Seminar Report: political blogging at the Houses of Parliament

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

The crowd gathered at the bottom of the stairs that lead up to the Great Committee Room were exactly as one would expect: a smattering of suits, a good measure of geeky types, a fair few trendy new media types and a few journalists staring intently at the crowd and composing an intro like this one.

Anyone who wants to accuse bloggers of being anti-social nerds stuck behind a screen would have been disappointed, though, as people were merrily introducing themselves to one another. Social software for social people, as it were. The same liveliness was on display throughout the seminar. I’ve been to too many conferences of late where no-one asks any questions. This wasn’t a problem for the Voxpolitics seminar. (Voxpolitics is a “shady pseudo-think tank” as one of its directors, James Crabtree, put it).
If there was one downside to the debate it was that it was the converted talking to the converted. No-one there seriously seemed to think that blogging politicians was a bad idea. The argument was in the details.

So, will the 150-odd people there make a difference to political thinking in Parliament? Well, the seminar was reported on the BBC, which will hopefully attract more attention than the reports in the specialist IT press. It may well be in some of the national papers but I haven’t had time to check. Perhaps, though, the more useful idea that came through from the discussion is that we, the people, can encourage this by interacting with those MPs already doing this and encouraging our own MPs to do the same.

The speakers were strong and enthusiastic, yet leavened their passions with a sprinkling of cynicism. Pernille Rudlin spoke about Japan and mobile phones, highlighting the higher penetration of those ubiqitous brain-friers when compared to internet access.

“Japanese people tend to say ‘homepage’ rather than ‘website’,” she said. “It’s very, very personal for them.”

Personal, yes, long-lived, no, seemed to be the argument. Many of the personal sites set up in Japan have already died. However, as community tools, the interaction of phones and weblogging is helping building community.

Tom Watson, the infamous blogging MP, gave an amusing and informative speech in the easy manner of one well used to public speaking. “I never knew how proud I was to be the first blogging MP until there was a second,” he said, noting the presence of the second blogging MP, Richard Allan lurking at the back of the hall.

He gave us a few interesting revelations. For example, neither the whips nor New Labour’s ubiquitous spin doctors have put any pressure on him over the blog yet. While that clearly won’t last, his appeal to bloggers to join him during Blogathon 2003 to help build a re-election manifesto. Not everyone liked the idea, but it’s more than more of today’s politicians are prepared to offer us.

It was this idea of interaction between politicians and the public via blogs for a broadened political debate that seemed to catch most people’s attention. Some people suggested that Westminster should make blog tools available to members, to the concern of civil servants present. Richard Allan has already blogged about why he thinks this is a bad plan.

Steven Clift, an e-democracy specialist from the US, with no idea how to address an MP, gave a good list of practical examples of how this is working in the US, many of which you’ll find on his own site. Most of these were grassroots campaigns, but he suggested that big politics is starting to get the idea.

Blogging journalist Stephen Pollard claimed to be one of the only blogging journalists, and then quickly qualified that to national daily newspaper journalist, so as to distinguish himself from the numerous trade press journalists, like myself, who are blogging. His idea pool comes from the features he never gets to write and interaction with his readers sometimes provides him with new ideas to pitch to those picky commissioning editors.

Pollard did make the point that blogs allow greater political interaction by the general public by allowing them to pull apart and correct pieces by journalists, who have had a monopoly on shaping the nation’s political debate until now. This process is known as fisking. The recent, and much blogged New York Times incident gave substance to his suggestion.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.