Alex Massie

Damn those ugly sociopathic nerds and their squalid ejaculations!

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Imagine that, until now, the only books you'd been able to read were those that had been carefully selected by your parents and that, not surprisingly, these were books of a type that your parents approved of, written by authors who, for want of a better word, they considered sound. These books weren't necessarily bad, you understand, but the more you read the more you began to wonder if this was the only type of book there was and these the only perspectives ever committed to paper.

Imagine how you might feel, then, if you were suddenly freed from this prescribed reading diet and handed a pass to the British Library. You might be amazed at the variety on offer and bewildered by the sheer range of subjects waiting to be discovered. Having been brought up on a high-fibre reading diet, you might very well binge yourself silly on sweet and fatty sensations of questionable literary or intellectual merit. But if your parents were then to warn you, in grave and disappointed tones, that this was only to be expected since everyone - and your parents most especially - knows that libraries are dominated by crude and unrewarding books that are likely to corrupt the weak-willed and the credulous, you might say "but isn't a library fun?" And, for that matter, anyone familiar with a library would tell your parents that they're the kind of buffoons who should never be charged with nourishing a child's intellectual curiosity.

Forgive me the laboured analogy. But the McBride-Draper affair has, as I feared it would, produced a fair measure of tedious hand-wringing from newspaper pundits who seem incapable of grasping that the web is just a library without significant entry costs and that, like a library, it contains all of human life. That necessarily means it has plenty of nonsense and absurdity and depravity but only a fool would presume that this is all it contains.

Iain MacWhirter's column in the Herald may be the most egregious example of a trend that will be especially familiar to American readers. MacWhirter, who is, it's worth remembering, about as establishment a journalist as there is in Scotland, frets:

But why has all this scum risen to the surface now? Well, because political journalism is entering a new age, the age of the blog - an ugly word for an ugly trade.

The internet is littered with badly written and ill-informed home-made publications by opinionated nerds, whose skill with digital technology has suddenly given them the edge over the old media - like, er, me.

This new frontier of hackery is not subject to the same standards of accuracy, taste, style and legality that newspapers like The Herald are subject to. It is fashionable to condemn the "dead tree press" for being unreliable and sensationalist, but we are like academic research journals compared to the stuff on the web...

Why is the new journalism of the web so nasty? I really don't know. Blogging should have been the opportunity for all sorts of interesting people from all walks of life to start provoking debate with original ideas. Whistle-blowers had a new noticeboard on which to post information the authorities didn't want us to know about.

Instead the blogosphere has been hijacked by sociopathic egos with extreme views, who spend most of their time attacking each other. There is no quality control on the web and no editorial discretion. And since nothing on the web can be longer than a couple of hundred words, argument and insight has been replaced by bark and bite.

Bloggers don't write, they ejaculate. But then, I'm just a boring old hack, so what do I know?

1. There's nothing inherently "ugly" about blogging, just as there's nothing inherently ugly about writing for a newspaper.

2. Newspapers are also littered with "badly written and ill-informed" articles. That a blog is "home-made" should be no more pejorative a phrase than "home-cooking". That is, some of it will be terrible and some of it will be better than you'll find in most professional kitchens or, in this instance, newsrooms.

3. Ah yes, bloggers are "nerds". It takes all of ten minutes to set up a blog. I suppose one should be thankful that MacWhirter didn't add "pyjama-wearing, basement-dwelling"...

4. Accuracy, taste, style and legality? The first of these would rest on firmer ground if MacWhirter had not referred to "Red Rag" as "Red Flag" throughout his piece. As for the others, well the great thing about British newspapers is the variety of their standards of taste and style and, one might add, legality. It takes all sorts on Fleet Street and, blow me down with a feather, so it does online too.

5. No-one, not even those who love it (a group that includes your humble blogger), would ever accuse the British press of being anything other than marvellously and entertainingly "unreliable and sensationalist". Some of the blogsphere mirrors this; some of it is rather more highbrow than you'll find in most British newspapers most of the time.

6. "Blogging should have been the opportunity for all sorts of interesting people from all walks of life to start provoking debate with original ideas." Well! Anyone who can write this and mean it can't read many blogs. They just can't. If they did they wouldn't be able to write this and mean it - unless they were being deliberately obtuse or dishonest of course. I'm not accusing MacWhirter of that but one of the minor irritants of this weekend's brouhaha is the suggestion that the blogosphere consists of Guido Fawkes, Iain Dale, LabourList and, er, that's about it. Each of those blogs has their merits and their place, but they're hardly the tip of even the tip of the blogosphere. I'm biased in favour of the writers on my blogroll, but pretty much all of them are serious types engaging seriously with serious issues. Sure, some of them are journalists, but many of them have become journalists because they've blogged first and some wise editor somewhere has seen their writing as something worth having and reading.

7. The blogosphere has been hijacked by "sociopathic egos" who spend most of their time attacking each other." It's a mystery to me how you go about hijacking a library but this is, in fairness, a pretty good description of most newspaper offices I've worked in. And there's nothing wrong with that!

8. "There is no quality control on the web and no editorial discretion." How many times must it be repeated that this is a feature, not a bug? There's no quality control or editorial discretion at any of the copyright libraries either. That's one of the things that makes them the best libraries.

9. "And since nothing on the web can be longer than a couple of hundred words, argument and insight has been replaced by bark and bite." Again, only someone who doesn't read blogs can believe this. Equally, this sort of sniffy attitude, dressed up as arch commentary of course, might also be applied to tabloid newspapers that, wheatever their faults and excesses and circulation decline, are still rather more popular than the "responsible" press.

10."Bloggers don't write, they ejaculate. But then, I'm just a boring old hack, so what do I know?" I'm not going to answer that question...

Again, at the risk of labouring the point, disapproving of something does not invalidate everything. How difficult can it be to grasp that?

[A muckle tip of the hat to Will Patterson at J Arthur MacNumpty for alerting me to this. It's worth noting that Will covers the actual voting at Holyrood in vastly greater detail than does any Scottish newspaper.]

UPDATE: Relatedly, Tim Montgomerie has some characteristically sane thoughts on all this. In fairness, some of the newspaper commentary on the blogosphere is dictated by a) the need to fill the pages and b) the requirement to take a contrarian view of current events. Hence griping outbursts from Stephen Glover and Stephen Pollard. The problem for newspapers is that they deal in generalities; the internet by contrast, is about niche and specialisation.

UPDATE 2: Ian MacWhirter responds here. I don't think there's much need to go round the houses on this again. Suffice it to say that I still think his criticisms of blogging and the blogosphere reflect a very narrow view - and perhaps experience - of the medium.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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