A UK Conference: What’s The Blogging Story?

By Iqbal Tamimi

Would bloggers be interested in joining a trade union such as the National Union of Journalists (NUJ)? What NUJ members feel about such proposal? Do bloggers need a body to represent them?
These questions and many more were discussed during a two day conference I have been invited to as a blogger on Palestinian Mothers network, a journalist and a researcher in the field of Arab women blogging activities.

The two media events held at the Watershed and the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol on 23-24 October 2010 were co-organised as part of Bristol Festival of Ideas and by Bristol branch of the National Union of Journalists, NUJ, in association with the University of the West of England, MediaAct project (a 13-nation EU-funded study of media accountability systems across Europe and the Arab world) and MediaWise (the journalism ethics charity based at the University of West of England).

The venue was fully booked and packed by journalists, bloggers and academics. The Speakers included Roy Greenslade (The Guardian), Donnacha Delong (NUJ Vice President), Sunny Hundal (a British blogger of Indian origin who created the now defunct Asians in Media website), Brooke Magnanti (a research scientist, blogger, who, until her identity was revealed in November 2009, was known by the pen name Belle de Jour. While completing her doctoral studies, Magnanti blogged about her working as a London call girl), Steve Baxter who blogs as Anton Vowl (the blogger of Enemies of Reason and Mailwatch), Bath journalist Sarah Ditum (Paperhouse), and William Gore from the Press Complaints Commission plus some of UK’s leading bloggers and journalists including Julie Boston, Anita Bennett, Gary Herman, Marc Cooper, Jamie Thunder, Oliver Conner, Kate Gardner and Paul Breeden. The discussion was chaired by Mike Jempson, Director of MediaWise.

The two day conference that held the title ‘What’s the Blogging Story?’ reflected mainly intricate fusing areas between journalism and blogging. The confusion regarding when blogging becomes journalism might have came from the fact that blogging seems to be an act of citizen cyber rebellion against mainstream media control, and the fact that the citizens had no democratic media platform where they can express their views and opinions which might clash with the interests of media investors’ policies regarding what to endorse for publishing and how to structure the arguments. Strangely enough, the press industry which fought the new media at the very beginning, not only created websites later on and used all the new media tools it can implement, but also appointed and paid bloggers to show that it has offered the people a self expression stage which from my point of view is as small as the size of a shoe.

I have worked for mainstream media for 17 years and I know perfectly well that mainstream media benefits extensively from bloggers and hardly credit them as a source of information or as contributors to the comments or ideas that earns industrial and news websites more traffic and create heated debates that attract fresh ideas and advertising revenues.

Yet, the questions raised mainly by NUJ members during the events seems to insinuate that the bloggers are sub ‘journalists’ who have to prove themselves according to a calibre set by journalists regardless of the level of skills of either of them. Some of the questions that were circulated during the promotion of the event were: Who can you trust in this age of blogs, tweets and high speed broadband? Strangely enough, all of which are identified mainly as the tools of bloggers in the first place.

Whoever talks about trust or doubt the credibility of the bloggers, should remember that some mainstream journalism has recorded incidents that has shaken the citizens’ trust regarding accuracy, the way the information was accessed, lack of comprehensive coverage, incidents of bias besides other issues such as linguistic and photo manipulations. One of the interesting questions brought up was how can we trust the bloggers’ sources. It was a wearied question, because it is a well known fact that journalists are encouraged by NUJ and their codes of ethics to protect their sources and this can apply for bloggers as well, and no one can dare to doubt the credibility of the journalists’ sources in the same way.

In general the discussions that were run by NUJ members were mainly about whether it is a good idea to offer bloggers the chance to join the NUJ or not? I guess NUJ needs the bloggers more than the bloggers need the NUJ and the question should have been rephrased as ‘would the bloggers want to become NUJ members or not’. I have asked a number of bloggers about how do they feel about joining a union, Gilad Atzmon a brilliant London based musician who blogs about Jazz and the Palestinian cause said “I wouldn't join any union, not even the musician union, for me freedom is independence and this means also independence from unions. I do it [blog] cos it is important to me”. The bloggers seemed to be content with their achievements. Others think otherwise. Elisabeth Winkler, a journalist and freelance NUJ member who blog at Real Food Lover said “I welcome the idea of the union's services being extended to my online role. It makes absolute sense for the NUJ to embrace digital media. If not, it would be missing a trick. As a journalist, I subscribe to the NUJ's Code of Practice. A bloggers's NUJ "kitemark" would be a sign, letting visitors know my site is authentic and ethical”.

