Freedom? What Freedom?

I must admit that, today, the Guardian have surpassed themselves.

If there could possibly be a less edifying spectacle that yesterday’s foray into futility, which the Guardian billed as an live ‘debate’ about on-line ‘civility’ with Tessa Jowell, it could only be the sight of self-appointed blogging ‘expert’, Iain Dale, pontificating on the subject of ‘The Blogging Revolution‘ as part of a loosely themed series of articles published to mark World Press Freedom Day.

If Dale wants a revolution, then a revolution he shall have. I shall happily play my own modest and, in best traditions of the Jacobins, do that which is both right and necessary…

…by placing Dale against the wall and (metaphorically) shooting the fucker.

Dale may be many things, but he is not a blogger, not in any meaningful sense of the term. He is a 44 year old conservative politician (current status ‘failed’, having been unsuccessful in securing a set in Parliament at the last general election) and, by way of an irony that one doubts he fully appreciates, only yesterday he flagged up an article by Stephen Tall that provides this as one of three definitions of the word ‘blog’:

Blog (n.): an online journal written by publicity-hungry politicians and self-opinionated journalist manqués, commenting on current political affairs with scant regard to fact or fairness, and accountable to nobody save their small band of obsessive readers.

Dales’ self-generated reputation as supposed ‘leading light’ of British blogging rests squarely on three things.

1. A relentless appetite for self-publicity and shameless link-whoring.

Has anyone else noticed, I wonder, that amongst established bloggers, Dale and his partner in propaganda, Paul Staines, are almost unique in going through the same monthly ritual of publishing carefully selected and largely meaningless extracts from their site statistics simply to reinforce their claims to ‘popularity’? Personally, I find my own site statistics useful only in so far they provide the occasional indication of a blog of which I was previously unaware that, on investigation, turns out to be worth reading and as means of identifying (and blocking) IP addresses in us by spammers.

2. Cross-promotion from his former bookshop/publishing venture, Politicos.

Dale has edited one or two real books, don’tcha know, including a ‘Guide to Political Blogging’ – in which, I might add, my former on-line domicile, Talkpolitics, was listed as a non-aligned blog, despite my being perfectly open about my membership of the Labour Party – and that affords his a measure of (unmerited) credibility amongst mainstream hacks, many of whom are both suspicious of this whole blogging malarky and over-inclined to view an appearance in print as a sign of credibility.

The irony here, of course, is that Dale’s publisher is what was once his own company – he’s since sold it Harriman House, which makes his occasional forays in print little more than an exercise in vanity publishing, albeit on a larger scale than is commonly available to most aspiring authors.

3. Exploitation of the media’s penchant for gossip and tittle-tattle and false belief that politics effectively ceases to exist once one leaves the rarefied confines of the Westminster Village.

Of the current 25 articles on Dale’s homepage, very few contain any substantive content – most of is a mish-mash of publicity for his other projects (Politcos and Fox News Lite) and ‘me too’ posts linking to other people who’ve actually done the work of coming with a story or expressing an opinion. Overall his ‘blog’ reads, most of the time, like the rolling newsletter of the parish of St Cameron and Our Lady of Blessed Sinking of the Belgrano.

His only ‘edge’ over conventional news sources is access – as a party insider – to the occasional tip-off about a story that the MSM are about the break anyway, on which basis he, like Paul Staines, either credits himself with having ‘broken’ the story or, if he’s feeling particularly cute, simply sit back and bask in the adulation of his slavering coterie of comments box admirers, secure in the knowledge that they’ll do the job for him, despite having done none of the work in finding and investigating the story himself. Its often pointed out – by professional journalists – the relationship between bloggers and the MSM is essentially a parasitical one, and Dale is just that more success a parasite than most in as much as access to ‘inside’ information allows his start feeding just that little bit sooner than everyone else.

By the same token, his only material value as a ‘source’ is as an occasional purveyor of advance warnings of precisely how the Tory Party intend to spin a particular breaking story.

In his missive to mark World Press Freedom Day – which I’ll be getting to more fully in a moment – Dale, sans any shred of irony as usual, offers up the following observation, which one can only categorise under ‘are you taking the piss?’:

Politicians and government will never lose any opportunity to put pressure on the media to toe their line. We shouldn’t necessarily blame them for it – I’m sure if we were in positions of power, we would do the same.

