Is the British blogosphere lagging behind?

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story would probably have ended there, perhaps with a few dozen letters to the editor, most of which would have gone unpublished.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 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

Did London bombings turn citizen journalists into citizen paparazzi?

July 7, 2005, was one of the darkest days for London, as terrorists blew up three underground trains and a double-decker bus, killing scores and injuring hundreds. But out of that darkness came an unusual light, the flickering light from survivors such as Adam Stacey and Ellis Leeper as they shot the scene underground using cameraphones and videophones.

Like the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia, the first reports came from people at the scene who had videocameras. [See related OJR stories by Mark Glaser and Shefali Srinivas.] In this case, the cameras were smaller and built into phones. But despite the day being a major breakthrough for citizen media — from Wikipedia’s collective entry to group blogs such as Londonist’s hour-by-hour rundown — it also brought out the worst in some bystanders.

A London blogger who identifies himself only as Justin and blogs at, told his story of surviving the bombing on the train that exploded near Edgware Road. His harrowing account includes this scene as he finally comes out of the underground tunnel and into the fresh air: “The victims were being triaged at the station entrance by Tube staff and as I could see little more I could do so I got out of the way and left,” he wrote. “As I stepped out people with cameraphones vied to try and take pictures of the worst victims. In crisis some people are cruel.”

The next day, Justin reflected a bit more on the people outside who were trying to photograph the victims.

“These people were passers-by trying to look into the station,” Justin wrote. “They had no access, but could have done well to clear the area rather than clog it. The people on the train weren’t all trying to take pictures, we were shocked, dirty and helping each other. People were stunned, but okay. The majority of the train was okay as I walked from my carriage (the last intact one) down through the train I saw no injuries or damage to the remaining four or so carriages. Just people dirty and in shock. The other direction wasn’t so pretty, but you don’t need an account of this and what I saw, watching TV is enough.”

While citizen media efforts became another big story, quickly picked up by the Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal, among many others, Justin was not so quick to exploit his story. In fact, his first impulse was not to watch any news accounts and not to give interviews to media outlets that wanted to glorify his situation.

I left a comment for him on his blog, asking him if he realized that all the people with cameraphones that day were helping to tell the story to the world. Was there a way they could tell that story in a more sensitive way?

“The news does hold a role and it’s important for people to understand, comprehend and learn,” Justin replied to me in another blog comment. “To ensure they’re safe, systems and procedures change, that the world ultimately gets better. I don’t even hold contempt really for the cameraphone people, but you must appreciate something else — were those people taking photos helping or were those people shocking the world? I’ve alluded to seeing [gruesome] things in the tunnel and carriage, but I’ve not documented them in any detail. I feel it is inappropriate and does not contribute to fact and information.”

So far, gruesome images from the attacks haven’t been widely distributed online or given a prominent place in Western media. That contrasts sharply with the response in the Spanish media after the Madrid train bombings on March 11, 2004, when bloody photos were on TV and in newspapers, according to a Reuters story.

The best and worst in all of us

In fact, online news sources were at the top of their game on July 7 and beyond. The BBC Web site experienced its most trafficked day ever on July 7 and was inundated with eyewitness accounts from readers — 20,000 e-mails, 1,000 photos and 20 videos in 24 hours, according to editor and acting head of BBC News Interactive Pete Clifton.

“It certainly did feel like a step-change [on July 7],” Clifton told me via e-mail. “We often get pictures from our readers, but never as many as this, and the quality was very high. And because people were on the scenes, they were obviously better than anything news agencies could offer. A picture of the bus, for example, was the main picture on our front page for much of the day.”

The BBC and Guardian both had reporters’ blogs that were updated as events unfolded, and group blogs such as BoingBoing and Londonist became instant aggregators of online information.

More surprising was the importance of alternative news sources such as Wikipedia and its useful entry created by volunteer hordes and the inundation of images on Flickr. Even across the pond, experienced double its usual weekday traffic on July 7, with 10.2 million unique users, and set a record with 4.4 million users of streaming video that day.

Interestingly, both the BBC and gave particular citizen journalists who survived a bit more room to tell their story on instant diaries set up for the occasion. The diarist on the BBC, a woman who would only identify herself as Rachel (previously just “R”), was not totally thrilled about becoming a media sensation herself.

“More journos phoned yesterday,” Rachel wrote in one post. “I must have given my mobile to the stringer who was asking questions when I was wandering outside the hospital getting fresh air after being stitched still in shock. The Mail on Sunday and Metro wanted to send a photographer round! I said no way. I said I felt it was important to get witness statements out at the time as I was there and felt relatively untraumatized so I’d rather they spoke to me than shoved their mikes and cameras in the faces of those who were shell-shocked or more injured. Having done that I really do not want any more fuss. … I was incredibly lucky but I have no desire to become a ‘Blast Survivor Girlie’ one week on.”

