Media Guardian’s front today is an excellent piece headed “How the net closed on Prescott” which examines a story which is “the first big British political story to be driven by bloggers.” Barkham makes a point I had not considered, asking: “As conduits for Westminster gossip are blogs really doing anything new?”
An analogy is drawn with Private Eye in the old days when journalists who could not get a story in their own paper would pass it on to the Eye which would publish allegations other papers would not dare touch.
In an accompanying piece Guido Fawkes, who has been in the firing line of politicians, makes no explicit reference to Private Eye but the way in which he describes getting stories is familiar to those who know the history of the Eye. Journalists loved the fortnightly in those days when it was poorer and more robust than today.
So why are the bloggers regarded, in Barkham’s words, as “the antithesis of responsible journalism” by today’s lobby journalists?
I just wonder whether it is that old British thing, class. Iain Dale, one of the bloggers under attack, describes himself as an “Essex boy”.
The founders of Private Eye came from the same Oxbridge continuum which has commanded the heights of British journalism for as long as anyone can remember. The recent Sutton report claims to show that the proportion of senior journalists from independent (fee-paying) schools has actually increased in the past 20 years. A majority of the 100 people examined this year went to fee-paying schools and nearly half to Oxbridge.
Four of the people who made Private Eye, Richard Ingram, Christopher Booker, Willie Rushton and Paul Foot, met at Shrewsbury School. Ingram and Foot when to Oxford and produce a satirical magazine there. Booker went to Cambridge. They were joined later by Peter Cook who had also been at Cambridge.
They were from the same backgrounds as many of the people in the media and politics: “one of us,” in other words.
Barkham quotes the Guardian’s Westminster correspondent, David Hencke (comprehensive school and WarwicK), as feeling bloggers represent a type of “deskilling”.
They make wild allegations not based on fact and ignore the first law of journalism: that you put allegations to the person you are writing about. Libel laws – not politician/journalist collusion – are what stop the publication of unsubstantiated rumours. Our libel laws are tougher than in the US and Hencke fears it is only a matter of time before a British blogger is prosecuted (although Dale and Fawkes’s sites are hosted in the US).
Private Eye built its reputation on rumour and being sued. Most of the claims turned out to be true in essence and that made its reputation.