Friday, 7 March 2008

Blogging backlash

On Valentine's evening, while many of my contemporaries were undoubtedly in some candlelit restaurant, coquettishly sharing pudding with their beau and suggestively locking gazes over wine, I was screaming hysterically in my bedroom. Not with wild passion, and not through the abject misery of rejection. I spent the evening, so to speak, with Max Gogarty, aspiring travel writer and whipping boy of hundreds of bloggers who lampooned his debut entry on the Guardian's blog that day.

It started innocently, with young Max setting the scene and describing with some trepidation his upcoming gap year travels. It was not a terribly accomplished piece of writing, he was not doing anything that thousands of teenagers, including me, had not done before him, and it soon became clear he had landed his enviable blogging job through familial contacts.

But then, the majority of online writing, including this example, isn't terribly accomplished. And the flood of bile that followed his first blog, full of spelling errors and bad grammar, was no exception (although the 300-strong thread, which accumulated in only 12 hours, was substantially more amusing than Max's entry).

The reaction to Max's foray into blogosphere was entertaining and revealing. Firstly, of the class divide and class envy still endemic in Britain. Secondly, of the bitterness life engenders. The bloggers - older, wiser, entrenched in the responsibilities and realities of life - met Max's post with cynicism. It forced them to swallow, once again, a few universal truths: that a degree doesn't hand you your dream job on a plate, that at that age you don't realise how good you've got it, that maybe it is who you know and not what you know, and that once you get a mortgage, a job, and a family, there's little manoeuvre for free-wheeling, shackle-free travel.

Those who had gone down the gap year and uni route were supercilious that they had done it before, when independent travel was gritty, not the cosseted rite of passage they perceive it to be now. Those who had not been there and done that attacked Max and his cushy life, and then the Guardian for packaging Max and his forthcoming experiences as a bold adventure for our consumption. The word 'nepotism' featured strongly.

I howled with mirth reading the posts, which got more inventive and interrelated as they progressed. It was clear that some people had got nothing done in the office that day, dedicating their time to researching Max's background, feverishly pouring scorn on this 19 year old 'upstart', and stifling their snorts and sniggers.

I did feel sad that the stunt had so totally backfired on its author, who would have been touching down alone in a foreign land for the first time as the blog went toxic.

And I found it hard to believe that such an inocuous blog post had produced such a reaction. After all, most people accept that life is unfair, that contacts are useful, and that many industries look after their own. It may not be right, but it is certainly not a phenomenon limited to the media world.

But I was even more shocked that the Guardian discontinued the blog, then tried to recover the situation online and in the Observer with opinion pieces scolding readers and web users for their condemnation of Max and the paper, and opining on the troubling wider meaning and ramifications of his public humiliation ('Backpackers, bullies and the internet', 17/02/08
'Media and the mob', 20/02/08

The Guardian was caught out fair and square by the bloggers. Max is the son of one of its travel writers, Paul Gogarty, and nowhere in the blurb for the initial blog was this mentioned. There would have been no real shame in admitting this - these things blow over. But instead of taking the rap, Guardian journalists hectored readers for daring to point the finger at it, and questioned the state of society.

Excerpts from the articles did not mention Paul Gogarty's name. Instead he was coyly referred to as 'a writer who contributes to the Guardian', and 'Gogarty senior'. The paper did not face up to the nepotism charge with a rebuttal or a 'so what?'. Instead, it criticised bloggers for making Max 'the target for hatred of supposed media corruption and hypocrisy'. Supposed? Have they not read Nick Davies' Flat Earth News?!

The media is excellent at exposing truths, secrets, and corruption in every industry and establishment bar its own. MP Derek Conway was exposed by the papers for paying his son to do an at best cushy, and at worst non-existent cabinet job, to further his son's prospects. Yes, there was a case to be answered in the public interest, it was a misuse of taxpayers' money, but it was essentially the same situation as that of Max Gogarty and his father. Conway was forced to answer the charges, disgraced, and suspended from Parliament. He could not and did not lecture the public until they let him off the hook. Comment is free and the Guardian and the news industry should be able to handle what it dishes out.