Nov 292012

Emily Bell argued yesterday in the Guardian that by making and sustaining a distinction between the press on the one hand and social media on the other the Leveson Inquiry had painted itself into the corner of irrelevance.  Her definition of the free press would, instead, be as follows:

The free press of the 21st century consists of the distributed social platforms, the WordPress blogging software and the “dark social” matter of the hidden web, as much as it is the venerable institutions that have local accountability to whatever regulator the UK government should seek to appoint.

Leveson is, however, quite undeterred.  He repeated his assertions today as he delivered his 2000-page report on press culture, its ethics and its possibly regulated future.  Try minute three of the video below:

He’s clear there is a difference, isn’t he?  No doubt in his mind at all.  The question is, whose instincts should we run with?  Those of a professional journalist such as Bell, seeped, as she is, in communication lore and its dynamics – or a man with the kind of regulatory instincts which only the professions of lawyer and judge can infuse?

I’m not sure, actually, that’s the real issue to hand.  I’ve always felt my blogging – and latterly my tweeting and Facebook output – was more along the lines of a global conversation than publishing.  Certainly, if anything tended to the latter, it would be this blog – but even there, the habit of hyperlinking and bouncing off other’s occurrences, the fact that the purpose of my blogging has always been to brainstorm ideas and follow them to their ultimate consequences, surely gives me the right to side more with Lord Justice Leveson than with Emily Bell’s almost catch-all attempt to include social media under her professionalising umbrellas.

And I really don’t think I’d be the only blogger or social-media fan to believe that we converse and dialogue more than publish.  Whilst Leveson attempts to see beyond the technology – to identify what makes institutional and industrial communication very particular to the health of a democracy, to that holding of power to account – it would appear that Bell seems to confuse means and aims.

That newspapers like the Guardian use social-media technologies – blogging software, tweeting and Facebooking facilities, even the chatty discourse of conversation – doesn’t mean that the original social media, the bloggers and tweeters and Facebookers galore, have suddenly become paid-up members of the official British press.  And it goes without saying it’s my firm belief that all attempts to make us so, by anyone who believes that’s the way forward, should be firmly resisted.

Why?  Out of pure self-interest?  Out of a creeping set of double standards?  Out of a desire to be able to say without having to accept responsibility for one’s content?

I don’t think so.

Firstly, bloggers, tweeters and Facebookers do not have access to legions of lawyerly support.  Nor, in general, do they have the consistent and easily maintainable visibility which power of any real kind demands.  If they do have any power, it is the power of the crowd: a lent out, shared and circulated power.  Yes, in its negative manifestations, possibly similar to the power of the mob.  But in its positives, a glorious song to human collaboration.

Secondly, if we’re looking to have an area of reasonably public discourse which can follow trains of new and ground-breaking thought to their logical conclusions, which can imagine new worlds and which does offer our civilisation a route out of a pervasive group-think, surely anyone who cares at all about democratic communication will understand we need to encourage the ambiguity that social media has so eagerly generated and enabled.  The institutional press, in Leveson’s terms, is there to hold institutional power to account – and quite rightly so.  But social media should be reserved, equally rightly so, for the amateur citizen and interested voter to express their opinions as often and as freely as they like.

With certain limitations where the pale is gone so far beyond – but with a desire for “independent and effective self-regulation” whenever the free and open web is able to thus deliver.

As Peter on Twitter said today:

This is one of those days when its good to be mindful of the difference between “free speech” and “free press”

And he’s right.  Let us guarantee by all means the freedoms of the press, as Bell fairly pursues.  Let us also, however, consciously sustain the right of a virtualised base of evermore engaged citizens to use the very same technologies which the press is now appropriating as its own – but for purely individual, non-institutional, crowd-focussed and conversational purposes.

The difference between the press and social media is, therefore, after all, a useful distinction indeed: it is the clearly understandable difference between writing up and speaking up.

Keep that in mind, dear professional journalists – and it’ll be easier to comprehend why Leveson, in this at least, is absolutely spot-on.

Spot-on, that is to say, in his interestingly outsider’s perceptions of exactly where each of our duties really should lie in the future.


Update to this post: if you prefer reading to watching videos, you can now find a full transcript of Leveson’s statement this afternoon over at the Politics Home website.  The executive summary of the report itself can be found here (.pdf file); the report in its entirety here (.pdf file).

Apr 262012

I’ve seen this and other pieces on how the fight is not over yet for that or the other.  They horrify me.  It seems that the belligerent amongst us have finally got their way.  Those who run corporate vessels as if they were battleships – and I assume this will be the vast majority of CEOs – have finally turned our civilian society, that democracy which once stood healthily apart from business and its conflict, into a test-bed and simulator for their clever and destructive mindsets.

I speak so sadly today partly because I am three-quarters through a short piece of political clarity called “Common Sense” (no, not that one – but related to and influenced by, of course).  It’s written by Dan Hind, and it reminds me of a lot of what you will find on my own blog – both currently and over the years; except, of course, that he writes far more to the point than I ever manage to do and with the intelligence that real learning brings.

My writing, unfortunately, is often tangential brainstorming and unfinished.

There is nothing unfinished nor tangential about Dan’s.

Nor does he ever give the sensation of an unknowing thrashing-about-in-the-dark.

The piece is compressed and pincer sharp – and clearly understands the enemy.

You can find more about its writing and publishing here at his site, as well as initial observations on process from myself over at my gently moribund progressive-publishing blog here.

