If you can’t debate, don’t blog

Congressional press secretaries in Washington recently attended a conference on the impact of blogs on politics.

The questions asked by the press secretaries were the most enlightening part of the conversation. My favorite was this: Is there an expectation of engaging in debate if lawmakers start blogging?

The question is telling both because it shows how disinterested that too many people within Congress, the heart of American democracy, are in the very idea of debate and because it shows how clueless they are about the blogosphere years into its development. The answer is “yes,” folks, and shame on you for not realizing that your bosses should always have an expectation of engaging in debate, whether in the blogosphere, at town halls or within the halls of Congress.

Which is kind of scary in a way, but not too surprising.  It’s a problem which I predict will affect the blogging of British politicians too, particulary government minister David Miliband’s forthcoming blog.
The problem is that the second biggest fear of lawmakers and politicians everywhere is entering into discussion over policy.  Because, to actually enter into an honest debate means to risk losing that debate, which of course risks leading to the politicians number one fear – public defeat.

In an ideal world, politicians would far rather others engage in the often vicous cut and thrust of real debate, leaving them the opportunity to sneak in at the finishing post and champion the winning policy position.

But the world of the blogs is one that holds debate at it’s very core (some honest, some not), and there is no way that politicians can ever really enter fully into the blogosphere unless they are prepared to actually take other bloggers on over political issues, express their opinion, listen to counter-arguments and risk ‘losing’ to the better argument.
Which is why so few politicians have blogs worthy of the name.

UK Minister set to launch blog

The Sunday Times reports that David Miliband is to become the first member of the British cabinet to write a weblog:

Miliband intends to address “the policies of other departments” and publicise his views on a range of subjects.

His spokesman said yesterday that his blog would be an “innovative way” of gauging reaction to government policy, “not racey details of his breakfast habits”.

Miliband has been testing his new blog with colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, but it cannot yet be seen by the general public.

Miliband is one of the Labour Party’s rising stars, and widely tipped as a future leader, so suppose he has taken a look at blogging, and the impact it can have on politics in the US. Although British bloggers haven’t really had the same impact on the Westminster political scene yet, I’d imagine he is gambling that, as the British blogosphere matures, he will gain extra kudos among bloggers by being one of the first (in government at least) to leap on the blogging bandwagon.

It’s an interesting idea, and I wish him all the best with it.  I can’t but feel, however, that his attempts to speak to ‘the people’ through blogging will be stifled by a converservative and over-cautious civil service, and the fears of his cabinet colleagues.

The Sunday Times report notes that there are already concerns that he might over-step his ministerial remit by blogging:

“Because, on occasion, David does mention the policies of other departments, for example green or white papers that have been published, I have agreed with the Cabinet Office that I would write to other departments proposing a way of dealing with this issue,” writes O’Donnell.

“I propose that for those cases where he simply mentions the publication of a document by another department saying it is a good thing or words to that effect, there is no need to seek formal agreement.

“However, where his reference goes into more detail this office will contact the relevant private office to agree what is being said.” He said he hoped this could be done quickly.

But really, I can’t see how this would be any different from a minister appearing on – say – Question Time, and answering questions from the public on any topical subject.

Depressingly, though, I imagine Miliband’s conservative (with a small ‘c’) colleagues will have their way, and whatever he does actually does blog about will be so sanitised and watered down (another way of saying this would be “dull”) that it could have been written by an civil service mandarin.

Still, we’ll see.  I’m certainly looking forward to the blog’s official launch, and I’d love to find out just what he’s is writing about on his current government eyes-only blog.

Blogspot blocked in Pakistan – bloggers sound alarm

News has been filtering through today that the authorities in Pakistan have blocked access to Blogspot:

Pakistan telecom authorities have blocked several websites inviting people to draw cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, it has emerged.

Instructions were issued to internet service providers across Pakistan on 27 February to block about a dozen websites of various origins.

Including Blogspot, (aka Blogger) which is one of the largest blog hosting websites.

George Bush is visiting Pakistan this weekend, and I’ve heard a number of rumours that I the decision to block access is timed to coincide with his visit.  The BBC article, however, suggests that the decision to block blogspot sites was actually taken because of the Danish cartoon controversy – that the authorities actually just intended to block one blogspot blog, but have ended up blocking the whole blogspot domain.  So, essentially, it’s just one big screw up.

I have to say I tend toward the screw-up theory.

Anyway, as an aside, there’s an interesting backstory to how the news broke into the mainstream media, via the BBC.  Bloggers on an email listserver noted that they weren’t able to access anything from blogspot.  And it just happens that a couple of BBC journalists frequent this list.  A word here, a phone call there, and the story begins to make international waves.

Another demonstration of the blogosphere’s ability to break news.

Four things

Yep, I’ve been tagged to do another of those ‘revealing’ meme things – this time by both Tim Newman and Sean Guillory. So here goes:

Four jobs I’ve had

  • Mushroom sorter in a mushroom factory
  • Traffic light salesman
  • Post room assistant
  • Medical policy officer

Plus many many others that I’m far too embarrassed to admit to.

Four movies I can watch over and over

  • Star Wars (the original one)
  • The Princess Bride
  • Beverly Hills Cop
  • Field of Dreams

Four places I’ve lived

  • Ottawa, Canada
  • Seattle, USA
  • Irkutsk, Russia
  • London, England

Four tv shows I like

  • The West Wing
  • Northern Exposure
  • Quantum Leap
  • Doctor Who

All of which I tend to watch on dvd rather than tv these days.

Four places I’ve vacationed

  • Venice
  • Crete
  • Mongolia
  • Wales

Four of my favourite dishes

  • Gnocchi
  • Pelmeni in mayonnaise
  • Beans on toast
  • My girlfriend’s Thai curries

Four sites I visit daily

Four books I’ve read this year

Four bloggers I’m going to tag with this

OK, that’s it. We’re done. Back to business.

The unending yoke

Trevor Butterworth doesn’t like blogs, and he tells us so in the Financial Times, closing with this delightful condemnation:

And that, in the end, is the dismal fate of blogging: it renders the word even more evanescent than journalism; yoked, as bloggers are, to the unending cycle of news and the need to post four or five times a day, five days a week, 50 weeks of the year, blogging is the closest literary culture has come to instant obsolescence. No Modern Library edition of the great polemicists of the blogosphere to yellow on the shelf; nothing but a virtual tomb for a billion posts – a choric song of the word-weary bloggers, forlorn mariners forever posting on the slumberless seas of news.

I’m sure some blogger more tightly chained to the yoke of the news cycle has already thought up this witty response but, just in case, here goes… 

Aren’t newspapers also yoked to the unending cycle of news?  Does this mean we should call last post on the FT?