I once interviewed a psychologist whose specialism was road rage and for some reason our conversation always stayed in my mind. He suggested that when some drivers get behind the wheel, they morph with the vehicle and start behaving in ways that are not quite human - and often totally out of character. Gentle individuals who would never dream of giving the finger to someone who gets in their way in the supermarket behave far more aggressively inside their box of steel and glass.
Does the same phenomenon exist in our political blogosphere? I am referring, of course, to the rows about Wardog and the Universality of Cheese. For those unfamiliar with the tale, Wardog, aka Bruce Newlands, called the Labour Scottish Secretary a C**** . the self employed architect is now under investigation by the university that employed him as a lecturer in building. He was exposed by the News of the World. Universality of Cheese's Montague Burton, who is today outed as Mike Russell's constituency office manager Mark MacLachlan, had sprung to Wardog's defence, believing him to be a victim of a media/Labour Party sting. So is this an example of road rage on the cyber superhighway? Do bloggers get "carried away" in their vituperation, giving the metaphorical finger to anyone who gets in their way?
I do not know Bruce Newlands/Wardog though he recently friended me on facebook where his postings suggest a pleasant, professional guy who loves soul music - always a plus point. Very different from his take-no-prisoners Wardog persona - though it should be said he was, like Montague, a left of centre, civic nationalist (but not a member of the SNP) The C-word posting came as a bit of a shock.
I do know Mark MacLachlan, who has resigned after being exposed as the author of Universality of Cheese. The picture painted of Mark in the papers today as a swivel-eyed, ranting cybernat spreading "poisonous bile" is very different from the person I encountered: a highly literate, intelligent and convivial man. His wit and wide cultural interests marked him out from the robotic wonks you increasingly meet in all political parties. He had lived a real life: he'd directed film festivals, made television documentaries, run his own "Cinema Paradiso" in Newton Stewart of all places and travelled round the world with his family. He really was a think global, act local person. I don't think I ever had a conversation with him in which he didn't mention some idea for promoting his adopted home of Dumfries and Galloway - from harnessing the tidal power of the Solway, to installing a Borders version of The Angel of the North at Gretna. He was keen to market South West Scotland as a world class centre of environmental art, given its connection with Andy Goldsworthy and Charles Jencks. At the more practical end of the spectrum, I understand he was instrumental in getting the local authority to check every bridge in the region after the recent flooding. His departure will be a big loss, and not just to Mike Russell. Others agree with me, see Jeff's posting here.
Of course being a good citizen in the real world doesn't excuse cyber rage. But is that what it was? The whole row throws up some very interesting questions about mainstream media v bloggers. Is it reasonable to expect bloggers to play by the same rules as professional commentators? Are bloggers doing what journalists used to do, and should still be doing: getting up the noses of the powerful? Or do they use their anonymity to defame and offend in a way which is unacceptable? Might some of these "scurrilous rumours" have been worthy of following up? I have no idea of course. They may well have been smears with absolutely no basis in truth. But were they checked out?
Since starting this blog, I've been impressed with the lively political debate taking place in the Scottish blogosphere. There is a healthy number of players and they interact across party lines, linking to the sites of their sworn enemies as well as their fellow travellers. Take a look at this one, where a staunch unionist contemplates Wardog's fate. Many bloggers are impeccably polite. Some can be combative and crude, but the venom comes in all political colours. This is not a cybernat issue.
Having been the occasional victim of some pretty vile cyber snipping myself, I understand demands that they should play by the same rules as us paid journalists. I know my media law and wouldn't write anything on Go Lassie Go that I wasn't comfortable about seeing in my newspaper. But then I am not a true "citizen blogger" and I hesitate to censor people who care enough to contribute to public discourse. The cutting edge does serve a purpose and I wonder about the wisdom of the iron fist approach. How do you distinguish between plain nasty and nasty in the public interest? You could argue that the "scurrilous rumours" of today's bloggers continue the traditions of Private Eye, the magazine whose unattributable exposes have enraged the establishment for decades. Private Eye prints stories other outlets ignore, for example the Rotten Boroughs (anonymous) column on local council corruption.
