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Political Education and the Web

John Simkin

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There is an interesting article in today's Guardian about the role the web has played in the the story about John Prescott. I believe it raises important issues about the future of how people will receive their political education:


Patrick Barkham

Monday July 10, 2006

The Guardian

'I think it's called the internet or something - blogs is it? - I don't know, I've only just got used to letters John, I haven't got used to all this new technology." If John Prescott really barely knew what a blog was it seems odd he put his name to a "Prescott Express" battlebus blog during the 2005 general election. Whatever the truth of his blustering to John Humphrys, the beleaguered deputy prime minister certainly knows what a blog is now.

Bloggers have basked in a higher profile than ever before in the scandal over Prescott's links with US billionaire Philip Anschutz. Prescott himself has suggested the scandal has been a "dirty tricks" campaign fronted by bloggers, their strings pulled by journalists or Conservative Central Office. Have the blogs really driven the story? What is the relationship between bloggers and journalists? Is the growing influence of bloggers a boon for democracy? Or is it a reckless deskilling of journalism, where rumours are published and reputations besmirched without any supporting evidence?

Prescott's stay at Anschutz's ranch first surfaced online when the Guardian's Westminster correspondent David Hencke reported their secret meeting on Guardian Unlimited's Westminster Weekly podcast on June 29. Two days later, traditional "big media", in the shape of the Times, broke the story to a wider audience and first suggested there had been wrongdoing on Prescott's part.

The scandal developed a new strand when blogger Guido Fawkes named Prescott's alleged third mistress who, he claimed, threatened to sue the Sun if it dared publish allegations of the affair. The Mail (and Fawkes proudly publishes server logs showing how many hits he gets from Associated Newspaper computers, along with the BBC, Conservative Central Office and others) then published a story headlined: Prescott facing fresh embarrassment over net rumours of two more affairs.

Suddenly, Prescott was on the front pages. The Independent ran a story which could go down in British political history as the first case of politician blaming blogger. "It is the black arts," a Prescott "ally" was quoted as saying. "They are running a dirty tricks campaign and they are being used as a conduit by journalists." Then, on Thursday's Today programme Humphrys took up the bloggers' preferred side of the scandal and questioned Prescott seven times about whether he had other affairs.

In the US, "attack blogs" have led the way in a number of political scandals. Senator Trent Lott resigned in 2002 after his comments apparently supporting racial segregation appeared on blogs. Another scalp was Dan Rather, the CBS anchorman, who resigned after bloggers revealed a news story questioning President Bush's military record was based on forged documents. Aggressive US blogs have also fronted some spectacular smear campaigns, as the BBC's political editor Nick Robinson pointed out in his blog. Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacked John Kerry's war record, successfully denting the Democrats' presidential candidate in 2004. Blogs have proved effective in disseminating nasty rumours without politicians' hands getting dirty.

Both bloggers and mainstream media agree the British political blogosphere does not pack America's punch. "British political bloggers have not yet proved to be able to land that devastating blow in the same way as American blogs have done," says Georgina Henry, editor of the Guardian's Comment is free blog. "It's going to be some time before the politicians pay court to political bloggers in the way they do in America." But, she says, month by month, UK bloggers are growing in readership and influence.

None more so than two iconoclastic right-of-centre bloggers, Fawkes and Iain Dale. "If Prescott was a soap star on a second-rate TV show he would have had more scrutiny of his sleazy affairs than he has had to date," Fawkes wrote on his blog. Fawkes - a nom de plume for libertarian conservative and former Tory activist Paul Staines - gives the impression he is hugely enjoying his role in the scandal, boasting of blogging whilst enjoying long lunches on holiday in France. He argues that "lazy" lobby journalists missed the Prescott story.

Robinson has also taken to his blog to point out that many bloggers like Dale peddle a particular political agenda. Bloggers, he wrote, are now "trying to make the political weather" by reporting "unsubstantiated allegations" and then claiming "the mainstream media - and, in particular, the BBC - are not covering an alleged 'scandal'".

Both Fawkes and Dale are unrepentant. Of course they try to make the political weather, they argue. Before it was cowed by the Hutton report, the BBC used to do the same. Bloggers demand neglected stories are covered again. Dale is proud that a modest Mail on Sunday story about Cherie Blair signing the report to raise funds at an auction was ignored by other papers until he got the blogosphere heated up about it. His blog entry: "It's Up to the Blogs to Make it Hit the Fan."