That naked impulse to tell a disaster story, glaring kleig lights and all, was once the province of mainstream and tabloid news organizations. But no longer. Now, for better and worse, our fellow citizens stand by, cameraphones in pockets, ready to photograph us in our direst times. Xeni Jardin, a freelance technology journalist and co-editor of BoingBoing, was aghast at the behavior of the citizen paparazzi at the scene described by Justin.

“It’s like the behavior when you see with a car wreck on the highway,” Jardin told me. “People stop and gawk. There’s a sense that this is some sort of animal behavior that’s not entirely compassionate or responsible. The difference here is that people are gawking with this intermediary device. I’m not sure if the people who did this were saying ‘I’ve got to blog this and get it to the BBC!’ But when everyone is carrying around these devices and we get used to this intuitive response of just snapping what we see that’s of interest — as surreal and grotesque as that scenario sounds, I imagine we will see a lot more of that.”

Jardin compared the behavior to the paparazzi that chased Princess Diana before her fatal car crash and noted that the ethical issues raised then are now applicable beyond just professional photographers.

“These are ethical issues that we once thought only applied to a certain class of people who had adopted the role of news as a profession,” Jardin said. “Now that more of us have the ability to capture and disseminate evidence or documentation of history as a matter of course, as a matter of our daily lives — as a casual gesture that takes very little time, no money, not a lot of skill — those ethical issues become considerations for all of us.”

Society under surveillance

Citizen paparazzi is not really a new concept, and the proliferation of cameras has continued unabated since the first point-and-shoot 35mm cameras took off right through cheap digital cameras. But while a few amateur photos might have made it into print magazines in the past, now the Internet is awash in photos and video taken by amateurs. As the term citizen journalist becomes part of mainstream thought — spurred on by Big Media outlets and startups — what role do these outlets play in spurring or reining in paparazzi behavior?

Dan Gillmor, founder of citizen media site Bayosphere, wrote in his landmark book “We the Media” about the proliferation of cameras in public spaces. “We are a society of voyeurs and exhibitionists,” he wrote. “We can argue whether this is repugnant, but when secrets become far more difficult to keep, something fundamental will have changed. Imagine Rodney King and Abu Ghraib times a million. … Everyone who works, or moves around, in a public place should consider whether they like the idea of all their movements being recorded by nosy neighbors.”

When I talked to Gillmor about the citizen paparazzi at the London bombing sites, he said he hoped that societies will eventually develop a zone of privacy for people in public places — but realistically didn’t think it would happen.

“The line between an obviously important public event like what happened last week and public voyeurism is unclear,” Gillmor said. “It’s probable that there are pictures from last week floating around that are far too gruesome for any news organization to ever go near it. … In the end, we’re going to have to develop new cultural norms, and I hope at some level that the more we wipe out the notion of privacy in a public space, the more I hope we end up with a kind of unwritten Golden Rule about privacy in public spaces and give people some space. I doubt it, but I hope people start to think about it.”

Counterbalancing that was Gillmor’s journalistic instinct, which said that news is news and is fair game for citizen journalists. “In a catastrophe, that’s news, and I’m not going to tell people not to take photos of historic events,” he said.

Jeff Jarvis, outspoken blogger at Buzzmachine and former president of, trusts that normal folks using cameras will be more polite than paparazzi.

“The more I think about it, the more I do believe that most people will be more polite than paparazzi because they aren’t motivated to get the picture no one else has to make a buck,” Jarvis said via e-mail. “More reporters is merely more of what we have now. And believing in the value of news and reporting openness I think we need to see this as good. Are citizen journalists rude? Are professional journalists? Same question. Same answer.”

Citizen journalism efforts are slowly coming out of beta, though there’s room for more maturation in the relationship between contributors and media outlets. Andrew Locke, director of product strategy at, said that his site made every effort to contact citizen journalists and pulled down contributions that didn’t sit right with the editorial team.

“Jeanne Rothermich, who leads our small CJ team, has put a great deal of emphasis on fostering dialogue and partnership with individual citizen reporters,” Locke told me. “We not only get more accurate information, but richer, more detailed accounts that we can share with the larger audience.”

The advantage of the media sites over unmediated sources such as Flickr is that they can use the wisdom of photo and editorial staff to vet contributions and filter out insensitive or invalid material. But Locke says the next step for citizen media is more than just mentoring contributors.

“Over time, we want to turn those passing relationships into lasting bonds [with citizen journalists],” Locke said. “Once you have a real, ongoing relationship, then you can start sharing information and wisdom back and forth. You can develop a code of conduct that means something and can stick. It’s not simply about us mentoring citizen journalists like cub reporters, it’s about the community itself developing norms and standards of propriety. Yes, we’ll always act as a gatekeeper, but once you’re in the gate as a citizen journalist, you should be an empowered member of the storytelling community. We still have a long way to go, but for citizen journalism to grow to its full potential we have to get there.”