Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Keeping the barbarians out

One side is getting on its high horse, proud of its standards, its integrity, its reasonableness, the rigour of its approach, its concern for getting things right, respect for method.

Never mind the high horse, it's an ivory tower they're living in, claims the other side. They need to get out more, get in the swim, find out for themselves what people are saying, what they're doing. Be more reactive: the world's changing rapidly and if you're not timely, you're not relevant.

Commentariat vs Bloggertariat? Yes, indeed (there's an account of a debate on this subject from yesterday here). But it also happens to be the argument conducted by academics on one hand and journalists on the other in the early '90s.

This was an era of geopolitical flux when the Cold War ice flows were breaking up revealing new states, relationships and ways of seeing the world. No-one could be secure in their knowledge of what was really going on and this allowed the journalist commentators to make the running. And perhaps more: they aspired to not just write the first draft of history but something rather more lasting.

On the journalist side you had people like Timothy Garton Ash, Misha Glenny, Anatole Lieven and Neil Ascherson. On the other side you had the massed ranks of the academic establishment, including people like Alex Pravda, Geoffrey Hosking, Norman Davies and Archie Brown.

Naturally, the debates - being also a turf war - were suffused with professional and personal jealousies. 'Journalistic' was a term of abuse and the absence of a doctorate was sufficient to condemn your work as such.

So it's really quite amusing to hear accounts of how people like David Aaronovitch are clambering on the same high horse from which their ilk only recently tried to eject the academics. In fact, I'd like to see Aaronovitch defend his comment pieces against critics from the academy; he might find some of their criticisms strangely familiar. Indeed, as by some accounts academics make better bloggers than journalists the experience might become downright uncomfortable.


Oranjepan said...

Maybe. I quite like your division of the battle into the journos & academics, but I'm not sure it quite rings true. TGA is more academic than journo for example.

Maybe instead the intellectual battle reflects more of the individual career trajectory and the increasing democratisation of chatter: the new generation is becoming more anxious to replace the old generation and therefore must find new outlets, and since newer outlets are naturally less established they allow a wider range of pepole to take part.

Gaw said...

I witnessed from the sidelines TGA's hard-fought battle to get accepted as a 'respectable' academic. He had to write a very big book on Germany and riddle it with footnotes for a start!

I think your point about generational strife interacting with the arrival of disruptive new technologies is spot-on.

The establishment of 24-hour news as a mainstream medium during the first Gulf War certainly led papers to place more emphasis on comment than news. That gave an opening to the new generation of quasi-academic journalists, putting academic noses out of joint.

We're now witnessing another turn of the wheel as technology continues to change the delivery of news and comment.

Oranjepan said...

TGA was always a bit too political to be considered serious in his early days. I'm not sure whether he's changed or whether the times have...

Technology is one point worth discussing, but in essence I think it is just enabling the balance of intellectual power to revolve a bit faster. The same actors will remain players within the wider scheme, so it's a question of where that balance is and where the next shift in that balance will come from.

My feeling is that the wave of technological advances has almost finished crashing against the shore and the organisations or individuals who are capable of applying the technical skills to aggregate, unify, collate, synthesise or simply collect the widest range of sources will be those media outlets which are capable of consolidating the market for the political agenda.

It could be the platform, the group or the author which becomes the lead player - and this is what I think everybody is debating in an attempt to make that shift.

Let me ask - if you were to set yourself consciously up as the #1 most influential of the generation, how would you go about doing it? What structural model would you use?

Would you Dale or Guido it through syndication? Would you cross-promote through multiple platforms? Would you use Murdoch corporate control? etc...

Gadjo Dilo said...

I originallyhad nothing much to say but the phrase "Murdoch corporate control" just sprung out at me: surely anything that subverts that is worthwhile; now I appreciate blogging in a whole new way.

Brit said...

It's a tricky one. The problem with political blogs is that there are too many of them and they're 99% utter rubbish, and 99% of the remaining 1% basically just ride on the work done by newspapermen.

You need some kind of heirarchy otherwise nothing works, so the best bloggers will, eventually, get to work for the newspapers (or their online equivalents which will occupy the same space).

To summarise: democracy doesn't work.

Gaw said...

It's one of those issues that we can debate as much as we want. But whatever's said, things will find their own level. It's going to be interesting: I'm sure you're right Brit in that a hierarchy will establish itself; and Gadj, I think Murdoch will have to be at the very top of his game to get a dominant piece of the action.

To answer Oranjepan's question, or answer my version of it: who influences me most at the moment, in the sense of really changing the way I think, politically? Right now, I'd say Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Dish. There are others who do so via books and the odd essay (John Gray, for instance). But I can't think of a single print-only journalist who fundamentally influences my attitude to politics. So the web and good, old fashioned books would be leading the way for me.