Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Nick Cohen: you aren't adding anything

Nick Cohen: not a lookerNick Cohen: a man who all too obviously lacks a portrait in his attic.

Via the good Doctor Crippen and new Kitchen colleague, The Ferret Fancier, I find that Nick Cohen has joined the growing crowd of worried commentators who have decided to make assaults on the validity of the blogosphere.
Somewhat to my surprise, I've found myself in the vanguard of the Web 2.0 revolution. The organisers of the 2007 Lulu Blooker Prize asked me to be one of the judges. I suspect they couldn't find anyone else.

Strangely, Nick, I assume precisely the same thing...
I'm glad they did because blooks carry the hopes of techno-Utopians that the net will unleash a new democratic age in which the snobberies and censorship of today's elites are smashed by a tsunami of 'user-generated content'.

No one reasonable thinks that that will happen, Nick; only a few evangelists attempting to convince themselves and their backers.
Citizen journalists, publishers and film-makers will replace newspaper editors, film and TV moguls and everyone with something to say will say it, at length.

Ah, yes; nice of you to employ that wonderfully disparaging phrase, "at length", Nick. Tell me, how many pages is your last book? 400 pages? That's pretty darn lengthy, Nick.

But on-demand publishing will not replace traditional routes, but exist alongside them. Although, of course, with the rise of digital publishing, it is entirely possible that certain jobs might be more at threat than others. Newspaper columnists, for instance.

Especially when those newspaper columnists are so devoid of ideas that they are forced to steal the already discredited ideas of others; in this case, Nick is pilfering the pontifications of that idiotic hypocrite, Oliver Kamm.
In an article for the Guardian, political commentator Oliver Kamm argued that, far from democratising intelligent debate, the 'citizen journalists' of the political blogs were sallow dogmatists who screamed abuse from behind the coward's cloak of anonymity at any writer who confronted their lame prejudices. 'Blogs typically do not add to the stock of commentary,' he wrote. 'They are purely parasitic on the stories and opinions the traditional media provide.'

It was this article of Kamm's that was comprehensively slapped down in no uncertain terms by a huge number of bloggers (some links here). I kicked the smug bastard, at length, for a similar article posted on his blog.
So, after that entertaining diversion, what of Mr Kamm's original assertion: are all political bloggers effectively worthless? Well, I would say not (what a surprise, eh?).

Firstly, many bloggers are just as entertaining and often more highly qualified to comment than many journalists. Professional commenters are just that: professional commenters. Many bloggers are working people and can bring their own, considerably better-informed opinion to bear on an issue. To try to pretend that Polly Toynbee, for instance, knows anything about being poor simply because she lived in the minimum wage for a week (or however long it was) is laughable; and yet she is employed to write about such aspects of government policy twice a week.

Second, people such as Burning Our Money look at government reports, in a way that MSM journalists have neither the time nor inclination to do, and bring us their findings; the sheer scale of government waste would often go unnoticed were it not for their work.

And what about the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill? As Daniel Finkelstein admitted, it was Tim Worstall who brought that to his attention: without the scrutiny of Tim and others, the so-called "Abolition of Parliament Bill" would almost certainly have passed through parliament unrestricted and uncommented upon. In your humble Devil's opinion, political blogging is worth its salt for that alone.

So, I think that we have established that political blogging does have worth, and that Oliver Kamm is a smug, socialist twat who doesn't know what he's talking about.

But, no matter; Nick has some more people's arguments to be parasitic on.
Bryan Appleyard of the Sunday Times and Andrew Keen, author of the forthcoming The Cult of the Amateur, both argue that the web destroys culture because when editing goes and every opinion becomes equally valid, anyone who tries to distinguish between Shakespeare and a fool is dismissed as a bow-tied dinosaur.

Well, bully for them. As Doctor Crippen points out, editing is something of a double-edged sword.
This is main-stream media intellectual snobbery of the worst order. Culture can only survive if clever people like Nick are there to edit it for us. As they "edited" the Van Gough output. Remind me, how many paintings did he sell?

The internet is a medium in which all can express an opinion. It is uncensored. The "culture police" have no influence. The reader may pick and choose as he pleases. The nonsense will be ignored. Persuasive, entertaining writing will be read. Do not patronise the public. We do not, indeed, need the bow-tie brigade to “distinguish between Shakespeare and a fool”; we can do that ourselves, thank you Nick.

