Thursday, 6 November 2008

Hazel Blears talks rubbish about the blogosphere

I was struck by this article in yesterday's Grauniad. Hazel Blears, the MP for Salford and communities minister (who I incidentally saw having a swift half in Manchester's City Arms the other day), weighs in on the culture of "corrosive cynicism" which is supposedly damaging political discourse in the UK. This, of course, is all the fault of the media, and in particular the blogosphere. The following quote is from an address that Blears is giving today at a Hansard Society conference on growing political disengagement in Britain:

"Perhaps because of the nature of the technology, there is a tendency for political blogs to have a 'Samizdat' style. The most popular blogs are rightwing, ranging from the considered Tory views of Iain Dale, to the vicious nihilism of Guido Fawkes. Perhaps this is simply anti-establishment. Blogs have only existed under a Labour government. Perhaps if there was a Tory government, all the leading blogs would be left-of-centre? But mostly, political blogs are written by people with disdain for the political system and politicians, who see their function as unearthing scandals, conspiracies and perceived hypocrisy. Until political blogging 'adds value' to our political culture, by allowing new voices, ideas and legitimate protest and challenge, and until the mainstream media reports politics in a calmer, more responsible manner, it will continue to fuel a culture of cynicism and despair."
Now, I don't want to claim that all of what Blears says here is total nonsense. Clearly the media in general does have a lot to answer for. But perhaps there could be other reasons for political disengagement in the UK? I can think of a handful off the top of my head.

1. The growing reliance of the Labour party on rich donors, which has led to a number of scandals, including the "cash for honours" affair. The corollary of this is a decrease in party membership, an erosion of internal party democracy, a lack of connection between the party grassroots and the government, and a perception amongst the electorate that the government is corrupt.

2. The Iraq war, opposed by a large proportion of the population, and launched on the basis of statements that were not true (whether or not they were strictly "lies"), has now led to the deaths of more than 175 British soldiers and serious injuries to many more. This is aside from the civilian death toll in Iraq, the best that can be said of which is that we don't know what it is, but it is a hell of a lot.

3. A failure to apply appropriate regulation to financial markets allowed the inflation of a credit and asset bubble which has now burst, and will lead to perhaps hundreds of thousands of people losing their jobs and their homes.

4. A massive proliferation in anti-terror laws, which despite re-assurances when they were brought in, are now being used to suppress legitimate protest and freeze the assets of Icelandic banks.

No doubt you can think of a few more. So perhaps this corrosive cynicism has as much to do with the cynicism and incompetence of the government as that of the media and the blogosphere?

Quite apart from that, it is interesting to look at what Blears says about the blogosphere. She says that political bloggers "see their function as unearthing scandals, conspiracies and perceived hypocrisy", and then adds that "until political blogging 'adds value' to our political will continue to fuel a culture of cynicism and despair." To me, unearthing scandals does add value to our political culture. Or should government wrong-doing just be hidden? An important aspect of democratic government is that those who govern us can be held to account. That can't happen if no-one knows what they're up to.

It's obviously true that a large number of blogs are dreadful and useless. But it's equally true that many are valuable. By indulging in a rant against the media and the blogosphere, without addressing the contribution of government corruption and incompetence, Blears is not doing much to further the debate on political disengagement.


Anonymous said...

Nice post. As soon as I read the mention of corrosive cynicism I thought "yes, but it's possibly justified given the behaviour of politicians".

neuroskeptic said...

I'm too much of a cynic to think that people are cynical for any good reason - my view is that politics in this country is largely played out, we've reached a centrist consensus, and all of our major political figures agree on 90% of the issues because they're not stupid. So politics has become boring, which is what politics should be (I'd much rather have boring politics than Sarah Palin politics), but unfortunately it does tend to make people cynical.

The good thing is we can just look at America and be pleased for Obama! Who needs British politics any more?

teekblog said...

great post.

the reasons you cite for disengagement are spot on. of course one way or re-engaging the public with politics and government would be to make everyone's vote count - first past the post means that the whole makeup of Parliament is effectively decided by 80,000 or so voters in swing seats. If folk felt their vote could make a difference, perhaps there'd be more voting?

as for the blogosphere feeding cynicism, all i can say is Ha, I doubt that very much... ;-)

Smart Bombs said...

Nice post. I don't see how she can justify describing Guy Fawkes as a nihilist. Where is he now that we need him most??!! [joke, I'm not really advocating blowing up parliament]

It's typical of nu labour to blame the electorate's disillusionment and apathy on the electorate rather than the politicians.

Corrupt politicians make the other 10% look bad.

David Colquhoun said...

Hmmm worrying, I agree. Did somebody put new batteries in her?

She obviously hasn't realised that a lot of blogs are a good deal higher quality than the newspapers, certainly on anything that needs a bit of technical knowledge

Paul Wilson said...

Cheers all for your comments.

What I'm wondering is what does Blears propose to do about the serious problem of citizens posting their opinions on the internet? Perhaps there should be a commissariat of internal affairs that can police blogs and remove posts that are too cynical?