Online Disorder

The senior cleric of a state-approved religious sect has been reviewing the blogosphere:

He described the atmosphere on the world wide web as a free-for-all that was “close to that of unpoliced conversation”.

And chose these adjectives to describe what he’d discovered:

“paranoid fantasy, self-indulgent nonsense and dangerous bigotry”.

There is plenty of the latter on the web – how could there not be considering the ‘conversation’ is open to anyone who has internet accesss – but I think I’d rather put up with or ignore the internet loonies if the alternative is having a bearded figure in flowing robes with any measure of power blithely using the word ‘police’ in the same sentence as ‘conversation’.

Luckily for us the cleric is the head of a First Century cult in decline rather than someone with the ability to turn jealousy at the broad reach of the internet conversation into any sort of effective ‘policing’ of that conversation.

Harry adds: I might be engaging in paranoid fantasy but reading the Archbishop’s description of web debate I can’t help but wonder if he hasn’t been hanging around in our comments boxes lately?

If that is so, perhaps he has a suggestion on how we might ‘police the conversation’?

Harry adds again: The Guardian website has the full text of the Archbishop’s speech. Here is the bit about blogs and online media:

So there is a tension at the heart of the journalistic enterprise. Its justification is that it promises to deliver what other sources can’t, information that is needed to equip the reader or viewer or listener for a more free and significant role as a human agent. But at the same time, it is bound to a method and a rhetoric that treats its public as consumers and the information it purveys as a commodity – which is therefore selected, packaged, and, to that degree, inevitably slanted. This unavoidable ‘marketising’ of the process has the effect of creating yet another interest group, the professional producers of information, whose power as suppliers in the market restricts the freedom of others.

Awareness of this paradox – explicit or implicit awareness – is part of what has generated and encouraged the world of ‘new news, exploiting the once unimagined possibilities of the electronic media. It is the world of the weblog and the independent media centre; it is interactive, restlessly conscious of its own transient nature. If the classical journalist just occasionally nurtured the illusion of writing or speaking for posterity, no such fantasy is possible in the electronic world. In one way, it is the reductio ad absurdum of marketised information, indiscriminate information flow.

From another perspective, the user’s immediate access to both the producer and the rest of the audience radically undermines some of the power of the producer. Classical media outlets claim to serve democracy but often subvert the possibilities of an active, critically questioning public by assuming the passive undifferentiated public we have been thinking about. The drift in some quarters to near-monopolistic practices, the control of the product by careful monitoring of response and periodic re-designing – these evaporate when we turn to internet journalism. Ian Hargreaves, in his excellent Journalism: Truth or Dare, gives a sharp account of the difference made by these developments; surely this is the context in which genuinely unpalatable truths can still be told, ‘unsullied by the preoccupations of the mainstream media’ (p.259)?

Yes and no. Unwelcome truth and necessary and prompt rebuttal are characteristic of the web-based media. So are paranoid fantasy, self-indulgent nonsense and dangerous bigotry. The atmosphere is close to that of unpoliced conversation – which tends to suggest that the very idea of an appropriate professionalism for journalists begins to dissolve. Many traditional newspapers and broadcasters now offer online versions of their product and many have allowed interactive elements to come into their regular material, for example by printing debates conducted on the web. But they have not thereby abandoned the claims of professional privilege.

More sophisticated and much more interesting than the soundbite taken by The Times for their piece – and he has a point about blogs doesn’t he? The speech covers a lot of other areas touching on many recent points of discussion over the role of the media and politics. In fact the boiling of his speech down to present it as a condensed ‘attack’ on the media is rather proving some of those points.