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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.

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Single parent families are already struggling - universal credit is making things worse

Austerity and financial hardship are not inevitable – politicians have a choice.

“I don’t live, I merely keep existing”. So says one single parent in Gingerbread’s final report from a project tracking single parent finances since 2013. Their experience is typical of single parents across the country. The majority we surveyed are struggling financially and three-quarters have had to borrow from friends, family or lenders to make ends meet.

This is not the story that the government wants to hear. With a focus on a jobs boom and a promise to "make work pay", a relentlessly positive outlook shines from the DWP. The reality is somewhat different. Benefit cuts have taken their toll, and single parents have been among the hardest hit. Estimates suggest over six per cent of their annual income was lost through reforms under the 2010-15 government. The 2015 Summer Budget cuts will add another 7.6 per cent loss on top by 2020, even after wage and tax gains.

What’s more, for all the talk of tackling worklessness, working families have not escaped unscathed. Single parent employment is at a record high – thanks in no small part to their own tenacity in a tough environment. But the squeeze on incomes has hit those in work too. The original one per cent cap on uprating benefits meant a single parent working part-time lost around £900 over three years. Benefits are now frozen, rapidly losing value as inflation rises. On top of stagnant and often low pay and high living costs, it’s perhaps unsurprising that we found working single parents surveyed just as likely to run out of money as those out of work – shockingly, around half didn’t have enough to reach the end of the month.

Single parent families – along with many others on low incomes – are being pushed into precarious financial positions. One in eight single parents had turned to emergency provision, including payday lenders and food banks. Debt in particular casts a long shadow over families. A third of single parents surveyed were behind on payments, and they described how debt often lingers for a long time as they struggle to pay it off from already stretched budgets.

All of this may be depressingly familiar to some – but it comes at something of a crossroads for politicians. With the accelerated roll-out of universal credit around the corner, the government risks putting many more people under significant strain – and potentially into debt. Encouragingly, the increasing noise around the delays to a first payment is raising red flags across political parties. Perhaps most alarming is that delays are not purely administrative, but deliberate – they reflect in-built, intentional, cost-saving measures. These choices serve no constructive purpose: they risk debt and anxiety for families the government intended to help, and costs for the services left to pick up the pieces.

But will the recent warning signs be enough? Despite new data showing around half of new claimants needed "advance payments" (loans to deal with financial hardship while waiting for a first payment), the Department for Work and Pensions stuck doggedly to its lines, lauding the universal credit project that “lies at the heart of welfare reform to help “people to improve their lives”.

And, as valuable as additional scrutiny is, must we wait for committees to gather and report on yet more evidence, and for the National Audit Office to forensically examine and report on progress once again? The reality is glaringly evident. Families have already been pushed to the brink without universal credit. Those entering the new system – and those supporting them, including councils – have made it abundantly clear that moving onto universal credit makes things worse for too many.

This is not to dismiss universal credit in its entirety. It’s hard to argue with the original intention to simplify the benefit system and make sure work pays. It was always going to be an ambitious (possibly over-ambitious) project. But salami slicing the promised support – from the added seven day "waiting period" for a first payment, to the slashed work allowances intended to herald improved work incentives – leaves us with a system that won’t merely overpromise and under-deliver, but endanger many families’ already fragile financial security. The impact should not be underestimated – this is not just about finances, but families’ lives and the emotional stress and turmoil that can follow.

With increasing political and economic uncertainty, with Brexit looming, this is not the time for petty leadership squabbles, but a time to reassure voters and revitalise the government’s promises to the nation. The DWP committed to a "test and learn" approach to rolling out universal credit – to pause and fix these urgent problems is no U-turn. And of course, the Prime Minister promised a transformed social justice agenda, tackling the "burning injustices" of the day. Nearly all of the UK’s 2 million single parent families will be eligible for universal credit once it is fully rolled out; making this flagship support fit for purpose would surely be a good place to start.

Sumi Rabindrakumar is a research officer at single parents charity Gingerbread.