Thursday, 16 July 2009

More anon

Brett at Harry's Place has been having a bit of a ding-dong with Mehdi Hasan, the new Senior Editor (Politics) at the New Statesman. The substance of their disagreement needn't detain us, fascinating though it is: if you want to follow their argument, you can start here and work backwards.

What interested me was the attitude to bloggers and blogging that emerged in Hasan's reply to Brett, which begins like this:
Dear 'Brett' (do you have a surname? Or do you all of you 'bloggers' hide behind first-name-only, cowardly, online identities?)
It continues in similar vein. A couple of choice quotes:
My favourite bits from your 'post' is 1) when you try and cite your own random, unread blogging as evidence...

If you were a proper journalist, and not a self-appointed rumour-monger...
And Hasan signs off: 'Thanks for your time and for your lies'.

We might note in passing the evidence displayed here of the continuing decline of a once-great journal of the democratic left. A senior editor at the New Statesman indulging in cheap shots and bitchy ad hominem insults, not to mention grammatical errors ('my favourite'?): this person is the replacement for Martin Bright?

But notice above all the sneering condescension towards the blogosphere that oozes from every line: the superior quote marks around 'blogger' and 'post' as if these were the newly-minted jargon of some inconsequential johnny-come-lately activity; the assumption that blogging can't be compared to 'proper' journalism (like the pseudo-leftish whining of the kind served up by the NS these days?); and the dismissal of bloggers as 'self-appointed' commentators (as if Hasan and the Pilgers and Alis who fill his pages are not).

As an anonymous blogger myself, I was particularly interested in Hasan's claim that not signing your full name to a blog post is inherently 'cowardly'. It put me in mind of a similar assertion by Conor Gearty in last week's Tablet (only accessible with a subscription, unfortunately). Writing in support of the court decision that police blogger 'Night Jack' has no right to maintain his anonymity, Gearty states:
Whatever the rationale, the consequence of such anonymity is often the abandonment of restraint: there are few more depressing activities than to read the spleen vented under such cover in the blogosphere, a world full of quaintly named experts on everything whose certainty is invariably matched by their anger and in whose mind known figures in the real world are (through stupidity, corruption or venality) always falling far short of what is required of them - a mistake/failure which (it is implied) the bloggers would certainly not make themselves if they were to turn their talented selves to the matter in hand.
Like Hasan's reply to Brett, Gearty's piece drips with condescension, and I would maintain, displays a similar ignorance of that against which it rails. To be blunt, as someone who reads a wide range of blogs on a daily basis, I simply fail to recognise the caricature presented here. If you glance to the right of this column, you'll see about 45 blogs listed in my blogroll, of which around one third are anonymous or semi-anonymous. I'd challenge Gearty to find one recent post from among them that displays the kind of unrestrained anger that he assumes is in the nature of blogging. On the contrary, I'd wager you won't come across a more fair-minded, well-informed and thoughtful bunch of commentators. Of course, none of us is perfect, and we all have our moments of spleen-venting, but then that's true of journalists and other print commentators too. It's like judging newspaper journalism on the basis of the Sun, or assuming that all TV political commentary is like Fox. ('A world full of quaintly named experts on everything whose certainty is invariably matched by their anger': sounds like the average tabloid or cable TV newsroom.) And as both Gearty and Hasan themselves demonstrate, sweeping generalisations on the basis of minimal evidence are hardly the preserve of bloggers.

As for the issue of anonymity, it's one that I've thought about a great deal. I've often toyed with revealing my identity but, like a number of others in this corner of the blogosphere, I've decided that being anonymous gives me the freedom to explore ideas, particularly about controversial political issues, without alienating myself from my 'real life' friends and colleagues. This is not to make elevated claims about threats to free speech, but it remains true (as I've often suggested on this blog) that a certain kind of pseudo-left consensus dominates academia and the public services, and it can be hard for those of us who work there to publicly step outside it, even tentatively.

Having said that, I would agree with Gearty that bloggers who want to cast aspersions on the reputation of public figures should declare their identity, in order to level the playing field. The irony of the Harry's Place / New Statesman dust-up is that it was the semi-anonymous blogger Brett who put forward a fair and reasonable argument, while the high-profile print journalist Hasan was the one who responded with exactly the kind of unrestrained, personalised venom of which he and others accuse anonymous bloggers.

Perhaps one day I'll reveal my secret identity to the world: I've already told a couple of trusted fellow-bloggers. But I doubt I'll go as far as the blessed Norm, who recently posted photos of himself in the very act of blogging.


bob said...

It seems like my reasons for being pretty much anonymous are the same as yours. Maybe we're being cowardly on one level. Maybe some day I'll come out. But in the meantime...

Anyway, good post!

Anonymous said...

Gearty signed the Israel must lose letter in the guardian