Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Bloggers repel boarders

There's a memorable passage in One Hundred Years of Solitude where a "magistrate" turns up in the small but growing settlement of Macondo and informs the inhabitants that they now belong to the government. And that they are required for some bureaucratic reason to paint their houses blue. The town's patriarch, Don José Arcadio Buendía, objects that they could manage perfectly well by themselves.

He gave a detailed account of how they had founded the village, of how they had distributed the land, opened the roads and introduced the improvements that necessity required without having bothered the government and without anybody having bothered them... No one was upset that the government had not helped them. On the contrary, they were happy that up until then it has let them grow in peace, and he hoped that it would continue leaving them that way, because they had not founded a town so that the first upstart who came along would tell them what to do.

It works for a time; but the government got the better of him in the end. It's what governments do. So, of course, do quangos. They regulate to accumulate. Show them something new, and they want to regulate it. So it was far from surprising to learn - the conduit for this information being the Independent's Ian Burrell - that the new head of the Press Complaints Commission (which isn't yet, quite, a quango, but would clearly like to be) has set her sights on blogs. Baroness Buscombe wants to "examine the possibility" that people should have a "right of redress" to the PCC for things that are said about them on blogs, we are informed. "Some of the bloggers are now creating their own ecosystems which are quite sophisticated," she warns, having mastered at least some of the lingo (though "now creating" suggests that she's just a little behind the times). Cue general outrage and much spluttering into keyboards.

But of course, now that the storm has broken, it turns out that she was simply musing out loud. The PCC has no plans to regulate blogs. Guido (who is, to most who know nothing of such matters, the alpha and omega of British blogging) reports that the noble lady was "mischievously misquoted" - and mischievously suggests a complaint about Burrell to the PCC might be in order. I suspect there was more to it than that. Of course, the PCC has no fixed intention to monitor the blogosphere, and no real idea about how it would set about doing so. But, as a paid-up member of the Great and the Good, she may well view blogs rather warily - or perhaps with envious eyes. To the tidy official mind, there's something unsettling about the idea that blogs aren't being regulated by someone. In a clarification, she now says that self-regulation may be a way of heading off "increasing pressure" for something more formal and coercive. She's just trying to help us.

There certainly is increasing pressure. There was that nice woman from the European Parliament last year who was worried about anonymous blogs and the "less principled people" who might be writing them. She felt that bloggers should identify themselves - perhaps even being licensed - and declare their interests. The European Commission was concerned that bloggers were "overwhelmingly negative" about the EU - and assumed that that demonstrated something wrong with blogs. Then there was Hazel Blears (now sadly no longer in the government) who despaired of the "corrosive cyncism" of bloggers who saw "their function as unearthing scandals, conspiracies and perceived hypocrisy". Rather more seriously, culture secretary Andy Burnham announced last year that the government wanted to give people who felt they had been defamed online an easier route to legal redress - on the theory, presumably, that the present libel laws are too liberal.

Ian Burrell thinks that bloggers "would presumably have to volunteer to come beneath the PCC's umbrella". But that's not remotely likely, is it? Trying to tell bloggers what to do brings out all our most contrarian instincts - and almost all bloggers (and certainly anyone who's any good) are contrarians of one sort or another, united only by a belief in the vital importance of being able to say what we think. Cats are herd animals by comparison. Unity is leading the charge over at Liberal Conspiracy with an open letter objecting to the proposal (although it never was a proposal), now "signed" by tons of bloggers from the well-known (Devil's Kitchen) to the thoroughly obscure (Helen and Denny? Who they?). Unity is typically prolix (a well-phrased "Fuck Off" would have done the job). His letter makes a particular, and not obvious, argument: that the blogosphere does not require PCC regulation because blogs already have higher standards than most newspapers. He drew a contrast between the "tortuous process" that one of its readers had to go through to get the News of the World to retract a "manifestly untrue and inflammatory" statement and the alacrity with which most bloggers put their hands up:

This is but one clear example of a practice that would be unacceptable amongst established bloggers and one of many that bloggers who specialise in monitoring the national press for accuracy have documented in recent years. For a blogger to engage in such practices, which include ‘stealth editing’ of articles, after publication, to avoid owning up to factual errors and removing and/or refusing to publish critical comments from readers, especially those that highlight and correct factual errors.