Blogs were involved in pushing forward the peerages scandal and Dale claims a number of Charles Kennedy exclusives. "I wrote about drinking, which all the mainstream media had shied away from. It was an open secret in Westminster and yet it was being kept from the rest of the country. That is what is behind the current furore about what Guido has done. We know the parliamentary lobby has its own set of rules."

Another of bloggers' charge is that big-media journalists lazily pinch stories they break. "On any given day, you will find on Ephraim Hardcastle, the Londoner's Diary and other diary columns two or three stories that they will have got - totally lifted - from me or Guido," says Dale. "No attribution or anything." At least bloggers, he argues, link back to wherever they first read a story. Dale also says several tabloid journalists telephoned him with snippets from Tracey Temple's diary which the Mail on Sunday had not published when that scandal broke in the spring. He obliged, of course.

As conduits for Westminster gossip, are blogs really doing anything new? Blogger Paul Linford - a former lobby journalist who now writes a left-of-centre blog - points out that in the old days journalists would call Private Eye when they could not get a story in their paper. The Eye would publish allegations others dared not touch. Now journalists, or politicians, can use blogs. This trading of stories makes bloggers seem part of the supposedly cosy establishment they rail against. But, much like the relationship between politicians and lobby journalists, like between bloggers and mainstream media is characterised by fear, loathing and suspicion.

Most lobby journalists believe bloggers are the antithesis of responsible journalists. "My view is what they are doing is completely indefensible," says a lobby correspondent (not at the Guardian) who has reported the Prescott scandal. "They are hindering, not helping the story. There are serious issues being discussed but they see it as a cheap publicity stunt to get their names in the media. The issue is why Prescott is so close to a billionaire - but now he is able to claim it is all a rightwing smear campaign. I talk to bloggers and I use them but they print stuff they've got no evidence for. That can't be right."

Hencke feels bloggers represent a type of "deskilling". They make wild allegations not based on fact and ignore the first law of journalism: that you put allegations to the person you are writing about. Libel laws - not politician/journalist collusion - are what stop the publication of unsubstantiated rumours. Our libel laws are tougher than in the US and Hencke fears it is only a matter of time before a British blogger is prosecuted (although Dale and Fawkes's sites are hosted in the US).

Both Hencke and Robinson dismiss bloggers' claims of a conspiracy of silence between lobby journalists and politicians. "Bloggers say something is not being reported because we're wimps," says Robinson. "Nonsense. It's not being reported because there are no facts."

Robinson says he does not see blogs as helpful or unhelpful in scandals like that enveloping Prescott. He defends Humphrys for raising the questions asked by bloggers. It would have been bizarre, he says, if he had not. But bloggers pose a challenge for mainstream media. "We've got to be careful we don't use blogs as an excuse to bypass our own standards, rules and ethics of journalism. There is a risk people can use blogs as a way to get things on air or into print they wouldn't have conventionally done themselves. There are quicksands on both sides."

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Craig Murray, the former ambassador to Uzbekistan, had his book, Murder in Samarkand, heavily censored by the Foreign Office. The removed extracts can be found on Craig's website:


The government is threatening to sue former ambassador Craig Murray for breach of copyright if he does not remove from his website intelligence material that was censored out of his memoirs.

The passages detail CIA intelligence reports that Mr Murray says were false, and accounts of US National Security Agency intercepts and conversations with John Herbst, the US ambassador in Uzbekistan at the time. The Foreign Office says release of the material is damaging.

One previously censored passage describes how numerical codes on intelligence reports revealed they came from the Uzbek secret police, via the CIA, who shared them with MI6. These included, he says, "nonsensical" claims that Islamist militants were ready to swoop on the town of Samarkand from hilltop camps, and that Uzbek dissidents were linked to al-Qaida.

Tactical use of copyright in the Murray case seems unlikely to succeed. Copyright law is designed to protect the commercial interests of writers and artists, not alleged state secrets. Lawyers say Mr Murray would be able to argue a defence of public interest for his own non-commercial disclosures, as would the media if quoting from the government documents on his website while reporting on current news events.

Another example of how the web is posing a threat to a government that hides behind the claim of national securtity.

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  • 1 month later...

Speaking at the Edinburgh Festival, Al Gore has argued that the internet has the potential to re-engage the electorate with politics. Gore points out that at the time of the Iraq War, 77% of Americans thought Saddam Hussein was responsible for the attack on the Twin Towers. He uses this as an example of the right-wing agenda of the American media. Gore adds: “The only thing that matters is that you have enough money to put 30 second TV commercials on the air to persuade voters to elect you.”

The internet clearly has the potential to change the political system. However, so far, there is a lack of a detailed explanation of how this will take place. Any ideas?

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