to be taken seriously they should blog with the idea that they could be the very first one taken to court – however unlikely that may seem. Not out of fear, but rather because it helps keep your eye on the ball. Getting it right is crucial.

3. What’s been interesting about the Prescott stuff is the cross party nature of it. That’s partly because the Blair government is as disliked by some members of Labour, as much as it is by the likes of Tory blogger Iain Dale. But it is also because most bloggers believe that increased transparency makes everyone more accountable – themselves included.

4. Bias. One thing blogs cannot claim is objectivity. You have to read for bias. You can read around the bias. In the end I don’t just read one blog on any given subject. I read journalists, academic, polls, research, and a range of other bloggers. It’s the very subjectivity of the blog that forces you to look outside its frames. I look for two things: authenticity; and reliability. And spread. When I followed the US Presidential election two years ago online, I chose a range of political bloggers, all of whom had a high degree of self discipline and rigour.

5. There is somehow an idea that innocent journalists are the passive pawns of a mass blog conspiracy. As Emily Bell of the Guardian said yesterday: “Prescott’s downfall has not been because of the blogs, but his own behaviour: his infidelity with an employee, the croquet incident and a meeting with a potentially compromising businessman were not figments of the blogosphere’s collective imagination”.

6. However, Nick Robinson was right to resist the pressure to run a story on the blogger’s say so. However much people are certain in their waters that someone is up to no good, it doesn’t become news until the killer fact is found. It’s important to distinguish between what is true, and what you would like to be true.

7. We are only just beginning in Northern Ireland to understand the benefits of an open society. Blogging (since it is open to Unionists and Nationalists in equal measure) may help fast track us towards that open society.

  • I think you’re right about the safety in numbers thing regarding libels, but I wouldn’t put it past the politicos in Britain to threaten someone, scare them a little. The whole thing needs looking at, however, because it isn’t really in anyone’s interests to be able to make totally unfounded claims.

  • Mick Fealty

    Absolutely agree. It’s fine balance between resisting intimidation and just printing whatever you bloody well like.

  • Belfast Gonzo

    I think you should have a read at this report from Reporters Sans Frontiers, Mick:

    20 June 2006

    A blogger unfairly convicted of defamation

    Reporters Without Borders condemned a 13,500-euro sentence against blogger Roberto Mancini in fines, damages and costs imposed by a court in Val d’Aosta, in northern Italy on 26 May 2006, after local journalists brought a defamation suit.

    Mancini, 59, is suspected of creating a US-hosted blog in 2005 – Il Bolscevicostanco, which reports on local news in sarcastic and crude terms. Using the pseudonym, General Sukhov, he apparently wrote several articles directly attacking local figures.

    The case was brought by two journalists on regional newspaper Gazzetta Matin, Luca Mercanti and Christina Porta, the press officer for the Val d’Aosta regional chamber of trade and of a local firm, Pier Maria Minuzzo, and a webmaster, Marco Camilli.

    “The columns by-lined General Sukhov are certainly written in an extreme style, but the complainants were not able to show they were untrue,” the press freedom organisation said.

    “It looks like the blogger is being punished for his bad language and not because he posted false information, which is unacceptable. He was found responsible for comments posted on his blog by some of his readers, a decision which goes against European jurisprudence.”

    “This verdict could well have a negative effect on the Italian blogosphere, in pushing people running a blog into wrongly censoring messages posted by visitors,” said Reporters Without Borders.

    The organisation added that defamation complaints against journalists and bloggers should go before civil courts, and not as in the case, to a criminal court which could hand down prison sentences.

    Mancini, a former vice-president of the Val d’Aosta regional order of journalists for six years, was fined 3,000 euros, ordered to pay damages of 2,000 euros to each of the three complainants and 4,500 euros costs (13,500 euros in total).

    He will not have to pay unless the sum is confirmed on appeal. The verdict was based on Article 595 of the criminal procedure code applying to defamation but making no reference to the 1948 press law, a blogger not being considered a journalist in Italy.

    The verdict however requires that the “manager of a blog controls everything that is posted” and that, like a newspaper editor, “he has a duty to remove any messages which are offensive.”

    The judge said that the information posted on the blogs was partly true, but was not reported appropriately. Condemning the vulgar tone used by General Sukhov, he said “Mancini expresses himself in a manner best suited to a brothel.”

  • Nevin

    Icedink, bloggers and posters in Northern Ireland have more to fear from say property developers and paramilitary godfathers. The former may have access to huge funds and can easily afford to lose an expensive court case; the latter has access to folks in balaclavas and weapons of limb destruction. Even a jab from Prescott is likely to be much less serious that to be crunched by a baseball bat or an iron bar.

  • Thanks Nevin, I was kind of shy of asking about that (though wanted to) because, clearly, the background conditions are not the same in England as is NI. I am ill-qualified to pass comment on it.

  • Nevin

    Icedink, on one matter there probably is parity; I suspect the New Labour administration is equally keen to control ‘sensitive’ information across every region of the UK. But the internet has the potential to ‘democratise’, even ‘radicalise’, communication. This is bad news for the likes of Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch. I suppose it’s just a matter of time before a blogger gets offered a peerage ….

  • It’s a nice idea…almost everything becomes respectable eventually!

  • Nevin

    An act of fealty, Lord Fealty? ….

  • Speaking of Lords…Levy is helping the plods with their enquiries! God, wish I wasn’t at work just now…just to be at home hunched over my Mac disseminating bile. Hey ho.

  • Nevin

    Speaking of Levy makes you wonder about New Labour’s impartiality in the Israel-Palestine conflict …