For an established blogger to adopt such practices would do incalculable damage to their public reputation; this being, after all, all that we have to trade on.

Like I said, somewhat debatable. Most bloggers may behave with the highest propriety. Others may not. At the moment, unless you want to sue (as an increasing number of people mentioned on blogs do) you have no redress beyond the goodness of the blogger's heart. You may leave a clarificatory comment; the blogger may delete it. You may object to the blogger's characterisation of you as ugly and stupid; they may respond by claiming that you also have BO. And there's not a lot you can do about it. Except sue. For many people, of course, taking legal action is out of the question: it's daunting, can be expensive (unless you win really large damages) and (if it goes all the way) time-consuming. For the richer and more brazen, on the other hand, it can be easy money, because nine times out of ten the person sued will back down and pay up. It's not difficult to persuade a large news organisation to make a generous contribution towards your favourite bank account. Less easy, perhaps, with a blogger, who might have no money to give you.

Also, Unity makes the assumption that the problem (if there is a problem) is one of "established bloggers" who are concerned with their reputation for probity - this being what they "trade on". Given that very few blogs make money, it's not clear what damage losing the respect of fellow bloggers would do to a rogue blogger who just wants to stir things. If anything, being denounced as a ratbag or a liar by other, perhaps more prominent, denizens of the blogosphere will be good for hits. In fact, being obnoxious is as good a way as any of getting noticed. Better, perhaps, than turning out beautifully-written but largely unread (because overlooked) posts day after day. It's dangerous, I think, to use the alleged ethical superiority of bloggers over mainstream journalists as a reason for not being regulated or monitored by the PCC. And while Unity is right to point to the grave deficiences of the PCC (shown again, perhaps, by its failure to tick off the News of the World over its alleged phone-hacking activities) a broken clock may be fixed. Lady Buscombe has announced a review of the PCC's procedures already. If the PCC did its job properly, most of Unity's arguments against regulation would disappear.

No. The reason for not regulating blogs is that a blog isn't the sort of thing that could or should be regulated. Blogs aren't like newspapers, and bloggers aren't like journalists (even many bloggers who are journalists aren't like journalists while they're blogging). For one thing, there are just too many of them. The cost involved in mounting investigations could spiral, especially if complaining to the PCC became accepted as the normal thing to do when someone has been nasty or inaccurate about you on a blog. The PCC accepts complaints via an online form, which means that complaining has become absurdly easy. A single article can attract thousands of complaints (vide Jan Moir) but equally many different articles, or blogposts, can attract single complaints and the PCC might be swamped. Who would investigate these complaints? Who would fund them?

A few blogs have a wide audience, and even influence, but most bloggers are just people expressing an opinion. Freedom is the attraction and the essence of blogging: it's also a prerequisite. If bloggers had to sign up to a code, many simply wouldn't bother. Regulation of blogs would imply a structure and an organisation that simply doesn't exist and will probably never exist. Who would draw up the code of conduct, and what would become of bloggers who rejected it? A whole new class of blogger-regulators - with the necessary experience - would have to be recruited, and paid, and trained to do the job. Who would these people be? I've got a fairly good idea, actually: they would in the main be aspiring bloggers unable to attract their own readers. And they would be blogging busybodies with a particular idea of what blogging is (like Unity, even) and a desire to impose their view on others. For other people's own good, of course. Such types - at once altruistic and self-aggrandising, nature's quangocrats - may be found in every area of life. Why should blogging be any different?

At present, of course, the PCC is funded by the newspaper industry - which is part of the problem, its critics would say. It seems unlikely that bloggers, even the two who make any money, would be in a position to pay the costs of being monitored. And the PCC code is a voluntary one. To persuade bloggers to submit themselves to it, the PCC would have to offer something in return: a seal of approval, perhaps. I can imagine a sidebar button - click here if you want to complain about anything on this blog. Would you (if you have a blog) put such a device on your site? No, me neither.

Baroness Buscombe's proposal - or suggestion, or (most likely) throwaway remark - was never going to get anywhere. The reaction to it was, perhaps, more significant than the story itself. It showed that bloggers are seriously concerned. Even while pointing out that regulating the blogosphere is next to impossible, they share - we share - a sinking feeling that They'll get us eventually. The government, the EU, Ofcom, the PCC, the IWF or some new body not yet thought of: slowly, but surely, they draw their plans against us. That's what they do.