In a speech to the Hansard society last week, Hazel Blears took the opportunity to lecture the audience about the source of what she termed a “dangerous corrosion in our political culture, on a scale much more profound than previous ages”. What was she referring to? The role of billionaire donors in politics? The lack of real choice offered to voters today? Her own party’s erosion of civil liberties?
Of course not. She was referring to the “commentariat”, a term that she uses pejoratively, but which has become a badge of honour for the coalition of journalists, broadcasters, and bloggers who form its ranks. Blears further ranted: “If you can wield influence and even power, without ever standing for office or being held to account by an electorate, it undermines our democracy.”
She reserved particular venom for bloggers, generally perceived to be the best thing to happen to democracy for years. Their particular crime is to have the temerity to assume a voice or a role in politics without being elected to the dizzy heights of our very own Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The moral implications and factual inaccuracies of this statement warrant close attention. They reveal the authoritarian streak of a government that appears to grow ever more weary of civil dissent, and ever more intent on curbing the most rudimentary of criticism.
Firstly, the press have surely always had a role outside elected office in scrutinising the actions of the government. Equally, the media has always been influential on the public’s behaviour, and sociologists and historians are still arguing about the extent to which the press decides elections and influences people’s views on issues like immigration. In recent years, however, and especially in the USA, the media has been muzzled by a combination of intrusive press barons like Rupert Murdoch, deliberate misinformation from press officers, and the influence of PR agencies who promise access to their clients exclusively for positive coverage.
Bloggers stepped into the void created by these forces, calling the government to account with persistence and fury, and usurping the role of the newspapers and TV channels that resemble former attack dogs cowed into submission. Blears may attack the “vicious nihilism” of Guido Fawkes all she likes, but he is one of very few in Westminster that politicians actually worry about. Bloggers don’t listen to press officers or to petty threats. They don’t need to rely on money in the same way as the press or broadcasters as their product is so cheap to produce, and as a result they consistently hold the government to account, unlike the tamed and obedient mainstream media.
Blears is also curiously out of step with many other politicians, even in her own party. David Miliband’s blog on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website is neither enlightening nor entertaining, but at the very least he is admitting that online opinion is legitimate and increases transparency in a democracy.
The aspect of blogging or TV analysis that Blears objects to most is the lack of criticism that journalists and bloggers are subject to from other members of the commentariat. Ironically sounding like a petty bureaucrat herself, Blears said: “The commentariat operates without scrutiny or redress. They cannot be held to account for their views, even when they perform the most athletic and acrobatic of flip-flops in the space of a few weeks.”
This just goes to show her profound ignorance of how blogging works at the most basic level. Her article on The Guardian’s Comment is Free, adapted from her speech, received 393 comments, mostly damning her for exactly the reasons I have discussed here. Anyone who has ever written a blog post with even a tiny, committed readership knows that outright abuse forms the major part of comments. To blog is to be shouted down by a global audience of anonymous rent-a-gobs.
For that very reason, blogging is one of the most democratic forms of expression we have available to us as citizens. That is why it is so fundamentally important that people like Blears understand the savagely fought legitimacy of the commentariat. Her reactionary position smacks of McCarthyist anti-intellectualism, and of a distaste for the criticism and humility that this government so desperately needs.