“The internet could do more to change the level of political engagement than all the breast-beating of introspective politicians and commentators. A 21st century political revolution is now only a few mouse clicks away.”
Ian Duncan Smith. Thanks Sasa.
Bloggers will rescue the right
Beat the metropolitan elite with the tactics of US conservatives Iain Duncan Smith
Saturday February 19, 2005
For decades the national conversation in most western countries has been directed by a few talking heads. Newspapers play important roles but all the evidence suggests that broadcasters have possessed the greatest potential to frame public debate. British politicians have known that communicating their message depends upon getting the nod from a small number of powerful figures in the broadcast media.
The editor of BBC1's six o'clock news bulletin can make a minister's day by putting his department's latest announcement at the front of the bulletin. Hearing Huw Edwards say something positive about that afternoon's policy launch will even put a smile on Alastair Campbell's face.
But all of this looks set to change because of the blogosphere. Blogging is a geeky expression for how people use online logs, or diaries, to share their opinions. If a weblog is interesting and informed enough it can reach millions of people at zero cost. Karl Rove, the man George Bush described as the architect of his re-election, recently said that the dominance of America's mainstream media is coming to an end. And Rove credits the Davids of the blogosphere for the humbling of the old media Goliaths. After decades of centralisation, Rove believes that the national conversation is being democratised.
Mr Knowledgeable (and it is usually a Mr) of Smallville, Wyoming can, via his PC, transmit thoughts across the world. Mainstream TV can no longer say what it wants without fear of correction. Online diaries, written by teachers, soldiers and numerous other people with real knowledge of subjects, are fact-checking ill-informed broadcasters. The bloggers have already toppled two of American TV's biggest names.
In the last few days Eason Jordan, the chief news director of CNN, resigned after a previously unknown blogger - Rony Abovitz - drew attention to remarks made by Jordan at the Davos World Economic Forum. Abovitz reported that Jordan had accused US soldiers in Iraq of deliberately targeting journalists. Mainstream reporters chose to ignore these remarks. But Abovitz's message was picked up by hundreds of other websites, and Jordan's fate was sealed.
Easongate, as it has inevitably become known, is an echo of last autumn's Rathergate scandal. Dan Rather, the anchor of CBS's evening news, was as big as TV stars come. Rather had fronted an attack on George Bush's Vietnam-era military service record - based on forged documents. The forgery was exposed when bloggers focused on a superscripted “th” after a date in one of the documents. Experts confirmed that typewriters of the period could not have produced such lettering. Rather apologised and CBS is now desperately searching for someone else in whom viewers might put their trust.
This is just one of the ways in which the internet has strengthened the American right. Last year's Bush-Cheney campaign used information technology to build the largest ever volunteer political army. Visitors to GeorgeWBush.com were invited to join email lists that offered regular information on everything from gun ownership to school prayer. The Bush campaign collected 7.5 million email addresses and amassed 1.4 million volunteers.
You would also expect this electronic revolution to be good for the Democrats, but the American left's relationship with the internet has been disastrous. The internet has sunk a knife into Bill Clinton's moderate Democratic party. Mainstream business people were Clinton's principal funders, simultaneously approving and driving his centrism. But the Democrats' new paymasters are the 600,000 computer users who, in 2004, supported Howard Dean's bid for his party's presidential nomination. Dean energised an unrepresentative group of voters with a stridently anti-war message. Electronic money powered Dean's campaign, and all of the other contenders for the Democratic crown soon pandered to his base.
The Democrats' problem has only worsened since. The dailykos.com site of a Democratic consultant gets 500,000 hits a day. That site's memorial to four American contractors murdered in Iraq was “screw them”. Hatefulness also pours out of the popular websites of Michael Moore and MoveOn.org. The conservative blogosphere has dubbed the Democrats' IT base its MooreOn tendency.
Although it was a Googler who discovered that Tony Blair's second Iraq dossier had lifted extensive material from a PhD student's research, Britain hasn't yet had much experience of electronic campaigning.
But the blogosphere will become a force in Britain, and it could ignite many new forces of conservatism. The internet's automatic level playing field gives conservatives opportunities that mainstream media have often denied them.
An online community of bloggers performs the same function as yesteryear's town meetings. Through the tradition of town hall meetings, officials were held to account by local people. Blogger communities are going to be much more powerful. They will draw together not only local people but patients who have waited and waited for NHS care. They will organise parents of disabled children who oppose Labour's closure of special-needs schools and evangelical Christians who see their beliefs caricatured by ignorant commentators.
All this should put the fear of God into the metropolitan elites. For years there have been widening gaps between the governing class and the governed and between the publicly funded broadcasters and the broadcasted to.
Until now voters, viewers and service users have not had easy mechanisms by which to expose officialdom's errors and inefficiencies. But, because of the internet, the masses beyond the metropolitan fringe will soon be on the move. They will expose the lazy journalists who reduce every important public policy issue to how it affects opinion-poll ratings.
Tired of being spoon-fed their politics, British voters will soon be calling virtual town hall meetings, and they will take a serious look at the messenger as well as the message. It's going to be very rough.
Karl Rove is right. The internet could do more to change the level of political engagement than all the breast-beating of introspective politicians and commentators. A 21st century political revolution is now only a few mouse clicks away.
· Iain Duncan Smith MP is chairman of the Centre for Social Justice; he was leader of the Conservative party from 2001 to 2003