Back to the future

Blogging is here to stay, so let's talk about the real challenges ahead

Perhaps, when I accepted the invitation back in February to speak at an event hosted by Spiked Online entitled "The Future of the Media", I genuinely believed there was something more to add to the debate. This past week, as I was planning what to say during my talk, I happened to mention it over dinner to a friend - the kind of friend who revels in the future; indeed, practically lives in it. "What kind of future?" he demanded. "Ten years, fifty?" I replied to the effect that he had probably missed the point.

For as long as I can remember, groups of journalists have huddled together in venues across London to debate in earnest their future in the face of pervasive, networked communications platforms that are open and accessible to all comers. They have gasped in collective shock at the so-called "citizen journalist" and looked on in horror as their recasting of these individuals as "users", "generating content", has failed to make them go away. But as the editor of Spiked, Brendan O'Neill, pointed out on the night of the future media talk itself, pitching new media against old is a false battle. It is a way to blame technology for all the difficult developments in press and broadcasting over the past ten years - convergence of media ownership, commercial pressures, budget cuts and dumbing down.

Indeed, if it is not blogging that has caused the decline in journalism, then perhaps it is the other way around. Even though many blogs are simply glorified scrapbooks of stories generated by the professional press, there are a few which stand out for that mix of fidelity, engagement and respect for detail that is becoming harder to find in conventional reportage. The best that come to mind are maintained by professionals and academics: Random Acts of Reality (which charts the life of a London Ambulance Service driver), the UK Freedom of Information blog Spyblog ("watching them, watching us") and Mr Chalk.

As Charlie Beckett of the Polis media unit at the London School of Economics has observed, well-informed blogging such as this forms a new part of the ecosystem of sources available to under-resourced journalists on deadline. This is not the future of media, but the present.

The future has its own challenges. Laws and their associated procedures that moderate freedom of expression - libel, intellectual property and, to a lesser extent, decency and hate-speech laws - are too punitive for individuals who lack the ready access to legal expertise of a newspaper or broadcaster. Worse still, online, compliance with these laws is maintained by disinterested internet service providers, and not editors and publishers.

Professional and citizen journalist alike, we need to stop debating what is already happening, and concentrate on the challenges ahead.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan