Some of the most exciting things happening in Scotland are happening online. That's what I took from the Political Innovation Camp today at The School of Infomatics in Edinburgh. I already knew one of the main speakers, Pat Kane rather well. It was great to put faces to some bloggers I hadn't met in person, such as James MacKenzie of Better Nation, Peter Curran of Moridura, David Farrer from Freedom in Whisky and of course the redoubtable Caron of Carons Musings. Also caught up with an old colleague from the Herald, David Milne, who is now heading STV's hyperlocal service. It was heartening to meet the young women behind mypolice.org, a tool that allows the public to give their feedback to the force in their own area.
I met some new people who impressed me greatly, such as Peter Geoghegan, an Irish writer living in Scotland who edits Political Insight and another Irishman, Mick Fealty of Slugger O'Toole, the Northern Irish politics, community and culture blog who organised the event along with Paul Evans. Slugger O'Toole is a blog that manages to engages all sides of the debate in Northern Ireland, which is quite an achievement - and something we have not managed to replicate in Scotland to date. Much of the discussion was about this - whether we could have a Scottish hashtag that would link disparate online content - like a permanent scotlandspeaks, the twitter campaign that tried to get Scotland's voice heard during the last general election. At the PI Camp, there was a lot of enthusiasm for establishing so-called "aggregated sites" . It seems to me that this desire to create online communities is already happening naturally. Like minded bloggers are grouping together on aggregated sites such Bella Caledonia and Better Nation. Two sites, Scottish Review and newsnetscotland take this further and strive to create online sites that hope to compete with the mainstream. Kenneth Roy at Scottish Review has broken stories. Or these sites highlight news overlooked elsewhere - such as newsnet's campaign on the anti Scottish episode of Any Questions. A couple of weeks later I was invited on the Newsweek on Radio Scotland to discuss the rise of anti-Scottish outbursts.
As I pointed out in the PI Camp plenary session, many bloggers in Scotland have gone online in frustration at the mainstream media failure to engage positively with the independence debate. At least a third of Scots favour full independence and more than half, according to polls, think real economic power for the Holyrood will help Scotland out of recession. Despite this, and the Campaign for Fiscal Responsibility attracting many high profile names, our public discourse continues to frame the debate in UK terms, seldom challenging the block grant system or exploring alternatives.
Bloggers challenge this manufactured consensus. But as a mainstream journalist who now blogs as well, I worry that online activists only reach others with similar views. Established broadcast and print media offer entertainment, fashion, sport, business, breaking news that attracts a wide spectrum of people including, crucially, voters who have yet to make up their minds. And while many of my independista facebook friends would claim that the MSM is completely without merit, it is material generated by these newspapers and broadcasters that they share and comment on. Often this is original material that you need professional journalists to create. The Scotsman, for example, has devoted a lot of resource to exposing the tram debacle in Edinburgh. Newsnight Scotland was the first outlet to think of interviewing Professor Joe Stiglitz and asking specifically about oil in a Scottish context. And Newsweek, the Radio Scotland Saturday morning show, ran a long interview with Professor Andy Hughes Hallett explaining how Scotland was subsiding England. The reason we know about Stephen Purcell et al, and the scandal about Strathclyde Partnership for Transport, is because my previous paper, The Sunday Times Scotland, put a lot of resources into exposing Labour clientism in greater Glasgow.
Now, of course, the Sunday Times Scotland has been effectively closed down. Other newspapers struggle to keep afloat. Circulations continue to shrink with alarming speed. Investigative journalism, in particular, requires resources. Scotland does not have an philanthropic organisation such as the American propublica which funds public interest reporting. When activists complain about newspapers simply "reprinting political press releases", as can happen, it is often a matter of resources as much as prejudice. A hard pressed reporter with an FOI handed to him on a plate, especially if it's "exclusive" and makes for a strong headline, will likely take it to his or her newsdesk. Real, self generated stories take much longer. They require you to speak to lots of people in the first place, really get to know the subject and spend hours on research. They might also require you to ditch the story given to you by a political contact when you realise that the facts just don't stack up...
Bloggers unhappy with the perceived bias of the mainstream media shouldn't crow too loudly about the troubles of print though. We desperately need more quality public discourse in this country. Can we afford to lose the space we do have? Where are the online spaces that attract Scots who are not necessarily political junkies? Some of the self described young geeks I spoke to at the PI camp yesterday confessed they got a lot of their news from the BBC website and The Guardian - but they also complained that they couldn't get coverage for their own digital projects in the shrinking Scottish media...a vicious circle. If we get more news from UK wide sources, do we risk becoming Scotlandshire, North UKania...?
I don't think this will happen, phew! I left the PI Camp today feeling pretty optimistic about the future of blogging and political social media in Scotland. Ideally the rise of aggregated sites would be backed by investment to allow them to break more original stories and attract readers from outwith the politically consumed classes - Huffington Post is a good model. It set out to create an online liberal voice for the US but used entertainment to help drive traffic. Even without this largesse, I predict the blogosphere in Scotland will increase its influence, a view shared by the majority of those at yesterday's event. The thing about all media, old and new, is that it is interdependent. Currently, the agenda of newspapers feeds into radio and television. If the circulation of newspapers continues to decline, bloggers and online aggregated sites will become more powerful influencers. The evidence? A man from the BBC checking out the PI Camp, keen to meet as many bloggers as possible. I already get invited onto the radio occasionally as a result of Go Lassie Go. Social media helps too. The simple act of sharing a story creates a buzz that cannot be ignored. Content producers will take note.
At the PI Camp, Peter Geoghegan was very informative on how independent online commentary already shapes the agenda in Ireland, where economists have taken to the blogosphere to explain the financial crisis. In Scotland, we have a good recent example of blogpower re the Dimbleby debacle. The Question Time from Glasgow which excluded Scottish discussions caused immediate anger that was articulated first through the blogosphere by myself, Gerry Hassan, Scot Goes Pop and Alex Massie among others. I predict that such incidents will become more common. The traditional media are beginning to understand the power of the blogosphere, and cannot ignore what it is telling them.The rise of aggregated sites will accelerate this. If such sites could attract enough investment to fund some original journalism...well who knows where it might go...