Anything you say.... again

So, you're a civil servant with a reputation for writing well-reasoned and thoughtful articles. The perfect man to do a hatchet job on, if you're the Mail on Sunday, evidently. Unsurprisingly, Tim Worstall gives the article the thorough going over it deserves, white Unity chips in as well. Plus most other people who've got a blog, a brain and a sense of perspective. It is a tad depressing to see the level of journalism standards on display here, but the article itself isn't entirely surprising. Not because it's the Mail - it could have been any paper, or blogger - but the subject matter. It was only a matter of time before somebody's blog got a proper roasting in the press for saying, well, really very little.

Last month, I mentioned how Gavin Britton's Myspace site was a boon to journalists creating their own take on events around him. Peter Bazalgette also touched on this in the Observer this Sunday (although as Chris points out, this is the equivalent of pots, kettles and the colour black).

The MoS story on Owen takes this one step, logically almost, further. Essentially, you stick something up on the internet, anybody can read it. Not exactly rocket science, even if some people don't perhaps appreciate a simple post about a family barbeque can be read everywhere from Australia to Uganda to 10 Downing Street.

But Barder didn't seem unaware of his job or his responsibility. Taken in the context his blog makes for perfectly normal, sensible reading. Cobble a few arbitrary bits together and you can make him sound like a sex-crazed Blairite Fascist.

I've always advocated the position if you don't want somebody, any particular person, to read it, don't put it up on the net. But in Barder's case, you'd be hard pushed to find anything other than intelligent analysis. Some journalists aren't above playing fast and loose with the context of online writings, and Tim encapsulates this problem neatly:

If they hound Owen out of his job on the basis of the above farrago and tissue of innuendo and misquotation then that's rather going to be the end of this enjoyable pastime for most of us, isn't it? Anyone writing tens of thousands of words over the years is open to such an assassination of the character.

I took down my old blog partly for this reason [1], and partly because I wanted a fresh start, a fresh reinvention if you will. The type brand managers pay thousands for, before discovering it wasn't quite as good as the one they had before.

I try to keep this one reasonably on the straight and narrow, but if my local paper was so minded, I've no doubt they could cherry pick a few choice phrases, links, whatever and give the impression that I was a sex-crazed, foul-mouthed, misanthropic deviant worse than Hitler and Fred West put together [2]. So while this blog, hopefully, doesn't reflect any of those traits (Well, maybe the misanthropy) how hard would it be to portray me as somebody you'd not only keep your children away from, but positively encourage them to build a bonfire, with the express hope it could be used to burn me at the stake to elicit mass catharsis?

The other worry is it'll keep those in the public eye, slightly in the public eye, of vague interest to the public, or of no interest to the public at all, from blogging, and that would be a darn shame. Not quite a tragedy, but moving towards a similar adjective. Anybody should be able to, frankly, write what the hell they like without seeing it twisted, distorted and ending up in a Sunday tabloid.

Let's take a not-at-all-implausible hypothetical here using Devil's Kitchen. The Devil is somebody I disagree with on a good deal of issues and ideologies, but he's also a very engaging, entertaining, well-argued and, often, downright hilarious writer [3], well known for his incredibly foul mouth. But that just adds to the enjoyment of his blog and the persona he creates.

The Devil is also starting to get active in the UKIP party in a big way. It is not inconceivable that he could stand as a councillor or parliamentary candidate in the future for the party. And any journo wanting to do a quick sly, nasty, once over on the guy could dive through the archives and turn the Devil into the Devil Incarnate in print, quite possibly finishing his political career. Disagree with his politics all you want (and I frequently do) but don't put him out of a job because he writes a foul mouthed, hugely entertaining website.

Or take Dr. Crippen. NHS Blog Doctor is one of the best blogs on the internet, and with a lot of dross out there, that's saying something. Or The Magistrate's Blog. Or Nee Naw [4]. What if a journalist decided to have a further look into their blogs as well? I probably have a greater understanding of their assorted public services than I ever would from traditional media. They are great advertisements for blogging and long may they continue, and encourage others to follow in their footsteps.

And again, any blogger or note, or not noticed at all could be subject to this treatment. It'll further serve to drive a wedge between blogs and the media, bloggers and non-bloggers, will lead to further self-censorship [5], and the loss from the internet of engaging, entertaining and thoughtful writers, both actual and potential. So the MoS aren't just doing a thoroughly unpleasant job on one individual, they're continuing a course of action that could have serious ramifications for freedom of speech and thought in what is technically an uncensored medium [6].

Fair enough if you've posted something idiotic online that deserves a good bit of ridicule, then you've only got yourself to blame. No sympathy there. But if you're Barder, then its difficult to see what more you could have done, except not blog. And that would be denying him one of his basic Human Rights, the right to free speech.

So, to follow Tim's lead: I'm Spartacus!

[1] Although I dare say somebody who knew what he was doing could probably get most of the stuff back, foul language, misanthropic rants, warts and all. I suspect, if you try hard enough, Coffee and PC isn't exactly 404.

[2] Which, of course, I'm quite clearly not. Foul-mouthed misanthrope wouldn't be far off the mark, mind.

[3] And is possibly responsible for one of the greatest deconstructions of a politician. Ever.

[4] I'm deliberately not including Tom Reynolds in this list because he's already unmasked, largely, anyway. I wouldn't have a clue who the others are.

[5] Yes, I appreciate the irony of that phrase given I've already admitted to practicing that in part of here.

[6] Let's not get into the censorship debate. It'd be even more incoherent than this babble.