Iain Macwhirter inadvertently criticised the media

There was much hand-wringing among bloggers a couple of weeks ago in the wake of an article about blogging written by Iain Macwhirter. I didn’t take much notice of it at the time. After all, it is not exactly surprising that an established media figure would take a swipe at blogging. And if there is one thing less surprising than that, it is the reaction of bloggers to such a piece. I’ve seen it too many times to get very worked up about the whole thing.

Bloggers raised their eyebrows over Iain Macwhirter’s decision to resort to lines such as, “Bloggers don’t write, they ejaculate.” The controversy deepened when he decided to launch into ad hominem attacks on a couple of prominent bloggers.

But it seems as though I was wise (albeit accidentally) to sit back and spectate (though I acknowledge the irony in the fact that I have now taken the bait). Because it turns out that Iain Macwhirter was pulling a stunt of sorts. It was all a demonstration of how the structure of the blogosphere encourages personal attacks and controversialism. It turns out that Will P was sort of right in his hunch (or hope) that it was all a joke. I have to say, well played Mr Macwhirter. The experiment certainly worked.

So let us strip away the personal attacks and the controversial language, taking as read that Iain Macwhirter doesn’t really mean it. It is worth considering his points.

The original article was prompted by the controversy surrounding emails sent between Damian McBride and Derek Draper. To me it seems odd to launch into a critique of blogging on the back of this. Damian McBride is not a blogger. He is (was) a political aide.

Derek Draper was a blogger, but only for a period of about four months. He has a great deal more experience working for Labour, as he has done on and off for the best part of twenty years. Labour List has been widely derided as a ham-fisted attempt to contrive the shape of Labour’s presence on the blogosphere. It was a failure because it came across as inauthentic and insincere — a top-down approach to a bottom-down medium.

Quite why the focus should be on the fact that this dirty work was done for a blog beats me. McBride and Draper are figures of the political establishment. Their behaviour doesn’t reflect badly on blogging. It reflects badly on politics.

In fairness, though, Iain Macwhirter is also critical of Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale. I am often frustrated with the way the media often focuses on these two blogs whenever it examines blogging. I’m not a particular fan of either blog, and I do not regularly read them.

It is no surprise that the media focuses on them though. They are probably the two blogs that adhere most closely to the model built by the media: hungry for scoops, greedy for a scalp, anxious to have more readers, tempted to sensationalise, trading on gossip.

Iain Dale can probably be comfortably described as a member of the political establishment. Paul Staines too, though probably to a lesser extent. He is also unashamed to admit that he models his blog on tabloid values.

This is all fine and well. It has its place, even if it is not personally my cup of tea. But it is a bit irritating that the media constantly focuses on these big blogs written by those with political connections. If I want to read a sensationalist view from inside the Westminster bubble, I can pick up any tabloid — or, indeed, broadsheet — newspaper. The unique selling point of blogging is not to be found in the likes of Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes.

The true beauty of blogging is the fact that it gives the little person a say, and provides a platform for niche interests. You don’t need to shift hundreds of thousands of copies or generate hundreds of thousands of uniques for your content to matter. You can be writing to a dozen people and it will add something to the world. The economics of newspapers meant that this couldn’t happen in the past.

Failing to understand this is the mistake Iain Macwhirter makes when he assesses the blogosphere. The value doesn’t just come from big numbers, and the brash approach that this necessitates. Most of the aspects of blogging that Mr Macwhirter bemoans are actually just failings of of big blogs. Even then, big blogs are close to being like mainstream media outlets. Nowadays there is less of a clear dividing line between the media and the citizens. It is more like a continuum.

As such, the failings of big blogs are actually quite similar to the failings of major media outlets. He says “nothing on the web can be longer than a couple of hundred words”, which is a bit strange because most posts on this blog are around 1,000 words long and I don’t have many problems with that. Check out two of the best blogs in Scotland, J Arthur Macnumpty and Ideas of Civilisation. There is not a 200 word long post to be found.

It is the broadcast media that has merrily ushered in the era of the soundbite — out of fear that viewers or listeners will switch off. Bloggers have a relative freedom to gas on for as long as they want. While television stations stake their entire existence on having massive audience figures, bloggers (with the exception of a very lucky few) will not go out of business if people stop visiting. We do it for the love of it, not because we have to make our living out of it. As Yousuf points out:

The vast majority of bloggers, and 100% of Scottish bloggers, do so as a hobby and not as a primary source of income. This means that increased readership is pleasant and ego-boosting but not necessary for survival so we can write what we wish to. If anything it is the mainstream press who are beholden to being cheap and sensationalist.

Mr Macwhirter goes on to say that “immediacy is everything on the blog, and it is a medium which positively discourages reflection and any kind of serious thought.” But it is the mainstream media that cultivated the 24 hour news culture as much as thirty years ago. Moreover, unlike a 24 hour news channel, a blogger doesn’t have to keep on churning out content 24 hours a day.

As readers of this blog are no doubt aware, I am perfectly content to surface every couple of weeks, write a couple of in-depth posts and disappear for a bit again. Many other bloggers are like this. That’s because, unlike the mainstream media, bloggers don’t have an obligation to react immediately. We are quite comfortable with reflection, because in this medium you can do it at whichever pace you want. If only the media had that freedom.

He continues: “Blogging is all about traffic and and achieving critical mass.” As if the media would be able to continue if it didn’t have any traffic. On the contrary, it is bloggers who can can afford to have fewer eyeballs. If people stop buying newspapers, the newspaper goes out of business. If people stop reading blogs… nothing happens.

Blogging is not just about numbers. To believe that it is would be simply to project the motivations of the media onto blogging. The value that people get out of blogging is much more subtle than that.

Part two of this article will be published tomorrow


  1. “They are probably the two blogs that adhere most closely to the model built by the media”

    Yes, because the media give a fair impression of what people want. Heat and OK sell a lot more copies than NS or the Speccie, the Sun sells more than the Times or Indie. Dale and Fawkes are giving the people what they want – alas.

    (And in Guido’s case, commenters also get the chance to post obscene and offensive comments, something else enough people obviously enjoy. The comment threads are like a Derek and Clive sketch sometimes).

  2. Laban, Thanks for the comment. You make an interesting and relevant point about the comments on Guido’s site. I deal with comments in the second part of this post which will be published just after midnight.

  3. I too refrained from commenting on the McWhirter ‘stooshie’, partly for some of the reasons you cite, partly because I haven’t been blogging much at all these past few weeks as I have been concentrating on other more for the present pleasurable things (sun, sand, sightseeing, hosting guests here in Spain).

    Cutting out all the froth, though, what McWhirter’s little experiment demonstrates is that blogs react quickly if not always very intelligently, something (the speed bit) which the mainstream media is not always capable of doing. Relatively few blogs ‘break news’ because they simply don’t have the news gathering resources unless something important happens to occur in their own area or to someone they know – they are by their very nature usually ‘commenting’ on something or other, often something they have read elsewhere.

    However much McWhirter may wish to seem like he was making some kind of ‘point’, the fact is that non publicly-funded media is suffering a precipitate decline in revenue because advertisers are increasingly being much more selective about how they deploy their advertising budgets and in any case the present economic climate means they don’t have as much money to throw around. As McWhirter well knows, newspaper titles are folding right, left and centre and journalists are being laid off – few major media outlets have yet managed to replace this with more than very modest amounts of revenue from their internet presences. I certainly don’t want us to have to depend in future on solely publicly-funded news media, but that’s the way things seem to be moving unless a realistic online revenue-generating model can be devised – McWhirter must know how precarious journalistic employment may soon become and it must worry him more than he is prepared to admit.