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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
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On Brexit, David Cameron knows exactly what he's doing

It's not a dead cat - it's about disarming the Leave campaign. 

If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the calculation behind David Cameron’s latest entry into the In-Out (or Remain-Leave in new money) battle. The Prime Minister has warned that were Britain to leave the European Union, the migrant camp at Calais – popularly known as “the Jungle” – could move to Britain. But Eurosceptic campaigners have angrily denounced the remarks, saying that there’s little chance of it happening either way.  

Who’s right? My colleague Henry Zefferman has written a handy explainer of the ins and outs of the row, but the short version is: the Eurosceptic campaigners are broadly right.

But the remarks are very far from a gaffe by Downing Street or Cameron, and they aren’t a “dead cat” strategy – where you say something offensive, prompting a debate about that instead of another, trickier issue – either.

Campaigners for Remain have long been aware that immigration remains their glass jaw. The line wheeled out by Cameron has been long-planned. Late last year, senior members of the In campaign discussed what they saw as the danger points for the campaign. The first was a renegotiation that managed to roll back workplace rights, imperilling the support of the Labour party and the trade unions was one – happily avoided by Cameron’s piecemeal deal.

That the deal would be raked over in the press is not considered a risk point. Stronger In has long known that its path to victory does not run through a sympathetic media. The expectation has long been that even substantial concessions would doubtless have been denounced by the Mail, Telegraph and Sun – and no-one seriously expected that Cameron would emerge with a transformative deal. Since well before the general election, the Prime Minister has been gradually scaling back his demands. The aim has always been to secure as many concessions as possible in order to get an In vote – but Downing Street’s focus has always been on the “as possible” part rather than the “securing concessions” bit.

Today’s row isn’t about deflecting attention from a less-than-stellar deal, but about defanging another “risk point” for the In campaign: border control.

Campaign strategists believe they can throw the issue into neutral by casting doubt on Leave’s ability to control borders any better. One top aide said: “Our line is this: if we vote to leave, the border moves from Calais to Dover, it’s that simple.” They are also keen to make more of the fact that Norway has equally high levels of migration from the European Union as the United Kingdom. While In will never “own” the issue of immigration, they believe they can make the battle sufficiently murky that voters will turn to the areas that favour a Remain vote – national security, economic stability, and keeping people in their jobs.

What the row exposes, rather than a Prime Minister under pressure is a politician who knows exactly what he’s doing – and just how vulnerable the lack of a serious heavyweight at the top makes the Leave campaign(s). Most people won't make a judgement based on reading up the minutinae of European treaties, but on a "sniff test" of which side they think is more trustworthy. It's not a fight about the facts - it's a fight about who is more trusted by the public: David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling or Priti Patel? As one minister said to me: "I like Priti, but the idea that she can go against the PM as far as voters are concerned is ridiculous. Most people haven't heard of her." 

Leave finds itself in a position uncomfortably like that of Labour in the run-up to the election: with Cameron able to paint himself as the only option guaranteeing stability, against a chaotic and muddled alternative. Without a politician, a business figure or even a prominent celebrity who can provide credibility on the level of the Prime Minister, any row about whether or not Brexit increases the chances of more migrants on Britain’s doorsteps helps Remain – and Cameron. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.