What is editing? At a base level, editing is the correction of spelling, vocabulary and grammar; the nitpicking that ensures that an article makes sense.

But, especially in the world of newspapers, an editor is not simply a syntactical correctionist: an editor ensures that any writing that sees the light of day follows the "editorial line". All commercial newspapers have a particular attitude which their owners require them to follow and so what we see from columnists and commentators is an opinion skewed by the opinion that their paymaster wishes to see expressed.

In that way, they are no more independent or unbiased than a blog written by someone with a particular political agenda except that, of course, bloggers are more honest; not only because they are writing to what they believe in and not their boss's editorial line but also because their bias is usually apparent, if not openly declared.

Back to the good Doctor.
Finally, remember this. We have to pay to read Daily Mail, The Sun, The Mirror and The News of the World all of which are closer to the Fool than the Bard.

Blogs, both political and creative, are free.

Quite. And this relates to the second point: simply because people are supposedly edited does not mean that their writing is any more creative, insightful or, crucially, truthful than someone who is not.

After all, Nick, you are writing for a paper whose pages are graced semiweekly by Polly Toynbee, a writer widely derided by vast sections of the blogosphere for her execrable policy ideas, appalling bias towards her Big Norse Warrior and, most importantly, her rampant dishonesty in the use of figures upon distortions of which many of her arguments are based.

However, lacking the courage to follow through with his hatchet-job, Nick appears to recant.
Anonymity may give free rein to spluttering buffoons to write without being held to account for their words, but it also allows police officers and NHS doctors to describe the faults of the public sector without fear of their bosses firing them. The medium's unlimited space allows millions to drone on in blogs that no one but their friends will read, but the same lack of constraint allows professors to bring their knowledge to a general audience without adhering to the stultifying styles of academia.

In journalism as in publishing, fine writers and commentators have broken through from the blogs to the mainstream and it is good to see them succeeding. But, dear God, there are too few of them, far too few: tiny islands of talent in a roaring, foam-flecked sea.

Quite so, Nick. And people will read and discover those islands for themselves. The difference from the status quo ante is that people are now able to define for themselves what an "island of talent" is and that is what makes the Web 2.0 concept of publishing so valuable.


Pogo said...

Andrew Keen, author of the forthcoming The Cult of the Amateur..

If there is a "cult of the amateur" it's surely much more the preserve of the MSM than the blogosphere.

I find it very depressing that almost every time I read or see something in the MSM about a subject about which I have some degree of expertise it is almost invariably inaccurate or downright incorrect - and by and large there is virtally nothing that one can do to draw attention to the fact. "Proper" blogs (unlike Mr Kamm's) all have the facility to question or correct points made by their authors, they may not take much notice but at least you get the cathartic pleasure of shouting "Bollocks"!

Amateurism in the MSM appears to be especially rampant in the areas of science and (particularly) statistics - a weakness well-expoited by government departments and the more "strident" charities and pressure groups, who've dicovered that the best way of generating a good scare-story is to cherry-pick their results and only put extreme values in the "executive summary", secure in the knowledge that the average idle and innumerate journalist will read no further - and certainly won't read the full report. It also accounts for how such mediocrities as Monbiot can achieve their cult guru status as towering intellectual figures... "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king" (or soon, Prime Minister).

The blogosphere has a huge range of real experts amongst its numbers, something that cannot be said for the MSM in many cases.

Umbongo said...

Remember, after all, that Cohen is a man of the left. He's there with Oliver Kamm, the Yaz Monster and, of course, your favourite columnist Polly herself. Please understand the irritation felt by these tribunes of the people when the little people have the gall to criticise their failings directly, promptly and, sometimes, even correctly (ie not mediated through the editors of the publications which print their stuff and who have a vested interest in protecting their proteges). If this continues it might occur to the peasants that Cohen et al may be purveying rubbish dressed up in white tie and tails and treat their published - and edited - work accordingly.

Oh yeah? So what has happened for the last ten years, exactly?

Over at the ASI, they are posting some of the winning entries of the Young Writers on Liberty. One does not want to put such keen minds off,...