Show Hide image

Laurie Penny: Blogger's Revolution - Taking Control with Digital Media

Bloggers aren’t out to take away the jobs of highly paid columnists: we’re more ambitious than that.

Remember print? Your kids might not. This week, it emerged that newspaper sales are plummeting in Britain, with only 33 per cent of the population now claiming to be regular readers of analogue news.

As more and more of us cherry-pick our media online, drawing little distinction between the mainstream press and the popular blogosphere, industry insiders are beginning to panic, predicting the violent death of quality commentary and investigative journalism at the multifarious hands of the internet.

On several baffling occasions in recent months, I have found myself at snooty media events where hosts introduce me and my colleagues gingerly as "bloggers", rather as if we were the grinning emissaries of a rogue state, ambassadors from a territory of violent cultural change which the authorities might soon see fit to brutally suppress but which, for now, must be appeased with canapés and party invitations.

Cosy members of the established commentariat eye bloggers suspiciously, as if beneath our funny clothes and unruly hair we might actually be strapped with information bombs ready to explode their cultural paradigms and destroy their livelihoods. This sort of prejudice is deeply anodyne.

Bloggers aren't out to take away the jobs of highly paid columnists: we're more ambitious than that. We're out for a complete revolution in the way media and politics are done. While the media establishment guards its borders with paranoid rigour, snobbishly distinguishing between bloggers and journalists, people from the internet have already infiltrated the mainstream.

Raw power

Many influential writers now work across both camps, such as the author, blogger and digital activist Cory Doctorow, who observes that the blogosphere need not threaten paid comment journalism. “Commercially speaking, newspapers can make enough money from advertising to pay reasonable rates for opinion,” says Doctorow.

“I know of at least one that does, and that's my site, BoingBoing, which reaches millions of readers every month. By operating efficiently, we can more than match the fees paid by the New York Times, for example, which always pays peanuts for op-eds because the glory of being published in the NYT is meant to be its own reward.

"After you take away the adverts, the personals, the filler and the pieces hacked together from press releases, the average paper contains about 15 column inches of decent investigative journalism and commentary,” said Doctorow. “And the internet is more than capable of financing 15 column inches a day.”

What the blogosphere threatens is not the survival of comment journalism itself: it threatens the monopoly of the media elite, holding the self-important fourth estate to a higher standard than bourgeois columnists and editors find comfortable. We are, in effect, a fifth estate, scrutinising the mainstream media and challenging its assumptions.

Last month, when Danny Dyer appeared to advise a reader of Zoo magazine to cut his girlfriend's face, the feminist arm of the fifth estate responded angrily, prompting a retraction and apology from Zoo, and also successfully organised a donation drive to raise more money for women’s refuge charities than the discredited Dyer’s violently misogynist film Pimp made in its first week of release. That’s the type of power that scares the wits out of the dinosaurs in analogue media.

Every day, the British blogosphere becomes less amateurish and more relevant. This weekend, the popular forum Liberal Conspiracy will host Blog Nation, an event bringing together bloggers, journalists and politicians on the left to determine how the internet can build progressive campaigns to fight public-sector cuts.

“We have a strong community that can do activism and provide niche information that escapes mainstream newspapers,” said the Liberal Conspiracy editor, Sunny Hundal. “We want to use the net to get the left to think more about strategy and action -- and get people to work together, better!”

Permanent revolution

The long-term effect of the internet on human cultural production may not be ascertained in my lifetime. Certainly the baby boomers who control most major news outlets today will not live to see what change may come. "Where we end up in five years isn't where we are today," says Doctorow. " We're not headed towards a period of technological stability where we'll know what our media will look like; we're headed for more technological change.”

Doctorow is right to suggest that we are living through what Marx and Engels might term a “permanent technological revolution”. Last weekend, in an incisive essay in the Guardian, John Naughton observed that being a consumer of media and journalism during the transformation of today's communications environment is a little

like being a resident of St Petersburg in 1917, in the months before Lenin and the Bolsheviks finally seized power. It's clear that momentous events are afoot; there are all kinds of conflicting rumours and theories, but nobody knows how things will pan out. Since we don't have the benefit of hindsight, we don't really know where it's taking us.

One thing, however, is certain: journalism is changing for ever. The notion of political commentary as a few-to-many exercise, produced by highly paid elites and policed by big business, has been shattered beyond repair.

The internet is a many-to-many medium, and those who write and comment here are not media insiders, nor are we the mob. We are something altogether new. We are the fifth estate, and we are forging a path through the miasma of technological change towards a more honest, democratic model of commentary -- alongside a lot of porn and some pictures of amusing cats.

The media revolution continues. Whatever comes next, the bloggers' battle cry must be "Permanent technological revolution".

Cory Doctorow's new novel about gaming and digital organisation, For the Win, is published by Harper Voyager (£14.99). You can register here for this Saturday's Blog Nation.

Special subscription offer: Get 12 issues for £12 plus a free copy of Andy Beckett's "When the Lights Went Out".

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.