Of course Dale isn’t going to blame politicians for seeking to pressurise the media into toeing the line. How could he when he’s a leading figure in the right-wing’s effort to open up a second front on the one media institution in Britain that specifically exists to try and provide an unbiased source of news and information to the British public – the BBC.

While successful politicians try to apply pressure on the Beeb from above, Dale has positioned himself to try to undermine its independence from beneath. That’s part of the raison d’etre from his blog and, particularly, the core rationale behind the 18 Doughty Street project, which, amongst other things, published adverts for staff in the United States that specifically promoted the project as seeking to bring the Fox News style of political broadcasting – i.e. right-wing propaganda – to the UK.

As my recent exchange with Dale over his ‘coverage’ of the announcement that the BBC’s iPlayer service will, initially, only be available to Windows users, amply demonstrates, Dale will take any opportunity to try and undermine public trust in, and support for, the BBC, even to the extent of publishing basic errors of fact the lack of veracity in which can be easy verified in a matter of seconds.

Dale claim that ‘the BBC, having spent millions on the development of its iPlayer holds out little hope to Mac users of ever finding a solution‘ is a blatant and easily exposed misrepresentation of the real position – it having been widely reported in the technical press that:

The iPlayer application will only be available for MS Windows initially, but the support roadmap reveals interesting priorities: cable TV service support will come first, followed by Apple Macs and then Freeview boxes.

The Register.

If the Beeb holds out ‘little hope’ over every delivering a Mac version of iPlayer, why is it not only scheduled on the Beeb’s development roadmap, but scheduled for delivery ahead of support for some 8 million+ people who currently use Freeview for their digital television services?

And Dales’ reaction when this ‘error’ was pointed out?

You’re becoming almost as obsessed as Ireland and McKeating. Get a life. You seem to agree with my basic thrust, yet still feel that you have to disagree. Bizarre.

Our only point of agreement in this whole ‘episode’ was that Apple attracts rather more than its fair share of technology snobs – on the matter of BBC’s plans for iPlaye, I demonstrated that his claim that the BBC had little hope of delivering Mac support had no basis in fact, before going on to note both that support for Linux appeared nowhere in the BBCs plan – and that this would simply prompt the Linux community to develop their own IPlayer-compatible software – and that his attempt to talk up the 18 Doughty Street project for having been able to respond quickly to demand for Mac support was based on a wholly false prospectus, as the technical demands they faced both no relation to those that the BBC must tackle in order to accommodate Mac Users.

Dale, as I have already said, is not a blogger. He is a professional propagandist as his reaction to valid and well research criticism routinely demonstrates.

What irritates him most, and is most likely to draw a reaction like that above, are those occasions on which his attempts to spread propaganda and promote his personal/political agenda come unstuck in the face of the publication of solid evidence, for all that he makes great show of playing the victim and complaining bitterly about finding himself on the wrong end of a few hostile and abusive remarks – this being an ‘occupational hazard’ faced by most political bloggers from time to time.

There are three basic ways that an honest blogger can deal with comment box hostility and abuse.

One can argue back, in which can one can score a win by establishing one’s moral/intellectual superority by way of clear and logical argument or a well-crafted and withering put-down, but only at the risk of fuelling further hostilities, hence the oft-repeated maxim ‘Do not feed the trolls’.

One can, alternatively, take that maxim to heart and ignore the abuse in the hope/expectation that a failure to provoke a reaction, which is the troll’s much sought after pay-off, will result in their getting bored and moving on.

Finally, one can actively manage discussions, define and publish one’s expectations and to the standards of behaviour one expects from visitors and, where necessary, enforce those standards by means of editing/removing offensive remark or – in the worst cases – banning offenders from posting to or accessing your blog.

If one chooses the latter approach, then common courtesy and fair play, never mind the accumulated wisdom of ‘netiquette’, requires that one should apply one’s chosen ‘rules of engagement’ with an even and judicious hand – abuse is abuse whether it originates from a supporter or opponent of one’s opinions and it is dishonest in the extreme to delete or edit comments or deliberate alter the flow of a discussion to conceal one’s mistakes or cover one’s embarrassment at being shown to have got something badly wrong.

Dale, as is well documented elsewhere, is rather more in the habit of ‘managing’ his comments to suit his agenda and cover his own arse, hence – amongst other things – his propensity for labelling his more successful detractors – i.e. those who back up their arguments with evidence – as being ‘obsessive’ rather than addressing the substance of their criticisms.

