Friday, November 07, 2008

Hazel Blears: Pretty words mean nothing, it's action that counts

I'm late into the fray where Hazel Blear's speech on bloggers and the media (I have exams this week, ok) is concerned, but I think she is spectacularly missing the point.
Bloggers and pundits are no threat to Hazel Blears, democracy or anything else. This is because Hazel Blears has decision-making powers that can affect millions of people. Polly Toynbee has the power to, erm, mouth off to an audience in the hundreds of thousands.
So let's get more explicit about where Ms Blears goes wrong.

1. "A culture of cynicism and despair"

How can Hazel Blears write that political disengagement (if it exists) is due to the media when the record turn-out to vote for Obama shows it is all the fault of the politicians.

Whatever Obama does next, his campaign excited people. This wasn't just because he was a black guy in a country riven by racial division. It was also because he wasn't George Bush, a man who had lost two wars and presided over the collapse of the American economy while delivering such howlers as "I believe man and fish can co-exist peacefully together".

Politics in Britain has been a bland rush to the centre. Perhaps that means we're happy. In which case, Hazel Blears should stop complaining because if people were rushing to the ballot box it would mean they disliked her as much as Sarah Palin. Obama's win proved it.

The purpose of the media is not to push an agenda. It is to sell newspapers, TV shows or whatever. This requires pandering to what the readers want to read and (to a lesser extent) what the advertisers want to see.

Powerful owners like Murdoch are accused of pushing an agenda but, if their pocket books started hurting, they would soon switch their allegiances. People like cynicism but they also like fluffy celebrity weddings so, if the media is bored of politics, it's merely reflecting what the readership feels. Hazel - don't shoot the messenger.

Having slain this sacred cow, let's turn to the second way Hazel Blears misses the point.

2. And in recent years commentary has taken over from investigation or news reporting, to the point where commentators are viewed by some as every bit as important as elected politicians, with views as valid as cabinet ministers.

Do you know what I find alarming about this? That Hazel Blears seems to be suggesting that she has as little influence and importance as Polly Toynbee. Polly Toynbee is a columnist - she rocks up and writes an article. She goes home.

Now, I may be wrong here, but I thought Hazel Blears rocked up, made important decisions that would change the way local government services were delivered for decades... and went home.

Given that the Guardian has a circulation of around 350,000 people (about 0.5% of the British population), but most people have their bins collected then it's obvious whose job is more important. Pretty words mean nothing, it's the person who changes waste disposal policy that counts.

But I'm obviously wrong. Hazel Blears evidently believes the most important thing she does as a cabinet minister is deliver a brain fart in the Guardian and to the Hansard Society.

I'm worried - if government ministers have no influence then who is in charge of this country?

3. But mostly, political blogs are written by people with a disdain for the political system and politicians, who see their function as unearthing scandals, conspiracies and perceived hypocrisy. Unless and until political blogging adds value to our political culture, by allowing new and disparate voices, ideas and legitimate protest and challenge

What is the difference between disparate voices, legitimate protest and unearthing scandals? I suppose it's like splitting the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter. It depends whose side you're on.

Even if she had a legitimate point about bloggers, are they actually as important as she thinks? Guido writes a tabloid gossip site, which explains his popularity, but it doesn't have the readership of The Sun. It's political groupies only. Most of his scoops are about the inner workings of Westminster, which may interest broadsheet journalists, but probably won't reach "white van man". And it's white van man who floating votes.

Guido is also unusual among bloggers in carrying out "journalism", i.e. finding and publishing original stories. He is also unusual in having the time and a line into the Westminster Village. Most bloggers don't have the contacts or the time to get proper stories and the small ones they can find don't get anywhere like as much attention as someone who squats in cyberspace writing "Ban abortion, I hate black people, chain women to the sink".

In short, blogging's fun, but how many people out there are affected or care about the results?

Hazel Blears needs to step out of the Westminster Village and realise just how irrelevant 99.999999999% of UK bloggers, broadsheet journalists and such-like are to a majority of the people who will elect or not elect the Labour Party into Government. Thirty-five percent of people don't even HAVE an internet connection, never mind read a blog.

These people are affected by their bank balance, childcare, public transport and even waste disposal. These are things Hazel Blears can do something about. It's also something that Polly Toynbee and Guido can do little or nothing about.

So maybe she should get on and do her job instead of getting into bunfights with the London wowzersphere.

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