It's also worth noting that the great Benjamin Franklin, a founding father of the United States, wrote under a variety of pseudonyms - as did many 18th and 19th century pamphleteers. Franklin was not above spreading scurrilous gossip about establishment figures using aliases. It was the only way to get allegations against rich, vested interests into the public realm.
Contemporary bloggers would defend their allegations in exactly the same way. Professional journalists may look enviously at the lack of constraints under which the wannabees work. If a newspaper accuses someone of a crime, it must be sure of its facts or could end up in court. It can be pretty infuriating when some bloggers act as though they are beyond the law and the even tougher restrictions of the Press Complaints Commission.
Yet blogs serve a purpose. As budgets are squeezed, investigative journalism that requires time and money is more difficult to do. The Sunday Times is one of the few newspapers that continues to invest in this area. Increasingly, however, traditional media relies on the web to "get things out there". That isn't much comfort to those who are victims of lies. Eventually, I'd predict we will see more cases of defamation taken against internet service providers such as Google, which offers a free, anonymous blogging tool. Unfortunately, it will be the wealthy who do this, to keep uncomfortable truths secret....something journalists complained about long before the web arrived.
In addition to innuendo/ smears etc the bloggers are accused of cruelty and poor taste. Here, it is easier to defend them. Print media, especially the so called "regional press" has become bland for fear of offending and losing a single reader. It hesitates to attack any local worthy - including public bodies - in case is affects a penny of advertising revenue. The blogs, on the other hand, maintain the dark satire that has been a feature of political polemic back to Hogarth and Jonathan Swift... or, for that matter, the contemporary caricatures of Ralph Steadman or Steve Bell. The more extreme bloggers are also successors to the fanzine movement of the 1970s-1990s, the post Viz generation. And let's not forget that it's politicians who are the victims here, a group whose reputation after the Westminister expenses scandal is more lowly than any blogger. That might be unfair on the good guys, but the uncompromising distain expressed in some parts of the blogosphere is indicative of the public mood. And while we are speaking truth to power, we should ask ourselves which is worse: politely-packaged politicians taking us to war on the basis of a lie, or a few bad words bandied about in some obscure corner of the internet?
Irreverence has been with us almost as long as the printing press, though cruelty is now prime time entertainment. Think of the mockery of talent shows and reality TV. Frankie Boyle and Jonathan Ross were censured for their jokes at the expense of others - innocents, not politicians - but their careers are undamaged. This is the culture in which we live. The mood music emanating from the blogosphere reflects this tone as, come to think of it, do many of our tabloid newspapers, ahem.... check out NOTW's splash on Tiger Wood's alleged marital difficulties today.
Interestingly, after I posted the first version of this, I read that the mainstream's Mr Nasty, Simon Cowell himself, is planning to hold televised political debates. No doubt this will involve the ritual humiliation you see on X Factor and Britain's Got Talent. Fair enough if it gets the voters talking, though if politics is "showbiz for ugly people" expect a lot of mockery based on personal appearance. Is it any worse than the treatment of David Steel, who never recovered from being a puppet in David Owen's pocket in Spitting Image all those years ago? Or Cathy Jamieson being irrevocably damaged by Jonathan Watson's (unfair but hilarious) portrayal of her as a wifie laden down by Primark bags?
This is the context in which we should judge bloggers who misbehave, adding bite to the debate in the precess. Given our constant hand-wringing about disengagement from the democratic process, apathy etc, we'd be fools to rush in and crush those who are genuinely excited about politics. Or even over-excited.
Now if you will excuse me I'm off to vet my comments section, just in case anyone's got carried away...
SEE ALSO MY SUBSEQUENT POST More thoughts on blogging, the mainstream media and hypocrisy