19 December 2010

Andrew Marr – a Bloggetariat response

The South West of England probably has more than its fair share of annual literary/literature festivals, held, for example, at Bath, Dartington and even Budleigh Salterton. It also hosts one of the country’s major festivals at Cheltenham. This year (8 October 2010) Andrew Marr, a leading BBC political presenter, gave a talk at Cheltenham: “exploring the impact of technology on our consumption of journalism, he joins us to consider the impact of the Internet on the reporting of current affairs and asks what is the future of news?” His comments on blogging in particular were picked up by the media, for example The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian, and were quoted thus:
"A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed, young men sitting in their mother's basements and ranting. They are very angry people. OK – the country is full of very angry people. Many of us are angry people at times. Some of us are angry and drunk. But the so-called citizen journalism is the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night. It is fantastic at times but it is not going to replace journalism."
Responding to a question from the audience he added:
"Most of the blogging is too angry and too abusive. It is vituperative. Terrible things are said on line because they are anonymous. People say things on line that they wouldn't dream of saying in person."
I only learnt about Marr’s views recently, and I don’t think they would have put me off starting Western Independent at the end of October. But to reassure anyone passing through: this blogger is not single, is too old to be pimply - at the price of a receding hairline, and hopefully less than slightly seedy. And we all have to live with the noses (or ears) we are given, don’t we? I don’t blog late at night, or very drunk, or in my mother’s basement. Surely these posts aren’t angry or ranting, though possibly I seem irked at times?  As far as appearances go, not long since I almost bumped into Marr in a London street. He’s on the short side in comparison to, say, the current and last three Prime Ministers, delicate rather than wiry, and could be considered unwise to raise the subject of baldness. He was well-groomed, but not exceptionally so for a prosperous London media type.  To judge from suits he wears on the BBC1 Andrew Marr Show, he likes to shoot a lot of cuff.

More seriously, Marr, a very talented man, has climbed high up the ladder of journalism and television, and may well take a dim view of clever arrivistes who seem to have discovered a short cut from mere blogging to mainstream media success and its rewards. Examples are Will Straw, formerly in command of Left Foot Forward, and Ian Dale of the Diary, who both, substantially on the strength of their blog reputations, were taken up by Any Questions on the BBC and the like, and are now giving up blogging for greater things. There are other bloggers who post thoughtful pieces which are well worth reading (eg Hopi Sen). But their presence, and the consequent claims they make on the finite resource which is readers’ time, can be seen as posing a threat to the existence of traditional journalists. Journalism, like acting, is an occupation which many people fancy as an option, and, unlike say the law, has always had a low entry threshold. Take this passage from the  Decline and Fall volume of Chris Mullin’s (a journalist turned MP) diaries (10 August 2005):
Ngoc [Mrs Mullin] drew my attention to the following passage in Andrew Marr's introduction to his book My Trade: 'Despite having a first class degree and reading an unfeasibly large number of books, it began to dawn on me that I couldn't actually do anything. I can't sing, act, tell jokes, play any musical instrument, hit, kick or catch a ball, run for more than a few yards without panting, speak another language or assemble things without them falling apart immediately ... journalism seemed the only option.'
'That's you,' she said.
And so it is, minus the first class degree.
It isn't too fanciful to wonder whether blogging is making the entrance level to a pretty marginal profession still lower, with the inevitable consequence of some real (ie non-citizen) journalism being displaced, contrary to Marr’s view.

Returning to Marr at Cheltenham: “People say things on line that they wouldn't dream of saying in person." So, would I have gone up and said all this to him in person? Yes, but that’s an academic question because I am a very ordinary “citizen blogger” ( a member of the bloggetariat – a word surely already coined) whose posts go unnoticed anyway. But, given the chance, I would have taken the opportunity to challenge his pretty harsh generalisations. I would also have said that his criticisms might have been better directed at the sort of comments that the web pages of serious newspapers permit to appear in their hundreds, attached to well-written pieces by quality journalists. Far too many of these contributions seem to come from the mentally disturbed, or just plain vicious, who must think their ramblings are given substance because they appear in font in a public space. Why the various Lord Coppers’ servers are ready to accommodate such ravings is unfathomable. There are, of course, honourable exceptions like The Economist and Financial Times websites (both protected to some extent by pay walls and registration), where, by contrast, the knowledgeable comments often add to the original offerings.

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