In its short and succinct overview and analysis of where the public domain of democracy now lies, it shows us exactly why we have reached the point of inflexion that is this year – a year which has dramatically followed the Occupy movements of the last.

I believe the last quarter of this “Common Sense” will tell us what we can now do to recover our ability to fashion, engineer and enjoy a proper democracy.  In this sense, I am sure it will provide us with the means to brighten up our shared futures – if we so wish.

In the meantime, I do ask myself if democracy must equal that civilian war I feel we are now immersed in.  Can we not contemplate a mode of discourse which allows us to relate to each other as sentient adults?  Do we have to be forever on opposing sides of the political fence as far as our rhetoric is concerned …  whilst, when atop the greasy pole, on the same side as far as filling our deepening business-influenced pockets is concerned?

Can we not make one final effort to get process properly and constructively in its place, so that democracy really does represent the cumulative voices of the public?


Further reading: you may be interested in a post of mine on why the Occupy movements’ time has not yet arrived.  In the light of Dan’s “Common Sense”, I’m beginning to wonder if I was in fact right.

It’s time may already be upon us.  It may come sooner than we think.

Sep 272011

There’s an interesting thesis over at Total Politics at the moment, as they headline Ed Miliband’s speech this afternoon in the following way:

Ed Miliband attempted to outline his narrative for Labour in his second conference speech as leader. But it felt like a story of many voices, rather than a singular, personal one

They continue the theme by arguing that:

It felt like the work of a focus group – where 12 people Miliband likes sat in a room and came up with a considered thesis on how to regain power.

It didn’t feel like him alone, a single voice that speaks for Labour and the nation.

Labour Politics 101 for Ed might start with Murdoch or the NHS.

But maybe Labour Politics 101 needs to start with Ed.

I’d place a different interpretation on it:

Isn’t Ed Miliband having a conversation instead of giving a speech? And in a TV age, isn’t that just what he should do? #lab11

Declamatory politics – ie the traditional sort – inevitably places greater emphasis on and underlines the importance of the orator’s skills in geeing up the audience.  It makes the individual performance more important.  It makes it just that: a performance.

But Ed Miliband may have been attempting something different today: to play to his strengths and use the Internet generation’s preferred mode of communication.

Dialogue and conversation instead of grand and florid oratory.  Not a performance but a bringing together of many democratically threaded ideas.

Inevitably, the commentators – anchored in their traditional landscape of pyramidal politics – will interpret Miliband’s speech today as weak; not a fail perhaps – but definitely not a win.  I’m not so sure, though.  As you might have guessed already from this post, I don’t think his intention was to give a speech at all.  After the recent riots, he spoke of the need for a “national conversation”.  I think the register he chose for today’s event was precisely in line with that need for conversation.

He was conversing with us out here – not speechifying the people at Conference.

And so an Internet generation communicated to its own – not a declamation at all but, rather, a threaded dialogue of the many.

As I said this morning whilst watching him strut his stuff: he may not ever become PM but he sure knows where the hearts and souls of good people lie.

And if on no other basis than this, he deserves a further opportunity.

Nov 152010

Mick has a nice overview here at Slugger O’Toole of his and Paul’s very own Edinburgh unconference, held last Saturday and organised by Political Innovation (further coverage from Holyrood magazine can be found here).

One of the observations Mick makes in his piece and underlines most usefully is that online commentators are in the habit of providing a much needed “crankery” which helps to contextualise the world of politics, technology and – I suppose by implication – those more generalised tendencies to a kind of “corporate whitewash” (whether this comes from businesspeople or politicians themselves).  Or, rather, as Mick more kindly, as well as perhaps more wisely, describes them, those “pre-prepared political narratives” most me-too journalism and journalists – as well as political and business leaders – lazily prefer to go along with.

Not thinking from scratch any time you see or hear something different is a sad condition to acquire and maintain.

So the strength of this kind of unconference lies in its bottom-up approach, in allowing the “crankery” to flourish.  Nice to see a healthily real world approach to organisation too, as Post-Its fluttered galore.

But one point I tried quite unsuccessfully to make during the plenary session Q&A section was in relation to one of Mick’s own questions as posed later in the Slugger O’Toole piece I’ve already linked to:

Can this conversational space be made more conversational?

I tried to point out towards the end of the session that blogging has, in my opinion unfortunately, moved on from being that easy and breezy pub conversation in the global village which it started out as exemplifying – with all the advantages of ambiguity that such a state conferred upon the process – and has become a kind of substitute publishing.  Instead of speaking to each other, we are now writing for each other.  We yearn to become proper journalists even as we fail to understand we were worth far more to society as gossips and diarists of the moment. 

If, as Mick suggests, we may want to consider making this conversational space more conversational, we’ll have to decide pretty sharpish whether we’d prefer to take on board the tenets of traditional publishing – with all its upsides of branding and reputation and all its downsides of legal entanglements – or whether we’d rather preserve our freedom to exchange and develop ideas in a perpetually fluid cauldron of busy and fairly amateurish discourse.

I know which I’d prefer.

What about you?

Jan 212010

I’ve been arguing it for months, in one way or another.  Now most cogently put here.

It’s not the content itself that counts on the modern Internet but the conversation, the relationship, the to-and-fro – that is to say, the embracing nature of linkage.  You break that down with the threat of a paywall and people will stop linking to you even before you actually start – for you are threatening the delivery of a relationship: and relationships always count for more in the lives of socialised human beings than will any commodity.

How to undermine the value of your content in one easy step.