Tomas Rawlings of Auroch Digital pointed out in the NUJ workshop that collective bargaining could add weight to negotiations with advertisers. "The days of happy anarchy on the web won't last for ever," said Sarah Ditum (sarahditum.com) at the workshop so bloggers will benefit from access to the NUJ's legal know-how.

The NUJ members’ arguments boiled down the whole issue to the fact that bloggers can’t join the NUJ because the NUJ is simply a trade union and members have to earn at least 50% of their living from their profession to be able to join, while most bloggers do not earn any money from blogging and that the matter is not about solidarity or abiding to certain codes only. The answer from the very beginning was already known and clear. Bloggers can’t join the NUJ as full members, but there were suggestions to offer them some associate or other forms of memberships, but certainly not a full one, which means they can’t vote and they will have no direct democratic impact that can influence the media.

Why it would be a good idea for the NUJ to offer the bloggers memberships in their trade union? Some journalists employed by mainstream media are threatened by the bloggers and need them on their side for few reasons. There have been huge cuts in journalism jobs the past three years, and the industrial media owners can very easily benefit from the stories available by the bloggers online totally free of charge. Bloggers do not worry about losing their jobs; they defend the journalists’ interests by campaigning online. At present, there is an urgent need for journalists to make some kind of agreement or partnership with the bloggers to protect the interests of working journalists, besides the future of journalism lies is in the ever developing and much needed new technologies’ sector, that the bloggers know much about and master very well.

The funny thing is the fact that the conference wanted to investigate whether blogging is a new form of democratic journalism or not, and find out whether blogging is a tool for the malicious and irresponsible as they put it, as if mainstream media reflects democratic journalism and proved to be responsible and innocent of malicious accusations.

The first Workshop: Blogging Hell! Was about finding a common cause across borders between journalists and bloggers and about planning for international action on media standards. The discussions involved investigating the role of online journalism in sustaining democratic societies and the role the blogosphere can play in more rigidly controlled societies and whether it is possible for bloggers to develop systems of self regulation that could enhance ‘journalism’ standards.

There was a great deal of talk about the NUJ code of conduct. I could not understand how such code, which is not legally binding, and as almost as a good advice, can help bloggers, especially when the NUJ does not consider the bloggers as journalists any way. Besides, how can NUJ members talk about a code of conduct that even the journalists themselves did not abide to in many occasions? A number of points on the code of conduct are still debatable even amongst journalists themselves, let alone bloggers who are perfectly happy without any restraints and enjoy blogging wearing their pyjamas and the fact that they do not have to report to any superiors.

Tim O’Reilly has drafted a Blogger’s Code of Conduct. In the draft he used the ‘we’ expressions a number of times, such as: ‘we have drafted a code of conduct’, yet it was not clear who those ‘we’ people he was talking about are, and whether his drafted code was an outcome of an election that gave him the right to represent other bloggers, or his drafted code is only a personal initiative. One wonders, what the benefit of such codes when there are no organisational body or an umbrella that shelters bloggers as NUJ is sheltering the journalists and where there are legal advisors to follow any debatable matters. No one can hold any blogger accountable in a cyber sphere flooding with anonymous personality’s blogging in different languages and whose stories travels so fast that they can tour the world and come back home while the press is still putting on its shoes.

In the second Workshop: Jo Bloggs – but is it journalism? The main discussion was whether blogging is the new journalism. This was a strange question because a large percentage of bloggers are journalists, some of them are still working for the press but blog on their own free time, and others are employed and paid as bloggers by certain press establishments. I could never understand the difference between a journalist or an editor who writes an opinion column and the so called blogger who is employed by a newspaper or a news website.

It was wearied to read some of the questions within the distributed literature by the organisers, such as are blogs a new, democratic kind of publishing, giving a voice to everyone? Or a platform where gossip, speculation and bias are passed on as fact and nothing can be trusted? I can say that the same questions apply to mainstream media and the industrial sector of journalism.

It is obvious that the lines between traditional and citizen journalism are blurred, and mainstream media owners and regulators both are worried of the increasing influence of bloggers that will eventually strip them both of some of their tools of control and advantages.

Citizen journalism, blogging and mainstream media complement each other. The bloggers are the second line of defence of online campaigners for ethical journalism especially whenever the business owners step out of line when it comes to controlling what information citizens should have access to and what their employed journalists can or can not disclose, but most important of all when the journalists are at risk.

The fact that the National Union of Journalists is discussing whether bloggers should be able to join the NUJ or not, means that the NUJ assumes that the bloggers already favour such plans, which I doubt. Membership entails disclosing identity and accepting some enforced rules and restrictions that many bloggers might want to escape.

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