The first question any blogger is asked when interviewed by a journo from the mainstream media, as I can testify from recent experience, is "Why don't Australian political blogs break stories and impact on the political process like they do in the States?" I can and will suggest various answers to this question, but I'd also like to argue that in many ways it misses the political point of blogging. In doing so, I think we can come to some conclusions not only about the potential of new media for political interaction, but also relate political blogging both to its wider social context and to faults in the political process itself.
Bloggers in the United States have hit some home runs, most spectacularly with the downfall of Dan Rather. But as Antony Lowenstein recently wrote in On Line Opinion, getting people sacked isn't exactly a stunning contribution to the health of democracy, much as the accountability of the media is enhanced by having an independent voice to challenge its monopoly on news and opinion.
It's said that the mainstream media is increasingly dominated by corporate interests, political spin, and bread and circuses postmodern pap. So if blogging is indeed the antidote for its ills, then the increasing polarisation of political blogs and a focus on point-scoring and scandal suggests that blogging may come to mirror the worst aspects of the media it seeks to critique. Bloggers have often asked themselves (among other things, it's a very self-reflective medium) if they are just parasites on the body of big media.
There is an important accountability role in exposing the sloppy reasoning and factual errors of the Miranda Devines and the Phillip Adams of the world, but blogs perform more of a service to their readers when they articulate an original and interesting position of their own. To a large degree, I think the Australian blogosphere is getting better at this.
The parasitic dimension, of course, may work both ways. There's a sense a lot of bloggers have - but it's difficult to quantify - that pollies and journos out there are reading. It's remarkable how often an uncited theme or idea pops up in the papers a few days after being aired on a blog. But the question posed at the start of this article remains - what value does blogging add above and beyond the mainstream media?
Should blogs be breaking news? A few things militate against this. Bloggers aren't Crikey!, they don't usually reside in Canberra, attend press conferences and have huge networks of sources. Nor are bloggers protected by the deep pockets of media organisations should they be sued for defamation, and they can't protect their sources in the same ways.
The economic aspect is a factor. We've yet to reach the stage in Australia where bloggers can make a living from their writing (although I think that time may come) and therefore a lot of political bloggers are employed in professions where writing comes naturally - academia, consulting, freelance journalism or writing. But the need to juggle a commitment to blogging with a commitment to one's employer also constrains what bloggers can say, and how often they can say it (though there are some remarkably prolific bloggers out there - perhaps precisely because writing is their trade more often than not and thus the posts dance off the keyboard with abandon).
When I was interviewed recently, the closest thing I could think of as "breaking news" was the publication on my blog, Larvatus Prodeo of Antonio Negri's response to a column by Keith Windschuttle, a response that The Australian, increasingly morphing openly into a neo-conservative mouthpiece but without acknowledging it, shamefully failed to publish. But I was only able to do this because of contacts I have in my milieu of academic sociology. What I was able to do, however, was to draw attention to some broader issues than just the accuracy of Windschuttle's column - issues to do with the questions of the power of the media and of columnists, and the increasingly censorious phenomenon of right-wing “political correctness”.
It's this sort of contribution - being able to publish reflective and controversial analysis that would rarely find its way onto the op-ed pages, and being able quickly to follow up developments - that is a real service the blogosphere performs to our democracy. In many ways that's more important, I'd suggest, than "breaking stories".
Partly because of my academic training in sociology, I'm usually a sceptic when it comes to claims that any number of phenomena are new and revolutionary. We all know what happened to the "new economy" and I fear we're about to find out what's going to happen to the "new permanent prosperity" in Howard's Australia. Similarly, claims about the potential of the Internet are usually overstated and often hyperbole. This is what's wrong with the terms of the debate about blogs and the mainstream media. We're still seeing things through the same lens - bloggers as the new journalists, blogs as the new op-ed, blogs as the new way for politicians to interface with voters. All this actually acts to obscure the most important feature of blogging - its ability to engage directly with readers and generate conversations that often take very interesting and unpredictable turns.
One leitmotif in our political life is the decline of the public sphere, and the disconnection between the increasingly professionalised sphere of party politics and the mass of citizens. Much of this harks back to the liberal (in the philosophical sense) model of truth as emerging from debate and discussion. In fact, on blogs as elsewhere, much political debate - whether between Left and Right or along other cleavages - is marked by missed encounters, a failure to engage, sniping, snarkiness, and spin.
In this, blogging reflects not just a broader decline in civility, but something about the very nature of political discourse - it's not about getting to the truth but about swaying others through means fair and foul. Similarly, in the masculine tone of a lot of political blogs, and the dominance of male commenters and bloggers, blogs are very much embedded in and part of the society we live in. Again, there's often a confessional dimension to blogs - as Michel Foucault argues in late modern culture more broadly - and blogging is not without its "look at me" egotism and its own internal hierarchies and exercises of power that structure the conversations that take place. But the beauty of blogging is in the sense that all this can be challenged.
Blogging is a new platform for political persuasion, and for making a sustained argument over time in a way that the media rarely does, and bloggers can be directly challenged as to facts and interpretation (as I was recently by Keith Windschuttle). If prominent Australian blogger Tim Dunlop is right (and I think he is) that bloggers are the the new public intellectuals, then the difference is that they're directly accountable - in public - to their own peers and readers.
And the other big difference is that in an age of declining public interest in politics, comments threads (very often the best bits of blogs - often for the sharpness and wit of the encounters and the sense that different commenters get of each other's personas) and the interactivity and virtual community they bring with them are a small protest against the disconnect between citizens and political process. One of the most remarkable experiences of my political life was the amazing sense of camaraderie that the excellent blog Back Pages developed for Labor and left supporters during last year's Federal election, and the high quality of Christopher Sheil's instant political analysis of the tides and ebbs of the campaign as they happened.
I'd hoped at one point to illustrate the satisfaction people get from blog debates by incorporating feedback from my own readers, but I think it's more in the spirit of blogging to link directly to their words. It's this incredible interactivity, and the political interest and involvement it fosters, that I think - as much as media and political accountability and sharp analysis are important - is the contribution blogging brings to politics and to our society. As blogger Ken Parish put it, we become monitorial citizens, and, I'd add, better citizens. I hope, just as I've argued that blogging reflects broader social patterns, that this political interactivity is a sign of the times. It's certainly a sign of hope, and as the song goes, maybe "from little things, big things grow".