The Polecat Writes Back

Norman Tebbit may not be the most obvious of web journalism innovators. Soon to be celebrating his 79th birthday, Tebbit – until 1992 a Conservative Party MP, and now a Peer in the House of Lords – has been renowned for being one of Margaret Thatcher’s closest allies – even a potential successor at one point, a small ‘c’ as well as a capital ‘C’ conservative, and certainly a provocative figure.

For example, his retort in the early 1980s that unemployed rioters should ‘get on their bikes’ as his father did and look for work made him a hate figure on the Left. (Admittedly this did not take much effort, given the poisonous atmosphere of UK politics at the time.) He has spoken out against the European Union and even suggested that traditional Conservative voters should instead support the Euro-sceptic UK Independence Party, infuriating many in his own party.

In addition, some of his comments on race and multiculturalism have been equally controversial, though he has also denounced the neo-fascist British National Party. This abrasive, uninhibited approach earned him the nickname of ‘semi-house-trained polecat’ via the late Michael Foot, but also cemented his reputation as a hardman of the British mainstream right.

Despite this, he is also doing something very interesting on his blog, hosted by the web site of the London-based Daily Telegraph newspaper. Namely, he replies to comments made by reader in the main body of his blog posts, structuring them as if taking part in an informal discussion:

I think “dirlada” was right. Any one in any walk of life may make honest mistakes, even sensible mistakes, but in that recent incest case it was over 100 people from 28 different agencies, all making some pretty obvious mistakes which was the worry. And right again, “Bionic Raspberry”. What about the offenders and the extended family too?

Oh, “crownarmourer”, what a temptation! Me as Lord Protector. No, I do not think so. I sussed out how power corrupted him when I was a 15-year-old history student.

Again, I must tell “incensed” that I simply am not Mr Tebbit. I lost that title. I don’t mind Tebbit, Norman or, as cabbies usually address me, “Norm” but I am not “Mr”. And I hope that you still might see the difference between the EU and the USSR. Millions of Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and others who have experienced both can do so. Oh, and just a thought: were not the progenitors of the BNP ready to sell out to Hitler?

Whereas other columnists may occasionally reply to comments as commenters themselves, Tebbit seems unwilling to maintain such a barrier between blog and response. Instead he selects what he believes are either the most interesting posts made, or the ones that he believes require the most refutation. This is curiously inventive, cementing as it does, a direct connection between him and his readers. If we consider that online journalism’s strength is that it allows such a two-way conversation, even in a textual medium, then Tebbit is unusual in that he treats this as an essential part of the process, but also leaves aside the traditional aloofness of the journalist in doing so. He blogs, they read, they comment, he reads in turn and comments in turn. It is both cyclical and personable, but also an acceptance that what the reader says and thinks is at least as worthy of consideration as what the author writes, within some parameters – Tebbit still chooses what to reply to, whereas the reader still chooses what to comment on.

Tebbit also refers to each commentator by name, or at least, screen name. Again, this implies a greater intimacy between reader and author, but also a shared subjectivity – Tebbit picks comments, not all of which he agrees with, but answers them in a personalised and informal fashion:

As for “john the bear” I am just sorry that he has so little faith in his country. He fears that if the UK left the EU our former partners would set out to destroy us. They are not that stupid. They export more to us than we to them. They would be the bigger losers. And they would be in breach of the GATT…

…I should apologise to “blustering colonel” for ignoring his kind invitation to visit Singapore. I have been there many times, the first of them in 1954, so I am not unaware of the immense achievements of Lee Kwan Yu and the people of Singapore. Indeed I only wish that we had had more leaders like him here.

We might have been as successful as Singapore, but we only had one, and she was not leader for long enough.

Whilst Tebbit’s politics may not be seen as always desirable by either this author or many OJR readers, to dismiss them or how Tebbit articulates them is to ignore how he has developed a currently unique relationship with his readers. The closest equivalent may be the ‘ombudsman’ employed by some US news organisations, who uses his or her column to respond to reader/viewer queries and complaints. The main difference between these however is that the ombudsman still retains his or her distance from the reader – he is an emissary of the ‘writer’, embodied in this case by the hierarchy of the newsroom – and responds to missives from otherwise passive readers, but only on his or her terms and in an official – or even officious – capacity.

Tebbit meanwhile does choose what to reply to, but beyond that is an openness to a variety of comments. Tebbit may not necessarily agree with some commenters but still lists some of their more notable comments and responds to them accordingly:

I noticed amongst those posting comments on this site a number of contributors, john the bear cub, Matthew Gris, mark999, frederik and others telling me the EU is a done deal, a good thing, and that I should shut up and learn to love it. Oddly enough, as mickeypee and rapscallion pointed out, none of them explain why we should put up with a government we did not elect and cannot change compelling us to do things which are clearly not in our interest.

Oliver was not convinced by my explanation of why the main parties are pro EU and asked me why Cameron is so, too. Well, I simply do not know. He has not told me.

I thought basset was a bit grumpy. He forgets that I stood down from the Cabinet and refused invitations to go back. And to suggest that I have more influence over voters than David Cameron is a bit unrealistic. If it were true, then perhaps Camp Cameron would ask themselves why.

The views exhibited are in fact varied, despite the political bias one might assume of a blogger who as a rule tends to delete or ignore posts that are not in line with his own views. Steven Duncombe’s fears in 1997 that the World Wide Web would simply facilitate a myriad of ‘virtual ghettos’ or echo chambers* have often been realised many times, yet Tebbit’s blog has become an unlikely alternative – there may be no agreement, but nor is disagreement dismissed out of hand or shouted down. Tebbit allows commenters to disagree with him, and simply disagrees in turn.

How best to contextualise this? Conservative media figures, primarily in the United States, have always demonstrated a strong rapport with their audiences, as demonstrated by the success of right-wing ‘shock jocks’ such as Rush Limbaugh and latterly Glen Beck. Yet this does not take into account, for example, the considerable differences that exist between American and British schools of conservatism.

Equally, it does not acknowledge that right wing broadcast media is precisely that: a powerful figure speaks to a mute but appreciative audience – and it is this authoritativeness as opposed to Tebbit’s openness with his audience that defines this sub-genre. Of course, many ‘shock jocks’ reply to e-mails and letters on their shows, but again this is more akin to the traditional ‘postbag’ section in both print and broadcast media, whereas – as said – Tebbit is much more willing to interact with his readers, without prompting. It is obvious from the tone and the ease that he undertakes this that it is through choice. The writer has become the listener.

It is what Nicholas Carr refers to as ‘Conservative Innovation’, wherein the innovative is combined with the old and established in order to create something genuinely new and promising. Carr did of course refer to this in the context of industrial production, but given its technological nature, it can also be applied to Tebbit’s blog. He combines the conservative with the electronic, the journalistic with the informal, and in doing so, creates a new kind of conversation between him and his audience.

* Stephen Duncombe, Notes From Underground ‘Zines And The Politics Of Alternative Culture (New York: Verso, 1997), p.72

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