What, exactly, does ‘freedom’ of the press mean – or, more to point, what concepts does that phrase engender when one reads those words or hears them spoken?

To most people, one would suspect, it would mean the freedom to tell the truth, to present the facts honestly and accurately. To Dale, and those like, and associated with him, it means precisely the opposite.

The freedom that Dale is seeking is the freedom to make unrestrained and unchallenged use of the media – and the medium of blogging, of course – as tool for the spreading of propaganda to promote and support his political beliefs and agenda – its the freedom to lie, cheat and spread misinformation, to construct the edifice of the ‘Ministry of Truth’ in its full Orwellian sense, rather than in the ironic sense in which I adopted the name as the title of this blog.

In Orwell’s 1984, the Ministry of Truth tells lies, a titular inversion that suited my personal sense of the ironic when choosing a title for this blog – what could be more apt than inverting Orwell’s own inversion and having a Ministry of Truth that tells the truth.

Dale seeks to undermine confidence in the BBC not because it is biased to any significant extent – true neutrality in news reporting is almost impossible to achieve and sustain, in any case, as events themselves, particularly political events, are rarely neutral themselves – but because it defines a median position in news reporting against which the biases of other media organisations can be assessed and easily identified. The BBC is a counterweight that defines not what is neutral in news reporting but what is reasonable and, by extension, also what is unreasonable and excessive in its political bias, this being why he and others on the political right are intent on undermining public trust in it as both an institution and as a source of news.

With the BBC in situ, the overt right-wing propagandising of Fox News would not be accepted in the UK – its biases and efforts to manipulate the news agenda in support of its political agenda would be too obvious and too noticeable to afford it any measure of public credibility. Indeed the strongest evidence in support of the moderating influence of the BBC is precisely the fact that, as a nation, we tolerate and accept political bias in the print media (newspapers) simply as a known quantity and to an extent that would not be tolerated in television journalism.

Remove the BBC from the equation and not only do the lies, misinformation and manipulation become less easy to spot abut the public would, over time, become less certain of what is reasonable and less able to distinguish propaganda from truth creating precisely the kind of environment in which a Fox News, or similar, could find an audience and flourish with all the distorting effects on the public discourse that are evident whenever one encounters dyed-in-the-wool members of the ‘American-right’.

What of any of this you might think? Blogger or not, Dale is no more or less biased in his output than other political bloggers, who views and opinions naturally reflect and promote their own political beliefs and attitudes, nor, like other bloggers, does his make any great secret of his political afilliations or pretence of being unbiased, unlike Paul Staines whose pretence of being no more than anti-establishment in his approach to blogging has long since been debunked.

But look again at the rose-tinted picture he paints of bloggers as latter-day intellectual Robin Hoods:

Gone are the days when the only way a citizen could take part in a free and open dialogue was to write to the letter pages of his or her local newspaper. And in countries ruled by despotic regimes, even that choice wasn’t there.

Today, everyone has a voice through the plethora of internet forums, social communities and blogs that have sprung up on the internet over the last few years. There are no barriers to access beyond an internet connection, and blogs can be set up by anyone, anywhere in the world in a few minutes and at no cost.

This is a huge opportunity, but also a threat – a threat to the press. Again, gone are the days when celebrated newspaper columnists would be able to pontificate on the great issues of the days and sit back and think “job well done”. These days there are millions of columnists all around the world who can do the same thing – they’re called bloggers. Newspaper columnists hate them because they’ve broken into their monopoly and democratised it.

Bloggers, as Dale tells it, as out there challenging the ‘establishment’ – but what establishment?

Not the political establishment, of which he is a part, that facet of blogging is something that happens elsewhere in the world, in those repressive and undemocratic regimes in which there is no press freedom at all, for all that Dale is perfectly happy to climb on the backs of those bloggers who do make use of the medium, at great personal risk, to challenge the oppressive political order of the society in which they live, to lay claim to yet more unearned and unmerited credibility.

No, the ‘establishment’ in this case is that of the media itself – if Dale presents himself as Robin Hood it is only in a pantomime in which popular myth has been re-written such that Merry Men of Sherwood Forest are now secretly in cahoots with the Sheriff of Nottingham. Robin Hood has become Robin Quisling.

Herein lies the true hypocrisy that squats, brooding, at the core of Dale’s self-appointed role as the Pied Piper of blogging.

