Much has been written recently about the crisis facing political writing. Most of the discussion has centred on the always seemingly imminent death of the newspaper and the rapid rise of the blogosphere. It is a debate that pitches old-media versus new-media and it has largely missed the point. The technology used to deliver the message is not really relevant, and bloggers are as susceptible to the real issue as any old fashioned Lunchtime O’Booze: too much writing is designed to appeal to a specific constituency and too few writers have the courage to challenge the cherished beliefs of their readers.
Now more than ever people are choosing to receive a pre-filtered version of the news that merely confirms their own prejudices. There is a flaw in human reasoning that makes most of us form opinions first and then seek data that confirms these views. Exploiting the prejudices of readers is nothing new, and print-media barons from Randolph Hearst to Rupert Murdoch, have made vast fortunes this way. The problem is that technology makes it easy to filter out all sources with which we disagree. Allowing writers to target very narrow subject areas, the new media may even exacerbate the issue.
My blog, Rangers Tax-Case, gave me a platform to reveal the facts about a decade-long financial doping scandal at Rangers FC – and the Scottish media’s complicity in keeping the story quiet. It provides a good example of the challenge facing those whose writing covers contentious subjects. The blog maintained a tight focus on just three issues: how Rangers’ assorted tax schemes operated, the corruption of the mainstream Scottish media (with only a couple of notable exceptions), and latterly, campaigning for a fair sporting outcome that amends the history books for the years of rule breaking. Within the confines of these topics, and being armed with information not available to the public elsewhere, there should not have been much scope for disagreement with my core readership. Yet, when I occasionally expressed an opinion that was considered unconventional, the reaction from a small minority of readers could be ferocious. Invariably, such disputes led to accusations that the blog had succumbed to a nefarious hacking attack from The Forces of Darkness. A vociferous section of readers really just wanted a deepening of existing views rather than anything that might provide food for thought. On a specialist not-for-profit blog that did not take advertising this was relatively easy to manage. However, it would have been much more complicated issue had this been a money-making venture.
I agonised over whether to accept advertising for a long time. In the end, I felt that it would present too much of a temptation to run with rumour and sensationalism over factual analysis. My email inbox filled daily with tips from well-meaning readers alerting me to a host of potential leads. Few were ever verifiable and therefore were not fit for publication (in fact, virtually all of these leads would be proven incorrect in the fullness of time). Yet, every day that I was not consumed with a real revelation, the temptation to run with a plausible sounding rumour was almost over-powering. If I had a financial incentive to keep up readership statistics, I doubt that the resolve to separate fact from speculation would have held. There were also a few salacious aspects to this case that were not relevant to the story. Would I have published these if there was a monetary reward? I would hate to think so, but I have experienced enough through operating this blog to know that the new media faces all of the same pitfalls and temptations as mainstream outlets. My amateur adventures in journalism were simply not representative of the real world where writers need to get paid.
The central problem of thoughtful writing is the same now as it has been for decades: to challenge the long-held convictions of readers or to pursue easy popularity (or profit) by telling them what they want to hear. George Orwell had the courage of his intellect to challenge his own beliefs and to upset the cultural orthodoxy of his day. As I pull down the curtain on my own involvement in the Rangers tax case, my proudest achievement was to obtain national recognition for this project by winning a writing award named in his honour.