Six days after the July bombings in London, the Guardian newspaper ran a comment piece by a trainee reporter headlined “We Rock the Boat.” At the heart of the article was the conviction that because of the U.K. government’s complicity in the invasion of Iraq, the British people should not be shocked that the bombers were British-born Muslims.
“Second- and third-generation Muslims are without the don’t-rock-the-boat attitude that restricted our forefathers,” the reporter, Dilpazier Aslam, who is Muslim, wrote. “We’re much sassier with our opinions, not caring if the boat rocks or not.”
In pre-blogging years, the story would probably have ended there, perhaps with a few dozen letters to the editor, most of which would have gone unpublished. In the next few days, however, a group of British weblogs, led by the conservative Daily Ablution — written by American expatriate Scott Burgess — and the pro-war left-wing group weblog Harry’s Place, revealed that Aslam was a member of a radical Islamist political party, Hizb ut-Tahrir.
The story was largely ignored among the British press with the exception of the Independent on Sunday, which published a story on July 17. But British blogs kept up the pressure with a succession of stories that only served to embarrass the Guardian further: The Daily Ablution noted on July 13 — the day that Aslam’s article came out — that he had previously written an inflammatory piece on the website khilafah.com calling for war with Israel. Meanwhile, Harry’s Place reported that Aslam had provided the Guardian with an “exclusive” story about a Muslim girl whose campaign to wear an Islamic shoulder-to-toe dress in school had been championed by Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Aslam’s membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir was apparently already well known in the newsroom, but it wasn’t until the uproar created by the British blogs that the Guardian suddenly found his affiliation incompatible with his position at the newspaper. When asked to choose between the paper and the party, Aslam chose the latter, leaving on July 22. It was the British blogosphere’s first scalp.
But Dilpazier Aslam was no Senate Majority leader like Trent Lott or veteran news anchor like Dan Rather. It is perhaps indicative of the limited influence of the British blogosphere that its first and only scalp was that of a trainee reporter. Undoubtedly, British bloggers will claim more trophies in the future. But will they ever succeed in taking down larger targets — or will they remain able only to achieve minor victories?
Differing reader numbers, differing reader needs
To begin to imagine the future of the British blogosphere, it helps to understand the audience.
U.S. blog readership dwarfs that of the most popular British Blogs. According to the weblog ranking website The Truth Laid Bear, Tim Worstall, one of the most popular British bloggers, averages about 2,000 visits a day. That’s measly compared to some of the most popular U.S. blogs like Glenn Reynolds’ Instapundit, which averages 160,000 visits a day, or Little Green Footballs, which gets around 95,000 visits a day. Even taking relative Internet population size into account — there are more than six times as many Internet users in the United States as there are in the U.K. — Britblog reader figures are depressing.
A crucial factor in this readership disparity is the vast difference between British and American media.
The U.S. media’s obsession with objectivity and impartiality has left fertile ground open for the partisan plowing of bloggers like Daily Kos, Power Line and Talking Points Memo. It’s an opportunity that simply does not present itself to U.K. bloggers, who have to compete with a spectrum of media views, from the right-wing Sun to the left-leaning Guardian.
Neil McIntosh, assistant editor of Guardian Unlimited, which runs a popular Newsblog, says British readers are used to partisan reporting, even finding a mixture of voices competing for attention within the pages of the same newspaper.
“In this country we have an enormously diverse media,” McIntosh says. “You can be offended by Richard Littlejohn on the right and George Monbiot on the left. You can find [right wing] Max Hastings and [left wing] Polly Toynbee in the pages of the Guardian. So where is the ground into which blogs can successfully move?”
The answer, according to British blogger Tim Worstall, is in areas where the mainstream media does not allow sufficient debate. Worstall says, for example, that the failure of British left-wing newspapers to adequately debate the pros and cons of the war in Iraq has fueled one of the few areas where British blogs are thriving — among the pro-war Left at blogs such as Harry’s Place and Normblog.
“It’s one of the big arguments that is going on in blogs but that is not taking place in the national press,” says Worstall. “Many groups that do not have a voice in the mainstream media — libertarians like myself or political parties like the Socialist Worker’s Party and [George Galloway’s] Respect — have a much bigger voice in the blogosphere than we do in the world at large.”
That contrasts wildly with what Worstall sees as the lack of opinionated voices in American newspapers.
“They still seem to think that they are giving people the news despite the fact that we have been finding out the news from the TV for a long time now,” he says. “What we want to see in newspapers is the opinion of someone who has chewed over the news and can tell us why something happened. I find that in the United States, especially with the syndication of columnists, although there may be more newspapers there are fewer opinions.”
It is a phenomenon that Jay Rosen, associate professor of journalism at New York University and author of the weblog Press Think, has dubbed the “View From Nowhere.” Rosen says the U.S. media’s obsession with fair and balanced reporting has reduced the news to “He said, She said” stories of little value to readers. And Rosen thinks the rise of Fox News is a sign that the View From Nowhere is coming to the end.
“Fox came forward claiming the same words ‘fair and balanced news network,’ but they had a different kind of reporting that had an obvious political coloring,” he says. “Fox tapped an underserved market and has become the leader for cable news. It has done it without requiring or honoring the View from Nowhere and it has been a huge success.”
But is this difference in approach to newsgathering and reporting sufficient explanation for the readership and influence gulf between U.S. and British blogs?
Undoubtedly, America has a head start on Britain when it comes to sheer audience numbers. It also has the advantage that the rest of the world is incredibly interested in U.S. business, politics and culture. And let’s not forget: blogging started in the United States.
But an additional factor may lie in the vastly different political climates in each of the countries. In the past five years, the United States has weathered two contentious presidential elections and has suffered the trauma of a hitherto unimaginable foreign attack on home soil. It currently has almost 150,000 troops deployed in Iraq alone. Britain is nowhere near as polarized a nation as the United States.
Martin Stabe, a London-based freelance journalist and blogger who grew up in New York, sees other areas where U.S. blogs fulfill roles that are unheard of in Britain. The sheer size of the United States means that the cost of distribution makes it prohibitive to have “national” newspapers like those in the U.K. And U.S. regional newspapers tone down their opinions to appeal to the widest possible readership. But blogs don’t have to worry about pandering to readers to maintain subscriptions — nor are they concerned with national distribution costs. After all, how much does it cost to distribute a URL?
Stabe also believes that the political system in America — with its costly, lengthy, media-driven electoral campaigns — adds further fuel to the U.S. blog fire. But Stabe adds: “What matters most is not reader numbers but who these readers are — the political analysts, the party activists, journalists looking for leads and story ideas. They are what marketing people call opinion leaders. So there is an argument that an elite readership is more important than a mass readership.”
And in that sense perhaps the British blogosphere has already arrived. Scott Burgess of the Daily Ablution says he is becoming increasingly suspicious that some of his blog ideas are being poached by the mainstream British media. Meanwhile, an anonymous Westminster-based blogger writing under the pseudonym Guido Fawkes instituted the Press Plagiarist of the Year Award in May. (Fawkes proudly displays the server origins of many of his readers on his front page: Associated Newspapers (42 returning visits), the BBC (103 returning visits), News International (157 returning visits), Conservative Central Office (687 returning visits), and the Houses of Parliament (4872 returning visits).
Perhaps the British blogosphere will never achieve the dizzying heights of 100,000 readers a day. But they may take some comfort in knowing that the few people they most want to influence are already tuning in.
Paul Berger is a contributing editor of a new book called: Blog! How the Newest Media Revolution is Changing Politics, Business, and Culture. Find out more at blogrevolt.com.