In the grandest traditions of 21st century right-wing conceit he shamelessly drapes himself in the clothing of freedom, liberty and democracy while, all the time he covertly works for the ascendancy of forces whose interests and agenda runs contrary to those same principles and values.

Dale, in his personal conceit and unabashed hubris, presents himself as being ‘anti-establishment’ when, in truth, he is so only in so far as the establishment that is, at the present time, is not that which he prefers and of which he is, himself, a part.

Frankin D Roosevelt once observed that:

“The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it comes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism – ownership of government by an individual, by a group,”

This is true of societies in which power becomes concentrated in the hands of a political elite and exercise by way of their ownership of the machinery of government and the state.

It is true of societies, like Iran, in which power is owned by a religious elite to the exclusion of all others.

And it equally true of those interests whom Iain Dale serves alongside his more obvious political masters.

Economic power vested in the hands of the wealthy, whether as individuals or corporations, and exercised without restraint is no less inimical to freedom, liberty and democracy than political or religious power exercised in the same manner and, of course, no less dangerous, just as a propaganda vehicle like Fox News, or its lightweight wannabe counterpart, 18 Doughty Street, is not less a propaganda vehicle that was Pravda during the era of the Soviet Union, for all that the former operate in democratic societies possessed of press freedom. In the matter of truth versus propaganda, the control of the press by a small clique of wealthy proprietors and/or corporations is no less pernicious an influence than the control of the state for all that the likes of Iain Dale may try to pretend otherwise.

The ‘freedom’ Dale claims to promote and seeks to engender by the manner in which he make use of his blog, the freedom to lie, misinform and manipulate, is not freedom at all. It is merely a means to an end, a barren road that leads only to exchange of tyrannies, of one slavemaster for another.

One who is just that bit more to Dale’s liking.

14 thoughts on “Freedom? What Freedom?

  1. Jesus, and you reckon you’re not obsessed. LOL. If I was, as you seem to suggest, a person or blogger of no consequence, how sad does it make you to have spent God knows how long writing that diatribe. I much enjoyed it.

  2. “Jesus, and you reckon you’re not obsessed.”

    Says it all, really. Well done, Iain.

    (golf clap)

    I always enjoy it when someone who’s up to no good suggests that it’s a waste of time keeping an eye on them.

    And I especially enjoy it when you personally dodge the same issue again and again and again and when someone continues to press you for a straightforward answer, you scream “Stalker!” at them.

    Nice article, Unity. Of course, as we both know, I wrote it for you, because only this lone obsessive cares about what Iain Dale says or does.

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  4. Bit of a Carly Simon moment there Mr Dale. Unity was not talking about you he was talking about what you, amongst others, represent.

    Its called analysis. you might like to try it some time.

  5. No, Tim, Dale will not respond any further.

    For interest, what he’s used here is a well known and understood tactic of trying to close down discussion on uncomfortable subjects in the hope of creating the perception that the criticisms levelled at him are unimportant.

    This kind of thing is commonly used to manipulate, amongst other things, focus group studies.

    Temporal perception plays a considerable psychological role in weighting arguments – i.e. within focus groups, the more time is spent on discussion of a particular point the more weight participants tend to attach to its importance, relative to other matters that may be raised.

    If one is seeking to lead a group by the nose to pre-defined set of conclusions then the one thing one does not do is give weight to contrary arguments by debating them at length, however valid those points may be – arguing the toss only reinforces perceptions about their value, which is precisely what you don’t want.

    So – faced with an argument you like and want to emphasise, you talk about it at length and encourage debate. Faced with one you don’t like, you shut down discussion as quickly as possible, because the perception is that if its not discussed, then its not important.

    You can see this approach very clearly across numerous recent issues. Take the government’s response to the LSE analysis of ID cards – rather than engage in debating it finding, the response was to dismiss it out of hand with a simple ‘I don#t recognise this as valid’ – i.e. it’s unimportant and the guy behind it is an obsessive anti.

    I’m afraid they teach this kind of thing at candidate’s school, which is why I’m was completely unsurprised by his response.

    Dale’s just being a politician when he pulls off stuff like this…

  6. I am jealous that Iain Dale has actually posted a comment on your blog, it’s only yesterday that I noticed that he is actually a member linked to me on mybloglog. So far, I have only managed to provoke a response from one half of the dynamic duo, the great and good Guido.

