UK Politics

Political blogs: Does Iain Dale's exit mark end of era?

A scene from Doctor Who with cybermen by Westminster

They are arguably the most powerful new force in modern politics.

Fearless lone operators who break the stories the supposedly docile Westminster press pack dare not go near.

But with some of the most high profile exponents of the art hanging up their keyboards, are we witnessing the end of the golden age of political blogging?

Iain Dale, one of the pioneers of the medium, announced on Tuesday that he was calling it a day.

With a daily radio programme on LBC, and a growing publishing empire to look after, he says he can no longer find the time to write the "four or five" new blogposts a day that his army of readers have come to expect.

Not without a serious "degradation" in quality anyway.

The other factor in his decision to quit was the sheer nastiness of the comments that were being written about him on other sites.

'Weirdos'

The former Tory election candidate insists he is not being over-sensitive, and that everyone in politics has to accept a certain amount of rough and tumble, particularly if they are operating on the internet, but, he adds: "When you have people effectively stalking you or just writing the most libellous things about you it is not very pleasant."

He has conceded that he is guilty of "going too far" himself in the past, but tells me that he has never deliberately sought out confrontation: "I am not someone that likes to be hated."

Iain Dale does not claim to be Britain's first political blogger - he started blogging in December 2003, as a promotional tool for his campaign to be Conservative MP for North Norfolk.

Sites such as Samizdata.net and Harry's Place were already well established, while MPs such Labour's LTom Watson were already taking their first steps in the medium.

But Dale's mix of insider gossip, breaking news and pithy comment struck a chord with the Westminster classes - and his promotion of other blogs through annual top 50 lists and his frequent TV and radio appearances did much to shift blogging's image as the preserve of the bedroom-bound social misfit.

His blog, together with sites like Guido Fawkes and ConservativeHome, which started around the same time, became required reading in the Westminster village but also began to attract a wider audience. Iain Dale's Diary currently has about 130,000 to 150,000 individual users visiting it each month.

His decision to quit has been met with dismay by friends and supporters - an experience he has likened to reading his own obituary.

"I can understand his reasons but I think it is quite sad," says Labour MP Tom Harris, a friend of Mr Dale, who decided to close down his own well-regarded blog a few weeks ago.

"I think it is really discouraging for those of us who think political blogging is important. Iain invented British political blogging."

Mr Harris is also dismayed by the level of abuse and "macho" bullying on political blogs, posted by people hiding behind anonymous screen names.

He argues that Mr Dale's departure "just leaves more room for the weirdos".

"When decent people - and Iain is a decent man - leave the blogosphere it is just one less decent, moderate voice out there," he adds.

'Highly committed'

Like Mr Dale, he continues to be an avid user of Twitter - but bridles at the suggestion that the microblogging site, with its quick, convenient 140 word updates, could be starting to eclipse the political blogosphere in influence.

"Twitter appeals to people who don't have a very long attention span," he says, "I think there is still a place for thoughtful, longer blogposts by partisan people".

Perhaps the biggest name in the political blogosphere, Paul Staines, aka Guido Fawkes, who counts Gordon Brown's aide Damian McBride among his scalps, has no intention of following his friend and occasional collaborator Iain Dale into early retirement.

He praises Mr Dale as having done "more to popularise blogging than any other blogger in Britain" but says his departure - and that of other bloggers such as Mr Harris and Will Straw, of Left Foot Forward - is simply part of the "normal turnover" that you see in any walk of life and not part of some broader trend.

He concedes that there might be something in the idea that Twitter is starting to rival blogging in popularity at Westminster.

"A lot of people who were half-committed to blogging are highly committed to Twitter," he says.

But the 140 word character limit severely limits it as a medium for original journalism: "You can't really break and develop stories on Twitter."

And, crucially, he argues that Twitter will never rival blogging as a way of building a media profile - or launching career in politics.

"Nobody will become famous for Twitter. You will become famous, at Westminster, in the blogosphere."

But Tom Watson, the former digital engagement minister and one of the first MPs to have a blog, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I think the potency of blogging has gone. Twitter, for me, is a much more enjoyable medium. It's about how you share information and build up communities of interest."

The microblogging site is also popular with Westminster-based journalists, with many of them using it as a way of breaking stories, promoting their work and generally building their personal brand.

Tim Montgomerie, one of three full time staff at ConservativeHome, says life can be tough for the one-man band blogger: "There are sometimes periods when you just need a rest."

'Ugly'

But he believes it is far too early to start writing obituaries for the medium, saying that new blogs are starting all the time on both sides of the political spectrum, with some of the most effective new entrants, such as oPolitical Scrapbook or 38 Degrees, coming from a left wing perspective.

Image caption Guido Fawkes praised Iain Dale as a blogging trailblazer

Traffic is down on the same month last year for the first time in Conservative Home's history, he reveals, but it is impossible to say whether this is due to the growing pull of Twitter, or the vagaries of the political cycle (and it is still higher than at the same point in 2008, he adds).

He shares other bloggers' anxiety about the levels of abuse flying around on message boards: "It is a problem and it is ugly. But it is rare that I don't learn something from comments or by following a thread."

He is naturally biased, he admits, given the set up at ConservativeHome, but he believes the future will increasingly belong to "super blogs, with multiple contributors," capitalising on their unlimited space to set out complex arguments and develop new ideas.

Mark Pack, who runs Liberal Democrat Voice with six other volunteers, also believes the team approach works best.

Iain Dale himself says he will be back in the New Year with a more "magaziney" site, which will feature contributions from other writers.

"I certainly don't think blogging is finished," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"I think blogging is a fantastic tool for individuals who haven't got a mainstream media platform to get their views out there.

"It doesn't matter whether you have got an audience of 500 or 50,000 - you can have a say. Thirty years ago you would have just been able to write to your local newspaper."

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