A field guide to the political blogosphere
The Rise of the Fifth Estate: Social Media and Blogging in Australian Politics
By Greg Jericho Scribe, 320pp, 29.95
THERE’S an apparent irony in a blogger turning to print to write a book about the virtues of the blogosphere. More so that the resulting book would be reviewed favourably in the mainstream press, and in particular in The Australian, which is itself not so favourably reviewed in the book.
But to focus on these apparent ironies would be to miss the underlying argument that Greg Jericho is attempting to make in The Rise of the Fifth Estate. Examining the interaction between blogs, Twitter and the mainstream media, which is shorthanded as MSM, Jericho’s main point is that these different forums can and do work together to enhance the overall coverage of Australian politics.
Jericho tries to overcome the notion that proponents of old and new media ought to be in competition. There have been some territorial conflicts, some pissing contests, but mainly genuine attempts by all proponents of the media, new and old, to accommodate themselves to the new media environment.
Some journalists argue that blogs don’t add any new content but are merely commenting and criticising the work produced by the MSM, while some bloggers act as if they are somehow superior or are trying to replace the role of the MSM. But Jericho thinks otherwise. He argues that a hybrid approach to the media, bringing together old and new, is what works best.
The division of labour he seems to suggest is that the MSM is essential for political reporting — which is a weakness of the blogosphere — while some bloggers are often better equipped for political analysis.
Jericho doesn’t argue that the MSM should avoid political analysis. It’s just that many of the limitations placed on its practitioners — time constraints, commercial pressures, party organisations granting or withdrawing access — are largely absent from the blogosphere.
Many within the blogosphere, and many more outside, don’t really have a handle on the contours of the environment within which they operate. But Jericho makes a good attempt at mapping the landscape of political blogs in Australia, of which he identifies 324, as well as their political leanings and affiliations.
What he finds is that most of them are leftleaning. That may seem unremarkable in itself. But what is interesting is when this is compared with the British situation, where most political blogs are found to be rightleaning. Why is this?
Jericho’s suggestion, which seems
plaus- ible, is that in both territories, the rise of political blogs happened in reaction to the government of the day. In Britain this was during the Blair Labour period, while in Australia it was under the Howard Coalition.
That is interesting because it is about those outside the mainstream of the day trying to find a voice inside. This may also go some way to explain the chapter called The MSM v Bloggers. Ostensibly this is concerned with examining the criticisms that some columnists from The Australian, from about 2007 onwards, have levelled against the Australian political blogosphere.
The Australian, however, is not representative of the whole of the mainstream media (although it certainly looms large). And the particular bloggers Jericho examines are not representative of all bloggers.
He examines a small group who are academics or from an academic background, all politically left-leaning (although most political bloggers in Australia are left-leaning, they are not all left-leaning academics, a specialised subset). The content of their blogs, and the particular posts that caught the ire of some at The Australian, complained of what they perceived as the right-wing slant of its reporting, particularly of Newspoll results.
Unsurprisingly, The Australian reacted against the left-wing bias of these criticisms.
In this context, the response of journalists, when they condescend and dismiss the bloggers on the grounds that they are mere bloggers and they should ‘‘ let the professionals do their job’’ (the subtitle to this chapter), is clearly a ruse to avoid engaging with the content of the criticisms levelled against them. But it is as disingenuous as Jericho’s own musings to the contrary: Are media outlets so sensitive that they can’t cope with any criticism, even from a blog read by as few as 1500 people? Are they so intimidated by the writing of someone