    I have received some rather interesting confidential emails from Iain Dale since Tim and Unity posted what has been happening to me. Having recently watched the Long Good Friday again on television, a phrase sticks out in my mind “You can’t deal with these people. They’re fanatics”.

    I don’t think it was too much to expect an explanation and an apology from Iain Dale. However, his “explanation” somehow became twisted into an accusation against me, and I don’t think that it would stand up to scrutiny given Tim and Unity’s posts to the contrary that I am less than upfront about my past. Would it really hurt him to apologise?

    I think that it is hypocritical for Iain Dale to accuse Tim of seeking to be the internet police, and yet from the emails I pointed out to Iain that he is trying to police me!

  7. the one media institution in Britain that specifically exists to try and provide an unbiased source of news and information to the British public – the BBC.

    Great post, but are you serious about the remark above? The BBC has aired shameless, and unwatchable, pro-government propaganda since Hutton. I’m specifically talking about the BBC news, but comparisons to Pravda could equally be levelled at that once-great institution. Sure, there are programmes like HIGNFY and Mock The Week, but it seems that the meatiest dissent is reserved for Doctor Who!

  8. Antipholous:

    Bias is a relative thing – in fact the surest sign that the Beeb has got the balance right on a story is if both the left and right are complaining about a story at the same time.

    I wonder has the BBC really aired pro-government propaganda since Hutton, or if one looks closely has it simply pulled its head in and limited the extent to which its prepared to editorialise in favour of a stricter line of reportage of a kind that will generally appear to favour the government, which does, after all, effectively lead the political news agenda.

    For example, one of the regular charges of bias I’ve seen from the right is that the BBC fails to give sufficient attention to policies such as like tax cuts, but as I noted when last debating this, its not actually for the BBC to promote policies at all, that’s the job of the opposition. So if the BBC isn’t running storys about tax cuts its because opposition parties are working sufficiently hard to put that issue on the news agenda.

    It;s the same with complaints that the Beeb doesn’t ask hard questions about public spending and whether money is being spent well. Again, that’s not the role of the Beeb, unless its running a specific investigation – and I do know of one thing that is being looked into, although what the outcome may be is uncertain, so I’m not going to say what – that’s for the opposition to pose the hard questions, so the BBC can report them.

    So the question is here, are you asking the right questions of the right people? Or to put it another way, to what extent is what you interpret to be pro-government bias a reflection of the failure of the Tory Party, in particular, to mount an effective challenge to the government over a significant number of years, leaving the government to command the news agenda?

  9. Exceptional post Unity. Fantastic and insightful observations.

    As a professional journalist (god, what a phrase… I get paid to write on a newspaper – suddenly I’m a “professional”. Sound’s like Maureen Lipman’s old BT advert “You’ve got an ‘ology – with an ‘ology, you’re a scientist!”) I think you’ve absolutely hit the nail on the head about the dangers of the likes of Dale and Staines and their take on the mainstream media.

    I remember reading similar stuff a few years back on the US blogs in the run up to the elections. Dale and Staines are using the same misdirection tactics. It just annoys the feck out of me that the sycophants are falling for it, while the MSM gets targetted as a bunch of lying shites. (Saying that, some of them are. But fortunately, I work for a regional newspaper so I can bask in the glow of not being as bent as the nationals.)

    Dale is nothing more than a inept and failing would-be MP who clearly sees being a local councillor for his party as something which is beneath him and has decided that where it’s at is to be a TV/Radio/Newspaper columnist on behalf of his party. But seeing as he has no real skills, talent or ability, he has set up the ultimate vanity production company – blog plus internet telly channel.

    Frankly, he gives us Essex boys a bad name, he really does. But then, he’s probably the Harlow end… not a real Essex Boy, more a London wannabe.

  10. Thanks for a very reasoned response. Yes, a person’s reaction to something will always be filtered through their world view and generally interpreted to reinforce that view. Given that I was raised in a house where ‘Maggie’ was a dirty word (it had to be ‘Thatcher’, spat with contempt), I haven’t been looking to the Tories for opposition. I was hoping for a Labour government like everyone else.

    But, I noticed a profound shift in BBC News post-Dyke. From news anchors becoming more vapid and photogenic, a la Sky et al, to what appears to be breathless repetition of the government line. Even though the BBC is a state organisation, it should still provide checks and balances to the regime du jour if it is to fulfill its obligation as a fourth estate institution.

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