Vox Populi?

The range of political opinion emerging [in the] British blogosphere subculture is emphatically not representative of public opinion in this country: bloggers from left to right have a liberal (or libertarian) streak that leads to a broad oppositional consensus to things like ID cards and 90-day detention without charge.

Not so the British public as a whole, which is much more sympathetic to the more populist and authoritarian view of the Sun and New Labour.

Or so Martin Stabe contends in commenting on Doctor Vee’s observation that British bloggers of all political persuasions possess something of a marked libertarian streak in the face of government policy on ID cards and detaining suspected terrorists for 90 days without charge; one which puts the bloggerati at odds with ‘public opinion’…

…but does that really matter?

Within this whole question of the relationship between bloggers and ‘public opinion’ we find echoes of this wonderful description of the British dead-tree press by Jim Hacker in ‘Yes Prime Minister’:

The Times is read by the people who run the country.
The Daily Mirror is read by the people who think they run the country.
The Guardian is read by the people who think they ought to run the country.
The Morning Star is read by the people who think the country ought to be run by another country.
The Independent is read by people who don’t know who runs the country but are sure they’re doing it wrong.
The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country.
The Financial Times is read by the people who own the country.
The Daily Express is read by the people who think the country ought to be run as it used to be run.
The Daily Telegraph is read by the people who still think it is their country.
And The Sun’s readers don’t care who runs the country providing she has big tits.

In other words, this is hardly a new argument at all but merely the translation of an old debate to a new arena; one in which one could readily replace Martin’s reference to the ‘British blogosphere subculture’ with the title of any one of the newspapers from the ‘quality’ end of the market – The Times, Guardian, Independent, Telegraph or FT – and still make pretty much the same point.

In terms of simple demographics I’d strongly suspect that the contention that bloggers are ‘unrepresentative’ of the British public as a whole is as near as damn it a tautology. A ‘lifestyle survey’ of the bloggerati would almost certainly show us to be above average in terms of education, employment and all the usual things which go into making arbitrary definitions of social class. Indeed you’d be hard pressed to find much in the way of significant differences between a demographic profile of British bloggers and the target demographics of upmarket newspapers. Unrepresentative we may be but no more so that the combined readership of the Guardian, Independent, Times and Telegraph, so why is it such a big deal that we don’t appear to reflect the presumed opinions of Sun readers?

Is that really to be the sum total of our aspirations for society – government by dictat of Rupert Murdoch based on the opinions of a newspaper where articles are pitched to an effective reading age of seven so as to not make things too difficult for some its readership?

I may be edge towards the realms of intellectual snobbery here but can’t we at least aspire to something a little better than the lowest common denominator.

None of this, however, addresses the fundamental question of how useful or reliable is this idea of “public opinion” in the first place or whether, indeed, being out of touch with it actually matters that much?

Framing this question we have two very interesting but very different political debates, on ID cards and the time period for which terrorist suspects can be held for questioning without being charged and, perhaps, the most telling contribution when it comes to where public opinion might sit on this issues is this one from Antonia Bance:

At this point, I’ll be clear: despite my Labour membership, I wasn’t happy about the plan for 90 days’ detention, and at best I’m agnostic on ID cards. But I’m not going to write about them, because frankly, I find them boring. That’s not to say that they’re not important, or that I don’t give a shit, just that if you want to talk about the war / Iraq / terrorism / ID cards / security, and for that matter, Europe / PR / voting reform, go and find some other blogger.

If you were to ask me what public opinion really is on these two issues then I think Antonia’s comments pretty much sum put things in a nutshell – the vast majority of people in the UK simply don’t find these issues interesting enough or see them as important enough to hold any particularly strong opinions on them either way. These debates, like so many others, are of limited interest to all but a minority of people who do take a serious interest in them.

Like bloggers.

The reality here is that very few political issues impinge on people’s everyday lives to the extent that the majority of people will hold some sort of firm opinion on them and most of these tend to resolve back, in on way or another, to the adage that ‘it’s the economy, stupid’. The things that concern most people are those that have the most direct and obvious impact on their daily lives and especially their standard of living and quality of life – get that right and, as a politician you’re on to a winner.

All of which means that on a wide range of issues what passes for public opinion tend to be ill-informed and based on the sketchiest possible understand of what the debate is really about, making public opinion infinitely malleable and susceptible to influence, something both press and politicians know all too well. After all, if you’re faced with a complex issue (ID cards) that you don’t understand and particularly care about then why bother thinking it through yourself with the politicians and media can do you thinking for you?

Being out of touch with public opionion, far from being a weakness amongst bloggers, as some seem to imply, is actually one of the blogosphere’s greatest strengths and assets.

Look closely at the recent debates on ID cards and 90-day detentions and it rapidly becomes apparent that only in the quality press and amongst bloggers has there actually been a substantive debate, especially on ID cards where bloggers have carried the debate to an extent that even the MSM have been unable to match. On that basis alone it’s certainly not pious to suggest that on these issues bloggers have a set of informed opinions that the public lack – that is merely an inievitable consequence of a situation where public opinion is being wield by government not as part of a wider debate but in place of that debate.

And that, really, is the nub of the issue. Not only do I not care about whether I am out of touch with ‘public opinion’ but I don’t much trust it anyway – mainly because the people who put the most emphasis on the importance of public opinion are also the same people to spend the time and energies on trying to influence it in the first place.